The Last Taboo


On Real Time with Bill Maher last August, Maher asked his guest, newly retired Rep. Barney Frank, if he felt liberated now that he was a private citizen. Frank said he did, since he no longer gets phone calls saying someone screwed something up and he has to “unscrew it.” Maher pressed on, saying, “You were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you.” Frank shot back: “Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?” Then he pointed back and forth to Maher and himself.

The audience loved it. Maher doubled over in laughter and delight. But while few seemed to care about Frank’s pot-smoking admission, atheists across the country—myself included—were disappointed that he hadn’t acknowledged his lack of religious belief sooner, when it could have made a real difference. We were left wondering why a man who served 16 terms in Congress and who bravely came out as gay all the way back in 1987 felt the need to hide his atheism until he was out of office. Was it really harder to come out as an atheist politician in 2013 than as a gay one 25 years ago?

Incredibly, the answer might be yes. For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today. Not one. It wasn’t until 2007 that Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from Northern California, became the first member of Congress and the highest-ranking public official ever to admit to being an atheist. (And even he framed it in terms of religious affiliation, calling himself “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”) Stark was elected twice after this, but when the 20-term congressman lost his seat last year, it was to a 31-year-old primary challenger who attacked him as irreligious, citing, among other things, Stark’s vote against our national motto: “In God We Trust.”

Indeed, the same year that Stark came out, the Secular Coalition of America was able to identify only five atheist public officials in the entire United States. After Stark and a Nebraska state senator, the third-highest ranking atheist was a school-board president from Berkeley, Calif.—this despite the fact that, according to a2012 Pew report, 6 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in a higher power. That leaves at least 15 million Americans without any elected officials to represent their point of view.

Written By: Jennifer Michael Hecht
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  1. I’m at a loss as to how to break this impasse. However, it’d make for an awesome red herring to get the GOP and tea party to chase.

  2. From the text where Barney Frank says:

    You’re missing the point! Because with all the anti-Semitism in the world, I didn’t want to look like I was separating from Judaism. I’m sitting here looking on my desk at a shofar given to me by a gay congregation and a Tzedakah box. Being Jewish is a part of my identity, and I never wanted to seem like I was distancing myself from that.

    There is a debate within Judaism if the 613 commandments even includes a requirement to believe in a God. The result is that you have non-believers who associate with the cultural identity while distancing from the belief in a God. (I find it amusing that Harris, Hitchen, and Krauss, as outspoken as they are/were, have admitted this cultural connection, albeit rarely and with humor.)

    So Franks’ reluctance to “come out” was not so much that he wanted to say that God was pointless, but his fear of providing an image that Judaism, as a culture was pointless (which is weird, I admit). He identifies himself still, as part of a specific cultural identity, and he cannot give that up, despite that fact that if there were a Temple in Jerusalem today, he would be tortured to death according to Mosaic law. (All such penalties can only be reinstated with the return of a Temple and a Sanhedrin [court]).

    If that day should ever come, he might be singing a different tune than the one of being the protector of the Jews, one who would intercede on their behalf.

    He’s an odd one, but I can sympathize with his plight, for his identity is tied to something that he was born into. (This is different than a Christian or a Muslim, where you are “out” if you don’t believe in God. And in Islam, “out” is a bit more final!)

  3. I suppose I could be cynical and say when there is capital to be made from admitting to being an atheist then plenty of people will happily ‘come out’.

  4. You it strikes me as extremely arrogant some some atheists seriously believe they are the very last group of people to ever be discriminated against. Do you honestly believe no one will ever follow in your footsteps? (I can think of at least two.) Though it might explain some things about the mindset of some of them (and the flaws in their moral systems) if they actually did believe that.

    And if you don’t believe that, can we drop this ‘last taboo’ nonsense? Because this is not the only place I’ve seen it.

  5. In reply to #4 by ANTIcarrot:

    You it strikes me as extremely arrogant some some atheists seriously believe they are the very last group of people to ever be discriminated against. Do you honestly believe no one will ever follow in your footsteps? (I can think of at least two.) Though it might explain some things about the minds…

    I’m intrigued. Which two kinds of people are being discriminated against such that they would “follow in atheism’s footsteps”?

  6. Rapists perhaps? Apparently they are given a similar level of (dis)trust in the US.

    In reply to #5 by Zeuglodon:

    In reply to #4 by ANTIcarrot:

    You it strikes me as extremely arrogant some some atheists seriously believe they are the very last group of people to ever be discriminated against. Do you honestly believe no one will ever follow in your footsteps? (I can think of at least two.) Though it might expl…

  7. I have always been outspoken and whenever in situations in which people start talking ‘god’ this or that, even to my seriously Jewish dentist or Muslim G.P. remind that that the gods are imaginary. The Jewish guy is a tough sell but the female doctor is open to discussion, then again, she’s a gal.

    People are too often afraid to speak up, not me, what is the point of hiding? When some ask what are you doing for Christmas my first response is to say that we are Atheists and when they shrink back and say ‘oh that’s okay’, my reply is well of course its okay.

    Our son is dating a Filipino an intelligent woman who has a doctorate in pharmacology but she goes to mass every Sunday. He’s gone with her a few times and then calls home to ask, what’s up with that? He’s worried that if they marry & have children that she’ll send them to Catholic school. So far I’ve managed to suggest that any formal marriage ceremony will be Humanist, at least that is a start.

    Do not be so afraid to speak up, even when traveling in the developing world I am constantly letting others know that praying won’t get one out of a jam, however reason will.

  8. For Americans religion is an automatic badge of goodness and still, vice (sic) versa.

  9. I can sympathize with Mr. Frank’s position, though I would have cheered loudly had he come out as an atheist during his public tenure. One must pick one’s battles, and it was probably not the appropriate time or place for him to choose that one. You can be brave without martyring yourself.

    I identify as a Cherokee atheist; embracing historical tribal roots while repudiating tribalism as a valid modern social structure, and while rejecting the mysticism still so prevalent among my tribal peers. But I don’t go to Native American gatherings and announce that I think their tenets wrong unless someone asks. Yes, I’m partly trying to avoid backlash, but mainly I just don’t want to attack aspects of a marginalized culture when those things are part of what helps them hang together. I have no problem speaking harshly against the dominant Southern Baptist culture around here. For one thing, my voice is a pop-gun against cannons, and even if it inflicted wounds those scratches couldn’t de-stabilize an entire culture that comprises much more than Southern Baptism.

    The Cherokee culture, while somewhat recovered since the 1838 Trail of Tears, is still marginal and vulnerable. Jewish culture has faced similar and larger scale attempts at extirpation, and while I find modern attempts to reinforce it excessive to the point of causing greater social harm (such as uncritical US support for Israel), I can sympathize with their urge to close ranks in resistance. It seems to me that Judaism (as distinct from political Zionism) has done relatively well at separating or at least not rigidly binding Jewish culture to religious dogma — more so than fundamentalist Christianity or Islam. It’s still tribalism, with all that implies, but it is tribalism in support of a minority culture in asymmetrical contrast with much more powerful cultures that are also tribally based.

    Perhaps before our species collapses, maybe because of the angst that immanent collapse engenders, we will transcend tribalism and specieism and myriad other ‘isms’ and begin to understand ourselves in a more universal context and realize that sectarian competition is not necessarily a zero-sum game. In the meantime we will continue to build arsenals, prosecute destructive wars and promote the special aspects of our particular tribe. Nobody wants to be the sacrifice to greater future good — well, maybe those who strap bombs to themselves do, but they seem to be largely motivated by promises of supernatural personal reward (72 virgins — gender unspecified, or a pat on the head by some celestial magician).

    I sacrifice desire to disabuse my Cherokee peers of the irrationality of their mysticism because it is an important driver of their survival in the face of an overwhelming culture, and because I’m not sure that my position is more ‘right’ than theirs, given likely consequences of adopting either position. I imagine that Barney Frank might have similar reservations about denouncing his religious clan.


  10. Elmer Fudd syndrome has always puzzled me. The letters “R” and “W” are completely unrelated, and yet, some people can’t seem to stop substituting the letter “R” with the letter “W.” Barney Frank is an extreme example, and whole “Saturday Night Live” routines have revolved around Barbara Walter’s lifelong penchant for doing it.

  11. I’m not strictly speaking qualified to comment, but quite a number of negroes have reclaimed the word “nigger”.

    Richard Pryor who employed the word freely in his act never used it again after visiting an African country – I forget which one – and being asked by his African host to look around a hotel foyer and see how many niggers there were; Pryor was apparantly shocked by the realisation that there weren’t any, there were only black people!

    Incidentally, my wife is a Negress.

    Anyway, some good news for once folks.

  12. I’ve never felt like such a minority. Even though most people I know believe in God, I’ve still assumed that any intelligent, rational person would eventually come to the realization that God is a human creation. What I’ve seen more than anything is hostility. Try posting a secularist comment and you’re met with profanity, name-calling, assumptions, and gross misunderstanding. It’s appalling to think that the same people saying these things consider themselves followers of a religion based on peace and love. If these are the morals they’ve learned from their “book”, then I’m glad I’m free to learn my own standard of conduct.

  13. Instead of “In God We Trust!”, how about “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness!”?

  14. Well, based on the few atheist in USA I know pot-smoking seems to be the new religion in USA 🙂

  15. Once again it strikes me that most Americans seem to live in an alternate universe. In my country (or most of the countries in Europe I would guess) few people care about whether you believe in god or not. If anything believers who are very outspoken tend to be regarded as suspicious and strange. I guess, that many people have some vague belief in some higher power or whatever but it’s very rare to hear a politician or a person in power express their personal beliefs. When it happens they are usually ridiculed and deemed fanatics. Yes, I have noticed that there is a silent quite substantial minority (mostly older people) who are quite religious. Some of these ideas have been introduced by our right wing party Perussuomalaiset. But, this party even though they have gained some influence is largely considered a racist party for rednecks. I assume, much like the Tea party movement in USA.

    Hence, it’s so amazing to realize that the single largest nation in the western world is so vastly different from Europe. Although this is not news, I’m still baffled and amazed every time I read articles like this one. It’s just so different, so strange. Like I’m reading a fantasy novel or watching some documentary about some weird tribe in Papua New Guinea.

  16. In reply to #4 by ANTIcarrot:

    Well, if I remember correctly pedophiles and sex offenders are slightly less trusted than atheists in USA. So I guess they perhaps would be the next victims of discrimination if atheists were accepted as a natural part of society. That would be awful for all the sex offenders and pedophiles out there. 😀 Just joking. I’m also intrigued. What groups of people do you mean?

    You it strikes me as extremely arrogant some some atheists seriously believe they are the very last group of people to ever be discriminated against. Do you honestly believe no one will ever follow in your footsteps? (I can think of at least two.) Though it might explain some things about the minds…

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