Thank God we finally have an unbeliever in the U.S. congress (I’m sure there are others who won’t admit it, for it’s political poison in our country to profess nonbelief). This one professes it: Kyrsten Sinema, a newly elected Congresswoman from Arizona. She’s not only openly bisexual, but she doesn’t believe in God. The thing is, she’s timorous about admitting it.
Now I’m not a fan of Chris Stedman, who espouses the osculation of the religious rump in the interest of “interfaith action,” but even a blind pig can find an occasional acorn. And, at CNN, Stedman has called out Sinema (who, to be sure, is courageous in confessing her bisexuality) for refusing to admit her atheism. In a piece at CNN‘s “belief” section called “‘Atheist’ isn’t a dirty word, congresswoman,” Stedman notes some waffling on her part:
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, was sworn in a few days ago without a Bible, and she is the first member of Congress to openly describe her religious affiliation as “none.” Although 10 other members don’t specify a religious affiliation — up from six members in the previous Congress — Sinema is the only to officially declare “none.”
This has gotten Sinema a fair amount of attention from the media. Many identified her as an atheist during her congressional campaign, and after she won, sources touted her as a nontheist. Even this past weekend, Politico declared in a headline: “Non-believers on rise in Congress.”
But there’s a slight issue: Sinema doesn’t actually appears to be a nonbeliever. 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.”
If you live in the U.S., you’ll know why her campaign made that statement. If you’re identified as a nonbeliever in our country, and don’t keep mum about it. you’re political dead meat. In fact, I doubt that Sinema can be elected again (she has a two-year term). Imagine—she wouldn’t be sworn in on a Bible! (As Stedman notes, “According to a Gallup poll released in June, only 58% of Americans would vote for a ‘generally well-qualified’ Muslim candidate, and only 54% would vote for an atheist. (This is the first time that number has been above 50% for an atheist candidate.) By contrast, 91% would vote for a Jewish candidate, 94% for a Catholic and 80% for a Mormon.”)
Stedman’s response is on the money:
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.
Try substituting a religious group of your choice in place of atheist if you don’t agree: “[Rep. Sinema] believes the term Muslim is not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” Does that sound right? It shouldn’t.
. . .The 113th Congress is rich with diversity. As an interfaith activist, I am glad to see the religious composition of Congress more closely reflect the diversity of America. As a queer person, I’m glad that LGBT Americans are seeing greater representation in Washington.
But 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.
That’s about the most sensible thing that Stedman has ever said. We atheists need to stop thinking that if someone kisses up to the religious, or says something that we don’t like, that henceforth everything that they say is either tainted or wrong. That’s a mistake that one reader made about Pat Condell this morning, and it’s a mistake that people constantly make about Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Just because they take some stands that people find offensive, they’re immediately written off in toto. This is particularly true for Harris, whose entire corpus is dismissed because people don’t like what he said about torture or racial profiling. Don’t forget that even when you disagree with him, he makes you think, and that’s a good thing. And, more important, think of his immense contributions in writing The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation—both seminal documents of New Atheism.
Look, nobody is right all the time, and it’s a serious mistake to dismiss someone because he’s been wrong—or has disagreed with you. What’s important in our cause are ideas, which must be examined one by one with reason and logic, and not the people who expressed them.
Oh, and if you consider yourself a “nonbeliever” or an “agnostic,” try telling people you’re an “atheist” next time, just to try that label on. It’s the only way that its connotations—that the bearers have horns and a tail—can be dispelled.