Outside of prominent roles in television or the music industry, being elected to national office is often one of the most visible steps a minority group can take to win acceptance in American society. Yet, for the millions of Americans who openly identify as atheist, the goal of political representation currently remains just out of reach: At present, no one in the 113th Congress identifies as an atheist.
But when Maggie Ardiente of the American Humanist Association spoke to Brian Pellot of the Religion News Service earlier this month, she let slip a striking revelation about a potential hidden “atheist caucus” on Capitol Hill.
“We already know of 24 members of Congress who have told us privately that they don’t believe in God, but they won’t come out, of course, and if we tried to out them they would deny it,” Ardiente said.
The accuracy of Ardiente’s claim is, of course, unprovable. We live in a society where people get to self-identify their religious affiliation (or lack thereof), and the U.S. Constitution expressly prohibits subjecting candidates to a “religious test.” This makes forcing the issue of an elected official’s religious affiliation — or even the lack thereof — legally awkward, albeit common practice in some parts of the country.
Still, this isn’t the first time people have claimed the existence of a hidden cadre of godless lawmakers. In 2011, Herb Silverman, President of the Secular Coalition of America, told The Guardian that at least 28 members of Congress do not believe in God. True or not, Ardiente and Silverman’s comments raise two valid questions: Why is it that atheists, who make up over 2 percent of the U.S. population, aren’t better represented in Congress, and why are potentially “closeted” lawmakers so hesitant to publicly declare their unbelief?
Here are a few possible answers.
Atheism isn’t popular
The most practical reason for the lack of atheists in Congress is that, generally speaking, unbelief polls pretty terribly with the American people. A Pew Research survey conducted in May found that Americans consider atheism the least attractive trait for a candidate to possess, with voters more likely to back a candidate who smokes marijuana, has never held office, or has had an extramarital affair than a self-professed atheist. A June 2012 poll from Gallup reported similar results, with respondents saying that they would much rather vote for Mormons, Muslims, or gay people — all groups which currently have representation in Congress — than someone who doesn’t believe in God. Unsurprisingly, there has only been one openly atheist congressman in U.S. history — Pete Stark, a California Democrat — but he only copped to his nonbelief after 35 years in the House of Representatives (he was reelected two more times before losing his seat in 2012 to another Democrat, Eric Swalwell, who is Christian). Former Massachusetts Congressmen Barney Frank has also admitted to being atheist, but only in 2013, after he left office. Clearly, if you want to run for — or keep — elected office, claiming atheism isn’t going to help you at the ballot box.
But why is atheism so politically unpopular in the first place? The first plausible explanation is a tricky combination of numbers, geography, voting patterns, and law. Representing just a little over 2 percent of the population, there simply aren’t that many “out” atheists in the United States, and while research shows that most are concentrated in large cities — especially Pacific Northwest states such as Washington — their populations continue to fall short of a majority in most places. When this is combined with the fact that the “religiously unaffiliated” — a group that doesn’t associate with a religious group in surveys and includes many atheists — tend to vote less frequently than the faithful, it stands to reason that atheists have an unusually difficult climb when it comes to winning elections. In addition, states such as South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and several others constitutionally ban atheists from holding elected office. Granted, these provisions are unlikely to hold up if challenged in federal court, but they are nonetheless substantial barriers to those wishing to become the political face of atheism.
Secondly, since America is unusually religious compared to most other developed nations, believers who root their values in their faith tend to relate more to religious candidates than nonreligious ones. Over time, these preferences morphed into cultural biases; for example, a full 53 percent of Americans say that a belief in God is essential to living a moral life, according to a 2014 Pew study. Similarly, a Pew Research poll conducted in June found that roughly half of Americans would be unhappy if a family member married an atheist. Predictably, there is something of an ideological divide between conservatives and liberals on this issue: 73 percent of “consistent conservatives” and 58 percent of those who are “mostly conservative” said they were opposed to an atheist in-law, whereas only 24 percent of “consistent liberals” and 41 percent of those who claim to be “mostly liberal” said the same. Still, the anti-atheist bent of the American public clearly exists in both parties, a phenomenon which is likely also affected by numbers: While Democrats are more accepting of atheists, only 24 percent are “religiously unaffiliated,” and only a small percentage of that sub-group claims atheism or agnosticism.
At first glance, the term “atheist” seems like a pretty straightforward designation; it’s just someone who doesn’t believe in God, plain and simple. But as social scientists are beginning to learn, nonbelievers are actually a pretty complicated bunch. There are, of course, many who proudly own up to hard-line atheism. However, about 14 percent of American atheists also perplexingly assert that they believe in God or a universal spirit, and 26 percent say they think of themselves as “spiritual people,” according to Pew. Meanwhile, a slightly larger number of people — 3.3 percent of Americans — claim to be “agnostic,” a position where respondents essentially answer the question “is there a God?” with a hearty “I don’t know.” Many agnostics presumably claim this identity in ways that overlap with atheism, but a few agnostics have expressed ambivalence about the “atheist” moniker because of the increasingly anti-establishment movement it represents.
This latter group includes people like famed scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who, despite claims to the contrary, identifies as an agnostic, not an atheist. He explained his frustrations with activist-minded atheists in a recent Big Think video, where he described attempting to edit his own Wikipedia page to reflect his agnosticism, only to have the designation repeatedly changed to atheism by other users.
“I don’t associate with movements,” Tyson said. “I’m not an ‘ism.’ I just…I think for myself. Whenever someone associates you…with a movement, then they assign all the baggage and all the philosophy that goes with it to you. And whenever you want to have a conversation, they will assert that they already know everything there is to know about you, because of that association … At the end of the day, I’d rather not be any category at all.”
An atheist political Renaissance?
Atheists clearly lack political representation, but this isn’t to say they aren’t doing well for themselves. In fact, the group is actually disproportionately privileged in certain respects: According to a 2012 Pew survey of the religiously unaffiliated, 44 percent of “atheists/agnostics” have at least a college degree, compared to 28 percent of the general public. In addition, about 38 percent of “atheists/agnostics” earn an annual family income of at least $75,000, whereas only 29 percent of the general public can claim the same.
Nevertheless, this privilege has yet to adequately manifest itself within the legislative branch, and the vitriol heaped upon atheists by the rest of American society is very real. Frustration with this lack of governmental power has triggered a surge in political activism among atheists in recent years, with nonbelievers forming organizations such like the Freethought Equality Fund, a political action committee dedicated to supporting candidates who “identify as humanist, atheist, agnostic, and who share our goals of protecting the separation of church and state and defending the civil liberties of secular Americans.” Likewise, The Secular Majority, a network of predominantly atheist and humanist organizers, recently unveiled campaigns in eight states to assist political candidates who endorse the “principles of secular government.”
The specific policy concerns of these and other organizations vary widely, as atheism cuts across race, geography, gender, sexuality, and class. Still, polls show that participants in the nonbelief movement skew heavily progressive, and are disproportionately in support of (1) a firm enforcement of the separation of church and state, specifically the removal of things such as religious rituals and symbols at government-sponsored events, (2) marriage equality, including a rejection of religiously-based definitions of marriage, and (3) a woman’s legal right to have an abortion, again opposing faith-rooted arguments for limiting access to such services.
Some sociologists explain this uptick in political atheism as a product of “friction theory,” or the idea that groups tend to be more passionate about their beliefs (or non-beliefs) when they are surrounded by people who think differently than them. This is especially true for the current rise of the so-called “new atheists,” and was evident in a recent paper entitled “What Encourages The Nonreligious To Organize?” which was presented at the 2013 American Academy of Religion conference by Alfredo Garcia of Princeton University and Joseph Blankholm of Columbia University.* In their paper, which is currently in review, Garcia and Blankholm compared a county-level list of nonbeliever organizations in the United States to several other data sources. They found that “areas with higher percentage of evangelical Protestants” — a group that harbors especially negative views towards atheists — correlated with increases in nonbelief organizations. Garcia and Blankholm stopped short of saying that high levels of conservative evangelical protestantism in a county triggers the creation of atheist affinity clubs, but the data clearly shows some sort of connection between the two ideologically contrasting groups.
This theory was also given a historical framework by Nick Spencer over at Politico, who hinted earlier this month that the rise of atheist voices in the United States is primarily due to the heightened role evangelical protestantism played in national politics during the tenure of George W. Bush. And as new debates over “religious liberty” continue to rage at the state and federal level — primarily in ways that support conservative Christians — it’s possible that atheists groups will see a renewed “friction-based” bump of support in the coming years.
And while the staunchly anti-God stance of some atheists can irk many religious Americans, a growing number within the atheist/agnostic/humanist movement are moving to challenge the stereotype that nonbelievers are morally bankrupt. Greg Epstein, the head of Harvard University’s Humanist Chaplaincy — a group of largely atheists and agnostics — and author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, posits that atheists will become more electable when the rest of society sees them as friendly neighbors instead of vehement advocates.
“Americans don’t tend to elect ideologies, protest movements, or even philosophies — they vote for members of the communities they can see are living good lives alongside members of other American communities,” Epstein said in an email to ThinkProgress. “This is both a challenge for atheists and a huge opportunity: if we want the same acceptance that other groups have, we need to earn it — but not by convincing others there is no god. What we really need to do is get massively mobilized in service, education, and other positive social activities that will be good for us, good for our neighbors, and, it also happens, good for our image and electability.”
Looking towards the November midterms, the prospects of electing an atheist to Congress look pretty dim. The strongest atheist candidate in the running is James Woods, a blind man running an unusual campaign for Congress in Arizona’s 5th District. If successful, Woods, who is running on a platform free from “ideology, revelation or religion,” would be the first person elected to United States Congress to openly campaign as an atheist, according to the Religion News Service. Unfortunately for Woods, his district is overwhelmingly Republican, making him a long shot at best.
Nevertheless, the new groundswell of well-funded political activism and “hearts and minds” approaches by Epstein and others could be the start of a political renaissance for atheists, and some state-level lawmakers — such as Rep. Juan Mendez of Arizona — are already starting to proudly declare their unbelief. Atheists are a small group, but they are growing, and as atheism rises among younger Americans, there is reason for nonbelievers to be optimistic about their political future.
* Disclaimer: Alfredo Garcia is a former classmate of mine and a personal friend.