Rep. Jared Huffman, one of the founders of the Freethought Caucus, identifies as a "humanist." He was the second member of Congress ever to openly profess to having an ethical system that's not based on God.
The nearly 500 registered caucuses in the House of Representatives cover seemingly every issue. They represent social problems (Homelessness Caucus, Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus); industries (Coal Caucus, Steel Caucus); diseases (Caucus on Parkinson's Disease, Childhood Cancer Caucus); and foreign relations (Friends of Switzerland Caucus, U.S.-China Working Group). They are liberal (Progressive Caucus), conservative (Freedom Caucus), and bipartisan (Bipartisan Congressional Task Force to Combat Identity Theft and Fraud). They can be made up of only a single member, or dozens.
Despite this diversity, historians Pacific Standard consulted have never heard of anything quite like the new caucus announced last week by four Democratic congressmen: the Freethought Caucus. Formed in consultation with groups that advocate for non-theist world views, the Freethought Caucus has four goals, according to its press release:
1) to promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; 2) to protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; 3) to oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons ... and 4) to provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.
"It hearkens back to Enlightenment ideas from when this country was started," says Ray Smock, who was the House of Representatives historian from 1983 to 1995. "Aside from that thought, I've never heard of anything quite like it."
Stephen Weldon, a historian of science and religion at the University of Oklahoma, pointed to polls showing what a political liability it is for a candidate to be atheist. "So to have a Congressional Freethought Caucus is pretty historic, I would say," he writes in an email exchange. (...)
Few know the danger of admitting their lack of faith in God better than Ismail Mohamed, the 32-year-old Egyptian man behind the YouTube series The Black Ducks. Mohamed created the show, which features interviews with other non-religious people from the Arab world, in 2012, as a way to provide a platform for secular voices in Egypt. Throughout the course of the series, Mohamed makes no secret of his own atheism.
It wasn't long after posting his first video that Mohamed was invited onto an Egyptian television news program to discuss his decision to leave Islam. After airing, the segment was quickly uploaded to YouTube, where it went viral, earning hundreds of thousands of views in the space of a few months.
Suddenly, "my face became very popular in Egypt," Mohamed recalls. Not long after that, he was pistol-whipped on the streets of his hometown of Alexandria by a man who recognized him from the program, who "told me not to show my face in public again."
Though he's more vocal than most non-believers in the Middle East, Mohamed's story serves as a cautionary tale for citizens of the region who might dare to admit that they don't believe in God. Though the Arab Spring did broaden freedom of expression, the Middle East is still one of the most dangerous places on Earth to be an atheist.
In 2012, the research firm WIN/Gallup released a massive global survey revealing that there were millions of atheists living in the Middle East. These findings shocked the world; the media used the survey to proclaim that atheism was on the rise worldwide, and pointed to the poll's findings that there were as many atheists in Saudi Arabia as there were in the United States.
The poll found startlingly high numbers of non-religious people in the Arab world—33 percent of Lebanese and 29 percent of Palestinians told WIN/Gallup that they're not religious, for example—and gave the impression that non-believers in the Middle East are an accepted part of society.
In reality, that's often not the case. According to interviews with 14 atheists and agnostics across the Middle East and North Africa, those in the region who don't believe in God are often forced to conceal their identities. Those who do come out face repercussions ranging from alienation from friends and family to mob violence and imprisonment. Some have even been sentenced to death. (...)