Saving Speaker Ryan… and Unshackling the Bern

Edward Tabash

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is nonpartisan. If we are often more critical of one major political party than the other, it’s only because one party is more fervently devoted to creating a theocracy. In today’s political climate, Republican presidents seek to appoint religious right-wing justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. These appointments are intended to create a new Court majority that will, for the first time ever, reinterpret the First Amendment to hold that all branches of government can now openly favor belief over nonbelief. This will destroy the currently prevailing doctrine of benevolent government neutrality in which both believers and nonbelievers are equal before the law.

While Democratic presidents can be trusted to appoint justices to the Court who will preserve the separation of church and state—still the most important consideration—the Democratic Party establishment is not innocent when it comes to prejudice against atheists. In last year’s presidential primaries, the Democratic National Committee seriously contemplated an attempt to portray Senator Bernie Sanders as an atheist in order to secure his defeat in various primaries.1 Apologies were made to Sanders. No apology was made to the atheist community for considering labeling a candidate an atheist such a horrendous accusation. Sanders quickly denied being an atheist.2 Earlier in the campaign, he had said that he believed in God in his own nontraditional manner. To the senator, God “means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”3 So, in order to fend off a scheme by his own party to destroy his campaign by identifying him as an atheist, a major presidential candidate declared that he views the deity as some kind of impersonal cosmic glue. This does not bode well for the cultural and political acceptance of us nonbelievers.

Just as CFI is nonpartisan, we also don’t take positions on competing economic theories. For instance, we don’t support any particular side in the dispute between Ayn Rand’s free-market views and those of socialists. However, we do become involved when atheism is under attack, even if such denigration of nonbelief occurs in the context of a larger debate in which we take no position. Paul Ryan, the current Speaker of the House and second in line for the presidency after the vice president, once viewed Rand as a main inspiration for his involvement in politics. However, he later said that he now rejects her approach because, “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview.”4 Since when does a high-ranking conservative, who favors an unbridled free-enterprise system, disdain contracts? Contracts are the foundation of the very business world that Ryan enthusiastically supports.

What happened is that the now-Speaker had to distance himself from a prominent atheist thinker in order to secure his ascendance in the Republican Party. He was grasping at anything to justify his new rejection of his previous adherence to Rand’s ideas, even if he had supported only her economic theories. After explaining why he is no longer a follower of Rand and her work, Ryan said that if someone wanted to link him to anybody’s epistemology, it should be to the views of Thomas Aquinas.5 Moreover, the author of the article I am citing to describe Ryan’s rejection of Rand’s atheist philosophy in favor of Aquinas ends by writing: “Aquinas was a saint, after all, who was said to disdain secular philosophy in favor of Christian revelation.”6

In wanting to be philosophically identified with Aquinas, Ryan is binding himself to someone who believed that women were inferior to men, both mentally and physically, and should be subject to male rule.7 Even if atheism were to reduce much of human interactions to mere contracts—which it doesn’t—why would a backward medieval philosophical view that wrongfully regards women as inferior be preferable to a contract-based view of human activity? Considering that a covenant is a contract, why does Ryan, a devout Catholic, disdain a contractual foundation for human activity when he subscribes to a religion in which “covenant theology” is now dominant? Covenant theology insists that God’s covenants with the world are an ongoing process that runs through both the Old and New Testaments. It was affirmed as Church doctrine by Pope Benedict XVI.8

As the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012, Ryan expressed his support for returning organized prayer to public schools,9 without regard to how this would overturn the constitutional equality between believers and nonbelievers. As I wrote in the CFI amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the Pledge of Allegiance case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1 (2004), we church-state separationists would equally oppose rewriting the Pledge to read: “one nation under no God.” We want the Pledge, and all other government functions, to be neutral so that believers and nonbelievers alike can enjoy equal ownership of all levels of government. Ryan and other major religious-Right activists are not so benevolent. Unlike us, they don’t want government neutrality between believers and nonbelievers; they want all branches of government to be able to openly favor belief over nonbelief.

If major political figures said they rejected someone’s views because those views were “a Jewish philosophy,” there would be a powerful outcry. Yet, there was no discernible protest over Ryan’s rejecting Rand’s ideas because she espoused an atheist philosophy. Further, if we had already achieved a true normalization of atheism, a major presidential candidate such as Sanders—who obviously doesn’t believe in an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing supernatural being that is revealed in sacred texts—wouldn’t have had to use such verbal gymnastics in order for his candidacy to survive the possibility that his own party would accuse him of being an atheist.

I cherish the moment in May 2012 when I told President Barack Obama that I was now the first atheist in history to be in the presence of my savior. His appreciation of my quip is apparent by his laughter. We need to get to a point where any president of any party would react the same way.

We atheists are still the most unjustly despised minority in the United States today. We can be demeaned in ways that would be automatically considered socially unacceptable if directed at anyone else who expresses a viewpoint on matters of religion. With an impending new religious Right Supreme Court majority and the continuing widespread hostility toward atheism and atheists, we must strive harder than ever to establish full equality for our views and for ourselves—culturally, legally, and politically—in this still religiously benighted society.


  1. Sam Biddle, “New Leak: ‘Top DNC Of cial Wanted to Use Bernie Sanders’s Religious Beliefs Against Him,’”July 28, 2016, dnc-official-wanted-to-use-bernie-sanderss-religious-beliefs-against-him/.
  2. Kyle Balluck, “Sanders: I Am Not an Atheist,” July 24, 2016,
  3. Frances Stead Sellers and John Wagner, “Why Bernie Sanders Doesn’t Participate in Organized Religion,” January
    27, 2016,
  4. James Rainey, “Paul Ryan Loved Ayn Rand, Before He Said He Didn’t,” August 12, 2012,
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Thomistic Philosophy Page,”
  8. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Many Religions, One Covenant (San Franciso: Ignatius Press 1999). Ratzinger wrote this book six years before becoming pope.
  9. “Paul Ryan Supports Prayer in Public Schools,” September 6, 2012,

Edward Tabash

Edward Tabash is a constitutional lawyer in the Los Angeles area and chair of the board of directors of the Center for Inquiry. He is recognized for his legal expertise pertaining to the separation of church and state. He is also one of the more well-known atheist debaters in the United States.