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March 13, 2007

Stark first member of Congress to come out as "nontheist"

Bravo to Pete Stark (D-CA) for coming out as the first nontheist in Congress:

Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark, D-Calif., is the first openly "nontheistic" member of Congress, the Secular Coalition for America announced Monday, March 12.

The coalition said Stark, who has represented San Francisco's East Bay since 1973, acknowledged his atheism in response to a questionnaire sent to public officials in January.

In a statement, Stark said he is a "Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being."

"I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social service," he said.

Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, said "the only way to counter prejudice against nontheists is for more people to publicly identify as nontheists. Rep. Stark shows remarkable courage in being the first member of Congress to do so." [Beliefnet]

Stark's revelation was sparked by an unusual contest:

Stark's beliefs garnered attention after the Secular Coalition for America offered a $1,000 prize to the person who could identify the ``highest level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States.'' Associate director Ron Millar told the Los Angeles Times that the group wanted to highlight the difficulty that politicians have declaring they don't believe in God.

A member of American Atheists California nominated Stark.

``We didn't think we'd have any member of Congress come forward,'' Millar said. [Guardian]

Bravo to Pete Stark for coming out.  Still, "nontheist" is an odd word. I always thought that deists were non-theists--which would mean that Stark shares a religious orientation with some of the Founding Fathers. As Eric points out in comments below, the sponsors of the contest explicitly define the term to include atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and virtually anyone else who disavows a supreme being.

Stark describes himself as a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.


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What you have read so far is just a paste-in of a comment I left at Majikthise. A few of us discussed there the folly of conventions and popular notions about if and where one dares to be an atheist in America. [Read More]


From an email from Lori Lippman Brown of the Secualar Coaltion:
(The form) used "nontheist" and we included an asterisk after the word. The asterisk was explained at the bottom of the form as follows:

*the term nontheist includes atheists, humanists, agnostics, and other freethinkers who do not believe in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

If Deists believe that a Supreme Being created the universe, then they don't meet that definition of nontheist.

You know, when I hear someone talk about the great courage that atheists show in coming out I can't help but think that they're mis-stating the point. I doubt that atheists are oppressed in New York City, Los Angeles, mainstream Chicago, San Francisco, or here in the Northwest. The only places I've found who really care are people either in the rural areas of states or people in the Bible belt. Those are the people who would give this Congressman trouble, but those are the people who give liberals trouble in general.

My general opinion is 'eh', because this is nothing new: liberal areas will tend to be welcoming to atheists, conservative areas will not.

It really sucks for people stuck in those areas, but I don't think that this translates into country wide 'oppression'.

I've lived in reactionary, openly biased towards Christianity, openly biased towards the anti-abortion stance, openly biased in virtually every area you can name in favor of the convservative choice, places and I can tell you that since moving out of there and to a progressive place, the Pacific Northwest, I've barely felt that anyone honestly cared about those things, including my belief or disbelief in god.

the problem is the work environment in many cases in the midwest part of the country.

it's really strange...

in some organizations, if you have a manager that is of a certain mindset, i have encountered issues in terms of proper advancement and workplace fairness as an atheist.

from time to time, it's not uncommon for people of religion to question me about my faith in my daily business. i believe in religious honesty with oneself, so i flat out tell them i am an atheist without regard. here in the midwest, stating you don't believe is, in many industries & professions, akin to professional suicide.

i have seen this played out over and over again in my business experience.

it's really sad, and the system around here is very self-supporting of itself. this guarantees frustration for free-thinkers, especially in the creative industries like entertainment & graphic arts.

many creatives just leave saint louis as soon as they are able.

i call it the midwest brain drain...

but there have been many many many noble efforts to the contrary...

i just don't see it working too well under current market conditions.

I'd say that it's brave for a high-ranking elected official to publicly acknowledge atheism/nontheism. Atheism is electoral poison in this country. It's one thing to be "out" as an atheist when you're a private citizen in a cosmopolitan community. It's quite another to admit that you're an atheist as a career politician.

Stark's got a very safe seat, but he'll be targeted for all kinds of abuse from inside and outside his district as a result of this. Since he's the first, he's going to be the symbol/target. Lots of radical theists from outside Freemont would give money to unseat an atheist congressman. Stark didn't need to come out as an atheist, but he chose to. I think that's cool.

San Francisco is probably a really safe seat. Plus I've heard he may not run again.

But my reaction to comments like Summerisle's is somewhere between "I don't get it" and annoyance. I haven't suffered for my atheism either, living in Chicago (with a life dominated by parents and good schools), LA (at Caltech), SF, and Bloomington, IN. But I don't think my experience is representative. Oh, sure, representative of Seattle and NYC. But lots of people don't live in such places, nor can easily afford (economically, famially) to move to such places, nor should they have to in order to be tolerated. Not to mention the kids growing up in such environmentss.

"The only places I've found who really care are people either in the rural areas of states or people in the Bible belt."

That's a whole lot of the country, you know. By saying "only" you seem to be saying it's not worth worrying about.

And even if progressive areas don't have oppression, they may still avoid electing atheist politicians. As evidenced by what they say in polls, and the absence of openly nontheist Congresspeople.

I think Deists were theists of a different sort. They believed that there was a "God" who started creation, a "first cause," "prime mover" kind of entity. But He/She does not intervene in everyday life or forgive sins and stuff. Deists thought that if you were in need of forgiveness, you should apologize to the person you offended, not pray to god for salvation.

Basically, Deists were pragmatists. They thought God made the world and then moved on to other, one would hope better, projects.

FWIW Unitarian Universalists claim at least two of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Franklin, as kindred spirits if not co-religionists.

I've never understood the point in hedging one's bets by calling oneself an agnostic or a nontheist instead of an atheist.

I call myself an atheist, but grant that it is unknowable whether an omnipotent, omniscient deity exists. I just say that I believe in God to the same extent that I believe in Zeus, Santa Claus, or the Underwear Gnomes, which also can't be proved not to exist. Most people are comfortable saying they don't believe in these things, without hedging by saying they are "agnostic" about them.

The idea that atheists "believe" that there is no God with something akin to religious faith is just absurd. Who has ever met someone with this belief system? It's a fundamentalist Christian strawman. So I'll just stick with atheist, please.

superdude -- You remind me of a story Richard Dawkins likes to tell. Can't remember it all, but ended with someone's parents telling her (I think) "not believing in God I could deal with, but an ATHEIST?"

Unitarianism as a religion has its roots in freethinkers who criticized the biblical basis of the trinity. (Michael Servetus, 16th century)

The religion was influenced by the Enlightenment philosophy in the 18th century.(i.e. - Benjamin Rush, Joseph Priestly.) In the 19th century it was influenced by Transcendentalism. (Emerson's father was a Unitarian minister; so was Theodore Parker.)

well, this is not news. I recall none of you bloggers takihng note of the extraordinary resolution of Congress condemning the 11th Circuit for its "under god" decision. Exactly three members of Congress voted against the resolution. Religiosity infects American political and public life to a profoundly disturbing degree. Oh, and your darling Barak: a religious fruit-cake. And despite HLR and all, I remain entirely unconvinced that he's all that smart. But ironically, if it's Clinton or Obama vs. either McCain or Guiuliani, it will seal the election for the Democrats because the religious right will stay home. So instead of a a smark, accomplished and unreligious guy like Guiliani, we'll get either a fairly bright woman who claims to be a fervent believer in God and Jesus, or a guy who is both a religious nut and of as of yet undemonstrated ability. An improvement on W, but even you Democrats refuse to elect non-beleivers i.e. witness what the primary voters did to Dean.

In response to Summerisle, I should point out that I don't consider it a problem of "oppression" per se, but one of stigmatism. There are no laws discriminating against atheists directly that I'm aware of, but a significant number of Americans believe atheists cannot be moral and a majority sees them us unfit to hold political office.

The problem, IMO, is partially shared by certain atheists who refuse to call madness on religion. The idea that belief in abject fairytales is a prerequisite for morality and ethical governance is not very far down the cognitive ladder from a belief that a cracker is the body of a bygone rabbi.

I see nontheism as a denial of the terms of argument. Atheism is posited as opposite to theism. If you are an atheist, you believe there is some relevance in arguing whether or not there is a god. If you are a nontheist, you refuse to engage in that discussion.

For most of us, this theological debate is really a political debate, because fundamentalist religion has inserted itself into the mainstream political discourse.

As a nontheist, I believe Christian religious groups should transform themselves from faith communities (arguing over unknowable mysteries) to behavioral communities (discussing what Jesus would do and committing to act accordingly).

While I have no opinion on the theological status of Jesus, I surely would like to invite him to a dinner party.

I've never understood the point in hedging one's bets by calling oneself an agnostic or a nontheist instead of an atheist.

Maybe it isn't 'hedging bets'. Maybe acknowledging that there might or might not be 'something greater' is the way a person feels most comfortable representing their personal beliefs.

Those of us who do believe in something aren't just doing it becuase we're really trying to piss of you brilliant logical athiests.

(I guess I'm a deist then, if it means believing in
'something' without having to be specific, or caring if anyone else shares the opinion. Cool, now I can stop pissing off the militant agnostics.)

Because. Because because because. Damn.

Also, 'piss off,' which I'm even more embarassed about than because.

I think this is very cool. It will also be very interesting to see what happens as a result of this. It will be interesting to see what sort of bigotry comes out of the woodwork. It will also be extremely important to see what this admission does to him during an election and if it unseats him. If he can keep his seat, and not do worse than before he admitted he was an atheist, then this is a signal that perhaps others can be open about this as well. If he loses his seat or does worse than he did before, then that will be a loud call for other atheists to stay in the closet. Which would be unfortunate.

How can one be a Unitarian who is an atheist? What’s to Unite? My understanding is that the foundering fathers who were Unitarians were generally Deists, a watchmaker God who was providential but not interventionist. The Unitarians were trying to reconcile the Trinitarian God with this understanding.

Also- the term “freethinker” is so self-serving as to be comical, it reminds me of the move to call themselves “brites”!

I believe Christian religious groups should transform themselves from faith communities (arguing over unknowable mysteries) to behavioral communities (discussing what Jesus would do and committing to act accordingly).

twtw, there is a serious flaw in that plan. The principal point of the Reformation was that salvation is by faith alone,* so exhorting Protestants to focus past the mysteries of faith to doing good works is a hopeless exhortation.

*Really, really capsule Reformation theology summary: we are all so compromised by sin that we are worthless and unworthy of god's love, yet he loves us anyway and offers the few a carrot of salvation not for anything we do but simply out of infinite goodness. See generally Dairmuid MacCullough, The Reformation. Hence John Bradford's expression -- a double-entendre abou hell and execution -- "There but for the grace of God go I."

I personnally find this to be a very sad. For those of you that don't believe in Jesus, you haven't tried to know him. If you did, you would believe.

The first John Adams was a Unitarian. I think Unitarianism encompasses a variety of positions, thus UNITARIAN, and Buddhists might fit the category of atheist in a vague sense. Non belief in a Supreme Being is still subject to being a believer in the non-material. Atheist means at least to me someone who is a materialist.

fitz: the fact that there was a Reformation is evidence that theology and religious movements can and do evolve.

Have a look at the works of current-day theologians such as John Shelby Spong, who is a retired Episcopalian bishop advocating the removal of theocracy from Christianity.

twtw, the comment about the reformation is mine, and I am frankly insulted to have been confused with Fitz.

The Reformation is not really evidence of any evolution around the concept of salvation -- it was rather a return to the Augustinian tradition. MacCullough called the Reformation a war in Augustine's head between his doctrine of salvation and his doctrine of the Church.

Spong seems like a nice guy, but what does his view of the relationship between church and state have to do with whether Protestants can ever see their community as primarily about works rather than faith?

Two fallacies, Summer: a) The idea that losing your job as a politician over your religious non-belief is not worth of concern and b) The idea that this is "nothing new" should mean it's not oppression. Women have been oppressed for millenia, sexism is pretty much the definition of "nothing new". That hardly makes it shrugworthy.

Thomas: sorry for the confusion, and no insult intended since I know neither you nor fitz from Adam.

Good catch. I should have said theism rather than theocracy.

If you take a theistic God out of the equation, you also bring into question any speculation about the nature of an afterlife or the means of reaching it. Works are no longer a means to salvation, since salvation is no longer the objective.

No more pie in the sky, by and by. Our conduct here is its own reward.

The fact (surprising to some) that Stark attends a church (Unitarian) but describes himself as non-theistic reminds me of the story of the Unitarian choir member who, while listening to the first sermon delivered by a new preacher, leaned over to his neighbor and whispered, "You know, I'm beginning to worry that this guy might be a closet theist."

True story. Really.

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