In Europe and U.S., Nonbelievers Are Increasingly Vocal

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By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 15, 2007

BURGESS HILL, England -- Every morning on his walk to work, high school teacher Graham Wright recited a favorite Anglican prayer and asked God for strength in the day ahead. Then two years ago, he just stopped.

Wright, 59, said he was overwhelmed by a feeling that religion had become a negative influence in his life and the world. Although he once considered becoming an Anglican vicar, he suddenly found that religion represented nothing he believed in, from Muslim extremists blowing themselves up in God's name to Christians condemning gays, contraception and stem cell research.

"I stopped praying because I lost my faith," said Wright, 59, a thoughtful man with graying hair and clear blue eyes. "Now I truly loathe any sight or sound of religion. I blush at what I used to believe."

Wright is now an avowed atheist and part of a growing number of vocal nonbelievers in Europe and the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic, membership in once-quiet groups of nonbelievers is rising, and books attempting to debunk religion have been surprise bestsellers, including "The God Delusion," by Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins.

New groups of nonbelievers are sprouting on college campuses, anti-religious blogs are expanding across the Internet, and in general, more people are publicly saying they have no religious faith.

More than three out of four people in the world consider themselves religious, and those with no faith are a distinct minority. But especially in richer nations, and nowhere more than in Europe, growing numbers of people are actively saying they don't believe there is a heaven or a hell or anything other than this life.

Many analysts trace the rise of what some are calling the "nonreligious movement" to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The sight of religious fanatics killing 3,000 people caused many to begin questioning -- and rejecting -- all religion.

"This is overwhelmingly the topic of the moment," said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society of Britain. "Religion in this country was very quiet until September 11, and now it is at the center of everything."

Since the 2001 attacks, a string of religiously inspired bomb and murder plots has shaken Europe. Muslim radicals killed 52 people on the London public transit system in 2005 and 191 on Madrid trains in 2004. People apparently aiming for a reward in heaven were arrested in Britain last year for trying to blow up transatlantic jetliners. And earlier this month in Germany, authorities arrested converts to Islam on charges that they planned to blow up American facilities there.

Many Europeans are angry at demands to use taxpayer money to accommodate Islam, Europe's fastest-growing religion, which now has as many as 20 million followers on the continent. Along with calls for prayer rooms in police stations, foot baths in public places and funding for Islamic schools and mosques, expensive legal battles have broken out over the niqab, the Muslim veil that covers all but the eyes, which some devout women seek to wear in classrooms and court.

Christian fundamentalist groups who want to halt certain science research, reverse abortion and gay rights and teach creationism rather than evolution in schools are also angering people, according to Sanderson and others.

"There is a feeling that religion is being forced on an unwilling public, and now people are beginning to speak out against what they see as rising Islamic and Christian militancy," Sanderson said.


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