I interviewed Barney Frank for Politico in 2013, on why it seemed to be harder to come out as an atheist than as gay. I’m a historian and a poet, not a journalist, but my writing on atheism leads editors to send me on such missions when something newsworthy happens on the theme.
This subject came up because of what happened on Bill Maher’s show. Frank was on the comedy-news-talk-show celebrating retirement from twenty years in Congress, when he was caught off guard by a tricky choice: Get a big laugh, or have life go on peacefully?
Maher had been saying that, in retirement, Frank could now be seen with “pot-smoking atheists” and Frank was having such a good time that he hand-upped himself in the category. Since he’d never admitted to being an atheist before, it was news. And since he had come out as gay 20 years before, Politico’s question was a good one.
As all with a good New Jersey heart would do, when possible, he went for the laugh. It was a good laugh, but boy did it goad the press to not gracefully look away as he settled out of his public role.
When I spoke to Frank he protested that the framing was wrong. The reason he hadn’t been a public atheist, he explained, was because identifying as a Jew mattered to him in a bedrock way, and he saw the two as impossibly conflicted.
I pushed and said that I knew a lot of Jewish atheists and am one. Surely, he’d met a few?
He was pretty annoyed and sputtered that it didn’t matter. “I didn’t want to turn my back on Judaism. Because of what we have been through.”
And the truth is, I totally get it. It matters how far away you are from the intentional near-annihilation of your people.
But this isn’t the only thing that matters. Atheism, science, and the cultural avant-garde (in this case sexual freedom) can be seen as the opposite of religion—on all sorts of issues.
As a politician, it has long made sense to stay away from aligning oneself too firmly with these terms.
I wasn’t used to doing interviews like this, so I had to steel my nerve to muse further. I know that the word “atheism” upsets people, but what about backing up the nonreligious community, and science, and fighting religion’s longstanding hatred of homosexuality?
He suggested there were less confrontational ways to make progress on these issues, his tone moving from frustrated to finished.
I told him that truth counted a lot to me.
I bet he’d have said that political progress counted a lot to him if he wasn’t completely tired of me, having probably not thought Politico would send an atheist Jew historian poet who had done a lot of reading and thinking on all this, and whose heart was racing as she was now channeling Barbara Walters and generations of socialist aunts at the Passover table.
He’d had enough of me, and I had enough to write the piece.
We’d already won many small battles for the right to disbelieve in peace. But the headline still asked: is the political poison of being an atheist really twenty years stronger than the political bad-beverage of being gay?
My answer is yes. It was. It probably still is. We seem to be in a liminal hinge of history though, where the big problem of voting for an atheist leader might finally go on the decline.
A key part of the problem, as it stands, is that Americans do not have a robust idea of where morals come from, if not from God. The answer to that is easy, if you will tolerate a poet’s certainty. Morality is a feature of being human, much like the feature of love. People struggle with their various feelings about various scales of morality, various responsibilities of love. Thinking that morality needs a special origin is just a cultural hangover from religion.
It was Bush Jr.’s reign of prayer that made me a public atheist, and now Biden’s pro-science presidency is making me glad I’ve been calling myself a poetic realist, instead. I’m happy to sound friendly now, though that’s not why I made the change. I’d been feeling cramped by the term “atheism” as I also don’t believe in a lot of other things that aren’t real. But that doesn’t mean I want to think about math all day. Internal to the human experience, the poetic explains a lot.
I want us to think for a moment about the taboo of the word “atheism” and how creating some daylight between “atheism” and “science” is going to affect us all, going forward.
The word “atheist” has a bad sound to it for many people. A big reason for that is a cultural blockade leftover from the Cold War. Many remember that atheism was the official stance of the USSR. What may not be as well-remembered is that atheism was only branded unAmerican when we began to see the USSR as our mortal enemy. Congressional records show that distinguishing the U.S. as the “good guy” in that fight is the reason that, in the 1950s, the motto “In God we trust” was stamped on all money, and the phrase “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance.
Until the Cold War, there were vocal atheists, agnostics, radical pluralists, and anti-religionists among U.S. presidents. You wouldn’t believe the things said, in some cases quite publicly, by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and William Taft. Reporters might be told that there is no afterlife by the actor Katharine Hepburn or the inventor Thomas Edison. Hubert Harrison, a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, was a self-described atheist and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founder of the feminist movement, wrote the bestselling Women’s Bible, a takedown of Christianity, religious abuses, and all supernatural belief. This mood clamped shut in response to the nuclear-empowered USSR. It only started opening up after 9/11, when our mortal enemy changed, and this time they were the religious ones.
But it’s not just the fact of the old atheism taboo. The fun of the Frank atheist-outing story was fueled by the weird style of dealing with taboos in American political culture. We have a liars test. It is part of why people liked Trump. We made the list of things you have to be too intense; so we know everyone is lying about some of it. Forcing politicians to identify as either scandalous baddy or opportunistic liar is not a great model. It breaks down public trust.
When the supposed adults in the room say that nobody may speak the truth, it will always be interesting to have an Emperor’s-New-Clothes riot.
So the atheist/gay outing story seemed super exciting, and the media hounded Frank about it until he took it back, claiming that he’d only been joking around.
But things seem to be changing. The Trump presidency and COVID-19 were a one-two punch for the old way of thinking about atheism, science, and social progress. The pandemic has radically shifted the meanings of science in politics. We are at a pivotal moment for life on planet Earth, as these metaphors and political sides begin to set.
In my 2016 Quartz article on Bernie Sanders’s hushed-toned nonreligion, I found Sanders to be an old-school, socialist, post-supernaturalist Jew who saw helping each other as the only idea of religion worth practicing. The Judaism of his time and place—the Judaism of his family, friends, neighbors—supported this. The holiday-table debates of his Brooklyn youth were about the redistribution of wealth and the particulars of social justice. One of the opinions around the table might be that God exists but is now to be understood as loving care for others and for the broken world. In that context, the God/atheist issue wasn’t so important.
In 2016, when Trump and Sanders were still in the race, the American public saw Trump as the least religious of the candidates, followed by Sanders. That these two candidates went as far as they did tells us that this criterion is losing significance. Trump made it all the way to the presidency, but Sanders made a considerable impact too, pulling the whole Democratic party into a more honest relationship with wealth and poverty in this country, and all with remarkable honesty about religion.
If that wasn’t shocking enough, the meanings of religion and unbelief changed again, just as drastically, due to COVID-19. Because of the pandemic, politicians are suddenly saying “science” in public, whenever possible, and it no longer sounds like a bulwark against encroaching religion. Using the word now means listening to experts who have data, rejecting the legacy of the last president, and not dying of preventable waves of plague.
So even though President Biden is a religious person, he talks about science in a way that we didn’t see from the preceding religious men in the job. Members of his administration say that we have to “listen to the science,” as if it were unified and a clear benefit to everyone.
This looks like a win for science, which for too long has been equated to “anti-religion.” The climate crisis is the terrible issue before us, and we can hope that our biggest problem will be choosing among different scientific ideas so as to minimize the already cascading damage.
But we all know that too many people still don’t even care what the science says.
As the harm of denying reality becomes ever more clear, some religious people will take up the banner of science. We have to encourage and applaud that. The opposite of science can’t be religion anymore. The opposite of science, today, is a rejection of knowledge. That is obviously bad for everyone; it eats the ground we are all standing on.
Is this child-like response to expertism linked to a child-like honest recoil at realist politicians who nod at God long enough to get elected? If we are asking people to believe in reality and accept some difficult truths, we should at least try to tell the truth about ourselves.