January 6, 2019

No Atheists in Congress

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Is it a problem that we don't have a single open atheist serving in the U.S. Congress? Maybe. It does raise the question of representation in the sense that many atheists are going to wonder whether they can be effectively represented by a bunch of religious believers, many of whom often seem openly hostile to us. On the other hand, I suspect that most atheists are far more interested in how their representatives govern than in whether they identify themselves as atheists. At least, I know I am. I'll gladly take a Christian politician who aligns with my political view over an atheist politician who does not.

In a more symbolic sense, though, I do think it would be nice to see some open atheists in Congress because this would signal an important reduction in anti-atheist bigotry. It would show that voters in at least some districts were willing to support candidates even though they were atheists. And seeing open atheists serving in Congress might help to further reduce anti-atheist bigotry in the future. It would help to normalize atheism.

To reach the point where we have more open atheists serving in Congress, it seems likely that we are going to need to have more open atheists serving in local and state office first. And for that to happen, we're going to need atheists who are willing to run for these offices in spite of the long odds against being elected. I think that's a tough sell. Would I get in my car and drive an hour to a store that I already knew did not have anything I wanted? Nope. It is hard to blame someone for not bothering to run for office if they have concluded that their atheism makes them unelectable.

It occurs to me that there is something that some (but not all) of us could do that would help people like this be more likely to run for office in the future. Those of us who are able to do so could be more open about our atheism. By being more open about our atheism, we would be helping to normalize atheism ourselves. If being an open atheist were to become a bit more normal, open atheists would face fewer barriers around being elected to various political offices. That means more might consider running.

I recognize that few of us are interested in running for political office ourselves, but that does not mean we cannot help others who might be good at it to do so. By being a bit more open about our atheism, we can help to bury anti-atheist bigotry, removing it as a barrier to those who do want to seek office. And who knows? We just might end up with a few open atheists in Congress someday.