With Rep. Rush Holt’s, D-N.J., announcement last week he would be leaving Congress after this year, Capitol Hill is losing its Bill Nye.
Holt, a physicist, is the member who most pressed Darwin Day, a holiday celebrating evolution’s main man Charles Darwin. But does Holt's love for science make him a nonbeliever? Is he part of Washington's secret atheist crowd? Holt says no.
"I am a questioning believer, that’s probably the best way to put it," he tells Whispers.
Holt wouldn't even go as far to say that there should be more atheists in elected office. “I think Americans want to see skeptics involved in public policy, but not necessarily religious skeptics,” Holt told Whispers. “But people who think critically and skeptically, is what I’d say there.”
Holt’s reluctance to recommend that his colleagues be atheists, exemplifies the challenge of being part of that community on Capitol Hill. Edwina Rogers, the Republican lobbyist who turned heads in 2012 by taking over the reins of the Secular Coalition, says that there are indeed nonbelievers walking those halls. They just don’t talk about it.
“We did a survey, a one-on-one survey, where we went around and spoke in confidence to a number of senators and congressmen and about 32 told us, ‘well, yeah, I’m a nontheist,’” Rogers explained.
The one member of Congress, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to describe her religion as “none” later backtracked, having her campaign release a statement that said “the terms nontheist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of [Sinema’s] life’s work or personal character.” (Rogers didn’t say whether Sinema was part of the 32 on the list.)
Rogers gets the hesitation. “So the best way to be elected is to be affiliated with as many groups as possible and if you exclude that community, the religious community, then you’re just shooting yourself in the foot in order to be elected,” she said. “They can’t come out of the closet because it’s hard to be re-elected at this time.”
Someone like Holt, Rogers said, is valuable because he shares views with many in the secular community.
“It’s not that everyone is identical,” Rogers said. “He’s very valuable to us because he’s a skeptic and skeptics are very close to the nonbelievers in that they don’t take everything at face value and they don’t just have beliefs that aren’t backed up by observation in research generally.”
The congressman agrees on this point. “I don’t actually draw sharp lines between humanists and people of faith,” he said. “I think that there is, for many people, joy and comfort in believing and for many of us there’s a need to ask fundamental questions – and so that’s the way I would put it.”
And as far as the county getting an “out” atheist in Congress, Rogers sees the needle moving. Arizona lawmaker Juan Mendez’s admission to being an atheist on the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives was a good step. And Rogers assesses polling data with a glass half-full approach.
“There’s polling data that shows 54 percent now say that they would vote for an atheist for president,” she said enthusiastically. Never mind that 95 percent of the same respondents said they’d vote for a woman and 96 percent would vote for someone who’s black. “I think in the next 10 years you’re going to see a huge change,” she said.