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

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.

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.

But the church has disproportionate power and influence in Parliament, she said. For example, she said, polls show that 80 percent of Britons want the terminally ill who are in pain to have the right to a medically assisted death, yet such proposals have been effectively killed by a handful of powerful bishops.

"We can't accept that religious faiths have a monopoly on ethics, morality and spirituality," Massey said. Now, she added, humanist and secularist groups are becoming "more confident and more powerful" and recognize that they represent the wishes of huge numbers of people.

While the faithful have traditionally met like-minded people at the local church, mosque or synagogue, it has long been difficult for those without religion to find each other. The expansion of the Internet has made it a vital way for nonbelievers to connect.

In retirement centers, restaurants, homes and public lectures and debates, nonbelievers are convening to talk about how to push back what they see as increasingly intrusive religion.

"Born Again Atheist," "Happy Heathen" and other anti-religious T-shirts and bumper stickers are increasingly seen on the streets. Groups such as the Skeptics in the Pub in London, which recently met to discuss this topic, "God: The Failed Hypothesis," are now finding that they need bigger rooms to accommodate those who find them online.

Wright, the teacher who recently declared himself a nonbeliever, is one of thousands of people who have joined dues-paying secular and humanist groups in Europe this year.

Sitting in his living room on a quiet cul-de-sac in this English town of 30,000, Wright said he now goes online every day to keep up with the latest atheist news.

"One has to step up and stem the rise of religious influence," said Wright, who is thinking of becoming a celebrant at humanist funerals. He said he recently went to the church funeral of his brother-in-law and couldn't bear the "vacuous prayers of the vicar," who, Wright said, "looked bored and couldn't wait to leave."

Now, instead of each morning silently reciting a favorite nighttime prayer, "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers . . . " (from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer), he spends the time just thinking about the day ahead.

He said his deceased mother, a Catholic, was comforted by her faith: "It kept her going through difficult times," particularly when his father left her when he and his sister were young.

"I really don't know how I will react if something really bad happens," he said. "But there is no going back. There is nothing to go back to."

Not believing in an afterlife, he said, "makes you think you have to make the most of this life. It's the now that matters. It also makes you feel a greater urgency of things that matter," such as halting global warming, and not just dismissing it as being "all in God's plan."

He called himself heartened that the National Secular Society, which he recently joined, is planning to open chapters at a dozen universities this fall. The rising presence of the nonreligious movement, he said, is "fantastic."

"It's a bit of opposition, isn't it?" he said. "Why should these religious groups hold so much sway?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company