Unbelief in God is a permanent and inextirpable feature of human life: belief has never claimed one hundred percent of the population at any time in human history. And yet in a new Pew Research Center review, no member of the U.S. Congress purports to be an atheist. The real question is, Why don't the atheists in Congress admit it? Out of more than 500 members, depending on the term of self-designation, there are likely five or ten or twenty Atheists, Freethinkers, Agnostics, Non-Theists, Secularists, Rationalists, Skeptics, Humanists, Materialists, Naturalists, Ignostics, Brights. Why not declare it?
The answer is at least 1,500 years old and traceable to Christian and Muslim outlawing of unbelief. Doubt, which is the safeguard of all critical thought, was moralized and deemed a crime punishable by death in matters of religion. Doubting God was actionable. Is there any wonder that the unbeliever would disguise his or her true thoughts in that atmosphere? And that atmosphere lasted a thousand years, with no published profession of disbelief during that time. Unbelievers undoubtedly existed, and errant vocal bursts of disbelief were met with torture and the stake, but no one risked committing their unbelief to writing.
When the word 'atheist' came back into currency in the 16th-century, it was used inexactly as an epithet of reproach for all manner of heretical religious views. An 'atheist' might be someone who doubted the divinity of Jesus but who otherwise believed in God.
But slowly the word 'atheist' assumed the denotation suggested by its Greek origins: 'theos' (God) with the negating prefix 'a' means 'no God.' It was a label proudly embraced by some 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers. As secular governments began to relax the death penalty for unbelief, books of avowed unbelief appeared.
The term 'atheist' persisted into the 19th century and eloquent books of unbelief multiplied over and over. But 'atheism' could never escape the taint of having been moralized as a defective state of being. And so in 1869 professor Thomas Huxley of England took the Greek word 'gnostic' (knowing) and affixed the negating prefix 'a' to it, producing 'agnostic' ('not knowing' as in not claiming to know if there is a God or not). Professor Huxley did not really invent a more exact term; he was simply trying not to offend his Sunday society Victorian friends who recoiled from the word 'atheist.' Doctor Huxley, the 'knowing' atheist, courted the approval of Victorian Christian friends by claiming he did not know one way or the other about God.
Wondrously, the new term 'agnostic' worked. It was a softer word seemingly devoid of dogmatism. It fooled believers. It tricked them into thinking there was a difference between atheists and agnostics. But really there were now two words for the same disposition of unbelief in God, for in no way is an agnostic a believer in God because the agnostic is not convinced by any of the proofs or arguments for God. The agnostic simply need not voice his atheism in the name of 'not knowing.'
All the other substitutes for 'Atheist' mentioned above -- Freethinker, Non-Theist, Secularist, Rationalist, Skeptic, Humanist, Materialist, Naturalist, Ignostic, Bright -- follow Huxley's agnosticism as softer terms of self-designation for the same mental stance: Unbelief in God.
Even so, our Congressional members could not own up to any of these terms. We need not be too hard on them for this reason: belief and unbelief are yet moralized in the USA, falsely I must add, because belief in God never inoculated all believers from immorality or raising ill-bred children, and unbelief in God never prevented all unbelievers from performing the height of moral acts or raising uncommonly decent kids. The false crime of unbelief persists in the 21st century. Though Christianity cannot physically harm the unbeliever anymore, Christianity can still hector and bully and menace and hobble the unbeliever, especially the unbelieving politician. It is therefore best to remain prudently mute or, if pushed, to lie.
A country with an actual proposition in its Constitution denouncing religious qualifications as a condition for holding public office (Article VI) has established de facto religious qualifications for holding public office. We have made Article VI a sham and have invited religious hypocrisy into the corridors of government because every politician must now wear a fake or real patch of religiosity stitched high upon the sleeve of a Brooks Brothers or Calvin Klein suit.