Why won’t comedian Bill Maher be running for Congress anytime soon?
Because he thinks his atheism will get in the way.
In an interview with Hollywood site TheWrap, Maher chatted with host Sharon Waxman about the lack of representation of atheists in politics — and how it doesn’t quite match up with the rising number of atheists in the country. He told her that while the percentage of atheists in America is approaching 15%, “we have zero representation.” As a person who’s pretty public about his atheism, he should know:
Maher’s remark came in response to a question about whether he would ever consider seeking office. He called himself “the last person who could ever win,” citing his lack of faith as just one reason. Maher is a vocal atheist, and in 2008 he starred in “Religulous,” a film that poked fun at a variety of organized religions and their beliefs.
Maher went on to point out that the number of Americans who say they don’t believe in God has increased, while congressional representation has only fallen, from one admitted atheist — Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), who lost in 2012 — to zero.
The exact number of American nonbelievers remains somewhat contested. In October 2012, Pew estimated 20% of Americans fit into the broad category of atheist, agnostic or otherwise religiously unaffiliated, with a much smaller number identifying purely as atheists. The Washington Post this May reported that 5%-9% of Americans consider themselves “convinced atheists.” Whatever the number, Maher said atheists are “the least represented people in the country.”
“But that is changing. People are coming out of the closet [as atheists].”
That analogy was fully intended as Maher added at the end of the segment that, much like LGBT public figures are becoming more transparent and open about their identities, atheists in the public eye are starting to do the same. His phrasing was a little questionable, though, reading almost as if atheism (and marriage equality, for that matter) were nothing more than liberal fads, but the message is there:
“[Atheists are] out there, they’re thinking it, they’re just afraid to say it,” Maher said during an interview with TheWrap. “But that’s changing. It’ll be the new gay marriage.”
Of course, none of these newly-out atheists are elected lawmakers. It came to light again recently that there are zero open atheists currently in Congress, raising the question of whether we really are represented in the legislative process or in the greater political realm.
From the Huffington Post piece about Maher’s interview:
While some sources have claimed in the past that as many as 27 members of Congress secretly “have no belief in God,” none of them have chosen to come out of the shadows.
The first openly gay congressman, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) publicly admitted to Maher that he was an atheist earlier this year, but only after leaving Congress. Frank’s announcement came more than 25 years after announcing his sexuality.
The Huffington Post’s earlier piece on the lack of atheists in Congress adds:
The total lack of atheist congressional representation is somewhat surprising in the broader context of nationwide faith and non-faith trends. The latest Pew poll on religion found that out of nearly 20 percent of Americans who call themselves unaffiliated, 2.4 percent identify as atheists. Another 3.3 percent are agnostics, and about 14 percent described their religious beliefs as “nothing in particular.” More than a quarter of those “nothing in particular” respondents said they don’t believe in God or a universal spirit.
While other polls have similarly shown a growth in secular beliefs as the unaffiliated trend away from organized religion, trust of atheists remains a key hurdle to getting those views represented in public office.
While this gay atheist would argue that coming out as LGBT is very, very different from coming out as an atheist, both still matter, and both groups are absolutely overlooked. Maher is right that the lack of Congressional and other political representation is especially disconcerting, particularly considering the excessive entangling of religion and politics nowadays. If worse comes to worse, maybe a Bill Maher bid for Congress is our best chance, after all?