Atheists Reach Out–Just Don’t Call It Proselytizing

Late next month, atheists, humanists, freethinkers, secularists — in
short, nonbelievers of every description — will gather in dozens of
cities to mark the holiday they call HumanLight.


Whether by singing from a Humanist Hymnal, decorating a winter wreath
or lighting candles dedicated to personal heroes, they’ll celebrate
what has been an exhilarating ride for the faithless — a surge in
recognition that has many convinced they’re on the brink of making a
mark on mainstream America.

During the past three years, membership has grown in local and
national associations of nonbelievers. Books attacking faith as a
delusion shot up best-seller lists. For the first time, the faithless
even raised enough funds to hire a congressional lobbyist.

Building on that momentum, nonbelievers have begun a very public
campaign to win broad acceptance. On billboards and bus ads, radio
commercials and the Internet, atheists are coming forward to declare,
quite simply: We’re here. And we’re just like you.

“We’ve had an undercurrent of emotional and academic support, but
we’ve been waiting to make a movement happen,” said Joe Zamecki, an
Austin landscaper who recently organized Texas’ first statewide
convention of nonbelievers. “It’s a very new age.”

Not so fast, religious leaders respond. They point out that the vast
majority of Americans believe in God. A poll by the Pew Forum on
Religion and Public Life earlier this year found 71% of American adults
are absolutely certain God — or some sort of universal spirit —
exists, and a further 17% said they were fairly certain. Only 5% said
flatly that they don’t believe.

Atheists “are talking to a very small slice of the population,” said
Mathew Staver, a leading Christian conservative and law-school dean.
“In some ways, they’re really just talking to themselves.”

Nonbelievers point to a different set of statistics and societal
trends. Americans are shifting away from formal allegiances with
specific faiths. In 1990, about 90% of the U.S. adult population
identified with a religious group, according to the widely cited
American Religious Identification Survey. When the most recent survey
was conducted in 2001, that dropped to 81%. Relatively few go so far as
to call themselves atheists, but young Americans, especially, are
drifting from organized religion, other surveys have found.

Unlike in Europe, where secularism has a strong hold, many atheists
in the U.S. have felt like a shunned minority. Politicians often
reflexively end speeches with “God bless America.” Schoolchildren
pledge their allegiance every day to “one nation, under God.” City
parks display the Ten Commandments. When atheists talk openly in
public, “we often see people shaking their heads and moving away, like
there’s a plague zone around us,” said Iggy Dybal, a real-estate broker
in Kansas City, Kan.

Secularist groups say their membership began to surge in 2005, when
Congress sought to prevent Terri Schiavo’s husband from removing her
feeding tube. Many new members said they hoped nonbelievers could serve
as a counterweight to religious influence in political affairs.

Rather than renew old battles, such as the symbolic fight to remove
“In God We Trust” from currency, members are mobilizing to repair what
they view as breaches of the wall between church and state — such as
federal funding for faith-based charities and teaching of intelligent
design in science class. They believe many others sympathize with their
views — but are too timid to commit.

The new ad campaigns and other public-relations efforts are designed
to raise comfort levels about atheism by making the point that
nonbelievers are “just as ethical and moral as anyone else,” said Lori
Lipman Brown, who lobbies Congress on behalf of the Secular Coalition
for America.

As Doug Krueger, a philosophy professor in northwest Arkansas, put
it: “Step one is for people to know we’re not crazy, we’re just regular
people [who have] perfectly satisfactory lives without believing in
God.”

So the American Humanist Association is spending $42,000 to plaster
buses in Washington, D.C., with ads asking: “Why believe in a god? Just
be good for goodness’ sake.” FreeThoughtAction and its local affiliates
have put up billboards all over the country asking: “Don’t believe in
God? You are not alone.” Eight billboards are going up this month in
Denver.

At the same time, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in
Madison, Wis., has hit at least nine states in the past year with
billboards that look like they’re made of stained glass but say “Beware
of Dogma,” “Imagine No Religion,” or — coming soon — “Reason’s
Greetings.” The group also advertises on the liberal radio network Air
America. One spot features Ron Reagan, son of the former president, who
signs off: “Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist. Not afraid of burning in
hell.”

Local groups of atheists are also making a point of getting out in public to show that they’re part of every community.

The Pennsylvania Nonbelievers rehabbed a women’s shelter this fall.
Kansas City FreeThinkers hold monthly walks in a dog park and weekly
coffee-house meet-ups, advertised online. Secularists in Sacramento,
Calif., stage a family-friendly Freethought Day each fall, complete
with roving magicians.

Organizers of such efforts generally say they aren’t trying to
evangelize. Instead, they say their goal is to make the public more
comfortable with the concept of atheism and give fellow nonbelievers a
sense of community.

In seeking the spotlight, the movement risks a backlash. Some
Christians find the billboards deeply offensive, especially at this
time of year. In recent weeks, press releases from the religious right
have accused atheists of “mocking” and “insulting” Christmas. In rural
Chambersburg, Pa., one Christian group responded to an “Imagine No
Religion” billboard with a giant sign of their own, asking: “Why Do
Atheists Hate America?”

Even some who share common goals with nonbelievers are uneasy with the provocative nature of the ad campaign.

“Atheists can act very much like Christian fundamentalists from time
to time,” said James Webb, president of the Community of Reason in
Kansas City, which includes both believers and skeptics. “It’s
important not to be in-your-face with people.”

Some nonbelievers respond that this is a critical time to reach out,
as a new administration prepares to take office in the White House.

For instance, some atheists are dismayed by some of President-elect
Barack Obama’s proposals, such as his pledge to funnel more tax dollars
to faith-based groups running soup kitchens, tutoring programs and the
like.

Others are more hopeful.

They note that in a big speech on faith last summer, Mr. Obama
called for “Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and
nonbeliever alike” to work together. It isn’t often that politicians
specifically mention nonbelievers, they say.

Secularists also are encouraged by Mr. Obama’s eclectic upbringing.
He has written that his mother disdained organized religion but exposed
him to a variety of faith traditions and holy books as an
anthropological study. Though he now talks often of his Christian faith
and envisions a role for faith in the public square, Mr. Obama has
sought to use inclusive language and signal respect for different
traditions.

Obama transition spokeswoman Amy Brundage, in a statement, said,
“People of all backgrounds and beliefs will have a voice in the
Obama-Biden Administration.”

Still, leading activists say nonbelievers tend to be just as wary of
organized atheism as they are of organized religion — making it tough
to pull together a cohesive movement.

“A pastor can say to his flock, ‘All rise,’ and everyone rises. But
try that in an atheist meeting,” said Marvin Straus, co-founder of an
atheist group in Boulder, Colo. “A third of the people will rise. A
third will tell you to go to hell. And a third will start
arguing….That’s why it’s hard to say where we’re going as a movement.”

Source: Wall Street Journal

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