Political Atheism: The Last Taboo

In "The Last Taboo: Why America Needs Atheism," published in the New Republic in 1996, Wendy Kaminer wrote, "Atheists generate about as much sympathy as pedophiles. But, while pedophilia may at least be characterized as a disease, atheism is a choice, a willful rejection of beliefs to which vast majorities of people cling." I have one small quibble: Atheism is not a "choice." For me, the only choice is whether to be open about my atheism or pretend to believe in a deity for which there is not a scintilla of evidence.

The situation has improved significantly since Kaminer's piece twenty years ago. Much has been written about atheism, including best-selling books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. A number of popular blogs now promote atheism and secularism. In the Internet age, people hear about many worldviews, not just the one in which they were raised. Every new national survey shows a rapid increase of atheists, agnostics, and those who claim no religious affiliation.

However, atheists continue to be the group people are least likely to vote for. In 1990, I ran an unsuccessful, successful political campaign for governor of South Carolina as the Candidate Without a Prayer. I was unsuccessful in winning the election, of course, but successful in a state Supreme Court victory that overturned the provision in the state Constitution that prohibited atheists from holding public office. A similar provision is in the North Carolina Constitution, and some folks in Asheville tried unsuccessfully in 2009 to remove open atheist Cecil Bothwell from its City Council.

In 2010, Wynne LeGrow was the Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives, running as an open atheist in southern Virginia against Randy Forbes, founder of the Congressional Prayer Caucus. LeGrow received 37.5 percent of the vote, the highest percentage for a Democrat running that year against an incumbent Virginia Republican. He details his experience in his book, Last Leper in the Colony.

The complete history of open atheists in Congress is very short: former Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). He acknowledged being an atheist after the Secular Coalition for America, of which I'm president, sponsored a contest to find the highest-ranking politician who so identified. Stark left Congress in 2012, reducing the number of open atheists in Congress from one to zero.

This brings me to three politicians I assume are atheists, though it must be noted that they don't so identify.

Barney Frank, an openly gay member of Congress for many years, came out as an atheist on the TV show Real Time with Bill Maher, but not until he had left office. Unfortunately, he later had a do-over saying his theological views are complicated by his Jewishness and he doesn't know enough to have a firm view on the subject of atheism. Frank also advised politicians not to be frank about their atheism.

Bernie Sanders is an open socialist in the Senate and a presidential candidate. He identifies as a secular Jew. When asked on Jimmy Kimmel Live whether he believes in God, Sanders replied, "What my spirituality is about is that we're all in this together and it's not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people." I have to wonder what God has to do with that. When I asked Sanders at a South Carolina town hall meeting if he is an atheist, he didn't answer the question but said he was a Jew.

Jamie Raskin recently won the Democratic Party primary in the Eighth Congressional District of Maryland, virtually assuring him of victory in November. He is best known in the secular community for his response to a Bible-quoting state senator:

Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.

Raskin received an endorsement and contribution from the Freethought Equality Fund PAC, a political action group founded by the American Humanist Association (AHA). After being described as an atheist, Raskin said he is 100 percent Jewish and doesn't use the "atheist" label. Raskin, a member of the AHA, said his views are consistent with the AHA definition: "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." If you are "without theism and other supernatural beliefs," it seems clear to me that you are an atheist, whatever your preferred label.

Barney, Bernie, and Jamie have lots in common. They are secular Jews who don't like to talk about religion or call themselves atheists, and they act as if you need to choose between being a Jew and being an atheist. On the contrary, a recent Harris survey shows that the majority (52 percent) of American Jews do not believe in God.

I admire all three politicians for how they have championed minority rights and separation of religion and government. People are free to use their preferred label or labels, but I'm disappointed when otherwise courageous politicians (and there seem to be precious few) do not have the courage to embrace the A-word, which is perhaps the last political taboo.