A milestone in American politics was reached March 12 when a member of the U.S. Congress agreed to publicly describe himself as non-theistic.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) told the Secular Coalition for America that he does not hold a belief in God. Stark, who has been a member of the House since 1973, is usually described in congressional directories as a Unitarian.
The Secular Coalition, a lobbying office for non-religious Americans, sponsored a contest to find the highest-ranking public official who would identify as a non-theist. A Coalition press statement noted that only Stark and a few local officials would agree to do so.
“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,” Stark told the Los Angeles Times. “Like our nation’s founders, I strongly support the separation of church and state. I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social services.”
Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition, praised Stark for his stance.
“The only way to counter the prejudice against non-theists is for more people to publicly identify as non-theists, he said. “Rep. Stark shows remarkable courage in being the first member of Congress to do so.”
In an e-mail interview with Americans United Communications Assistant Lauren Smith, Stark commented on his status as the first “out” non-theist in Congress.
Q: You recently became the first member of Congress to publicly declare yourself a “non-theist.” How have your constituents reacted to your announcement? Have you heard much from the public at large?
A: There has been a very positive reaction both within my district and from around the globe.
Q: How have your colleagues reacted to your announcement?
A: There seems to be little awareness of the issue among my colleagues.
Q: A recent Newsweek poll found that 26 percent of registered voters believe atheists are inherently immoral and only 29 percent of those polled would elect an atheist to public office. Why do so many people hold these views?
A: They are probably afraid all non-theists are like me.
Q: Congress is becoming increasingly diverse. The 110th Congress has two Buddhists, the body’s first Muslim and now an openly non-theist member. What, if anything, do you think religious diversity brings to American politics?
A: Relief from intruding personal religious beliefs into our laws.
Q: You have served your district for 36 years. Has religion ever been a campaign or political issue for you?
Q: What prompted you to publicly clarify your non-belief in a supreme being?
A: I merely filled out a form requested by a group that supports the separation of church and state – as I do.
Q: There are upwards of 30 million atheists, agnostics and nonreligious people in the United States. What impact do you think your announcement will have on that population? Do you think it will encourage them to become more politically engaged?
A: I hope it will encourage more people of all beliefs to become involved in politics.
Q: You’re a strong supporter of church-state separation. Why is that concept important to you?
A: Just look to Iraq, where state and various “churches” are one, for your answer.
Q: You have said you look forward to “stopping the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social services.” How is public policy on those issues being unduly influenced by the Religious Right?
A: They have brainwashed President Bush and his Cabinet.
Q: Finally, is there anything you would like to discuss that we haven’t asked about?
A: I hope that those who dislike my philosophy will try and pray us out of Iraq as I try and vote us out.