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No Atheists in Congress. Why?

The Pew Forum and CQ Roll Call recently released a study of the religious composition of the 112th Congress.

Surveying the data somewhat triumphantly on the “On Faith” page of washingtonpost.com is Jordan Sekulow. The conservative Christian activist finds it intriguing that not one of the 535 members of the House and Senate self-identifies as an atheist.

“The fact that no member of the 112th Congress will come out and claim atheism in 2011,” writes Sekulow, “illustrates the lack of real public influence atheists have in politics.”

Ending his piece with something of a taunt, Sekulow asks: “But what do atheists have to show for all their grassroots activism?” To which he answers: “Not one single representative in Congress.”

Interestingly, the study also demonstrated that Hindus, Anabaptists, Pietists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of “Other World Religions” (together accounting for about 6 percent of the population at large) each also lack a single representative in Congress. Sekulow, however, did not call attention to the ineffectiveness of the these groups’ grassroots activism.

In any case, we must ask why no representatives referred to themselves as atheists or even claimed to be “unaffiliated.” (Six members of congress, all Democrats, ended up in the “Don’t Know/Refused” category*). Here are some theories and considerations:

There are not that many atheists in America to begin with. Ergo, few in Congress”: The question of the actual number of American atheists is among the most fiercely debated issues in current religious polling.

A recent Pew study indicating that the number of religiously “unaffiliated” Americans stood at 16.1 percent, led some atheists to the sanguine conclusion that they represented nearly one sixth of the American population, or about 50 million people! (I say: If there were 50 million atheists in the United States then a Spiderman-like Broadway adaptation of Bill Maher’s Religulous would surely be in the works.)

Of course, it was quickly noted that a person who claims to be “unaffiliated” is not necessarily an atheist. Absurdly inflated claims about size are par for the course among atheist and other nonbelieving groups. These should be assessed cautiously.

On the basis of studies I consulted in a previous work, (i.e., Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics) my surmise is that atheists in the United States may comprise anywhere from one percent to 10 percent of the population.

More importantly, I think that there is tremendous confusion and inconsistency, among pollsters as well as atheists themselves, as to what the term “atheist” connotes. Until we straighten that out we will keep having these disagreements about the actual numbers.

Still, there are, at the very least, a few million self-professed atheists in the United States, why are there no atheist congresspersons or senators?

Maybe the data is slightly inaccurate: My hunch it that there are, in truth, atheists in Congress. Just a few years back it was widely reported that representative Pete Stark of California had come out as a nonbeliever.

In the Pew poll, however, Stark (or was it one of his staffers?) self-identifies as Unitarian. This raises an important problem related to my concerns about the term atheist just mentioned. Isn’t it possible that one could be a Unitarian and an atheist? A Catholic and an atheist? A Jew and an atheist (Hi there!!!)?

While neither the atheist activists, nor the polling organizations will be very pleased with this state of affairs, it is probably a reality for a fair number of American atheists.

For years, I have been arguing that atheist identity is complex. We need tools of measurement that can accommodate that complexity.

“An Atheist for the Eighth District” is not a winning campaign slogan:Understandably irking nonbelievers in this country is the finding that Americans are more reluctant to vote for an atheist candidate than any other the Gallup people could come up with.

If coming out as an atheist would be disastrous to a politician’s prospects, then perhaps that accounts for the suspiciously low percentage—as in 0.0 percent—of self-professing atheists in Congress.

Atheists have tree shakers, not jelly makers: Borrowing a turn of the phrase from confessed tree shaker Jesse Jackson, I wonder if American atheism as it stands today abounds in polemicists and intellectuals while lacking skilled political operatives and strategists.

Sekulow asked: “But what do atheists have to show for all their grassroots activism?” My point is that there is very little such activism.

The Atheist movement, now overrun by New Atheist worldview, is aces at selling books and putting up provocative billboards. It is far less adept at identifying funding sources, building campaign networks, training activists, and fielding candidates.

Either American atheists start thinking realistically about their numbers, toning down their rhetoric, and making shrewd political decisions or they will continue to make the Jordan Sekulows of the world very happy.

*The six members in the “Unspecified” category are:

Tammy Baldwin, Democrat, Wisconsin

Michael Bennett, Democrat, Colorado

Judy Chu, Democrat, California

Earl Blumenauer, Democrat, Oregon

John Olver, Democrat, Massachusetts

John Tierney, Democrat, Massachusetts

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