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Pete Stark's untroubled humanism

Regaled by a secularist group for his nontheism, the Unitarian Congressman can't fathom what the fuss is about.
By Doug Muder

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Rep. Pete Stark at a Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy event

Rep. Pete Stark speaks with students at a Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy event. (Dave Gordon)

Pete Stark doesn't seem to understand what the fuss is about.

Earlier this year, Rep. Stark, an 18-term congressman representing the East Bay region near San Francisco, was asked by the Secular Coalition of America if he believed in God. Stark said no. Would he admit that to the world? Stark said yes, and followed up with a statement to the Associated Press on March 12 announcing that he is "a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being."

And then, for some reason, things started to happen. Maybe it was because Stark was the first congressman in recent memory (and maybe ever) to appear in public without even a fig leaf of godliness. In fact, the SCA's attempt to reveal elected nonbelievers only netted three others, nobody ranking higher than Berkeley School Board President Terry Doran. Stark, by contrast, sits on the House's powerful Ways and Means Committee and chairs its subcommittee on health.

That's probably why the American Humanist Association took out a full-page color ad in the Washington Post congratulating Stark for his "courageous decision." It ran his picture above the pictures of other famous Humanists like Kurt Vonnegut.

Courageous? Stark can't see it. He doesn't think he's going to lose his job for this. He describes his district, California's 13th, as "80 percent wonderful." The gap between Stark and his 2006 challenger was 48 percent. "What is courageous," he said after he saw the ad, "is to stand up in Congress and say, "Let's tax the rich and give money to poor kids."

The latest bit of fuss came on September 20, when nearly 300 people gathered in Emerson Hall at Harvard to hear Stark give the Fifteenth Annual Alexander Lincoln Lecture and receive the 2007 Harvard Humanist of the Year award from the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. This was, Chaplain Greg Epstein explained in his introduction, the first time a sitting congressman had ever given a public talk about his Humanism. "History," he said, "is marching."

But when Stark took the podium, he seemed to be hearing a different drummer than the marching feet of History. Again and again, in a variety of ways, he told us that what he had done was no big deal. Anyone who had come to hear stories full of angst and drama probably left disappointed.

The story of Stark's religious journey, for example, did not contain any Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment when the scales fell from his eyes and he beheld No God. Instead, God was like a seed that had never managed to sprout properly for Stark. Growing up in Milwaukee in the 1930s, he said, "religion was just rules." The Methodist kids, he remembered, couldn't play cards on Sunday. He could, because his parents had joined a Congregationalist church. "It was the social thing to do," he explained.

He framed his original reasons for becoming a Unitarian in similarly social/cultural terms: The Unitarians were the only people in Milwaukee who talked about the same books and music that he liked.

Or maybe Stark just likes to understate things. He described his business career like this: After getting an MBA at Berkeley, he borrowed some money and started a bank. It sounds perfectly ordinary when he says it. "If you think you should be a bank president," he explained in a matter-of-fact tone, "why not just start there?" He pioneered the aggressive marketing of free checking. His bank had a peace symbol on the wall and on their checks. It offered employee daycare and had a racially integrated staff at a time when many other banks didn't. When Jann Wenner wanted to start a new magazine called Rolling Stone, Stark was the banker willing to take a chance.

He joined a UU fellowship when he moved to California, so religion continued to be part of his life. But not God. "I don't know if a supreme being came into our lexicon. We were interested in what people were doing." He talked about joining the board of the Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, as if it were something he just blundered into. And then, somehow, he became chairman of that board. And that (now his voice perked up a little) was how he met Timothy Leary. Stark became part of an experiment to see if LSD (not yet illegal then) produced religious experiences. "I got the placebo," he said ruefully.

Still no God.

Politics? Also something that just happened. He was a Republican, but had to switch to the Democratic Party so that he could be a delegate for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. The Democratic congressman in his district wouldn't oppose the Vietnam War, so Stark ran against him in the primary in 1972. He won. He's been in Congress ever since. What more is there to say?

During the question period, the audience tried hard to elicit stories of persecution and bigotry and victimization. They failed.

Asked what could be done to stop the demonization of unbelievers, Stark questioned the premise. "I have no evidence that nonbelievers are demonized. I don't think that's an issue with many people." Voters want to know what he thinks about Iraq and abortion and health care—but God? "It just doesn't come up very much. When we're paving the roads, religion just doesn't enter into it."

He agreed with a suggestion that religion was often a red herring, designed to distract the public from more immediate issues. Sometimes politicians dress up their secular proposals with biblical references and other religious language. "Religion isn't the substance of the debate, it's the style."

Pressed by another questioner, Stark talked about the reaction to his announcement of unbelief. "I think you're overestimating the ferociousness of the believers." He guessed that as many as 2,000 emails came in, but "there weren't fifty that weren't saying the same things you are: how brave I was and so on." But what about those fifty? "They said things like, 'Are you sure you're happy?' I've never been criticized so kindly."

He had seen issues that made the switchboard light up. His unbelief wasn't one of them.

Which is not to say that he doesn't think it's an issue at all. He just chuckled and shook his head when someone suggested he push for a Humanist chaplain to open a session of Congress. And he shook his head again at the presidential candidates, particularly Democrats, who talk about their faith and their Sunday School teaching "as if it were part of their bona fides. It really doesn't matter. What are they going to do for humanity?"

After the session ended, I asked him what he would say to a colleague, maybe someone from a less safe district, who was considering coming out as an atheist or agnostic. Would he try to talk them out of it or tell them to go for it? He approached the question from a practical perspective rather than a moral one. And the prospect of doubling the size of the unbelieving-congressmen-club didn't seem to matter. "You'd really have to know the district," he said. "I don't think I'd be much help."

The contrasting attitudes of Stark and his audience, many of them from student Humanist organizations at Harvard, Brandeis, and Tufts, points to an interesting issue in the Humanist movement. For one kind of unbeliever, God is like the Tooth Fairy. Not believing in him is a mark of maturity, something to take pride in. Such people are easy to attract to Humanist events, because unbelief is part of their identity.

But other nontheists take an attitude more like the opening of the Gelett Burgess nonsense rhyme:

I've never seen a purple cow
I never hope to see one.

They harbor no resistance to the notion of a deity, they just don't anticipate running into one. If you ask them, they may admit to being atheists or agnostics, but in their own minds the question hardly ever comes up.

Pete Stark is more of a purple-cow unbeliever than a Tooth-Fairy unbeliever. The SCA raised the God question, so he answered it. The Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy offered him an award, so he came to accept it and give a speech. If unbelief is part of his identity at all, it seems to be a small part.

Now imagine being a young Pete Stark: What would motivate you to come hear Pete Stark?

It's an important question, because there might be a lot of young Pete Starks. According to the Pew Center, one out of every five 18-to-25-year-olds "say they have no religious affiliation or are atheist or agnostic, nearly double the proportion of young people who said that in the late 1980s."

Greg Epstein quotes that one-in-five statistic frequently, and looks on that group as his potential audience. His challenge is to get those people identifying with each other and with the Humanist movement.

Humanism offers its adherents the possibility of a full, productive, and meaningful life without God. But people come to Humanism from two very different directions. Some find themselves without God, and look for a way to have a full, productive, and meaningful life anyway. Others, like Pete Stark, find themselves leading full lives already, and eventually notice that God hasn't shown up. A Humanist movement that hopes to represent one-in-five young people is going to have to keep both doors open.

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