Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Congress -- more nontheists or not?

In response to my previous post, where I mention the upcoming announcement of a nontheist in Congress, Naomi from God is for Suckers! mentioned that she expected there could be more that are just staying in the closet. Naomi has a great post on GifS that discusses the religious anomalies in Congress. I started off writing a responding comment, but I thought it was interesting enough for a full post.

Congress is no stranger to statistical anomalies. After all, there are only 16 female senators out of 100 people. But Naomi's post also shows interesting differences in religious preference in Congress vs. the real world. For instance, the Jewish representation in Congress is more than six times larger than what is seen in the nationwide statistics. The Episcopalian representation is more than four times normal, and Presbyterian representation is three times normal. While the 'unaffiliated' statistic is nearly 13 times smaller than the national percentage.

Well, all those boosted groups had to get their numbers from somewhere.

But why so few from the 'unaffiliated' group? I think it's group psychology. If someone running for Congress says they are Catholic, all the Catholics at the polls will at least be able to say, "That candidate is one of us!" This gives the candidate extra compassion for their faults, and greater empathy for their drives. No matter what group the candidate falls into, there is probably going to some kind of boost among their religious brethren.

But what if a candidate is listed as 'unaffiliated'? That, almost by definition, means they are in no group at all. True, they might find some boost among those that also consider themselves unaffiliated, but that's a group that is lacking an official title. It's the same difference as between a Club and a group of friends. Remember your childhood -- what was the first thing that happened after a group of friends starts a club? Come up with a name, of course! Without looking into this any further, it would almost seem more beneficial for a candidate to use a label like Atheist, Agnostic, Pantheist, or Humanist -- as long as it's not the nebulous 'unaffiliated.'

But there are also supergroups. Naomi's list can also be read as 'affiliated' vs 'unaffiliated' -- with an imbalance of 98.9% against! Different denominations can be divisive amongst themselves, but they all have a god, and that's a pretty thick line to draw in the sand. Group psychology will also create outcasts. 'Unaffiliated' can technically mean "religious, but without preference of a particular denomination." 'Atheist' just flat out puts you in the doghouse.

So, back to the question -- are there more nontheists in Congress? I've seen various statistics but they seem to center around 1%-3% of the US population actively calls themselves atheist. So for a group of 535 Americans, one could expect for somewhere between 5 and 16 of them to be atheist. Not just nontheist, but Atheist with a capital 'A.'

I'm about as sure that there aren't 16 atheists in Congress as I am that there is not a god.

Oh, part of it is just me being cynical and feeling isolated and unrepresented. But I also think that the same group psychology that would result in unity or discrimination in a vote, would also reveal itself in the grooming of a candidate that happens before the vote. If a candidate could somehow go from an unknown to a honest contender without any public support, things might be different. But there are a lot of people that go into a candidacy, and someone needs a lot of group support before running for office.


Naomi said...

David, I am so flattered! Thank you.

And thank you for your excellent analysis. From the length of my post, you can imagine I cut quite a bit out...

The figure I used to get about 50 possible atheists is a broad group that encompasses: atheists, anti-theists, agnostics, secular humanists and those who are just "non-believers"--that maverick group that refuse to label themselves. This conglomeration represents 14-16% of Americans--or 42million-48million people!

That said, most are Other-closeted as yet. I, myself, am "out" to my close friends and within my DrinkingLiberally meetup group. And most of them are atheists, as well. (In fact, for a group to model for atheists, you can't beat DL's: no leader, no agenda, no dues--just mingling and conversation.)

PS: I only just peeked in to see what was new--and found that I was the news! Thank you, again!

David W. said...

I usually go by the 14-16% number as those that classify themselves as "non-religious" but I know there's a lot fewer people out there that will openly use the title of atheist.

I think it was a study done in Norway that showed that despite only 10% or so that called themselves atheist, only 2/3 of those polled said they had a religion. In other words, there are a lot of closed closet doors in Norway!

I heard yesterday that this congressperson that is coming out does not identify with themselves as atheist either, just as a nontheist. Semantically, I don't see a difference, but psychologically I know there is one.

It's like the bit in Julia Sweeney's show where she tells her parents she doesn't believe in God anymore. They take it hard. But then her parents local newspaper takes up an AP story about her change of faith, which opened by calling Julia an atheist. Her mother calls her, frantic, "Honey, you told us you didn't believe in God -- but an ATHEIST!?"

I was openly "out" to anyone I talked to in college, and I'm open to my friends and family. I'm a little less open around strangers. I think my wife usually tells people I'm agnostic, so most everyone in her church at least knows that I'm non-religious. But I keep a tight lip when it comes to my clients. That's one group that I just don't think being with is going to turn out ok. (More on all this later!)

Terra said...


My comment is going to be somewhat off topic. Actually, mostly so. I'm also excitedly awaiting the "outing" of the congress person. For the record, my money's on Barney Frank.

Here's the off topic part: Welcome! I just got my first troll today and I emailed Naomi to tell her the good news. She linked me to your blog and I think I can safely say you'll not only enjoy atheist blogging, you'll be very successful at it.

Looks like you have a strong beginning. I find (and I'm sure you will too, judging by what I already read) blogging to be very cathartic. I'm also a pessimist, but I'm finding that there is some hope. The blogging certainly helps to give an outlet and a sense of community and belonging.

Anyway, I hope it lessens the loneliness for you. Just wait until you have your first troll! I joked with Naomi about that being the time when I would know I had really made it. She said something to the effect that they get together in big trolling parties and all hit your site at the same time. I haven't had that happen yet. I don't really want it to, except that I will find some satisfaction in knowing I raised the ire of so many.

David W. said...

Ooh! Now that's something to look forward to! :-) Blogging is definitely helping. I got really depressed over things after the CNN Paula Zahn piece, but am feeling better now that I am finding good discussion and lots of like-mindedness online.

I saw your troll's post and it's interesting that he mocked you by equating the certainty of God's existence with the certainty of gravity. Because, after all, gravity is just a theory! Just like evolution....

Also, I'm glad you mentioned the atheist/satan-worshipping confusion on your blog. I've never understood how people can understand atheism that poorly, but I've heard that a lot. My wife doesn't even believe me when I tell her that there are people that think this.

Naomi said...

And to think that most blogs go for months without a comment--and the proprietor starts commenting on his/her own posts, just to break the silence! Soo they give up the ghost...

But you, David, have posted three time in three days and have seven comments total!

Lest you think it's a fluke, I promise you most people do not reward schlock! So your writing has invited comments. And they're positive rather than negative, which means--

--you're doing something right!

Good on you!

(It would be nice if you allowed emails...)

David W. said...

The irony is, I read let your visitors easily email posts from your blog to their friends in the settings, and thought, Well, who'd want to do that?

I just turned that on! I'm enjoying finding my voice, and very happy to have found conversation, too.

Naomi said...

Conversation is a good use for a "voice". Dialogue beats monologue every time. Don't you wish preachers understood that?

Terra said...


I wish preachers understood a lot of those types of truths! ;)

Terra said...


Yes, I found the whole hit by a truck, jump out a window analogy quite amusing, as well. I was going to try to address it, but I got caught up addressing his other absurdities. I found that I could go on and on, but normally trolls hit-and-run, so I didn't really think I should continue to ramble, even if it was comforting to me...

I liked your "comebacks" post. Don't you hate how blogger keeps the original start date for posts? I saw it in my blog reader, but then when I came here, I thought something was amiss, because it wasn't the top post.

David W. said...

Thanks, I hadn't actually meant to publish the Comebacks post yet :-) I'm going to hold on to it for a while as I build it up slowly, and then publish when I've got something more substantial.