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

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Though the number of nonbelievers speaking their minds is rising, academics say it's impossible to calculate how many people silently share that view. Many people who do not consider themselves religious or belong to any faith group often believe, even if vaguely, in a supreme being or an afterlife. Others are not sure what they believe.

The term atheist can imply aggressiveness in disbelief; many who don't believe in God prefer to call themselves humanists, secularists, freethinkers, rationalists or, a more recently coined term, brights.

"Where religion is weak, people don't feel a need to organize against it," said Phil Zuckerman, an American academic who has written extensively about atheism around the globe.

He and others said secular groups are also gaining strength in countries where religious influence over society looms large, including India, Israel and Turkey. "Any time we see an outspoken movement against religion, it tells us that religion has power there," Zuckerman said.

One group of nonbelievers in particular is attracting attention in Europe: the Council of Ex-Muslims. Founded earlier this year in Germany, the group now has a few hundred members and an expanding number of chapters across the continent. "You can't tell us religion is peaceful -- look around at the misery it is causing," said Maryam Namazie, leader of the group's British chapter.

She and other leaders of the council held a news conference in The Hague to launch the Dutch chapter on Sept. 11, the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States. "We are all atheists and nonbelievers, and our goal is not to eradicate Islam from the face of the earth," but to make it a private matter that is not imposed on others, she said.

The majority of nonbelievers say they are speaking out only because of religious fanatics. But some atheists are also extreme, urging people, for example, to blot out the words "In God We Trust" from every dollar bill they carry.

Gaining political clout and access to television and radio airtime is the goal of many of these groups. With a higher profile, they say, they could, for instance, lobby for all religious rooms in public hospitals to be closed, as a response to Muslims demanding prayer rooms because Christians have chapels.

Associations of nonbelievers are also moving to address the growing demand in Britain, Spain, Italy and other European countries for nonreligious weddings, funerals and celebrations for new babies. They are helping arrange ceremonies that steer clear of talk of God, heaven and miracles and celebrate, as they say, "this one life we know."

The British Humanist Association, which urges people who think "the government pays too much attention to religious groups" to join them, has seen its membership double in two years to 6,500.

A humanist group in the British Parliament that looks out for the rights of the nonreligious now has about 120 members, up from about 25 a year ago.

Doreen Massey, a Labor Party member of the House of Lords who belongs to that group, said most British people don't want legislators to make public policy decisions on issues such as abortion and other health matters based on their religious beliefs.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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