Beliefs Ethics Institutions Politics

Atheist politicians may run the UK, but they remain closeted in the US

The World Humanist Congress meets in Oxford, U.K., on Sunday (Aug. 10, 2014). Religion News Service photo by Brian Pellot

LONDON (RNS) During a visit here four years ago, Maggie Ardiente of the American Humanist Association bragged to her British counterparts about the one atheist in the U.S. Congress, Rep. Pete Stark of California.

Left to right, Julie Pernet, Kerry McCarthy MP, Maggie Ardiente, Tom Copley AM and Naomi Phillips, speak on a panel during the World Humanist Congress in Oxford, U.K., on Sunday (Aug. 10, 2014). RNS photo by Brian Pellot

Left to right, Julie Pernet, Kerry McCarthy, Maggie Ardiente, Tom Copley and Naomi Phillips, speak on a panel during the World Humanist Congress in Oxford, U.K., on Sunday (Aug. 10, 2014). Religion News Service photo by Brian Pellot

Her host, the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, indulged her for a moment before mentioning that the U.K.’ s All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group was 150 members strong, most of them elected atheists.

Earlier this month, Ardiente conceded at the World Humanist Congress meeting in Oxford: “We’re really behind when it comes to humanism in politics.”

After Stark, a Democrat, lost his House seat in 2012, the number of openly atheist politicians in U.S. Congress slipped back to zero.

But just because they’re not out does not mean there are no atheists in the halls of Congress. “We already know of 24 members of Congress who have told us privately that they don’t believe in God, but they won’t come out, of course, and if we tried to out them they would deny it,” Ardiente said.

Stark came out 35 years after first being elected to Congress. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., followed only after leaving office in 2013. Although commonly referred to as an atheist, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona’s 9th Congressional District does not identify as such, preferring to reject all religious labels.

Now James Woods of Arizona’s 5th Congressional District is running for office. If successful, the Democrat would become the first member of Congress to have openly campaigned as an atheist.

Serah Blain at the Secular Coalition for Arizona supports his campaign and thinks many atheist politicians are closeted because of “a strong association in the U.S. between morality and religion — this idea that morality comes from faith. Right now it’s still politically risky to say you can be ethical without a belief in God,” she said.

The World Humanist Congress meets in Oxford, U.K., on Sunday (Aug. 10, 2014). Religion News Service photo by Brian Pellot

The World Humanist Congress meets in Oxford, U.K., on Sunday (Aug. 10, 2014). Religion News Service photo by Brian Pellot

That’s not the case in England. When former Prime Minister Tony Blair asked staffers whether he should add “God bless Great Britain” to the end of a speech they told him, “This isn’t America.”

Speaking in 2013, Blair said,”One big difference between the U.S. and the U.K. is that it’s okay to talk about faith openly. In the U.K. we’re a little more … British about that.”

Unlike the U.S., England has an established church. The queen is not only head of state but also “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor” of the Church of England. In officially religious Britain politicians are uncomfortable talking about religion whereas in officially secular America atheist politicians remain closeted or unelected.

Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, chalks up what some consider irony to patriotism.

“Americans have a much stronger civil religion and a much stronger sense of being a nation under God and chosen by God. It’s a bit treasonable, unpatriotic, to reject religion,” she said. “Whereas in Britain, civic identity isn’t as bound up with being religious anymore. You don’t seem unpatriotic or amoral if you express your atheism.”

Tom Copley is an atheist and elected member of the London Assembly, which holds Mayor Boris Johnson to account. He said the British approach is also about perception.

“In Britain we’re in general quite uncomfortable with politicians overtly expressing their religious beliefs. When (Prime Minister) David Cameron stands up and says Britain is a Christian country, I think it jars people,” he said.

Prime Minister David Cameron at the London Conference on Libya, on March 29, 2011.

Photo courtesy of Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Flickr) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

Prime Minister David Cameron at the London Conference on Libya, on March 29, 2011.

Cameron made waves in April when he wrote in a column for the Anglican newspaper Church Times, “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country … and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”

Cameron is often said to be vague about his Christian beliefs whereas his deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, is openly atheist, as is Labor leader and perhaps future prime minister Ed Miliband.

Miliband would not be Britain’s first atheist prime minister if his party takes power in 2015. A spokesperson at the British Humanist Association said that at least four confirmed nonbelievers held the top job in the 20th century.

Across the Atlantic, no open atheist has ever been elected president. In a recent Pew Research survey, 53 percent of Americans said they are least likely to choose a candidate who doesn’t believe in God, down from 63 percent in 2007.

Several groups, including the American Humanist Association, are actively working to change negative perceptions of atheists and nonbelievers.

“Humanist voters want politicians that will stand up against the religious right that works to characterize this country as a Christian nation,” Ardiente said. “But most of all, humanist voters just want respectability and equality for nontheists in America.”

Last year the Center for Humanist Activism launched the Freethought Equality Fund, a political action committee aimed at promoting atheist and humanist candidates and those who support the principles of secular government.

And last week the Secular Majority, a nonpartisan grassroots network of organizers, launched campaigns in eight states to identify and endorse federal and state candidates committed to secular government.

Blain hopes that shifting demographics and sentiments in Arizona and across the U.S. will prompt more elected officials to mirror the Brits.

“Things are changing,” she said. “But it will take people taking political risks to make that fully happen.”


About the author

Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is based in Cape Town, South Africa.


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  • Simply because religion and religious people have a voice in the public square doesn’t mean America doesn’t have a secular government. As a religious person, I don’t want to see an established religion in America any more than those who call themselves Humanist, but neither do I wish to see a denial of the religious impulse which has been so much a positive force in our identity as a nation. Neither do I wish to see a disenfranchisement of people of faith or a dismissal of religious concerns. Religion does have a legitimate role to play in our discussion of national affairs. What concerns me most about those American politicians who hide their atheism from their constituents is not a lack of religious faith, but a lack of integrity and courage. They do not have the courage of conviction, unlike Mitt Romney, for example, who took a lot of heat and lost votes due to his particular faith, but never once denied it was a part of what he was. Faith must extend to more than what one thinks about God, it must also extend to what one thinks about oneself.

  • Many so called “Christians” today remain silent/closeted about their faith
    and/or don’t preach the whole Truth. Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk
    and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that all drunkards go to hell yet many in the
    church still get drunk because most people only want to talk about abortion
    or gay marriage so they don’t have to face their own sin/so their sin doesn’t
    seem so bad. Being mean/sharp tongues,gambling/greed/coveting,jealousy
    and gossip,sexual immorality/fornicaters in any form are wrong yet they don’t
    get confronted. People today seem to forget Jesus said you are one of Mine
    only if you follow Me and many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven!
    We must Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved. We all must Repent!

  • The wine that Jesus made was from the fruit of the vine/new wine/diluted and
    the Bible says don’t get drunk on strong wine so people who still get drunk
    with and try to justify their drinking by only drinking wine are wrong! The
    Bible is very clear that Christians shouldn’t get drunk! Ephesians 5:18 says
    don’t get drunk and also in 1 Corinthians 6:10 it says all drunkards go to hell.
    Christians need to speak up and not be closeted about their faith and preach
    the whole Truth of the Bible/Word of God not just part of it. We must Repent!

  • Karla,

    “Jesus came eating and drinking, and they say,
    behold a man gluttonous, AND A DRUNKARD…” (Matthew 11:19)

    They knew Jesus way better than we ever will!
    He was a drunk. That is why wine is A NECESSITY at the last supper!
    These poor people did not know what addiction was all about!

    Jesus was addicted to alcohol.
    His 12 step program was clutch of ILLITERATE DISCIPLES!

    Your bible is THE book of FACTS
    OR it is useless garbage.

    Shame on you for refusing to pay attention and continue to spread your false claims.

  • @GARY

    “As a religious person, I don’t want to see an established religion in America”



    I was beginning to think Christians
    like you had disappeared!

  • As George Bush the Elder once pointed out, America is a nation UNDER GOD. Athiests should not be allowed to hold public office, or to vote. It is possible that they are not even legally citizens of this nation UNDER GOD, but I will leave that question to the legal scholers.

  • @Ronald,

    “It is possible that Atheists are not even legally citizens of this nation UNDER GOD”

    That is beautiful:

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King and EXECUTE THEM in front of me.” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    It is amazing how many times a day this message of Jesus
    comes into practical use – right Ronald?

  • @ronald,

    “Athiests should not be allowed to hold public office, or to vote..”

    Bill Gates is that bad?
    Paul Newman is that bad?
    Andrew Carnegie who built all our libraries is that bad?
    Mark Twain is that bad?

    According to your Bible it looks like YOU
    are the one who is unworthy:

    “You should say…”We are unworthy” – JESUS (Luke 17:10)

    What pathetic, abjection.
    Horse manure!

  • @ AM… With all due respect… line for line, the amusement value of your comments… along with some facts… brings a great argument to the table. I do think we have to agree from an historical perspective that no matter who is in power in whatever venue “absolute power corrupts absolutely” it’s just that here in America anyone can get elected to a position of power. Boo Hoo. Still the greatest nation that has been; though short lived.

  • @ Karla… Good practice to try and educate AM. More power to you (the best power). Because AM is seeking to evangelize us poor ignorant believers on the RNS proves he is committed to his truth. America is a great place; despite it’s problems and this is a great forum to cavil with all types. Rock on!

  • ART…: Fat chance trying to duel with Max. Good luck. He is not your regular atheist going after the usual problems with the Old Testament..his target is Jesus and if you haven’t noticed it catches people off guard. I’m one of those who is an agnostic but until I’ve seen some of these comments I never realized how bad Jesus really is: exectuet them, etc. You don’t expect that from jesus – kind of makes you wonder what the priests are saying to me all my life.

  • You sir, are an idiot. But sadly, your condition is far from uncommon in ‘Murica. The best and brightest and most-educated among us, tend to be atheists. There’s a reason for that. Religion is the most destructive cancer ever to afflict the human mind. Atheism proudly belongs to those who have the mental acuity to recognize myth and superstition for what they are. The world would be a far better place, if it were run by rational, reasonable, irreligious, primates. Silly, ignorant, regressive, religious, monkeys, are what’s wrong with the world today. Read some science and history. Educate yourself.

  • Have you ever seen the documentary, “How beer saved the world.” Did you not know that all religious monks, pilgrims, and fundies were drunks since they began drinking as young children. How religion and all hells they caused were caused by being drunk all the time. How people based their religion because they were drunk. Why the bible sounds like drunks wrote it?!

  • Are there any other constitutional restrictions you’d like to place on atheists? This is typical christian arrogance. I’m a US Army veteran, and defended your right to spew this garbage. I’m an atheist, yet you think I’m not a citizen? Your opinion really wont’ matter because soon christians will be the minority, directly due to their own fault. Your insistence on YOUR religion continues to drive people away from it.

  • ronald: doesn’t it occur to you that is a person has to believe in god to be elected they will just lie and say they do? isn’t that exactly what this article says is happening right now? do you want to force people to lie in order to hold public office? [and then there’s the little inconvenience of the constitution which forbids the government to establish a religion–and that would include the establishment of a belief in god, which is religion!]

  • Gary, just curious as to what “legitimate role” religion should play in our discussion of national affairs?

  • Ronald – Atheists are everywhere.
    We are at the top, the middle and the bottom of American life. And we pay taxes and we are full citizens of the United States. We pay for the armed services just like you and we have every right to live here.
    Christianity is truly dangerous if you can sit around and spin such a theory that perhaps non-believers should have no rights. The dangers of religion are simply a constant threat to our democracy as Thomas Jefferson said:

    “In every country and in every age, the preacher has been hostile to liberty.
    He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
    -Thomas Jefferson

    Ronald, you confirm that religion is just scary and backward.

  • Vernon-Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says
    that all drunkards go to hell. It’s what the Bible/Word of God says! The
    wine that Jesus made was from the fruit of the vine/new wine/diluted and
    the Bible says don’t get drunk on strong wine for it’s debauchery but be
    filled with the Spirit! Jesus said many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not
    enter heaven! Read 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 the whole chapters. If you
    say you love Jesus and then don’t follow the Bible no Truth is in you!
    It doesn’t matter how spiritual people are if they aren’t Biblical they are
    still lost/headed for hell. Bible says Repent or perish! We must Repent!

  • @Karla,

    “The wine that Jesus made was from the fruit of the vine/new wine/diluted..”

    Then why has such wine never, ever been used for Church services?
    Is the entirety of Christianity just doing it wrong?

    Besides, Since you care about the Bible so much
    You need to know that just as Adam’s sin destroyed all humans whether they know it or not – Jesus already saved all humans whether they know it or not.

    That’s right – all humans, sinners and non-sinners
    are saved – INCLUDING ATHEISTS. Read your bible:

    “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)

    So stop repeating that we need to ‘repent’. Even if your Jesus is really a god – We are all saved.

  • So I guess you’ve never actually read the Constitution, huh? What GHWB said means nothing, especially since he’s quoting a change to the Pledge of Allegiance that was made during the McCarthy era in a moment when most of the Congress was caught up in a fervor of religious bigotry. What the Constitution said means everything, and here’s what it says:

    Does it ever mention God? No.
    Does it ever mention Jesus? No.
    Does it ever mention the Bible? No.
    Does it ever say Lord, Savior, Christ, or Christian? No.

    The framers of the Constitution had every opportunity to include those things if they thought we were a Christian nation and they wanted everybody to know it. And they didn’t. That says a LOT.

    It DOES mention religion, but only twice: Once to prevent Congress from passing laws about it, and once to make it clear that there can be no religious test for public office.

    That’s overwhelmingly clear: We are a secular nation, NOT a Christian one.

    You know what else the Constitution says? It defines who is a citizen and who is not. And the rules for who is a citizen have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. Even to suggest that atheists are not citizens because they are atheists is not only serious ignorant, but it is also hateful and bigoted. As such, I marked your post as abuse.

    Oh yeah, and scholar is spelled s-c-h-o-l-A-r.

  • Max is it a trait of all atheists or just you that is rude and condescending? You need not be ruse and insulting to make your point. The reason you insult God is out of hate.

    The fact is athrsists resent God is because God imposes a code of moral behavior to abide by, athests resent this. In the manner lucifer resented God. You see if you atheists deny God then there is no moral code of behavior to abide by. Most anything goes, pefophilia, adultery, sodomy, vainglory, drugs, lies dishonesty, etc. All become acceptable in the atjeist wold Tragically you in addition to being lost are an angry resentful person…”Forgive then Father for they know not what they do”

  • @Heather:

    “Most anything goes, pefophilia, adultery, sodomy, vainglory, drugs, lies dishonesty, etc”


    You are describing what is being reported in the Christian Priesthood and attributing it to Atheists !!!

    1. Atheists don’t go to prison. They are among the best – behaved people in society.

    2. What did Paul Newman do that upsets you so much?
    He raised $370 million through ‘Newman’s Own’ – and gave all of it to charity – yet he was an ATHEIST.

    3. Why are almost all Rapists very religious people?

    This is the morality of your God:

    “Now go and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.” (1 Samuel 15:3)

    “Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall LIE WITH YOUR WIVES in broad daylight. You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.’ ” (2 Samuel 12:11)

  • the Muslims have already claimed Britain as its own .. Now WE know why ..

    Muslims know atheism is
    not so important people would be willing to stand up and fight and die for such stupidity..

  • Mickey
    each individual voter can put any test they want on some one running for office..RELIGIOUS OR RACIAL IT DOES NOT MATTER ..

    Obama passed the president must be black confess to be Christian and young ne must be likable a good speaker and a progressive thinker Test .the voters put on the candidates .

    .. Mc Cain failed that test he wasn’t black young or as likable .

  • Heather, don’t presume to speak on atheists’s behalf on why we reject the ideafof God. I can see how, to you, it must seem this way, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason we reject God is because the idea seems ludicrous to us. The idea if any god(s) makes no sense, and has no place in reason and good judgment – the same reason and good judgement from which our morality is derived. The bible is a very amoral book.

  • @KARLA,


    This is To say you are sorry
    for something you did not do
    to offend a thing
    which you cannot know, see or hear
    who insists it will not be appeased
    To it’s satisfaction anyway
    For reasons which are hidden from you.

    This is a wholesale destruction
    of the meaning, integrity and moral imperative
    of saying, “I am sorry.”

    To destroy so much decency
    with one word
    Is profoundly evil

  • You won’t lie my answr, but Religion plays a role een in Britain. Humanists may say their beleif system is a Non-Religious POhiosophy, and we may see Atheism as a rejection of Religion, but this isnt True, is it? Religion is not Theism, its any Philosophy we use to udnerstand our existence and hwo to live, and even Secular Humanism is a Religion, although one that refuses to accept that.

    The Truth is, ones Relgiion is how one understnds the orld aroudn him, and expectign peopel to leave that at home is nonsense. Its ypocritical to expect Christuans ot abandon Christanity and emrbace Humanism when in Govenrment as well.

    I say we have a Reasonable approahcthat respects as much as it can of othersbeleifs, but dnt’ pretend ones Relgiion doesnt impact one, ro that sem ofus have no Religion.

  • Some Chruches do use Wine, and you ned to read the rest of 1 Crntiahns. All may be made Alive in CHruist jesus but you still have to accpet him, acordign to the same chapter.

  • “The fact is athrsists resent God is because God imposes a code of moral behavior to abide by, athests resent this.” Incorrect. We atheists don’t resent god because he “has a set of moral code”. Not all atheists hate god. The only reason why there are atheists who hate god is because of the cruelty and violence in the bible. The truth is: We atheists have a moral code. The difference is that our moral code doesn’t come from a BOOK!