There’s Nothing Wrong with Being an Atheist, Congresswoman

Everyone needs to begin a slow clap for Chris Stedman for his message to newly-elected, “unaffiliated” Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema:

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)

In response to news stories identifying her as an atheist, her campaign released this statement shortly after her victory: “(Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

As a nontheist, atheist and nonbeliever (take your pick), I find this statement deeply problematic.

It is perfectly fine, of course, if Sinema isn’t a nontheist, and it is understandable that she would want to clarify misinformation about her personal beliefs. But to say that these terms are “not befitting of her life’s work or personal character” is offensive because it implies there is something unbefitting about the lives and characters of atheists or nonbelievers.

… as a proud atheist and humanist, I’m disheartened that the only member of Congress who openly identifies as nonreligious has forcefully distanced herself from atheism in a way that puts down those of us who do not believe in God.

We are Americans of good character, too.

Damn right, we are.

My only complaint so far about Sinema is that she appeared to let on that she was “one of us” during her campaign only to assert her “unaffiliation” after she had won. That statement by Sinema’s campaign that Chris alluded to didn’t come out until just after the election, even though the rumors about her supposed atheism were online for months prior to that and many atheists had donated money to her campaign.

If she doesn’t call herself an “atheist,” that’s fine. But she either believes in God or she doesn’t. If she thinks it’s none of anybody’s business, that’s fine, too. But when the ever-growing number of non-religious Americans have no representation in Congress, she has to understand that we’re looking for someone to stand up on our behalf. That goes beyond just the votes she makes.

Right now, though, Sinema — someone who may very well vote the way many of us hope she does — is distancing herself from atheists as if there’s something wrong with us. There isn’t.

So why throw us under the bus? For political reasons? The strange thing is that Sinema never backed away from the label of “bisexual.” It didn’t seem to hurt her at all, and that’s great news. We saw a number of times this past November that you didn’t have to be straight to win an election. By admitting she doesn’t believe in God, Sinema might just show the country that atheism, too, isn’t a politically toxic label.

By doing that, she’d have a positive impact on our country’s politics that would no doubt outlast her time in office. It’s an opportunity she’s just throwing away right now.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • ortcutt

    Just as long as she doesn’t call herself a “New Atheist” or act like one. They’re “toxic” according to Stedman. Just so that’s clear. Calling yourself an atheist is OK, as long as you don’t actually question religion.

    • VladChituc

      Are we still promoting this false idea that Chris only likes atheists who shut up? How are we turning a post where Chris is standing up for atheists into a “look how badly Chris treats atheists” point?

      From Chris’s guest post here less than a month ago:

      I’d like to make it clear that I intended merely to point to a specific set of behaviors, not New Atheism as a whole. I agree with New Atheists on many points, as when I wrote in that excerpt: “I believe that many New Atheist critiques of religion are correct and have helped many people find liberation from oppressive beliefs.”

      Do you want to maybe cite something where Chris said you can’t question religion?

      • ortcutt

        I think Chris quite clearly stated his actual opinion the first time. When people showed that they weren’t going to roll over and accept being labelled as “toxic”, he drew back. But I’m sure that his unguarded statement the first time reflects his actual opinion. The rest is window-dressing.

        • VladChituc

          Where in his first post did he say don’t question religion? He acknowledged he phrased his critique ambiguously: he was pointing to a behavior of new atheists that he thought was problematic, which he then went on to clarify in his guest post. His “new atheist critiques are often right and helpful” quote is from his first piece. Isn’t it a lot more likely that you’re not reading charitably or just leaping to conclusions? And wouldn’t it be weird if he rolled back because people didn’t like being called toxic, when he then went on in his guest post to reaffirm that the behavior of specific people, like PZ Myers, was toxic?

          If “some things new atheists do are bad” is the same thing as “never question religion, ever,” then I think I might be missing a few steps of logic, there.

    • C Peterson

      There’s nothing wrong with being an anti-theist or anti-religionist (“New Atheist”), but most atheists are not, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

      I’d be happy if Sinema openly admitted to being an atheist, but if she was going to tie that atheism to any sort of other beliefs, I’m happier she say nothing at all.

    • Gus Snarp

      I have strongly disagreed with Stedman in the past, including when he criticizes “gnu atheists”, but that’s not what he does in this piece, and there’s no need to attack him for having some ideas you disagree with when he’s written a great and strong defense of atheists in this case. Go savage him on an article where he’s actually being critical of atheists instead.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Just imagine such a slap-in-the-face to ANY other group, in terms of their religious views.

    What IF she had said: “Calling me a Hindu (or Jew or Muslim or Catholic or Protestant) would not be in keeping with the great things that I have done in my life’s work??”

    • What JT said…

      Didn’t JT Eberhard call Stedman a “dishonest little shit” on your blog Mehta?
      Why yes, I believe he did on Nov. 7th.
      Now, as to Sinema, she is one hot babe…but all this gay, lesbian, bi stuff? So what is it? Does she take cock or not?
      And who is she currently doing?

      • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

        Note to self: Do Not Feed This Troll.

        Note to others: Please see note to self, above.

        • Jimmy Blair

          Amusing to see GodVlogger call others a troll…he loves to call people that…while he trolls at religious blogs like those of Rev. Adam Hamilton.
          I think he called at least three people trolls over there.
          And of course he is an anonymous little coward.

          • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

            Hi, Jimmy. See edit above re: why the comment gets labeled as trolling. Disagreeing while staying on topic is not trolling. Derailing a comment thread just for kicks is. PS: the way you follow my posts across various blogs does make me wonder if you were the crude commenter above, but I admit that is pure speculation and could certainly be wrong.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    I wonder what the reaction would be if her people released the statement, “Bisexual is not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/deb.fohringer Deb Fohringer

    Truly disappointing. Do we have an email address fof her?

  • Gus Snarp

    Stedman nailed this one, in my opinion. And I’m a little annoyed at the people attacking Stedman as a critic of atheists with regard to this piece. When the RDF posted this on Facebook, there were a slew of comments about not reading it because it was Stedman, and Stedman attacking atheists again. Seriously, you don’t have to read it, but if you’re just going to say you’ll never read anything Stedman wriites because you disagree with him a lot of the time and then start attacking him for things unrelated to this particular article, then you should hand in your skeptic card.

    And I see it’s already started here, too. Stedman wrote a good piece and made the case for atheists strongly, with no equivocation or mention of New Atheism. So do try to read this article and judge it on the merits, rather than making assumptions because of who the author is. Go on, it’s short.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bcdurden Brian Durden

    I think this is a bunch of hoopla over nothing. Chris Stedman is a professional troll, and a bad one.

    “not befitting of her life’s work or personal character” Just means that it doesn’t describe HER. This place has been seriously reaching, it’s getting embarrassing. She doesn’t want to use the word atheist to describe herself and uses the reasoning that it doesn’t adequately describe her. Well no duh, calling myself an atheist doesn’t adequately describe me either. Justin Vacula is an atheist too, but there’s a huge gulf between the two of us.

    • Gus Snarp

      If that’s how you see the phrase: “not befitting of her life’s work or personal character”, then there’s really no point going any further. You do not, apparently, speak the same English language I do. That phrase is deeply insulting to many people, and no amount of attempt to claim it shouldn’t be will change that.

      • http://profiles.google.com/bcdurden Brian Durden

        I guess I don’t speak the same language. Then again, I don’t go out and assume EVERYONE has a perfect or even the same grasp of the English language.

        I’ve seen plenty of people using such phrasing and mean exactly as I describe.

    • Gus Snarp

      Maybe you should go and Google the word befitting. Read not only the definitions, but also the in context uses, and come back and tell me again how it’s not insulting.

      • http://profiles.google.com/bcdurden Brian Durden

        Oh I double-checked, because I go out on the assumption that I might be wrong or that I might have taken something to mean another.

        The definition is as exactly as I assumed, best described as ‘appropriate to’ ;and yes, that still maintains what I said. These are human beings we’re talking about, not labels. The word ‘atheist’ doesn’t even come close to describing ME or the hard work I put into school; it doesn’t describe me politically or socially either. And I presume that women are human beings too (even women who are politicials! *gasp*) and might feel that word doesn’t describe them at all.

        Like I said before and as I’ll expand on it: If your atheism IS your identity, then I can see how you’d be offended. But that makes you no different from Christians or Muslims that so closely identify themselves as such who get pissed off when you insult their stupid religions.

        There’s REAL stuff out there to get pissed off about; if you’re getting angry over this, you’re reaching (hard).

        • Gus Snarp

          I like the way you picked one definition and didn’t look at the others, or at the synonyms or usage examples. You’re willfully ignoring the way the word is commonly used and how insulting it is.

          I get pissed off about a lot of things, I do not have a reserve of anger that can be depleted by using too much of it. This is a minor thing, but it is insulting and it does piss me off. But I guess no one should comment on the minor things if there’s anything bigger out there.

  • Octoberfurst

    Personally I was shocked to read that she believers “the terms non-theist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” What a slap in the face to ALL nonbelievers! It makes it seem like nonbelievers have some horrible character flaw or something. As others have pointed out what would people have thought if she had said that she doesn’t like to be called “bisexual” because “it is not befitting of her life’s work or personal character”? The gay community would be really upset! (And rightly so I’d say.) It just irks me that there are those who don’t believe in God but yet try to play it down and seem ashamed of it. Gee maybe she should try to score some Brownie points from the theists by adding, “You know, I really like Jesus!” or do an S.E. Cupps and say “I really envy people who have faith.” Ugh!

    • http://profiles.google.com/bcdurden Brian Durden

      Because sexual identity (an extremely complex subject) is the same thing as ‘Do you see any evidence for a god of any sort?’

  • DougI

    I’m guessing it’s her position that a person’s religious identification should be irrelevant as a public servant therefore she doesn’t want to address the issue. Or it could be that she barely won her seat and doesn’t need to give her opponent in two years a campaign issue.

    • Pseudonym

      Probably a bit of both, and more besides.

      Altering only one punctuation mark, I agree with Stedman that there’s nothing wrong with being an atheist, Congresswoman. But I can see problems with being an atheist congresswoman.

      Even though I don’t fit into any of these categories (especially not being American, let alone a member of Congress), I wouldn’t want to be labelled “the atheist congresswoman”, or “the gay congressman”, “the latino senator”, or “the mormon presidential candidate”, and I’d find it more than a little insulting for my whole life and work to be reduced to one adjective.

      And while I might even expect a sleazy political opponent to call me that, I would think it even worse if it was a friend. I would expect more of my friends.

  • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

    I find it mind boggling that a group of people so hateful of being pushed around think it’s perfectly ok to whine and harp about and at Ms. Sinema.

    It’s like watching high school politics. What she said could have been phrased better, no doubt, but may get over it? She is her own person and entitled to use whatever label (or none) she sees fit for herself. If you’re sooooooo offended, grow a thicker skin and grow the hell up.

    • Gus Snarp

      She’s an elected member of the United States House of Representatives. If she didn’t want to scrutinized and criticized, she took the wrong job. If anyone should have a thick skin, it’s a congressional representative. If there’s anyone it’s perfectly OK to whine and harp about and at, it’s a member of Congress. And to be clear, what is being complained about is the ill considered and insulting words she used in an official statement, not some element of her character or identity.

      Let me fix one of your sentences for you: “It’s like watching high school politics.”

      • Gus Snarp

        Well crap, that tag didn’t work. It’s like watching politics. Because that’s what it is. High school has nothing to do with it.

      • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

        “Ill considered and insulting” words? Insulting to you, maybe, but I wasn’t offended in the slightest.

        If what someone else chooses to label themselves is so detrimental to your life, it’s you that has the problem, not Ms. Sinema. Get upset if she actually says something negative, but this? It sounds a whole lot like: “Oooo! Somebody worded something in a way I don’t like! Whaaaa!” As previously stated: Grow up.

    • Robin

      But she didn’t just label herself, she made insinuations about those labels. She could have said, “I am not an atheist or non-theist.” However her phrasing implied that people who do use those labels have negative connotations.

  • Puzzled

    I’d say that it’s not befitting of my life’s work, either. Educator, activist, sure – atheist is not what I am, any more than I am defined by being a non-blonde.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.pearce.nz David Pearce

    Your first sentence highlights an interesting difference between American English and other variants – here in NZ a ‘slow hand clap’ is a sign of disapproval from the audience – no sportsman or performer wants a ‘slow hand clap’ which is often accompanied by boos or derision! I wondered what terrible thing Stedman had written!

  • TheExpatriate700

    Seriously Hemant and Chris, get over yourselves. Telling her how she should identify is the height of arrogance and suggests her description of atheists isn’t entirely inaccurate.

    • Pseudonym

      I think we need to start enforcing the Barney Frank Rule again.

  • Tobias27

    Let’s get real. Ms. Sinema just got a job that pays $ 160,000 a year. She wants to keep that job when she is up for review 2 years from now. She dramatically decreases her chances of doing so if she is labeled an atheist, so she is avoiding that label. We all wish that the facts were not as they are, but wishes don’t shovel no snow. I’ll be satisfied if she acts like a rational atheist in Congress, whether she picks up our banner and flies it or not..
    PS. By not befitting I think she meant that the label atheist hardly represents what she stands for and what she is trying to accomplish in office. At least Ihope that’s what she meant.

  • Jinx

    I am going to (again) be brutally honest about this issue…….

    As I have previously explained, atheism is an almost untouchable subject in the world of politics. The vast majority of the electorate wants absolutely nothing to do with any candidate who identifies as an atheist. This does not mean that we have never had any nonreligious politicians in American history; I can rattle off a few of the founding fathers who were not particularly religious, and I can even remember a couple of famous senators/representatives who did not maintain regular church attendance. Even still, the vast majority of these individuals paid lip service to religion even though they were not particularly religious; there are many politicians who fit this model today (possibly even our President), and Kristen Sinema is a perfect example.

    In my opinion, some progress is better than no progress; the election of another “unaffiliated” candidate to Congress is a good thing, and we should not rush the lengthy process of social change. In a couple of years, it may be possible for an openly atheistic man/woman to run for political office and win; in the meantime, all we can do is try to shift public opinion in the favor of our community.

  • WildRumpus67

    “non-believer in UFOs” “non-believer in Unicorns”… these terms are not befitting of my life’s work or personal character.

    Maybe she wants to be defined by what she IS instead of what she IS NOT.

    • WildRumpus67

      She IS bisexual She IS NOT a theist. Saying she IS a not-theist is like saying that atheism is just a different belief system, when we all know that atheism is a lack of belief.

  • http://twitter.com/SocraticGadfly SocraticGadfly

    Ambiguous statement, the swearing in … she could have been sworn in with no book at all. Per Stedman, picture this, out of the mouth of the first Muslim Congressman:

    “Keith Ellison believes the term Muslim is not befitting of his life’s
    work or personal character.”

    Let’s sic Rebecca Watson on her and watch fun ensue:

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/01/kyrsten-sinema-rebecca-watson-keith.html

  • Santiago

    Cease and desist, perhaps, maybe?

    • Pseudonym

      I read that as “cease and deist”.

  • Jimmy Blair

    JT Eberhard called Chris Stedman “a dishonest little shit” on your blog, Mehta.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Your point?

  • stojadinovicp
  • http://twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    “But she either believes in God or she doesn’t.” – I disagree with this. I went for years upon years not being able to say one way or another.. and so do MANY people who only use the term “agnostic.” It’s only been within the last couple years that I have been able to give a definitive “No I don’t believe.”

  • http://raventools.com Jon Henshaw

    This seems about right for a politician.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Bubba Tarandfeathered

    I suspect she has had or currently is in a relationship with a woman, thus she has declared her self as bi knowing it would have come out in her political race. The same is to be said about her “none” stance, by keeping it ambiguous she can defend her self against attacks by the religious. Her only goal was to get into the game beyond that I’ll bet we won’t see much from her in the way of “standing true to her principles” on any politicized subjects.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Bubba Tarandfeathered

    I suspect she has had or currently is in a relationship with a woman, thus she has declared her self as bi knowing it would have come out in her political race. The same is to be said about her “none” stance, by keeping it ambiguous she can defend her self against attacks by the religious. Her only goal was to get into the game beyond that I’ll bet we won’t see much from her in the way of “standing true to her principles” on any politicized subjects.


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