Why Some Atheists Say Bernie Sanders Gets Them When He Talks About Religion

Except for that whole "God" thing.

01/28/2016 10:58 am ET
  • Nick Wing Senior Viral Editor, The Huffington Post
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is quick to say he believes in God, but his relationship looks a little different than it might to most.

If you ask Bernie Sanders if he believes in God, he'll tell you he does.

"Yeah, I do. I do," the independent senator from Vermont told Rolling Stone in response to that question last year, before going on to say that he was not involved in organized religion.

But when Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist raised by Jewish parents in New York, explains exactly what that means, it becomes clear that his views set him apart from the rest of the presidential field. So much so that some nonbelievers feel the Democratic candidate adheres to principles that are as secular as they are religious, if not more so.

The question of whether someone believes in God leaves little room for ambiguity, and in a nation that still tends to revere religious devotion and recoil at godlessness, every major presidential candidate has answered it in the affirmative. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone further, speaking recently about her Methodist upbringing and relationship with Jesus Christ. Some Republican candidates have seemingly done everything short of speaking in tongues and tapping the Son of God as their running mate.

But amid remarks that otherwise center around faith in biblical teachings and traditional understandings of spirituality or a supernatural God, Sanders has spoken about belief in his own way.

To Sanders, believing in God "means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post published Wednesday.

"I believe that what impacts you impacts me, that we are all united in one way or another," Sanders told Rolling Stone last year. "When children go hungry, I get impacted. When kids die because they can't afford medicine, I get impacted. We are one world and one people. And that belief leads me to the conclusion that we just cannot turn our back on human suffering."

I haven't heard Sanders say anything that sounded supernatural to me. And that's something that's very different from how most Americans view the concept of God. Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Center for Freethought Equality

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Center for Freethought Equality, a political action committee working to increase representation for nonbelievers, says Sanders' rhetoric reflects a worldview consistent with secular humanism, a philosophy that bases decision-making and morality on reason, science and a code of ethics grounded in a shared humanity and the capacity for empathy.

And while Speckhardt doesn't think the senator is being untruthful about his belief in God, he says many atheists have recognized parallels in the way Sanders discusses it.

"Sanders defines God in a very different way than the way most Americans do, and in fact, a way that would be compatible with nontheistic humanists," Speckhardt said.

"His reliance is on humanity, his reliance is on what we can do together," Speckhardt continued. "He sees God as in everything, much in the same way that we look at nature and our surroundings and our efforts that we've achieved through science as something that's almost divine in its being worthy of recognition. This isn't any kind of supernatural God. I haven't heard Sanders say anything that sounded supernatural to me. And that's something that's very different from how most Americans view the concept of God."

Paul Fidalgo, communications director of the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit devoted to promoting free thought and humanism, has similarly been encouraged not just by Sanders' remarks, but by his commitment to science and reason.

"The idea that when we decide to see all people as being in the same boat, and we decide that everyone else's well-being matters to us and that it affects us, those are definitely humanistic principles," he said. "For secular humanists and even just what you would call the 'nones' -- the unaffiliated -- acceptance and advocacy of reality is key."

While nonbelievers may find plenty of common ground with Sanders when he talks about his beliefs, they don't appear to agree on how to describe them. Sanders maintains that they're rooted in God. His campaign didn't respond to a request for comment on his position on humanism.

But it's easy to see why a presidential candidate would be wary of how the public views his or her faith. Atheism remains among the most toxic brands in U.S. politics, even as the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans grows. Though a Pew Research Center survey released this week found that the share of American adults who say they'd be less likely to vote for an atheist candidate is trending downward, 51 percent still say a candidate who doesn't believe in God might lose their support, the largest percentage of any trait polled.

Being Muslim was the next most significant political liability, with 42 percent of respondents saying they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate who believes in Islam.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sanders recently told The Washington Post that to him, believing in God "means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”

Despite the clear disadvantage of atheism, a Gallup poll from last summer managed to find one quality voters found even less appealing: socialism.

With those levels of unfavorability, it's perhaps not surprising that there isn't a single openly atheist member of Congress (though there is indeed a socialist senator who's currently running neck and neck with Clinton in early presidential primary states). Almost 92 percent of Congress as a whole is Christian. As are Clinton, Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley and the entire GOP presidential field, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who suggested last year that any candidate who didn't pray each morning would not be fit to serve as president.

Atheists are aware of the steep odds they face in politics, and understand that any presidential candidate who has religious views that are out of the norm -- and certainly one who might go as far as to consider him or herself an atheist in private -- might be compelled to finesse discussions of faith. After all, if you wanted to have a real shot at winning a national election, slapping the two most unpopular labels on yourself wouldn't be the easiest way to do it.

While neither Speckhardt nor Fidalgo disputed the sincerity of Sanders' comments about God, they both said his approach of focusing on what he does believe, as opposed to what he doesn't, appears to have been largely successful in satisfying supporters on either side of the religion issue.

Some nonbelievers even feel that Sanders has demonstrated a growing acceptance of alternate perspectives simply by explaining his relationship with God in such nontraditional terms.

"The fact that he's gone this far and he hasn't mimicked that he believes in an almighty, all-powerful God that's making decisions on a daily basis is almost historic right there," Speckhardt said. "It's actually recognition of progress that we're making in showing that you can be good without a God in this country."

But humanists say there's still plenty of work to do. While many see Sanders as both sympathetic to their secular worldview and the candidate most interested in confronting issues important to them, like the separation of church and state, Sanders' own belief in God has led him to make some clumsy comments about faith.

"I think everyone believes in God in their own ways," Sanders said in his interview with The Washington Post.

Glossy platitudes like this have become typical in the hyper-religious arena of national politics, but as Fidalgo points out, it's a blanket statement that casually dismisses nonbelievers. Coming from anyone else, it might be expected. But for the godless Americans who have followed Sanders' career and support his presidential campaign, the words sting more.

"I do think it speaks volumes that someone like Bernie Sanders, who is such an outsider candidate, who has gotten to the place he is by being an outlier, by saying the things that other people might be afraid to say because it might not be the right political moment to do it ... would even think to make the calculation that he has to say, 'Everyone believes in a God,'" said Fidalgo.

He added: "It tells you that there's still a little downward pressure that sits on the political mind that says, 'I can't quite go all the way there.'"

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