Two years ago, California Congressman Pete Stark became America's highest-ranking atheist when he affirmed to the Secular Coalition of America that he is a Unitarian Universalist who does not believe in a supreme being. Recently the SCA claimed that 22 other lawmakers privately confessed their non-belief, but until they grow some balls (or ovaries, as the case may be), the title goes to Stark.
Or does it? In an article about Ted Kaufman, who as of Jan. 15 is keeping Delaware's Senate seat warm for Beau Biden, the New York Times reports: "What he calls his 'humanistic' way of thinking he attributes largely to his Irish Catholic mother, a teacher, and his father, a secular Jew, a social worker and his hero."
That's not a hundred percent clear. It is possible to be a religious humanist, or a humanistic deist. But most self-declared Humanistic Jews wouldn't fall into those categories. At the very least, the SCA ought to send Kaufman one of their surveys. It should be noted that the group originally went in search of "the highest level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States," (emphasis mine), and Kaufman was appointed. Since part of the issue is that professing nontheists can't get elected in America, that's a useful distinction. But surely it would help to show the citizens of this great nation that, yes, an atheist can serve in high office with honor and distinction. So long as by "honor and distinction" you mean keeping the seat warm for Beau Biden.
The other day, Andrew Sullivan ran an idiotic letter asserting that atheists identify themselves by what they don't believe in because "it's a really cool way to get into the conversation in such a way that everyone has to defend their positions except you -- you get to attack." It concluded, "Atheists should be forced to articulate their positive position (say, secular humanism) as price of admission to the conversation."
Now, I don't know how this guy proposes to force anyone to articulate anything. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) But the truth is he's just wrong. Most atheists are delighted for the opportunity to let people know that they have positive positions on Life, the Universe and Everything. Many of us refuse to call ourselves atheists for precisely that reason. When evangelical Christians ask me if I'm a believer, I always say, "Yes" before going on to burst their bubble. As Harvard's Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein wrote after hearing Barack Obama's shout out to "nonbelievers" at the inauguration, Nonbelievers are believers too: "As believers in Humanism, we too affirm the need to cultivate wisdom, courage, compassion, and above all the struggle towards a universal and universally mutually interdependent human dignity."
Epstein also reminds us that Obama wrote in Dreams From My Father that his mother, who is one of his personal heroes, viewed her international aid work as a kind of "lonely witness for secular humanism." Obama himself is of course a
Shiite Sunni Christian, but unlike most top elected officials -- unlike most Americans -- he understands that secular humanism can be a positive force for good in the world. That's not nothing.
If Sen. Kaufman is a nontheistic humanist, he ought to use at least some of his time in office to explain what that means to him and how it helped land him a position of such great respect. Then Beau Biden can come in and sprinkle holy water on everything to re-consecrate the office.