Beliefs Politics Revelations

Bernie Sanders disappoints some atheists with his ‘very strong religious’ feelings

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders takes a question while taking part in a CNN Democratic Town Hall moderated by American journalist and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper (unseen) in Derry, New Hampshire on February 3, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Rick Wilking *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SANDERS-FAITH, originally transmitted on Feb. 4, 2016.


(RNS) Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders dashed the hopes of some atheists when he declared he had “very strong religious and spiritual feelings” at a Democratic town hall.

“It’s a guiding principle in my life, absolutely, it is,” Sanders said Wednesday (Feb. 3) when a New Hampshire voter asked him about his faith. “Everybody practices religion in a different way. To me, I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States, if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings.”

The statement came a week after the Vermont senator told The Washington Post he is “not active in any organized religion” but believes in God. That statement prompted a number of pundits — atheist and otherwise —  to describe Sanders as the first “none” to run for president, referring to people who have no religious preference.

“Sanders defines God in a very different way than the way most Americans do, and in fact, a way that would be compatible with nontheistic humanists,” Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Center for Freethought Equalitytold The Huffington Post after Sanders’ interview with The Washington Post appeared.

Lauren Nelson, writing on the popular blog Friendly Atheist one day after the town hall, described Sanders’ response as a “punch to the gut.”

“Here was a candidate who, throughout decades of public service, had always been a staunch advocate for keeping religion out of politics, and he was saying that religion was the reason he was running?!” Nelson wrote. “Sanders, who has in the past indicated that his Judaism was a function of culture instead of belief?! HOW COULD HE BETRAY US?!”

Nelson eventually concluded Sanders’ religion is “empathy” and said she could support that. Other viewers seemed to be equally forgiving, at least on social media.

“Shame that you can’t openly come out as an atheist and still have a chance to get elected,” @bensouthard tweeted during the town hall.

And @MBrothers22 tweeted, “This (is) what an atheist says when they don’t want to offend anyone.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Roy Speckhardt as the executive director of American Humanist Association. He was speaking in his capacity as executive director of the Center for Freethought Equality.

(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for RNS)


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • This is a very very Jewish answer. All the atheists who were upset about his INCREIBLY thoughtful answer are still operating from a Christian normative/default point of view. As a Jewish person who doesn’t subscribe to the Christian view of God (because Judaism is NOT Christianity lite), I’m thankful Sanders took the time to explain his (very Jewish and NOT CHRISTIAN) perspective.

  • Much ado about semantics.

    Senator Sanders obviously, passionately, vociferously cares about how we treat each other.

    He says “religion”, we say “morality”.

    Let’s not call the whole thing off.

  • Yes, Jesus is the Messiah and the son of God (Matt. 3:17), but Jesus is not God, just as God is not the Messiah nor the lamb of God, who died on behalf of mankind. God did not die, but Jesus, his son, did.

  • I’m with the atheists on this one. Bernie is of course an atheist. But ‘atheist’ is still a bad word, so people like him who don’t believe in God feel obliged to make religious noises.

    If you believe that there is no supernatural being with psychological states you are an atheist. There is no point in adopting some linguistically revisionary account of what ‘God’ means so that you can count as ‘believing in God’ if you have ‘religious and spiritual feelings’, or if you believe in Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura, or if you’re ‘committed to an agapistic way of life’ or whatever.

    If you don’t believe in a conscious supernatural being you are an atheist. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing either good or bad about being an atheist or about being a religious believer. It’s just metaphysics.

  • Judiasm is a relativistic religion. There is no pope, no bishops, no catechism, no statement of beliefs, and no chain of command. Everyone gets to believe what they believe and no view is “better” than another, even if more popular.

    Sanders is reflecting the beliefs held by many Jews, though not all, which is that faith exists, it is valuable, that individuals with other traditions are equally people of faith, that people without faith are equally valued, that tradition and history are important, that education is central to who we are, and that there are moral obligations to help those in need.

    As God told Moses, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh – I am who I am.

  • The atheists are simply hungry to claim him for their tribe. I thought religious tribalism was one of their reasons for rejecting religion?

  • As Alexis noted, Sanders’s answer is wholly consistent with Reconstructionist and Humanist threads of Jewish thought. It’s interesting how Christian privilege also seems to affect atheists. There’s more than two groups here.
    Moreover, those in the atheist community who say to Sanders, “Oh, you’re just an atheist but you can’t say it” are being severely hypocritical. Many atheists are former Christians, and are rightly annoyed when Christians tell them, “Oh, you’re just saying you’re an atheist because the church hurt you/you’re angry at God/you want to sin/you never truly believed/your biblical education was inadequate/you need a better pastor/but everyone believes in something/whatever you believe in is what God is to you.” Sanders should be given the same courtesy.

  • Atheists just want to enjoy the same privileges that the Christian tribe has been enjoying all these years with their claim on elected officials. What’s wrong with that?

  • So now that Bernie has come out, and admitted that he believes in God, he is going to loose votes?

    What is he running for? Head Rabbi. or President of the United States?

    I am not a Bernie fan, but I have to ask…”So what if he believes in God?” How, exactly, is that going to hurt you?

  • Your vanilla pudding with cherry on top description ignores the fact the Judaic sacred scriptures still enshrine historical genocidal campaigns against inconveniently located Canaanite tribes as sacred, gloriful, God-ordered massacres of every Canaanite man, woman, & child, in what appears to have been a straight land grab.
    Johua 10:40, QUOTE: “So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.”

  • Peter said, “faith exists, it is valuable, that individuals with other traditions are equally people of faith, that people without faith are equally valued, that tradition and history are important, that education is central to who we are, and that there are moral obligations to help those in need.”

    That’s so well put. I think a majority of American ‘nones’ could agree with that. I describe my belief by saying there is a force for good. It may be a supernatural entity; it may be the collective human consciousness; or it may be something else entirely. I just know that the human tendency toward the good dwarfs the evil or hurtful.

  • The man says he believes in God, has strong religious and spiritual feelings, but he apparently is not feeling like counting himself as a member of any “formal religious organization”, a secular Jew. What a disappointment this must be to all of the atheists and formal religious organizations out there! What a joy to the third of all young Americans who count themselves as “spiritual, but not formally religious”.

  • “What a disappointment this must be to all of the atheists…”

    Ummm… not this one. (Maybe you mean “antitheists”?)

    I believe in respecting other people and their beliefs, and that includes not making up stories about them.

    I take heart in the respect Senator Sanders evinces toward others.

  • Bob B., there is no archeological evidence that actually happened.

    Jews don’t just read the Bible by itself, they read the Midrash, the Torah commentaries and the Talmud. They explain and modify the Hebrew Bible. The process continues today.

  • Bernie And The Two Elephants In His Room
    Let me dare to point out the two elephants in Bernie’s room – the one we’ve seen: the Socialist, and the one we’ve only seen a piece of: the atheist.
    Last October Jimmy Kimmel asked a question that apparently no one else is ready to ask, and yet it is a key question that everyone should ask, because, if Bernie Sanders ends up being the Democratic Party’s nominee, the Republican nominee will almost certainly begin to ask it.
    The Republican nominee will likely tie the question of Bernie’s Socialism to the question of his atheism, and Republicans will reiterate it, ad infinitum, throughout the election cycle.
    The Tea Party Republicans are hoping that Bernie Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee, and they are waiting until that time to ambush and press Sanders with questions, like: Since he is a Socialist, isn’t he also an atheist? And even though many of us on the left do not care if…

  • I agree, Alexis. In fact, I believe one could argue that Sanders demonstrates a unique ability, among many religious Jews, to effectively separate their religion from their politics. This ability is what makes anti-Israel prejudice so infuriating, at times. So many Muslim and Christian leaders, today, are bent on seeing U.S. policy turned against Israel. They portray Israel as an “apartheid,” a “brutal occupier” and a “colonial oppressor,” as if Israel has conducted itself in relation to Arab Palestinians, just as Muslim and Christian nations have against Jews and other minorities. But this is demonstrably false. This is not to say that Jews or Israelies are immune to prejudice or moral injustices. What I am saying is that, given bedrock Jewish values, history and experience, people like Bernie Sanders and the people of the Jewish state, when viewed without bias or malice, are often the most inclined to treat others with empathy and fairness, keeping religion separate from…

  • I find that Christians use the term “relativistic” both as a derogatory term and entirely ironic. Christian takes on morality are about as relativistic as they come. Any act is considered “moral” if one can proof-text the Bible to justify it. Leaders are given authority in an arbitrary fashion and charged with the role of deciding for others what is and what isn’t moral. Claiming adherence to arbitrary rules is absolute morality is a joke. There is no such thing as moral thinking where one simply follows rules without reflection or contemplation on one’s actions on others.

    Jewish views of morality are far less relative than you described them. Concerns for humanity take precedence over rules. One is expected to find exceptions to scriptural rules if it means a more humane and moral outcome.

    The idea that everyone gets to believe what they believe and no view is better is simply showing an appreciation for religious freedom and respect for others.

  • I’m “old” and I’ve been an atheist my entire life – including all 16 years I endured catholic schools.

    Don’t jump to conclusions with no facts.

    Bernie believes that religious beliefs are a personal matter, not to be dictated by the government. And that’s the kind of candidate that qualified to be MY President.

    “….that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right…”

    — Thomas Jefferson (The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom, 1786)

  • While Sanders’ take may be more common among Jews, you can find it among Christians too. All major religions include people who believe that God most values helping others. When I think of Bernie Sanders and religion, I think of one of my favorite poems, Abou Ben Adhem by Leigh Hunt.

  • Sanders may be an atheist or he may just be a spiritual humanist with no leanings towards a formal religion. It’s fine for him to believe in god, and say spirituality pressed him into running for president, because he also believes that religion and government should remain separate and successfully keeps them separate and focuses on a humanist, secular morality to guide his principles rather than a dusty old book.

  • None of the atheists I know were “disappointed” … In fact, most of them are very much in support of Bernie. Nice try …

  • Logic dictates that you CAN have strong feelings about religion and spirituality and have it not mean you are for organised religion. It could just as easily mean you are against organised religion, and for spirituality. Linguistics is often a necessary tool.

  • That right there is by far the most ignorant comment I’ve ever heard!!! To say that Bernie cannot possibly be an Atheist because of his age?? You do realize we are all born Atheist’s until we are told otherwise…wow, just wow!!!

  • Gosh Liz, how can you gloss over the atrocities committed by Israeli forces in Gaza? ‘prejudices and moral injustice’ you say?.. starving, abusing and poisoning of palestinians is nothing short grave human rights abuses. Jewish controlled news just sweeps it under the carpet in the US, but social and emerging media has been able to expose it.

  • It doesn’t matter whether he has strong religious feelings or not. What matters is that he is not going to try to make his personal religion the law of the land. And that is what should matter to atheists.

  • I agree with Alfie. The history of Israel and religious Jews is full of conceit, prejudice, abuse, and repeated violations of human rights. Stop being naïve, accept the truth. A.Mir

  • The LORD and His Love and Truth have place in everything He So Wills

    ““Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”
    ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭25:37-40‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

    “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.””
    ‭‭John‬ ‭6:37-40‬ ‭NASB‬‬

    thanks and love/thank/praise/bless/glorify God,

    “For God So Loved the world, He Gave His Only Son….”