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Rich Barlow | Spiritual Life

For congressman, humanism matters

US Representative Pete Stark (right), a Unitarian, was greeted yesterday at Harvard University by Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America. US Representative Pete Stark (right), a Unitarian, was greeted yesterday at Harvard University by Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America. (Jodi Hilton for the Boston Globe)

When Henry Drummond, the evolution-supporting lawyer in the play "Inherit the Wind," defends his fundamentalist antagonist's right to his religion, a reporter sneers at him, "An atheist who believes in God!"

A similar tenor permeated Emerson Hall in Cambridge Thursday night, when US Representative Pete Stark of California, a Unitarian who this year became the highest-ranking American politician to declare himself a nontheist, received the annual Humanist of the Year award from Harvard's humanist chaplaincy.

It's not that Stark is an atheist who believes in God. But during a talk and follow-up question period, his optimism about being a nonbeliever in belief-drenched America met with a dissenting surprise similar to what Drummond got from the journalist. Several questioners in the audience of 200 challenged his assertion that religious believers didn't want to eat them alive.

"I have no evidence that they [nonbelievers] are 'demonized,' " Stark said in response to a questioner who had used that word. "I think there may be a certain arrogance of certainty among some people . . . but I've never run across those who have been nasty about it."

The answer brought one man to the microphone who said that religious people had told him "what their God plans to do with me when I die."

"That sounds pretty nasty to me," the man said.

There's at least one indication that prejudice against nonbelievers is flourishing. A recent Gallup poll found fewer than half of respondents saying they would vote for a well-qualified atheist for office. More people were willing to support a woman, homosexual, Mormon, or a 72-year-old.

Such findings are the reason that the Secular Coalition for America - whose survey of politicians first revealed Stark's beliefs, and whose president flew from his home in South Carolina to attend the talk - honored the requests of atheist politicians who wanted to keep their views private.

Aaron Cantu, a freshman at Tufts, went to the microphone and said he had been unable to tell his devout Catholic family that he is an atheist. When he asked Stark if time would remedy such a need for secrecy, the congressman answered that he couldn't give that assurance.

But the 75-year-old Stark reminisced about some Christians in his youth being forbidden from playing cards on Sunday. Such doctrinaire rules have been replaced by a more thoughtful approach today, he said. "I think as we mature . . . you're going to find people taking a less strident or literal position on religion."

A representative of the Secular Coalition for America told Stark that he had interviewed 21 US representatives who said they were nonbelievers but were unwilling to go public with that. "Something is intimidating those people," he said.

"Every time you turn around and someone comes up and says, 'Do you love Jesus?' [I say] 'I don't know, but everything I've heard about him is fine,' " replied Stark. "We're all cowards. We all want to get reelected."

But unlike many of his congressional colleagues, Stark said, he has the benefit of a constituency that overwhelmingly agrees with his politics, insulating him from damage due to his lack of religion.

Perhaps the difference in outlook could be chalked up partly to innate California cheerfulness. The liberal Stark's upbeat disposition calls to mind that of his fellow Californian, conservative Ronald Reagan.

But perhaps it was also because of Stark's appraisal of the situation through the prism of politics. Politicians invoking the Bible and faith, he said, do so because of politics, not religious conviction. He told of the time that a Democratic colleague omitted the reference to God while saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as liberal as they come, "gave him what-for" because, in Stark's opinion, she was worried about losing votes among religious Americans.

"I just don't think [atheism is] an issue with many people," he insisted. "I don't sense that that question comes up a lot. It may if you're in the [college students'] dormitory arguments."

In an interview prior to the talk, Herb Silverman, the Secular Coalition president, said his group respected the wishes of atheist politicians who wanted confidentiality because "we're not in the business of outing people." Other than Stark, there were some officeholders who were willing to go public, but only on school boards and in other local offices, he said.

The coalition asked its members and the public to nominate possible atheists among politicians. The coalition then contacted the nominees to confirm whether they were nontheists.

Apparently in jest, someone nominated George Bush, a Methodist. "We didn't bother to ask him," Silverman said.

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