Rep. Pete Stark
Rep. Pete Stark with son Fortney at an anti-war protest in DC

Some may think this diary is a bit off-topic for the site, but I happen to think it’s right on-topic–and I welcome your comments on that meta-issue as well as on the immediate subject of the post.

Homophobia is a dangerous superstition which needlessly damages and sometimes destroys the psyches and lives of human beings, and religion is the elephant in the room whenever we try to speak honestly about that fact.  While it’s true that there is some amount of genuine ethical wisdom wrapped up in each of our various religious traditions, it’s usually buried in such elaborate and nonsensical rigmarole that it’s way too easily lost, way too easily thrown overboard, by those who too-credulously absorb the supernatural claims and pretensions to absolute truth which make up said rigmarole.

Superstition thrives on fear and perpetuates itself.  Consider the christian idea of hell: if you believe the wrong thing you will be tortured for all eternity.  Consider the christian idea (mostly on the right, but unfortunately sometimes on the left, too) of the relationship between church and state: unless the overwhelming majority is holy enough–according to christian standards–civilization itself will crumble.  The whole thing seems transparently fixated on suppressing and silencing dissent.  And it works.  Even people who are not in thrall to the superstition nonetheless feel a chilling effect which enforces the idea that questioning the superstition is “rude” and “mean” and “inappropriate”.  Note how easily the anti-gay haters get traction in the wider society by claiming, with unbelievable nerve, that they are the ones being attacked.

So it made me happy to receive news today via email that Congressman Pete Stark of California has publicly announced he doesn’t believe in gods.  It shocked me, though, that apparently no other Representative or Senator in the history of the country has acknowledged being a non-believer.  Whether historians manage to find a case or not, this is a major coming out story, and I believe it has especial interest to LGBT people who are, on average in this country at this time, probably the most victimized by religious superstition of all people in our society.  I did a little Google research on Rep. Stark and wasn’t too surprised to find that he’s earned a 100% rating on HRC’s previous three scorecards–and that he voted against the DOMA in 1996.  There are many, many exceptions, but it really does seem to be the case that religiosity correlates negatively with respect for the basic humanity of LGBT people.

The press release from the Secular Coalition for America detailing Stark’s announcement is quoted after the flip.

For Immediate Release
Contact: Lori Lipman Brown, (202) 299-1091
March 12, 2007

There is only one member of Congress who is on record as not holding a god-belief.

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a member of Congress since 1973, acknowledged his nontheism in response to an inquiry by the Secular Coalition for America. Rep. Stark is a senior member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and is Chair of the Health Subcommittee.

Although the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, the Coalition’s research reveals that Rep. Stark is the first open nontheist in the history of the Congress. Recent polls show that Americans without a god-belief are, as a group, more distrusted than any other minority in America. Surveys show that the majority of Americans would not vote for an atheist for president even if he or she were the most qualified for the office.

Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, attributes these attitudes to the demonization of people who don’t believe in God. “The truth is,” says Silverman, “the vast majority of us follow the Golden Rule and are as likely to be good citizens, just like Rep. Stark with over 30 years of exemplary public service. The only way to counter the prejudice against nontheists is for more people to publicly identify as nontheists. Rep. Stark shows remarkable courage in being the first member of Congress to do so.”

Surveys vary in the percentage of atheists, humanists, freethinkers and other nontheists in the U.S, with about 10% (30 million people) a fair middle point. “If the number of nontheists in Congress reflected the percentage of nontheists in the population,” Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition, observes, “there would be 53-54 nontheistic Congress members instead of one.”

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