This morning, the Center for Humanist Activism announced the formation of the Freethought Equality Fund, which is "the first nontheist Political Action Committee to have full-time paid staff advocating for the rights of nonbelievers." The PAC, which "will also support a number of candidates who identify as religious but who are leaders in supporting the rights of nonbelievers," is an important milestone for nontheistic Americans who have the potential both to bolster an important voice largely missing in U.S. politics and to reduce the stigma the nontheistic community faces.
In the United States, people unaffiliated with a religious tradition constitute a growing population. According to the Pew's most recent polls, approximately one-fifth of the U.S. citizens are religiously unaffiliated. The numbers are even more astounding for young adults, with one-third of adults under 30 identifying as religiously unaffiliated.
Despite these numbers, governmental representation of religiously unaffiliated people is lacking. Ten members of Congress have opted not to declare an official religious affiliation. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is the first and only member of Congress who officially declared her religious affiliation as "none." The 11 members who are unaffiliated, either officially or unofficially, constitute barely 2% of Congress.
This disparity is unsurprising. Atheism carries with it many stigmas, and some atheists report being told to leave the country. Few people who are religiously unaffiliated identify as atheist. In fact, two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated people believe in God. Still though many still face this stigma. Even those who claim no religious affiliation such as Sinema have inadvertently contributed to the stigma faced by atheists. Sinema is not to blame for distancing herself from the label "atheist." Admittedly, she does not identify with atheism. However, her response to being labeled an atheist "implies there is something unbefitting about the lives and characters of atheists or nonbelievers."
Of course, Sinema is a politician, and aligning herself with atheism, regardless of her views, would be a disadvantage. An atheist candidate faces huge obstacles in the poll booth. 43% of U.S. citizens say that they would not vote for an atheist candidate. Compare that to the 40% of people who would not vote for a Muslim candidate, or the 30% who would not vote for a gay or lesbian candidate. Simply put, people refuse to vote for atheist politicians.
Having religiously unaffiliated people such as Sinema in office will help change this mindset. The Freethought Equality Fund asserts that "when people see respected ethical humanists and atheists serve in public office, this will begin to dispel many myths about nonbelievers." Visibility is not all that is necessary, but it is an important step toward making the U.S. a better country for its nontheist citizens.