Senator Tom Harkin: I Do Not Agree With Calling Secular People ‘Nonbelievers’

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) spoke at last week’s Secular Summit & Lobby Day sponsored by the Secular Coalition for America, and audio of his speech is now online with video stills (his speech begins at the 2:20 mark below):

A couple of highlights:

… I do not agree with calling secular people “nonbelievers.” I have lots of friends who hold on to secular viewpoints and they are passionate believers; passionate believers in the First Amendment. They believe in justice. They believe in living moral and ethical lives. They believe in tolerance and nondiscrimination. So please, don’t refer to yourselves as “nonbelievers.”

We all remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s wonderful words, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I would add, however, it doesn’t bend all by itself. It requires individuals who are willing to speak up and speak out. It requires affirmative acts of conscience and courage by those who have been excluded and discriminated against. And that’s what you folks are doing this week by coming to Washington and visiting your congressional offices. More broadly, that’s what the Secular Coalition for America is doing 365 days a year. You have made enormous strides for full inclusion, respect, and equal treatment. Know that — those of you who are here in this room and who are going up on the Hill — just know that that there are millions of people that you are speaking for in this country. You are not alone in this effort.

Harkin also spoke (by video) at last year’s Reason Rally. The guy’s been criticized (for good reason) for trying to get alternative medicine covered under ObamaCare, but it’s hard not to like him after you hear this speech.

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.

  • ortcutt

    … and I believe that grass is green and the sky is blue. I don’t see what his point is. I’m more than happy to describe myself as a “non-believer” when it’s clear what particular belief–in the existence of gods–is in question.

  • Atheist Diva

    I love the term non-believer. It’s perfect for who I am (although atheist works too).

  • Jakanapes

    Stupid english language. I don’t believe in the first amendment, I think it’s IMPORTANT. I’ll keep my non-believer label, thanks.

  • ortcutt

    I’m pretty sure that everyone believes in the existence of the First Amendment. Harkin’s is one of the stupidest talking points I’ve heard in a while. He really needs a new speechwriter.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Epic case of missing the point, or…Actually, I don’t know what else this could possibly be.

  • Gus Snarp

    Not where I thought he was going with that. I agree that secular people should not be called non-believers, but that’s because I think they are two different terms. I would hope that Harkin is a secular person. I would hope Obama is a secular person. I would hope that John McCain is a secular person. The word secular can mean a lot of things, but when I’m talking to a government representative about it, I use the meaning of not being explicitly religious in nature or related to the church. You know, the way our Constitution describes our government. So I expect most Americans to be secular, or at least supporters of secularism, which is simply the notion of separation of Church and State. I certainly expect high level elected officials to think that way, particularly Democrats, but even Republicans, barring a few owned by the religious right, although sadly that seems to be most of the party today.

    Secular as an adjective applied to any person without this connotation should mean anyone who’s not a church leader, priest, official, lay deacon, what have you. If you show up every Sunday and that’s about it, then you’re secular.

    But as for me, I’m the overlap of the Venn diagram, a secular non-believer. Although in a recent lunch conversation at work when someone said I didn’t believe in anything I said this was not true, I believe in human beings, for example. But I’m OK with people saying I don’t believe in anything. It’s not strictly true, but it means they get the point. Non-believer doesn’t mean that though, it means non-believer in religion, it’s just truncated for ease of use, and I like it.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I would cut the guy some slack.

    He is a U.S. Senator, from a fairly religious state (Iowa), who is willing to give a pro-secular speech, so I tip my hat to him.

    We may quibble over whether to call ourselves secularists, atheists, freethinkers, brights, humanists, nonbelievers, and each of these has it’s own nuanced differences, but anyone with any of those as a primary worldview, is probably in our camp.

    It sounds like his problem with the term “non-believer” is that he wants to counter the straw-man argument that we don’t believe in ANYTHING. A relative once summarized my worldview by saying that I don’t believe in anything, when really I just don’t believe in his god/mythology. I would be happy to embrace this Senator’s explanation that I believe in justice, living a moral/ethical life, etc. (and other things).

  • ortcutt

    If he wanted to say something about having values and caring about people and principles, he could have just said that non-religious people have values and care about people and principles. Valuing people and principles has nothing to do with any belief. It’s not a question of whether someone believes in the First Amendment. It’s a question of whether they value the First Amendment. It’s not a question of whether someone believes in human flourishing. It’s a question of whether someone values it.

  • Jordan

    Maybe I misunderstood, but I don’t agree with not calling ourselves non-believers. There is a major difference between secular theists and secular atheists. However, with that said, maybe what he was getting at was that the secular movement should be reaching out to secular theists/believers as a way to bridge gaps and get ideology out of politics and science

  • Pragmatist

    I think those taking issue with the Senator’s choice of the
    word “belief” are failing to see the forest for the trees. They also
    are confusing the word “belief” with the word “faith.”
    Quite frankly, those raising this misguided objection remind me of creationists
    who attack evolution because it’s a “theory.”

    Webster’s offers three definitions for “belief”,
    one of which is a “conviction of the truth of some statement or the
    reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of
    evidence.” Again… “especially when based on examination of

    Oxford defines “belief” as “an acceptance
    that a statement is true or that something exists; something one accepts as
    true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction” it offers a second
    definition, “a religious conviction.”

    It seems to me that what Sen. Harkin was trying to do was a
    bit of word play — flipping on its head the association of the word
    “belief” with a religious conviction. Precisely because of the
    association of “beliefs” as religious, so many Americans still
    associate nontheists’ lack of religious “belief” with a lack of
    morality. Harkin was making a statement that nontheistic and secular Americans
    DO have morality and patriotism. Furthermore, his statement is accurate– we do
    believe in the first amendment, nondiscrimination and morality. We
    “believe” in these things because they are “firmly held
    convictions” for the overwhelming majority of people in our community.

    What is lost in these complaints is that his message was one
    of respect and solidarity with the nontheistic community. He embraced us. His
    statement was an attempt to show his understanding of and respect for the
    secular view point and to dispel negative connotations about our community. It
    was a POSITIVE speech. And I might add it was received positively by people in the room, as evidenced by the overwhelming round of applause.

    If this community really wants to gain broad acceptance and
    see real change, we need to stop complaining about every little detail and
    accept the olive branches that are offered to us. Otherwise, we’re just a
    community of persnickety complainers. Not everyone is going to say things
    perfectly every single time in a way that makes 100% of the people
    happy–especially in our community. Whether you agree with his use of the word
    “belief” or not, look at the intent BEHIND the words. Let’s celebrate
    the fact that politicians–who once avoided us like the plague–are now beginning
    to not only join us at our events, but are also beginning to speak publicly and
    positively about our community and our world views. Sheesh.

  • TCC

    “It sounds like his problem with the term “non-believer” is that he wants to counter the straw-man argument that we don’t believe in ANYTHING.”

    Bingo. That’s a worthwhile point to make, as well.

  • ortcutt

    It’s just a bad way of framing the issue though. The issue is about valuing not believing. If he wanted to point out that non-religious people value people and principles, then why bother pointing it out? Of course we do, just like every non-psychopathic person everywhere. Talking about “believers in the First Amendment” presents a false equivalence between our valuing of the First Amendment and their belief in the existence of gods. They aren’t the same thing.

  • TCC

    You’re arguing semantics. If you think that the First Amendment is important, then you hold a belief in its importance. The most insidious thing about equating faith and belief is that it has sullied a perfectly good word that has a lot of broad utility, but that isn’t necessarily reason enough to steer us away from its use entirely.

  • TCC

    If he wanted to point out that non-religious people value people and principles, then why bother pointing it out?

    First, values and beliefs are not so distinct as you suggest; if I value honesty, then I hold a belief in its worth as well. But there really is a common notion that because we’re defined by what we’re don’t believe, atheists and nonbelievers don’t actually believe in anything. Harkin is trying to push back against that notion and making people aware of the public perception that comes from calling oneself a nonbeliever, and it’s a worthwhile point to be made.

  • GCT

    If he wanted to point out that non-religious people value people and principles, then why bother pointing it out?

    Because there are tons of theists out there who seem to think that we don’t have any values.

  • abb3w

    Depressingly, looking at the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey from back in 2008, Iowa looks pretty close to US median.

  • b33bl3br0x

    I’ve actually had this exact same issue in my mind, especially as it pertains to groups with secular in their titles.

    A secular group seemingly should be one in which religion is not present but the religious would be welcomed, e.g. religious folk who think that religious policies have no place in the law.

    Whereas, a non-believer group would be one made up of non-believers.

    I have a knee-jerk wince when I hear people use the two term interchangeably.

    It’s mostly just a pedantic reaction in myself about incorrect verbage, but a small side of me also thinks that strategically it would be beneficial to push the difference. As we’ve seen, it’s a sets up a small dissonance amongst the Christianists, when the people arguing against them aren’t the evil atheists they expect but are the people from their own congregations.

    I’m also not tone trolling, I just think the above is a good thing to have in addition to all the other stuff.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    From the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one definition of “believe” is:
    “to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something.”

    So, yes, I *believe* in justice, kindness, etc. (and to your point, I “value” them, too).

    Meanwhile, when only one member of the U.S. Senate to publicly support us like this, I “believe” that it is counter-productive to be overly critical of his choice of one word (calling it “the stupidist talking point” you’ve heard), when the full context/speech is clearly supportive of us.

    I ‘believe’ you have a right to criticize him for this, but I also ‘believe’ it is counter-productive for our secular movement.

  • ortcutt

    Do they really think that atheists don’t love and value their spouses, children, neighbors, etc…? They might say that we don’t have any reason to value them in a purely natural, mechanical universe, etc…, but that’s a different question. Claiming that atheists don’t value anything is like claiming that we don’t have noses. It’s just transparently untrue.

  • Gus Snarp

    Yes! For example, Americans United, which is chock full of religious people, is a secular organization dedicated to maintaining the secular nature of our government. Non-believer may take part, as may believers, but the organization has nothing to do with whether anyone believes or not, which, I think, makes it a great force for promoting secularism.

  • GCT

    Some of them really think that we value immorality, hedonism, lying, and all manner of nasty things. Some of them think we are just a bunch of nihilists that are pretending or going through the motions to avoid detection. Some of them think we actually do value stuff, but only because we are secretly religious. Yes, it needs to be said that we are not a bunch of duplicitous, immoral monsters, and that atheists are human too. And, it’s nice that someone who is actually in a position of power, from a religious state, is standing up for us.

  • ortcutt

    They’re like the people who believe that Jews have horns and drink the blood of babies. There would be something wrong if someone pointed out that Jews don’t have horns and don’t drink the blood of babies, because the proper response isn’t to deny someone’s ridiculous, prejudiced beliefs. The proper response is to call them an abhorrent bigoted f*%kwit who needs to get his head out of his a$#e. Someone coming along and saying (badly) that non-religious people have values is like denying that Jews have horns. It honors a prejudice with the respect of disputing it.

  • Spuddie

    The association of secularism with atheism is a phony argument used by the religious right to push their theocratic agenda. Its a way to pretend that religious people only support their views. Much like they consider the only real Christians are those who believe as they do.

    Secularism had religious roots in this country long before atheism even was a viable philosophical concept. Separation of Church and State as a political concept in America was first propounded by Anabaptist groups like the Quakers in the 17th century.

    Most mainstream and minority religious groups are strong supporters of secularism as a way to protect their faith from government oppression. Its under the belief that a government entangled with religion will probably not be their religion and probably use its power to go after them.

    Atheism is not synonymous with secularism but the two have very similar goals.

  • GCT

    Secularism had religious roots in this country long before atheism even was a viable philosophical concept.

    Um, atheism has always been a viable philosophical concept.

  • Spuddie

    I was talking about when it was put to page as a philosophical concept. Conceptually a good idea always works. =)

    Few people wrote and discussed it openly as such until about the 18th Century.

  • Darrell Ross

    I think massage counts as alternative medicine. It would be nice if it didn’t. It’s pretty clear that massage is not alternative the way the other medicines it is lumped with are – acupuncture, homeopathy, etc.

    Perhaps it is only insurance companies that lump massage with the others.

  • GCT

    Not because it wasn’t viable as a concept, but because it was punishable by extreme measures to go against the religious hegemony. But, we do have writings from well before the 18th Century that advocate atheism.

  • Spuddie

    I am agreeing with you. I guess it was a poor choice of words on my part.

    My original point is secularism has never been synonymous with atheism. However theocrats like to claim that is the case. Secularism has a religious pedigree which people pushing a theocratic agenda like to ignore.

  • Stev84

    Yeah. For the life of me I can’t understand what people are whining about here. For me it was very obvious what he meant.

  • Rocky Morrison

    Come on, quit kidding around. Atheists won’t be happy until religion is eliminated from the face of the earth.

    Dance around that all you want, dress it up in other language, deny it, but you know its true.

  • DougI

    He’s correct, being secular doesn’t mean you’re a non-believer. Many of our Founders were ardent believers yet advocated strict secularism and an absolute separation of church and state. Even today, people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the Reverend Barry Lynn were/are ardent secularists despite being clergy.

  • GCT

    Come on, quit kidding around. Atheists won’t be happy until religion is eliminated from the face of the earth.

    If people willingly gave up their religions, then great. But, this insistence you have that we want to forcibly remove it is born from nothing but your bigoted imagination.

  • GCT

    Wait…what? Pointing out that an untruth is untrue is somehow bad?

  • ortcutt

    Ridiculous claims merit ridicule. Claiming that a sizable percentage of the world’s population value nothing is ridiculous and offensive.

  • GCT

    Yes, they do. And, I have no problem with ridicule for people who deserve it and ideas that are ridiculous. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s also stupid, ridiculous, or bad to point out that those ideas are untrue.

  • Jakanapes

    Of course I am. Semantics are important. If done in a slapdash manner, speaking/writing/communicating is actually a barrier to understanding. I think the fact that the word ‘belief’ is equated so strongly to having faith is a perfectly good reason to drop it like a hot potato. It just muddies the waters.

  • TCC

    It doesn’t have to muddy the waters, not any more than saying that I shouldn’t say that I love my wife because I also love ice cream and books, and that just muddies the waters. Words aren’t fragile little things; they can handle the strain of multiple meanings (indeed, polysemy makes language interesting), and we shouldn’t let the ones who abuse language by insisting on only one meaning to control how language is used.

  • ShoeUnited

    His heart is in the right place, but I don’t agree with the labeling. It’s too easy for this line of thinking to be considered tu quoque line of argumentation with religiously inclined people. I would hope all people in the US share those same values he listed -I know not the reality, but it is the dream-. So I can’t agree with his words even if I read them and see that they’re coming from a good place.

    Trying to find a middle ground is admirable. And good on him for trying to say “Hey people, listen, we’re all Americans.” But I object to the wording is all.