Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: breaking a taboo

The big news in the world of atheism this week is the admission by northern California congressman Pete Stark that he was a nontheist. In officially making his declaration of non faith, Stark has breached what many think of as the last religious taboo in American politics.

Mr Stark, who has served in Congress since 1973, admitted his "non-theism" after the Secular Coalition for America, an advocacy group in Washington, offered a $1,000 bounty to the person who could identify the "highest-level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of non-theist currently holding elected public office in the United States".

In all, 47 people across the country were nominated as unbelievers and four confirmed they were non-theists. After Mr Stark, the next most senior openly non-theistic elected official was believed to be a school board president from Berkeley, California.

"When the Secular Coalition asked me to complete a survey on my religious beliefs, I indicated I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being," Mr Stark said. (The Scotsman)

It's fine that Mr. Stark is a Unitarian, an affiliation that requires no belief in a specific creed. While there are many theist Unitarians and at least one of our Presidents, John Adams, called himself one, Unitarianism seems to be mainly a form of humanism not incompatible with a completely secular outlook. My view of it is a lot like what barristas at Starbucks privately call an order for a decaf, no foam, no whip, no sugar, soy: a "Why bother?" It reminds me of the joke, "What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who rings your bell for no particular reason." My apologies to all you Unitarians.

Anyway, the announcement by a US congressthing that he is a "nontheist" (aka, an atheist) is cause for celebration (at least for me). We hear a great deal about the revival of religion in America, but is it just Conventional Wisdom? In point of fact most people I know are functional non-theists, even if they say they are "believers." From the Harvard Crimson:

And yet an ever-increasing number of Americans - both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population - are becoming unbelievers. In fact, although most Americans happily call themselves Christian, we are fast becoming a godless nation. Religious pandering?from Jimmy Carter's born-again rhetoric to Bush's compassionate conservatism?has masked the real story about religion in modern America: the gradual, but inexorable, rise of secularism since World War II.

As Cathy Young, a former editor of Reason Magazine, puts it, "40 percent of Americans do not belong to a church and do not consider religion a very important part of their lives." Even more strikingly, a 2001 comprehensive poll of over 50,000 Americans found that the number of secular Americans has more than doubled to 29.4 million since 1990, and now exceeds the number of Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Buddhists combined. In fact, nonreligious or secular Americans outnumber adherents of every religion but Christianity. And the number of Christians is falling: Even in the midst of this much ballyhooed religious revival, the proportion of Christians has actually decreased by 9.7 percent in little more than a decade. (Piotr Brzezinski)

I can't vouch for the numbers, but the general sense that the country is becoming more secular seems correct to me. We often believe recent history is the way it "has to be," but even such recent hot button issues as marital infidelity committed by politicans, we see three high profile Republican presidential candidates who have committed adultery (McCain, Giulani, Gingrich) and no one seems to care.

The US has had religious paroxysms frequently in its history. Each time we survived and emerged more secular than we went into them. We have a ways to go before we catch up with the rest of the modern world (most of Europe), but we'll get there. Like the Muslim world, our fundamentalists are rebelling against modernity. But even in the short run, that's a battle they can't win.

Meanwhile, Representative Stark doesn't seem to be in any trouble.

More like this

So today we learn that Rep. Pete Stark admits to being godless. There is only one member of Congress who is on record as not holding a god-belief. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a senior member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Chair of the Health Subcommittee, and member of Congress…
All the cool kids are doing this quiz: 1.  Unitarian Universalism (100%) 2.  Liberal Quakers (98%) 3.  Secular Humanism (96%) 4.  Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (93%) 5.  Theravada Buddhism (82%) 6.  Neo-Pagan (81%) 7.  New Age (73%) 8.  Baha'i Faith (70%) 9.  Taoism (66…
The post below where I show that belief in the literal truth of the Biblical tends to correlate well with IQ scores from the General Social Survey on a denominational scale is getting a lot of response; enough of it is of low quality that I'll close the comment thread soon enough. As I observed the…
Update: Heather offers a follow up. Mario Loyola offers an interesting response. Here is what I find worth noting: One of them expresses a weirdly postmodern view: We cannot know the nature of the Gods, but a good person knows in his gut the difference between right and wrong, and good people…

It reminds me of the joke, "What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who rings your bell for no particular reason."

Better be careful. You might offend an extremist Unitarian group who'll come some night and burn a question mark on your lawn ...

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 18 Mar 2007 #permalink

Like the Muslim world, our fundamentalists are rebelling against modernity. But even in the short run, that's a battle they can't win.

I've had a similar thought. When a fundamentalist complains that Christianity is threatened, a common reaction is to scoff and point out the government and other influences which are so obvious in the US. I suspect that they feel threatened because they are threatened (in the benign but inevitable manner you describe).

Well, I hope that's not just wishful thinking on my part ...

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 18 Mar 2007 #permalink

Non-theist does not equal atheist.

Not another endless debate about definitions!

You must be a Unitarian ... :-)

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 18 Mar 2007 #permalink

I am an Earthiest.

You imply that buddhism is theistic.
Why do you say that?

By robert mintz (not verified) on 18 Mar 2007 #permalink

"Non-theist does not equal atheist."

John, I know you tend to stick pretty strictly to atheism as a belief that there is no God, but that's not the definition most of us use, which is non-belief in a god or gods. The former may be a subset of of the latter, but non-theism is atheism too.

One can be agnostic (in the Huxley sense), and atheist at the same time.

Revere-Good post but off by a bit. I sure as hell care if my politicians are adulterers. I also care if they lie about it in front of a Grand Jury and also if they obstruct justice-Seems Billy Boy took a little ride on that wagon. "Ah did not have sex, with that woman...Ms. Lewinski." Hmm. Okay, definition is very broad but if it were a forceable act he would have gone to jail for assault, sexual assault, attempted rape. The definition of this is so broad. But the post is on having an atheist or theist or whatever in office. Hell Revere, I think you would make a great elected something or other, but the barb is towards organized religion. This guy couldnt get elected dog catcher in the South.

Everyone thinks that Calfiornians are so enlightened and tolerant. I find just the opposite. When you profess a belief in religion they are more lets head to the beach types. Okay, thats their right to do it as it is for you to slap at first religion and Republican hipporcrites. Both sides of that coin are dirty and maybe only the clean edge would ever be seen. But that clean edge on a coin never gets used even though its the best part of the coin. The other guy other than Stark is a school board president from Berkley CA. Big surprise there. Both can be great guys as far as I know but I draw from previous experiences with Californians. MIH is not includedin this even though we disagree we all pull towards the middle. Some here try to pull it apart.

I submit to you that this Fatwah that you posture here is off base and fairly superficial because it doesnt really address the issue. Are these good people? Do they vote their conscience, or their religion having been elected. Did John McCain have an affair and still get elected over and over again just as cant keep the wick clean Billy Boy Clinton? All of these guys I wouldnt trust any farther than they could walk where I couldnt see their Scarlet Letter. I absolutely believe that all of the women who are with them understand that they are who they are and they stay. So there must be some good in them. Trust but verify?

My problem with this is that it casts aspersions that religion in history says no adultery and then they commit it one and all. Hell, I have even thought about it. But does what you say change them or the facts that religion is the one true law that we have on this planet? It is the yardstick by which we are all directly or indirectly measured whether we believe in it or not. E.g. without religion, they aint adulterers...Weird world we live in. You lambast them for something that you esconce in the Sunday Sermonettes that is non-existent in your world. Strange to say the least.
.
Do a post on the numbers of non-believers, believers on this planet and then put that up. You cant hold office in Teheran, Riyadh, Islamabad without being a believer... You left those kind folks out that outnumber us about 3 to 1 and would happily convert you to Islam as fast as a Baptist at a revival. One would kill you for being a non-believer, the other would brainwash you until you did believe. Decide which one I am talking about.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 18 Mar 2007 #permalink

Randy: Didn't leave them out at all. We are almost as backward as they are on religion. Almost.

MRK: Your point-of-view has the drippings of the lawyer who says that religion is the moral basis for all things in another sunday sermonette. He didn't say exactly like that and I don' think that exactly what you mean, but you do say,

"But does what you say change them or the facts that religion is the one true law that we have on this planet?"

religion = one true law is an assertion of fact. I would contend that man made up morality, man made up religion, and man made up rule of law. My assertion is that the onus of proof is on you to show me - 'the non-believer' or whatever label you want - why I can't make an ethical and by extension legal decision without religion. The just look-around-you can't hold office without being religions just means that the majority buy into your assertion. That doesn't mean it's fact.

Kruger is fear-ridden.

He especially fears people who don't live with him in constant fear. He doesn't know whether he must obey them or they must obey him.

He fears making decisions himself. Somebody hit him hard sometime long ago. He will never risk making a mistake ever again. He cannot permit himself to believe that the essence of humanity is to hear others, to compromise, and to decide.

Until we give up fear, there is no law except the nastiest old idiot with the biggest stick.

Yeah, Revere, I know you probably feel you must delete that. I do not object.

Greg: Not nice, and you can only see your own consciousness. Life is a mirror, a reflection of our own ill thought out causes. MRK is one of the good guys whether you see that or not.

I'm glad to see organized religion questioned and those who don't follow a particular teaching are facilitating a golden opportunity that opens the door for previously ignored teachings to come to the surface.
For those who don't believe in god I'd go so far as to say you don't believe that you could possibly be more than the mind and its accompanying emotions in matter, energy, space and time.

Greg-You are partially right. Its tough to see people you know die for ideologies. Mine is one that elects the best clown at the time for the job. Sometimes you get a Reagan, sometimes you get a Billy Boy. Lately though the assertion is that we get Halliburton, shadow governments and above all religion.

John McCain is a hero and an asshole. Just as Duke Cunningham is and was. Both have to live with themselves. Did they violate the code? Yep. Have I? Not yet. It takes really big ones to go into combat knowing that its a mistake to send one out where the boogey man lives. But its a calculated mistake and one that I had to make more than once. I know they are there, they know I am here. I am in charge and I would go with them but the orders are to stay put and send people out into the nations where the Indians live.

Seen some horrendous things Greg. You probably dont see that in Manchester, or anything for that matter. My religion is simple and not one of being 1/4 Jew and 3/4 Episcopalian. Both have their faults as best I can see as a religious person, but they are the faults of man. I ascribe to the fact that God is who He is. If he wants to screw with me then so be it. If he wants my soul and life he cant take it any damned time he wants. It belongs to him. He has had every opportunity and I mean EVERY opportunity to take it with a little help from bad guys that there is, but didnt. So what am I doing here? I dont know. To raise Hell about immigration and at the same time paying to send an illegal back to Mexico? To raise Hell about the panhandlers, but picking them up and taking them to the Catholic missions? To raise Hell with Revere the Godless Sonuvabitch? He is the same guy with a heart as huge as Gods when it comes taking care of people? I dont know.

Mistakes? Sheyit yeah, I have made them and very few people beyond doctors and God get to decide if what they do today is going to cause someone to die. It weighs on me Greg as your lack of respect does for anyone who esconces religion. I think Revere is a religion onto himself because he doesnt back down on it and that takes big cahoonies. Godless Sonuvabitch will likely make it into heaven ahead of me. Me, I'll be stopping for a drink on the way in.

As for religion and law. They are intertwined. Ask the Tripoli 6. Tell them its politics and not the law. Tell them that because they are being tried in a court and not on the floor of their Parliament equivalent. Drippings? Every law course teaches what the foundations of moidern law are and it is indeed in religion. Guess you dont get out much or you would know that. You also could make that ethical decision without it, but the upbringing that you had was based in religious law even in the UK. I am also the most adamant person you have ever seen about the Ten Commandments inside of courthouses under the guise of "historical documents." Thats as big a crock as I have ever seen. Okay, how bout voodoo while we are at it. I want the guys making legal decisions to carry their beliefs in their hearts and not have it waiting on them. Shit. Thou Shalt Not Kill inside a courtroom on a wall=a death sentence in the South Bubba and that IS a mistake.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 18 Mar 2007 #permalink

I'm surprised,, a little,, that Revere let that stay.

I don't see much of anything in Manchester, Kruger, because the closest I have ever been to there is somewhere along Reykjanes Ridge. I am famous, though, among a small circle of friends, for being able to understand the language.

And I have seen things too, Kruger. I am famous, also, for doing what needs to be done, then barfing my guts out through my nose. Some say my eyes and ears too. It's embarrassing, sometimes, but I can't imagine preferring any other reactions.

Lea, if I can't see Kruger in what he writes here, his attempts to communicate are failing miserably. Others are responding, each in their own way, to his abject fear. If they did not do so, clearly respond to the same fear, I would be spending copious quality time examining my perceptions, instead of posting about them.

Kruger is not telling us, "There are tygers out there. There are huns. There are highwaymen. We better keep our eyes open and our guard up." Everything he sees scares him shitless. Everything he sees provokes infantile rage.. "Bomb their families and their families' families."

Read what he says about God, above, in his comment at 01:35 AM.

The law is not the only thing tarted up in priestly skirts, Kruger. Consider the Spanish conquistadores, the British colonial bureaucrats, and the American opium merchants.

Our law is based on preChristian Roman law, and elaborated by Norman pirates. The Romans, a people much like ourselves, who never got over their fear of Gauls, even when there was no Gaul left in the world who wasn't carrying a Roman bastard; Romans who went to bed wondering when their slaves would loose the fear of being tortured to death. The Normans, bloodthirsty invaders, spread so thinly that, if they had not immediately purchased every available quisling and capo, if they had not reacted with savage reprisals to every least whisper of a hint of rebellion, they could have been buried under the sheer mass of disarmed Saxon bodies.

You want religious law? Look at the fifth (Catholic) or sixth (Jewish and Protestant) commandment. It doesn't say, bomb their families.

Look back to the creation, in the sixth day, it says "B'Tselem", "God created Man in His own Image". Jesus said, "That which you do unto the least of these, you do also unto me."

Our law is not based on religion. It is the whim and the convenience of the terrified owners, and of their hired idiots with guns.

Collective reprisals, shock and awe, terrorism, genocide, don't work anymore, Kruger. You don't have enough machines. Everybody knows now what the Judenrat in Warsawa learned.. there is no end to the fear riding idiots with guns. Everybody knows they can only hunker down and wait for the rain of death to pass. Then go to a tailor to borrow some funeral weeds and to be fitted for a semtex waistcoat.

Grow up, Kruger. A man walks upright and greets other men.

"A man walks upright and greets other men." Wow! How pre-metrosexual. One might get a wiff of testosterone, careful he may be violent! Social scientists in the mid twentieth century expected the decline in religion as the world "modernized." That turned out not to be the case. Even in allegedly modern europe there has been a rise in Islam among the young not at all restricted to the immigrant population. Bernard Lewis (actual scholar rather than polemicist) has argued that Europe will be Muslim in another century. He may be right or wrong but a decline in some elements of some kinds of Christianity does not necessarily equal a deline in religion.

MRK: I don't continue conversations with people who make ad hominems.

Speaking of Unitarians, Revere, I presume you have heard of Unitarian Jihad?

An excerpt from their manifesto:

Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States! Too long has your attention been waylaid by the bright baubles of extremist thought. Too long have fundamentalist yahoos of all religions (except Buddhism -- 14-5 vote, no abstentions, fundamentalism subcommittee) made your head hurt. Too long have you been buffeted by angry people who think that God talks to them. You have a right to your moderation! You have the power to be calm! We will use the IED of truth to explode the SUV of dogmatic expression!

People of the United States, why is everyone yelling at you??? Whatever happened to ... you know, everything? Why is the news dominated by nutballs saying that the Ten Commandments have to be tattooed inside the eyelids of every American, or that Allah has told them to kill Americans in order to rid the world of Satan, or that Yahweh has instructed them to go live wherever they feel like, or that Shiva thinks bombing mosques is a great idea? Sister Immaculate Dagger of Peace notes for the record that we mean no disrespect to Jews, Muslims, Christians or Hindus. Referred back to the committee of the whole for further discussion.

...

Beware! Unless you people shut up and begin acting like grown-ups with brains enough to understand the difference between political belief and personal faith, the Unitarian Jihad will begin a series of terrorist-like actions. We will take over television studios, kidnap so-called commentators and broadcast calm, well-reasoned discussions of the issues of the day. We will not try for "balance" by hiring fruitcakes; we will try for balance by hiring non-ideologues who have carefully thought through the issues.

...

We are Unitarian Jihad, and our motto is: "Sincerity is not enough." We have heard from enough sincere people to last a lifetime already. Just because you believe it's true doesn't make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn't mean you are not doing harm. Get a dog, or comfort someone in a nursing home, or just feed the birds in the park. Play basketball. Lighten up. The world is not out to get you, except in the sense that the world is out to get everyone.

...

People of the United States! We are Unitarian Jihad! We can strike without warning. Pockets of reasonableness and harmony will appear as if from nowhere! Nice people will run the government again! There will be coffee and cookies in the Gandhi Room after the revolution.

Now that's a good reason to knock on somebody's door.

You can also get your own Unitarian Jihad name here or here.

-- Sister Spikey Mace of Moderation

caia,

You've clearly never been in a Unitarian committee meeting. It will be a cold day in Hell when "pockets of reasonableness and harmony" breaks in one of those.

Gee Greg, I havent ever seen you greet anyone here with anything other than cynicism. Amazing that you pontificate so easily without knowing the sitrep for where I am. I wouldnt walk up and greet anyone in this city or the west side of this state unless I knew them or someone I was with knew them. Why? Its a right to carry state and its that way because everyone started getting whacked. Stand up and greet someone. Buy a ticket for Atlanta, Memphis, Detroit, Louisville, Boston, etc. Go up and greet your fellow man buddy. Take my number and keep 911 in your cellphone autodialer program.... Rock on!

For the record I dont fear anyone, or anything as a rule. Been as scared as i am ever going to get. I size someone up the second that I meet them and study them for a while afterwards for indications of threat or alliance, neutral. I cant ever get anything you are shoveling here to make since beyond your keyboard. It sounds nice but not realistic in todays world.

As for that old guy with the biggest stick ref... yep and he gets to make the rules by dominant species law. You keep trying to evolve this thing upward and it wont because the people that I am talking about and to a large degree those that Revere speaks of arent much more than knuckledraggers. I recognize it for what its worth to us all and the fact that you can read and write more than four letter words that aint profane is a plus and to your credit. Now how many people do you know that cant? Its no different in the UK, Lebanon, Iran or Iraq. Its always the elite that runs the show until it melts down and then the knuckledraggers take over for a while. Knuckledragger Imams are running around telling their people to kill Christians, right here in the US. We know they were in the UK. R. Reed was a good example of knuckledragging. Retarded in all likelyhood. Meanwhile the mastermind for the deal is in a whorehouse in Pakistan esconcing Muslim ideals. Yep, religion is a farce as a rule but I dont believe so much in religious groups. I do in God.

Caia-for your information that last probably ended up in the in basket at the FBI. Carnivore is alive and well. Not a good idea to post up stuff that makes reference to kidnapping. For grins... punch up the following: http://home.hiwaay.net/~pspoole/echelon.html

Please refrain from posting that stuff up when I am on the blog.... we all become surveillance targets afterward. Now you know why I never make personal attacks on the people here. Would like to at times but not as a rule. I save that for the future when it might be legal.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 19 Mar 2007 #permalink

Melanie Your objection will be reflected in the minutes.

In seriousness, no, I have not been to a Unitarian committee meeting. Even if I were Unitarian, I probably wouldn't have, committee meetings of all types cause me to come over all antagonistic and twitchy.

Randy: the FBI has no senses of humor that they are aware of?

I think I hope that the FBI can tell the difference between quoting a humor piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle and threatening anyone. For one thing, that article made the rounds on the tubes when it was published a couple years ago, and was quoted and linked on many blogs. They have to have seen it by now, many times, and realized it was a joke.

Does the FBI collect data on me? Possibly. The feds have been quietly collecting data on countless Americans for a long time, and even more so under Bush. The pervasiveness and illegality of such surveillance is a problem, I agree. But I haven't threatened anyone, I'm not going to threaten anyone, and even if I were sure I wasn't being watched, I wouldn't even want to threaten anyone. (Berate them, sure. *g*)

And if they are watching? Well, I'm exercising my First Amendment rights when I say, "F**k Hoover."

Hi Mel, how are you doing today? All is well I hope?

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 19 Mar 2007 #permalink

Hey, Randy. Every week I get a little stronger, in small ways, like the number of bags of groceries I can carry up my back steps, or being able to work a half hour a day longer than I did the week before. It's a long, hard slog and I'm really tired of being tired. One of my docs told me to expect I'll need a full twelve months to completely recover.