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First Openly Nontheistic Member of Congress Identified
Mar. 14, 2007

Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) is the first member of Congress -- and the highest-ranking elected official in the country -- to state he is a nontheist.

The 18-term Fremont Democrat's beliefs became public as a result of a contest sponsored by the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) that offered a $1,000 prize to the person who nominated the highest-ranking public official who does not believe in God.

The Institute for Humanist Studies is a founding member of the Secular Coalition for America, which includes the American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance International, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, Secular Student Alliance, Internet Infidels, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

The SCA mailed the following questionnaire to Stark that asked him to fall in the blank:

"I am a nontheist* and describe myself as: _________________. I also agree to allow the Secular Coalition for America to release this information to the general public."

In the blank, he filled in "Unitarian."

The footnote from the asterisk read:

"*the term nontheist includes atheists, humanists, agnostics and other freethinkers who do not believe in the existence of a supreme being or beings."

Of the 47 nominees, Stark was one of four to acknowledge that he was a nontheist.

The next highest-ranking elected official was a Berkeley school board president, said Lori Lipman Brown, the SCA's director.

"We hope that this will help break stereotypes that one needs to believe in a supreme being to lead an ethical and exemplary life," she said.

The SCA's announcement has garnered significant press coverage. The coalition's home page contains a listing of all the news outlets that have covered the story, which include The Los Angles Times and the The San Francisco Chronicle. The American Humanist Association has launched an advertising campaign congratulating Stark. The first of the ads appeared in Tuesday's Washington Post (displayed above).

Will Stark's disclosure make other politicians more willing to admit their non-theism or make Americans more accepting of their representatives' lack of belief?

While about 10 percent of people in the United States are atheist or agnostic, politicians have nothing to gain by identifying with them, Brown stated. A Gallup poll published last month found that only 45 percent of Americans would support an atheist for president while 55 percent would support a gay candidate and 72 percent would support a Mormon candidate.

A recent San Francisco Chronicle questionnaire that asked readers "Would a candidate's atheism be a deal-breaker at the polls for you?" received a variety of responses. Opinions ranged from "Yes, because if you don't believe in anything, you will believe anything, and that's a scary way to govern" to "Not at all. I support church and state separation and am alarmed that the public has forgotten the lessons of history."

A sign of hope for humanists is that many readers stated that religion or lack thereof was not a factor they consider at the voting booth; readers do not care about a candidate's religious affiliation as long as he/she represents voters' views on issues such as healthcare and gay marriage.

Elaine Friedman is the editor of Humanist Network News, the weekly e-zine of the Institute for Humanist Studies.

Editor's Note: The Secular Coalition for America is urging freethinkers to thank Rep. Pete Stark for his courage to come out as a nontheist. For a sample thank you letter and information on how to contact Stark, visit:

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