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Catching up with atheist evangelists

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 29, 2009 | 2:45 am

“More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops.”

That was the headline from a New York Times article Sunday that covered familiar ground: The number of Americans not belonging to a religion has grown dramatically in recent years and atheist evangelists are attracting attention by proclaiming their godlessness.

An excerpt:

Polls show that the ranks of atheists are growing. The American Religious Identification Survey, a major study released last month, found that those who claimed “no religion” were the only demographic group that grew in all 50 states in the last 18 years.

Nationally, the “nones” in the population nearly doubled, to 15 percent in 2008 from 8 percent in 1990. In South Carolina, they more than tripled, to 10 percent from 3 percent. Not all the “nones” are necessarily committed atheists or agnostics, but they make up a pool of potential supporters.

Local and national atheist organizations have flourished in recent years, fed by outrage over the Bush administration’s embrace of the religious right. A spate of best-selling books on atheism also popularized the notion that nonbelief is not just an argument but a cause, like environmentalism or muscular dystrophy.

Ten national organizations that variously identify themselves as atheists, humanists, freethinkers and others who go without God have recently united to form the Secular Coalition for America, of which Mr. Silverman is president. These groups, once rivals, are now pooling resources to lobby in Washington for separation of church and state.

A wave of donations, some in the millions of dollars, has enabled the hiring of more paid professional organizers, said Fred Edwords, a longtime atheist leader who just started his own umbrella group, the United Coalition of Reason, which plans to spawn 20 local groups around the country in the next year.

Despite all the hype, and the success of atheist authors, I’ve yet to see the fruit of these labors. Americans remain suspicious of atheist values and polls regularly show Americans would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is female, African American, Latino, Catholic, Jew, Muslim or Mormon than for an atheist.

Not sure how Thomas Jefferson snuck in, but that was a different era. In fact, U.S. Rep. Pete Stark remains the only modern member of Congress to be an “out-atheist.” 

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the New Atheists and their mission, and back in 2006 I wrote a lengthy feature for the LA Daily News about atheists “coming out of the closet” and engaging the political process just like religious folks have done for decades.

My entire article, “Got God? No Way,” appears after the jump:

With tattooed arms and dressed like Johnny Cash, Ryan Langley stood in UCLA’s Bruin Plaza and shared his faith with all who inquired.

Earth below - certainly. Heavens above - he doesn’t think so. Langley may be an evangelical, but he’s not the typical kind. He’s an evangelical atheist.

“We’re all about promoting critical reasoning, scientific inquiry, human-based ethics,” Langley told a woman from the Student Coalition for Marriage Equality. “While we understand religion has a place in society, we’d like to keep it in private life and out of politics.”

Newly hired by the Secular Student Alliance to do outreach at Southern California colleges, Langley is part of a push by agnostics, brights, free-thinkers, humanists and skeptics - a group commonly referred to as atheists - to increase visibility and improve public relations.

Talking about “coming out of the closet” and drawing parallels to the fight for gay rights, atheists are going mainstream. Last month, two books attacking belief in God spent a week among the top 10 nonfiction books on the New York Times best-sellers list.

On the political front, atheists last year sent their first lobbyist to Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, the Center for Inquiry will open a public policy office in the capital to act as a secular-minded think tank.

“Before, we didn’t think the religious-right agenda made that much of a difference on our lives, but suddenly the agenda was being followed by the people in power,” said Lori Lipman Brown, the Secular Coalition for America’s first lobbyist.

“They are hearing, more than ever before, people saying there shouldn’t be a separation of church and state, that our country should be based on Christianity.”

Atheists’ fears festered in the wake of the 2004 election, in which “conservative Christians were very influential in re-electing President Bush,” said John C. Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Though Republicans lost control of Congress last week and the “edge” has been taken off atheists’ concerns of a coming theocratic nation, Green said, the midterm elections won’t signal a changing tide of sympathy for the nonreligious.

“The antipathy they feel still exists because the religious conservative groups are still out there and are still involved in politics,” he said.

Of course, those across the religious divide tell a different story - one in which the ungodly already have too much power in Washington.

“Two starkly contrasting world views predominate today’s moral and cultural debate,” Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, whose organization declined requests for comment, told The Boston Globe. “One side defends the traditional values that have made this nation great for more than 225 years; the other works to chisel away at that foundation.”

Dobson, whom many consider today’s most influential evangelical, has lobbied heavily against abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research. He also has complained that the GOP takes conservative Christians for granted.

America, Dobson has argued, is a land strangled by secular humanism, a place where the only accepted religion is a diluted spirituality that doesn’t expect people to live according to God’s desire.

Living in a nation of Judeo-Christian ethics, atheists have long been perceived by their peers as amoral, if not evil.

Stuart Bechman of Simi Valley grew up afraid that his lack of faith was a sign of “mental illness.” When he began dating a Mormon woman, he noticed her parents’ displeasure.

“They just presumed I had no scruples and I was unethical and I was a bad person because that is what their religion told them,” said Bechman, now co-president of L.A.-based Atheists United.

Last spring, the University of Minnesota reported that only 60percent of Americans believe atheists agree with their vision for society - a smaller percentage than for Muslims (74percent), homosexuals (77percent) and conservative Christians (86percent).

And 48percent of Americans said they would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, more than for any other group.

“People tend to think of religiosity or being involved in religion as something that is a proxy for being a good person, being a moral person, being a trustworthy person and being a good citizen,” said Penny Edgell, University of Minnesota associate professor of sociology and the study’s lead researcher.

“Most people don’t even know an atheist. It becomes this label that people respond to that doesn’t say much about the group in question but says a lot about people’s assumptions.”

A 1999 Gallup poll found 49percent of Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist president - up from 17percent in 1958, but still more than 40percentage points lower than for a Catholic, Jew or African-American and 10 points lower than for a gay candidate.

There are no openly atheist members of Congress, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

It’s unclear how many atheists live in the United States. Some Christians say they’ve never met a true atheist because most nonbelievers qualify as agnostics - they don’t know if God exists or if it matters.

“People who don’t know if there is a God probably don’t have a God belief,” said Bobbie Kirkhart, past president of Atheist Alliance International.

The Secular Coalition for America pegs its constituency between 10million and 30million. Depending on the definition, researchers estimate atheists make up 3 to 10percent of the U.S. population.

Most likely to be educated and men and ranging from liberals to libertarians, experts say, atheists’ chief interest shifts from promoting science to fighting religious influence on politics, depending on the cultural climate.

Lately, they have mobilized against:

The drive to teach intelligent design in public schools as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.

Renewed efforts to criminalize most abortions.

The creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which gives government money to sectarian social-service organizations that require religious involvement from clients and patients.

Opposition to the legalization of gay marriages.

The words “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

These social-conservative causes are part of what journalist Michelle Goldberg calls the “rise of Christian nationalism.”

“With a revisionist history that claims the founders never intended to create a secular country and that separation of church and state is a lie fostered by conniving leftists, Christian nationalism rejects the idea of government religious neutrality,” Goldberg, a secular Jew, wrote in her recently published book, “Kingdom Coming.”

“The movement argues that the absence of religion in public is itself a religion - the malign faith of secular humanism - that must, in the interest of fairness, be balanced with equal deference to the Bible.”

Langley had Goldberg’s book in his backpack, tucked beneath a small white table in Bruin Plaza. Until he was 5, his mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. But then she was kicked out of the fellowship for living with a man out of wedlock, and her children grew up without any religious influence.

Langley’s younger sister found Jesus; he didn’t. Now 32 and a recent graduate of Chapman University in Orange, he’s trying to peel back whatever layers of religious tradition college students carry from home.

“When you grow up with it from Day One, you don’t tend to question its validity,” he said. “That’s why we are here: To ask them to question whether they need to subscribe to some absolute view to have morality.”

He went about his evangelism quietly, occasionally walking into the masses and handing out pamphlets but mostly hanging behind his table and waiting for the action to come to him.

“What’s this?” Heather Collette-Van Deraa, a junior studying communications and women’s studies, asked as she approached.

“We are trying to organize students around secularism, the separation of church and state,” Langley responded.

“I’m down with that,” she said. “This is definitely an issue I get behind.”

As an “out atheist,” Collette-Van Deraa said she often feels scorned as the other - “capital O in quotes.”

“There are misconceptions that atheists hate anyone who is in organized religion, or that atheists are baby killers or old-people killers,” she said. “There is a sense that atheists to some extent can’t be sensitive to the spiritual views of others.”

Though theologically not a religious group, the courts have increasingly ruled atheism deserves the same protections.

“And it should,” said Derek H. Davis, a Baptist who has written about atheism and is dean of the college of humanities and graduate school at University of Mary-Hardin Baylor in Texas. “Nonreligion as a worldview needs to be treated like a religious worldview in terms of giving people protections to live out their conscience.”

Atheists United, which Bechman described as “a support group,” funded Langley’s job. “They are not going to be here much longer, and we need new blood,” Langley said.

After two hours at UCLA, he packed up, intending to return in a few weeks and again sow seed. He had spoken with six people; none was interested in launching a student group.

It’s a tough gig being a campus pitchman. Students train themselves to stare at the ground, listen to music or talk on cell phones - anything to avoid eye contact with the zealots at UCLA staffing 50-plus tables from the U.S. Marine Corps to Hare Krishna to the Korean American Student Educational Outreach.

Langley didn’t have the luxury of shaking his hips like the sexy sophomore promoting a Samahang Pilipino party. And though he could have dressed in a giant platypus suit like the guy promoting STA Travel, he said he prefers a more subtle approach.

“It’s one of those things where a hard sell isn’t going to make it happen,” he said. “So, you just try to make your presence known.”

Previously on The God Blog, Dicky Dawkins’ “Beware the Believer” rap:

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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