A program of the Center for Inquiry
There is a Congressional Fragrance Caucus. And a Congressional Fertilizer Caucus. (Do you think one was in response to the other?)
There is a Congressional Dietary Supplement Caucus. (Get taken much?)
There is even a Congressional Civility Caucus, which is not to be confused with either the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus or the Congressional Honor and Civility Caucus. (Seems there is a group of caucuses—that will remain nameless—that don’t know how to play well with others.)
The various congressional caucuses in the U.S. House of Representatives, listed with their chairs and cochairs, fill 102 pages. But until now, there was no congressional caucus devoted to the issues important to secular Americans.
This long-running and undoubtedly deliberate oversight means the country’s tens of millions of nonbelievers have been without a go-to group of lawmakers looking out for their interests. Meanwhile, the people who care about Bourbon and those who are Friends of Liechtenstein—I’m guessing there’s potentially some overlap there—have been the subject of organized congressional concern for years.
This is pretty amazing if you think about how many Americans are being dissed. At least 10 percent of the 225 million adults in America are atheist or agnostic—and that figure represents only those who willingly admit it to pollsters. University of Kentucky psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle devised a way to count even those atheists who choose to remain in the closet. They suggest that nonbelief may run as high as 26 percent.1 We also know that for the first time in the school’s history, Harvard University’s class of 2019 has more open atheists and agnostics than it has Christians, at 37.9 percent of that class.
Nonbelievers are everywhere—especially at Harvard. Where we aren’t is Congress.
That is, until now. Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat from northern California and the only current open nonbeliever in Congress (he calls himself a humanist), recently cofounded the creation of the Congressional Freethought Caucus. His cochair is Rep. Jamie Raskin, D–Md.
I don’t mean to diminish the consequential nature of this victory. It’s incredibly important. Raskin called it “historic” and to that I’d add game-changing. (And a hearty congratulations to the Center for Freethought Equality, the American Humanist Association, and the Secular Coalition for America for working to make this happen.) But the announcement reminded me of that great scene in the Steve Martin movie The Jerk when the new phone books arrive. Martin’s character while jumping with glee tears through the book to find his name in print. He is overjoyed when he finds it on page 73. “I’m somebody now!” he exclaims. “Things are going to start happening to me now.”2
With nearly five hundred registered congressional caucuses listed for everything from protecting coastal communities—obviously very important—to the Congressional Prayer Caucus—obviously not very important, it has a bit of the same feel. You’ll find the Congressional Freethought Caucus on page 38 of the 115th Congress’s list, sandwiched between the Congressional Free File Caucus (I have no idea, do you?) and the Congressional Friends of Australia Caucus (And really, who isn’t?).3
As of this writing, there are only a handful of members of the Freethought Caucus, all Democrats, with only one claiming to be a nonbeliever. Huffman is the first open nontheist in Congress since 2007 when Rep. Pete Stark, also a Democrat from California, answered a Secular Coalition for America survey question and outed himself as an atheist. (Stark lost his bid for reelection in 2012 after California moved to an open primary system and Stark faced a fellow Democrat in the general election. The loss of his San Francisco Bay–area seat seemed to have little to do with his avowed atheism.)
Hopefully as it becomes clear that it’s safe to subscribe to an evidence-based view of the natural world—that one can reject the supernatural and remain electable—more will proclaim themselves. If the 535 congressional members loosely track the faith makeup of the nation, then statistically there are dozens of nonbelievers in Congress. But as of now only Huffman is brave enough to say so.
This is how Huffman explained his decision on C-SPAN in May:
I decided last year I’m going to stop ducking the (religion) question and explain that I do not personally have a god belief. I am a humanist. I believe we have a moral responsibility to each other as human beings but I do not believe that derives from any particular religious dogma … . My thought is that in 2018 there needs to be at least enough room for one nonreligious member of the United States Congress.
The caucus’s goals are to promote public policy grounded in reason, science, and moral values; to protect the secular character of government and a strict separation of church and state; to oppose discrimination against atheists and other nonbelievers; and in general to support freedom of conscience.
With the Trump administration working hard to enact the religious Right’s agenda, there is more to do on this front than usual. So, Huffman, et al., please, caucus, caucus, caucus.
Robyn E. Blumner is the CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. She was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) for sixteen years.