Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Last Closet

Humanists Praise Pete Stark for “Coming Out” as a Nontheist
(copyright American Humanist Association)

March 12, 2007
(Washington, D.C., March 12, 2007) The American Humanist Association today applauded Representative Pete Stark (D-CA) for his historic decision to come out as the first openly nontheistic member of Congress. "Pete Stark joins the company of millions of other nontheistic Americans, including humanists, many of whom have long kept their views secret for fear of discrimination in their communities," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. "With Stark's courageous public announcement of his nontheism, it is our hope that he will become an inspiration for others who have hidden their conclusions for far too long."

Stark affirmed his nontheism in a response to an inquiry from the Secular Coalition for America, of which the American Humanist Association is a member organization. The inquiry was part of a unique and original campaign by the Secular Coalition for America to locate politicians who were open about their nontheism. In response, the American Humanist Association has launched an advertising campaign congratulating Stark. The first of the ads will appear tomorrow in the Washington Post.

"Nontheistic Americans, including humanists, are the group most likely to be discriminated against for their convictions," said Fred Edwords, director of communications for the American Humanist Association. "Recent polls show that fewer than 50 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate, even if that candidate is well qualified. The fact that Pete Stark's public avowal of nontheism is controversial reinforces this point. Americans still feel it's acceptable to discriminate against atheists in ways considered beyond the pale for other groups."

"By contrast, such an announcement by a politician wouldn't be news in Europe, where the public has embraced secularism to a degree not seen in the United States," Edwords continued. "Clearly, when it comes to American religious prejudice, we still have a lot to overcome."

Few politicians have openly acknowledged holding nontheistic worldviews, and no president or member of Congress has been among them. This is because the public isn't bound by Article VI, section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, which states, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Unfortunately, when voting, the people often have exercised this prejudice that is not granted to public office holders.

"A candidate's theological viewpoint should have no bearing on her or his perceived fitness for public office," said Speckhardt. "Candidates should instead be judged on their political attitudes and their character. Moreover, there's no necessary connection between nontheism and politics, any more than there is between theism and politics. Disagreement exists within both groups on the best way to run the country."

Pete Stark has been the representative of the 13th district of California since 1973. He is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee and chair of the Health Subcommittee. He is outspoken on issues of healthcare, the economy, and the environment, and was one of the most vocal opponents of the war in Iraq. He is also a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Most humanists will now regard him as one of their own.

To learn more about nontheists in public life click here.