Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, is the only politician in the Arizona Statehouse who identifies as atheist. On Friday night, he encouraged his fellow non-theists at the Tempe campus to mobilize and show the state Legislature that he’s not alone in his lack of religion.
The legislator told the group of secularists, mainly students, about his progress toward ideological tolerance within the Arizona government, which he said was one of the most religious in the country.
Mendez made certain the group knew that they were represented in the state and were not alone.
“Part of the work left for us is to continue showing up together and do it more, all over Arizona,” he said. “We’re seeing the power of what can happen when we organize.”
Mendez invited everyone in the audience to come to the state Capitol on Feb. 6, when the secular students will be introduced to the House and included in an invocation led by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix.
“The more people we get there, the bigger impact we’re going to have,” he said. “I look forward to continuing this momentum we’ve already gathered.”
Mendez was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 2012 and was president of the ASU Young Democrats during his time at the University.
In May, he received the opportunity to lead the required pre-session invocation for the Arizona House but decided to replace the traditional prayer with a humanist request for peace between ideologies.
This deviation from the norm stirred controversy in the House, but Mendez said he was overwhelmingly surprised by the response.
“I haven’t gotten one negative phone call, not one negative email,” he said. “I’ve had people from all different backgrounds tell me what I did was what they’ve been waiting for.”
In an annual Gallup poll on religion, 77 percent of people believed religion as a whole is losing its influence on American life, but 56 percent said it’s still very important in their lives.
There are no atheists in the U.S. Congress. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, was linked to secularism when elected in 2012, but does not identify as anything.
Alex Senderling, the chapel operations manager at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center, said he believes that religion has a part in politics.
“(Religion) serves as a good moral basis and helps us achieve an ultimate good in the world,” he said.
But Senderling said he didn’t think non-believers should be forced to pray if they are uncomfortable.
Both the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives begin their sessions with prayer.
J.P. Martin, a political science senior at UA, is an atheist who came up from Tucson to see Mendez speak.
“It’s motivating for young people to see someone who’s 28, to see someone who’s a minority, really express themselves in a positive way,” Martin said.
Andre Salais, a political science junior, is the president of the Secular Student Alliance at ASU, which recruited Mendez to speak on campus.
Salais formed the SSA at Mesa Community College, where he was first introduced to Mendez, but transferred to ASU and created this branch last semester.
“We get to show other nonbelievers they’re not alone,” Salais said. “There’s a club for them. They don’t have to be in a religion to have that social group.”
Salais grew up in a Roman Catholic household, but left the religion in high school because there were too many questions that didn’t have answers, he said.
“I think there’s a majority of students in the SSA that were raised with a religion and became atheist,” Salais said. “The Bible is what led me to atheism.”
According to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey on U.S religious knowledge, atheists/agnostics scored the highest among all religious groups with an average of 20.9 correct out of 32.
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