In America, Nonbelievers Find Strength in Numbers

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By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007

A legion of the godless is rising up against the forces of religiosity in American society.

"People who were ashamed to say there is no God now say, 'Wow, there are others out there who think like me, and it feels damned good,' " said Margaret Downey, president of the Atheist Alliance International, whose membership has almost doubled in the past year to 5,200. It has a 500-person waiting list for its convention in Crystal City later this month.

Focusing fresh attention on atheism in the United States was the publication last week of a book about Mother Teresa that lays out her secret struggle with her doubts about God. "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light" has led some high-profile atheists to say that her spiritual wavering was actually atheism.

"She couldn't bring herself to believe in God, but she wished she could," said Christopher Hitchens, a Washington-based columnist and author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," the latest atheist bestseller.

In the past two years, five books touting atheism have hit the bestseller lists, outselling such religious tomes as Pope Benedict XVI's book on Jesus, and popular Christian novelist Tim LaHaye's latest book, "Kingdom Come," according to Nielsen BookScan.

Representatives of atheist and humanist groups say the books probably haven't converted many religious people. But, said Lori Lipman Brown, a lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America, which represents eight atheist or humanist organizations, the books "tremendously increase the visibility of nontheist rights."

Nontheist is another term for atheist, or someone who does not believe in a supreme being.

A study released in June by the Barna Group, a religious polling firm, found that about 5 million adults in the United States call themselves atheists. The number rises to about 20 million -- about one in every 11 Americans -- if people who say they have no religious faith or are agnostic (they doubt the existence of a God or a supreme deity) are included.

They tend to be more educated, more affluent and more likely to be male and unmarried than those with active faith, according to the Barna study. Only 6 percent of people over 60 have no faith in God, and one in four adults ages 18 to 22 describe themselves as having no faith.

Javier Sanchez-Yoza, 21, a biology major at George Mason University, is a former born-again Christian who gave up his belief in God two years ago and is starting an atheist club at school. He turned atheist after growing skeptical of Christian friends' arguments for creationism.

"If they can be wrong about creationism, what else can they be wrong about?" Sanchez-Yoza said.

For the younger generations, charter schools based on humanist principles have opened in New York City and Florida. CampQuest, an Albany-based group, runs five overnight camps around the country for atheist kids.

The budget of the Council for Secular Humanism has climbed 40 percent in the past two years, approaching $8 million this year. The council opened a public-policy think tank in Washington last year to push leaders of both parties for policies based on the humanist principles of "science, reason and secularism" instead of religious faith, said Paul Kurtz, the council chairman.

In March, Congress had its first self-avowed atheist when Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) said he does not believe in a supreme being.

The movement formed its first political action committee in 2005, when American Atheists, which advocates for the separation of church and state, formed the Godless Americans PAC.

Despite atheists' increased vocalism and visibility, it seems that the rest of America isn't buying in.

In a nationwide poll last year by University of Minnesota researchers, Americans rated atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants and other minority groups in "sharing their vision of American society." They also associated atheists with everything from criminal behavior to rampant materialism. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, more than half would not vote for an atheist for president.

Maggie Ardiente, 24, of Silver Spring faced the disapproval of her family and some friends because of her atheist beliefs. "It's hard for them even to comprehend," she said.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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