Skip to main content

An atheist for Congress?

By Carlos S. Moreno
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
James Woods is waging an uphill battle for Congress.
James Woods is waging an uphill battle for Congress.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Democrat is running for Congress, openly saying he is an atheist
  • Carlos Moreno: Atheists are significant fraction of Americans, why not elect them?
  • The prejudice facing atheists is greater than that faced by other groups, he says
  • Moreno: Prejudice keeps atheists from running and discourages candor about beliefs

Editor's note: Carlos Moreno, an associate professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, is a Public Voices Fellow for The OpEd Project. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) -- This fall, for the first time in U.S. history, an openly atheist candidate is running for Congress. James Woods is fighting an uphill battle as a Democrat seeking to represent the very Republican 5th Congressional District in Arizona.

There are now no openly atheist members of Congress, even though nearly 20% of Americans report having no religious affiliation, according to the Pew Research Center, and between 5% and 10% of Americans do not believe in a supreme being.

So far, only one sitting congressman, Pete Stark of California, has ever admitted to being an atheist while in office. First elected in 1972, Stark came out of the atheist closet back in 2007, but he lost his re-election bid in 2012 after serving in the U.S. House for 40 years.

Photos: Famous atheists and their beliefs

Carlos Moreno
Carlos Moreno

Apparently, it is easier to be a gay member of Congress than an atheist one, since Barney Frank announced he was gay in 1987 but didn't announce he was an atheist until after leaving office in 2013. A handful of current members of Congress state that their religious affiliation is "unspecified," but none has stated publicly that he or she doesn't believe in God.

British actor Daniel Radcliffe, known for his role as Harry Potter, declared he was an atheist in a 2009 interview. "I'm an atheist, but I'm very relaxed about it," he said. "I don't preach my atheism, but I have a huge amount of respect for people like Richard Dawkins who do." British actor Daniel Radcliffe, known for his role as Harry Potter, declared he was an atheist in a 2009 interview. "I'm an atheist, but I'm very relaxed about it," he said. "I don't preach my atheism, but I have a huge amount of respect for people like Richard Dawkins who do."
Famous atheists and their beliefs
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Famous atheists and their beliefs Photos: Famous atheists and their beliefs
Our atheists are better than yours
Atheists gather in the Bible Belt
Why more millennials are atheists

Their reticence is pure political pragmatism. The reluctance of Americans to vote for atheists is well documented. In fact, a hypothetical "well-qualified" atheist presidential candidate polls at 54%, lower than any other category -- below Muslims, gays/lesbians, Mormons, Jews, Hispanics, Catholics, women, or African-Americans.

This fundamental distrust is puzzling. When people of faith question the morality of those without faith, how do they reconcile that with the countless crimes committed in the name of religion throughout history (e.g. The Spanish Inquisition) and in modern times (e.g. ISIS)?

Not only are atheists unlikely to win elections, but they are actually banned from holding office under the constitutions of seven states (Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas), according to the American Humanist Association, even though this clearly violates Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

When the views of anywhere from 5% to 20% of the American people are not part of the debate in our legislatures, the laws that are passed may not fully reflect the will of the people or, at a minimum, take into account the opinion of a sizable minority. African-Americans are about 13% of the U.S. population and have a representation of about 10% of the members of the U.S. House. Imagine how people would react today if there were no African-Americans in Congress.

That admitted atheists are virtually unelectable is a mark of prejudice against them and it impacts the ways we formally educate the future leaders of this country. Consider the fact that Tennessee recently passed a law allowing teachers to tell their students that evolution and climate change are "scientifically controversial," and that Ohio is considering passing a law that would enable the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution.

Why is it that we require our candidates to profess a religious faith, but not that they demonstrate even minimal scientific literacy? Our representatives in Congress make critical decisions on science policy and science funding, and yet are often hostile to the entire scientific enterprise. In 2012, Rep. Paul Broun, R-Georgia, while serving on the House science committee, famously said that evolution and the Big Bang are "lies from the pit of hell."

As one prejudice after another has fallen by the wayside and we have elected women, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and Jewish people to represent us, we have seen that the world has not come to an end. Life continues, and our debate is enriched by the diversity of opinions. It is time to end the prejudice that keeps qualified people without faith from considering a run for public office and keeps atheist officials from being honest about their beliefs.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT