Is Justice Sonia Sotomayor an Atheist?

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor has been giving a lot of interviews in anticipation of her soon-to-be-released autobiography My Beloved World.

This article from USA Today contained an interesting passage:

Just 8 when she was diagnosed with diabetes and 9 when her father died, Sotomayor displayed a youthful determination and insatiable thirst for knowledge that she hopes to pass on to others facing similar hurdles. She quotes from page 178, where she describes learning from her first role model: “Someone like me can do this.”

It’s a message she wants to pass on — that role models aren’t perfect.

“When you’re feeling really down and out, those idealized creatures are like gods, OK? They’re not real,” she says. “And what I wanted to provide people with — people who face challenges similar to my own — is an actual, living example of a person just like that.”

Maybe it’s a slip of the tongue and she said something she didn’t mean to say publicly… or perhaps she only meant it as a metaphor. But her Roman Catholicism has been called into question by both her supporters and critics a number of times. When Sotomayor’s selection was being debated a few years ago, even the White House gave a pretty tepid response to the question of her faith:

“Judge Sotomayor was raised as a Catholic and attends church for family celebrations and other important events.”

… which is pretty much what anyone would say and do to win some goodwill from the American people while doing as little as possible to be in the good graces of the Church.

Keep in mind she’s divorced, doesn’t have kids, and has panned out as a “reliable liberal vote” on the court… In other words, the Pope isn’t her biggest fan.

It’s entirely possible that she’s culturally Catholic without being a very devout one.

Not that her religious beliefs are our business, per se, but it’s one of those issues a reporter might want to (delicately) press her about, given the chance to do so. It’d no doubt give us fascinating insight into her life.

(Thanks to GodVlogger for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • WoodyTanaka

    That description really sounds like someone who is an atheist but does not wish to deny a Catholic upbringing.

    • Michael

      Or rather doesn’t want to deny her family, who are churchgoers and hold events in church.

    • José Reyes

      What you say is REALLY plausible; most Puerto Ricans are Catholic and feel great pressure from Catholic families.

    • I Call It Like I See It

      In others words, to put it bluntly, she is just another liar.

      • MichaelBrice

        Jeez, relax!

        Do you remember not so long ago (70′s & 80′s) when some gay groups ‘outed’ well known persons as part of their agenda to promote gay rights. Sometimes the information they based their ‘outing’ on was speculative at best (like the Sotomayer passage), unsupported and/or from ‘confidential’ sources.

        I object to ‘outing’ (specultive or otherwise), gay or atheist, it’s hard to come out, there are probably many valid reasons that people do not ‘declare’ something or other, not the least of which could be risk of physical and financial damage or being socially isolated. Those of us who can openly declare our atheism or sexuality are lucky, or perhaps in some geographical locations, courageous.

        So, can those of us who are lucky enough or brave enough, give those in the closet the courtesy and consideration of choosing their own time and place to declare their identity, beliefs or lack thereof?

        Just sayin’,

        yours truly

        ‘Lucky’

    • OverlappingMagisteria

      It does sound like that. But it also sounds like your average person who identifies as Catholic. Without further info we really cannot say.

      • WoodyTanaka

        I disagree. I think that there is a tendency among many atheists who were raised Catholic to have a sense of “Catholic identity” that is more akin to a sense of personal identity rather than merely religious belief. At least that has been my experience. What is interesting to me is that in that statement the White House seemed to go out on its way to not state that she is a member of the Catholic Church or is simply “Catholic.” It reminds me of phraseology that I used prior to coming out as an atheist.

  • Stev84

    Her church going habits sound a bit like Christmas + Easter + weddings + funerals

    It’s also possible she believes in the Christian god and only considers other gods false. Or she was specifically thinking about the Greek or Norse gods.

    • Bob Becker

      The term for such when I was growing up (no, I do not want to say when that was) was “twice a year Catholics. ”

      That said, Hemant’s combing through lines in her autobiography for clues and hidden messages about a lack of faith he hopes to find seems time poorly spent to me. That’s the sort of thing I’d expect from Rush Limp-paw or Glenn Beck or Michelle Bachman.

      Any reporter does press her on it, I hope she replies “that’s none of your business. “

      • allein

        My friend calls it the Birth and Resurrection Society.
        Also, for the record, Hemant’s quote is from the USA Today article, not her book.

        • Pseudonym

          Your attribution of the quote is correct. Nonethless, I wish Hemant would leave the quote mining to others. It’s unbecoming of this blog.

  • GeraardSpergen

    I’d love to see some Soto-Scalia screaming matches.

  • Ronlawhouston

    It’s really hard to tell what cultural catholics believe. My guess would be that many are agnostics with a few maybe admitting that there is most likely no god. Honestly I don’t think many cultural catholics or “nones” really spend much time trying to answer the question of whether there is a god or not.

  • Santiago

    I suspect the term cultural Catholic means different things to different people. I consider myself one and in my definition devotions plays no role.

    I don’t read that paragraph the same way you do. The reference to being real or not does not refer to gods but to idealized role models whose perfection is not real. I may be wrong (English is not my first language and I often missinterpret things)

    In any instance, even if that is what she meant (that gods are not real) “pressing” people to discuss their religious beliefs (or lack of them) or trying to “out” them is not something I feel comfortable with.

    • Bob Becker

      I read it just as you did, S. And I agree as well with your final point.

  • http://twitter.com/SiftingReality John B (D)

    If atheism isn’t a worldview, like I am so often told by Atheists, what does it matter who is and who is not an Atheist? Why would it be interesting to find out Justice Sotomayor is an Atheist?

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      Why shouldn’t we be interested? Atheism often indicates support of issues that many atheists agree on. We could also feel a sense of solidarity with a fellow atheist, be glad to see a fellow atheist “come out” for visibility reasons, act as a role model, etc.

    • Bob Becker

      On the whole I agree, John B. But in the US a substantial majority of the population seems to consider non- belief to be an absolute dis-qualification for high public office. And so I can understand there being some interest in the question of whether one of the justice is a non-believer. And that interest would certainly cross the current political divide in the nation.

    • C Peterson

      The sort of mind that goes with being a theist is somewhat damaged, and even the occasional theist of high intelligence must operate in a compartmentalized way, which can lead to problems. Not the ideal candidate for any public position of great responsibility.

      An atheist is probably smarter, and certainly more rational. Not because they are an atheist at all, however. Rather, because they are smart and rational, they have little option but to be non-theistic (and even more, non-religious).

      So it is very important in assessing the qualities of a person to know if they are an atheist or not.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      While “Atheism” is not a worldview, it does tend to be correlated with one of a few other types of attitude clusters. She doesn’t seem to be a Randite.

    • baal

      As an atheist, I’d take comfort in knowing that not everyone on the US SCT is a rabid religious nut. I don’t expect religious nuts (by which I mostly means Scalia, Alito and Thomas) to really understand why I care about secularism. Is this really a hard point to fathom that you couldn’t have gotten with 2 seconds of reflection?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.purser1 Jeff Purser

    This morning the Today Show broadcast an interview with her which was recorded in a church setting, surrounded by Christian iconography. While I did not hear any clearly religious references in the content of the interview, the religious surroundings were obvious.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      So, she at least doesn’t spontaneously combust on setting foot in a church.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    “When you’re feeling really down and out, those idealized creatures are like gods, OK? They’re not real,”
    she says. “And what I wanted to provide people with — people who face
    challenges similar to my own — is an actual, living example of a person
    just like that.”

    I think it’s an embarrassing reach to try to read atheism in this statement. The word “they’re” refers to “those idealized creatures” in the previous sentence, which clearly refers to people who end up being role models, and who inevitably show their imperfection, resulting in disillusionment in some young people who idolize their role models too much.

    Saying that this is evidence of Sotomayor being an atheist is a verbal equivalent of seeing Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich and declaring it evidence of God.

    • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

      I wish I could like this more than once. It’s a total stretch.

    • Thackerie

      Yep, I agree.

      Move on. Nothing to see here, folks.

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

    The evidence is pretty thin. Still, she may be a Catholic who isn’t very religious and who we may be able to de-convert.

  • allein

    I get weekly emails from B&N and today’s features this book.

  • pagansister

    Who really cares whether she is an atheist, Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish,etc? She is a woman who has worked very hard to get where she is and IMO is to be admired for that. So she is divorced, unmarried and doesn’t have children? Is that necessary to be a Justice on the Supreme Court of the US? I didn’t see that statement that indicated she might be “atheist”. It is one sentence out of an entire book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

    Her religion is obvious. She’s a Zen Buddhist, of the Soto-mayor school.


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