The President's shout-out to "nonbelievers"

Thursday, January 22, 2009

When he listed the diverse faiths of our nation in his inaugural address, President Obama chose to include nonbelievers, a group rarely acknowledged in official discourse. Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College and author of "God in The White House" joins John and Adaora to discuss the implications of the President's inclusion of atheists and agnostics as part of our spiritual community.

"I'm sure that maybe some Jains and Sikhs and Buddhists wished that their names had been mentioned in his laundry list as well."
— Barnard Professor Randall Balmer on the inclusion of nonbelievers in Obama's Inaugural Address


Randall Balmer


Laura Silver

Comments [20]


I hadn't really thought about it before the inauguration but the term nonbeliever resonates very well with me, not because I don't believe in god, but because I don't believe at all. Not in science. Not in religion. Replacing belief with wonder feels a lot better and keeps me more open. So maybe the positive term is "wonderer."

Mar. 10 2009 08:18 PM

While I enjoyed hearing Ethical Culture mentioned on national radio, I have a different understanding of our religion and membership than Mr. Balmer's. Ethical Culture is a non-theistic religion, in that we don't worship or pray to a deity. Instead, we put Ethics at the center of our actions and decision making, while also affirming the worth and dignity of every person and putting deed before creed. We leave decisions about God to each individual - so our members comprise believers, non-believers, agnostics and others. We believe in a person's ability and responsibility to act so as to create a more humane society. Ethical Culture Societies are in many cities throughout the country and can be located through our parent federation, the American Ethical Union, at

Thank you.

Jan. 22 2009 08:01 PM
Ken Karp

I feel that warm bubbling of inclusion coming from deep within. Bravo!

Jan. 22 2009 07:56 PM

I highly doubt Buddhists needs the recognition of a "shout out" by President Obama. If they did, they wouldn't be calling themselves Buddhist. This is not a popularity contest amongst believers of certain faiths or other. gosh.. the most important fact is still, will he succeed in the way we need him to..?

Jan. 22 2009 04:15 PM
Naomi Marcus

I was ecstatic to hear the President include nonbelievers in his list of faiths. I don't care what term is used. And I recognize that we can't include every one of the many faiths that are represented among our citizens. Just hearing, for the first time on a public stage, that one can be guided by higher principles to work for the good of the world without believing in a God is heartening.

Jan. 22 2009 12:15 PM

I was also really happy that Obama mentioned nonbelievers. I also think the discussion about gradations of belief and what terms to use is really interesting. I really like the term "freethinking," because it's more positive than NON-believer or even atheist.

Jan. 22 2009 12:13 PM

My attention to the words President Obama was saying peaked at the mention of nonbelievers. Although the term nonbeliever incorrectly presupposes that there is something or someone to believe in, I still celebrated quietly here at work! Things are looking up!

Jan. 22 2009 10:35 AM

I was thrilled when President Obama mentioned nonbelievers and had tears running down my face. Recognizing nonbelievers is another aspect of human rights. The inauguration was a historic day for all people who support human rights.

Jan. 22 2009 10:23 AM
Lauren Heller

For those of us who are not in the usual list of 'believers', President Obama's inclusion of "non-believers" was not just noticed, he finally acknowledged that this country is not ONLY of one or two religions, there are 'others' -- it opens public awareness and discussion about inclusivity and diversity.

Amen? ; D

Jan. 22 2009 10:09 AM
Steven Williams

The fact that the statement is considered controversial tells you everything you need to know about the steady erosion of the wall between church and state in this country over the last eight years. Why should it be considered controversial? If you believe the polls, non-believers comprise approximately 20% of the US population. The new president was simply pointing out a fact. Of course if you're a Buddhist, Scientologist, Wiccan, etc. etc., then you'd have a legimate gripe.

Jan. 22 2009 09:45 AM

I have great respect for Obama because of his including nonbelievers in his speech. It is consistent with his famous 2004 speech where he stated that we are a nation of many. Nonbelievers are just as American as believers. We have religious freedom in this country and that includes the freedom to doubt.
Personally, I am a believer. However, I have many friends who are nonbelievers and I do not think of myself as more American than they are.

Jan. 22 2009 09:45 AM
Kathy Simmons

I was and continue to be thrilled to be included as an American worth mentioning. While I agree the term is demeaning as it does seem to indicate that there is something wrong with me, which there isn't, to at least be mentioned is a recognition that I can live with for the moment. There are at least 30 million of us and my guess is most of us voted for Obama. The majority of the founding fathers were Deists-what they were definitely not were Fundamentalists--they would be appalled how much religion has intruded in the government. And, by the way, the words 'so help you/me God' are NOT in the Constitution. I do not know who added them first. And if the the person taking the oath wishes to say them, fine-that is free speech. But the individual reading the oath has no business reading something that is not there.

Jan. 22 2009 09:42 AM

After 9/11, President Bush's speech was so religiously, specifically Christianly based, that I was surprised how much I felt left out of his comforts. I was living a mile away from the World trade center when the planes flew into them and was in need of comfort. I like the idea of a President with a aider view of his country.

Jan. 22 2009 09:37 AM
Helen Wheelock

Ick to the term "non-believer." I wouldn't call the religious "self-delusional ones."

I respect those who believe in a "higher power." But because I don't agree there's something "supervising" my actions, it doesn't mean I don't believe. I believe in the miracle of life -- I just don't need to make something responsible for that miracle. It just IS.

I believe in treating people with respect and kindness because that's how one should act, not because something's going to "Judge" my actions.

I believe things happen - both good and bad - to people. They just happen. I don't need to blame (or excuse) something to explain it. It simply is - not fate or punishment.

I believe I am a pretty "good" person, because I was raised and educated by people who asked me to see beyond my own ego and needs (not so easy, mind you!).

So, yeah, I find the term "non-believer" pretty demeaning. I believe it implies I'm some how less than those who identified as "believers."

And I don't believe that.

Jan. 22 2009 08:53 AM
Judith Fried

As an 82-year-old "non-believer" I was pleased, at long last, to be included in our new president's list of diverse faiths. Many "non-believers" do have faith — in the ultimate possibility of decency in and for all human beings.

Jan. 22 2009 08:33 AM
John F Heenehan

President Obama's use of "nonbelievers" gave me mixed feelings. Awkward because of the term. We "nonbelievers" don't buy in any of the gods people believe in. But most of us also don't believe in fairies, flying saucers or phrenology. But we do believe firmly in something: reason. Maybe "rationists" would be better. I was overjoyed at the mention. But our numbers are starting to demand attention and respect. The recent Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that Atheists represent 1.6% of Americans - comparable to: Jews (1.7%), Mainline Baptists (1.9%), Mainline Presbyterians (1.9%), Evangelical Lutherans (1.8%), Mormons (1.7%), Mainline Anglicans/Episcopalians (1.4%),
Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus combined (1.7%), Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Unitarian and other liberal faiths combined (1.6%).
Another 2.4% of Americans are Agnostic. Together, we’re up to 4.0%, beating Evangelical Pentecostals (3.4%) and Mainline Lutherans (2.4%).

Jan. 22 2009 06:53 AM

John Hockenberry has it wrong when he says the framers were mostly secular (disregarding the fact that he added Lincoln and others to the discussion who were clearly not framers). Of the 56 contributors to the Constitution, 50 or more of them declared themselves to be believers. The American Sunday School Union and the American Bible Society (both still operative) were formed by people in this group. Including every citizen in the national discussion is very American. Rewriting history is not.

Jan. 22 2009 06:52 AM
Eve Applebaum

I was thrilled to hear Obama already acting upon his promises to include and respect people in this country rather than the majority ruling. Among EVERYTHING The Bush Admin WRONG, one was to create a country where the Judeo Christian mantra is the only acceptable one and for those who are non religious or who are Muslim it seems are being set-up to have to hang their heads and even hide who they are lest they are discriminated against.
I think George Bush and his cronies were too afraid to embrace anything out of their comfort zone and this personal detriment has taken us way back in our ability to evolve as compassionate and understanding humans.

Jan. 22 2009 06:47 AM

Why is Prof. Ballmer in such denial that perhaps 25% of the population are 'non-believers'?

Some balance in the coverage of this issue would've been welcome.

Jan. 22 2009 06:42 AM

It was comforting that President Obama included atheists and agnostics in his inaugural address. It seems to be a growing group of which my husband and I have recently become. After George Bush's Presidency we have rethought our affiliation. We are now ethical humanists.

Jan. 22 2009 06:31 AM

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