Arnold Via is the image of a modern-day holy man: Army fatigues, brown hair that drifts in waves over his shoulders.

But from his home in this small town east of the Shenandoah Mountains, his message is anti-God, anti-Christianity, anti-religion.

"I am a priest of atheism," Via says. "I work 18 hours a day trying to erase the thousand years of religious rubbish enslaving people's minds."

Via, 55, is a head-turner in his rumpled green fatigues that are almost entirely covered with pro-atheism buttons. But he preaches the glory of atheism with the fervor of a man in fear of his Maker.

"I am obsessed with atheism," he says in one of his few understatements. "I'm not trying to convert Christians. It would be a waste of time and effort to try to free anyone chained to the shackles of the supernatural."

Instead, Via says, he is trying to reach atheists who are unaware they have sisters and brothers in the cause. To that end, he founded the Virginia chapter of the American Atheists last fall.

The chapter includes about 100 members in Virginia, Maryland, and the District. This summer, he started "Dial-an-Atheist" in Alexandria, a recorded phone message that Via uses to spread the "good word" of atheism. Now he is trying to get a stronger toehold in Northern Virgnia by founding a separate atheist chapter there.

"There are a lot of lonely and closet atheists out there," says Via, who contends that atheists face prejudices as severe as any minority group in the country. "We need to sell atheism. Atheists need to be told it's okay to be what they are."

A recent Gallup poll indicated that four percent of Americans do not believe in God. At the Austin, Tex., national headquarters, of American Atheists, headed by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, officials say the organization has more than 100,000 members in 46 chapters.

At the root of atheism is a disbelief in God and a world governed by the supernatural. Throughout history, many philosophers and scientists have denounced the existence of God: Neitzsche proclaimed Him dead, Marx banished Him from the heavens, Darwn drove Him out of the empirical world. Freud insisted He belonged in the subconscious.

Via rejects those scholarly attemptsa to deal with God. He simply does not like the idea of a supreme being.

Yet, despite his often-strident condemnation of spiritual forces, Via's decision to embrace atheism is strangely akin to that of the most fervent Christians' decision to embrace Christ.

Raised in Virginia's Shenandoah Mountains with 11 brothers and sisters, Via says he was taught the ways of the United Brethren Chruch, although he was not baptized. He left school in his early teens, and at 17 joined the Navy.

In the early 1960s, when Via was 20 and stationed in the New Hebrides, he dcided to fulfill a promise to his mother and undergo baptism.

"I was in this thatch-covered church waiting to be baptized, when the priest raised his hand above my head preparing to pour the water over my forehead," Via recalls.

"An instantaneious recognition flashed through my spirit that what I was gong through didn't make any sense. Suddenly, I was free from the bondage of Christianity and ran from the church -- never baptized."

The "conversion" to atheism, Via says, was one of the most spiritual experiences of his life. "My brain spontaneously matured to the point of realizing that everything evloving around religion was mere fantasy." Until then, Via says, he was a firm believer in Christianity.

When asked to explain the contradiction between his emotionally laden conversion and the more rational manner in which he insists most atheists arrive at non-belief, Via merely shrugs and accepts the discrepancy. "Trying to make a distinction betwen atheism as something in itself and atheism as another form of spiritual religion is impossible. I guess it is as much a cult as any relgion."

But he quickly adds, "I still think believing in God is as crazy as believing in Donald Duck and the Three Little Pigs."

Via resigned from the Navy in his mid-20s. For many years he criss-crossed he country, working in a variety of jobs before joining the Merchant Marine. At every stop, he looked for soulmates in atheism.

"I drifted around for years in search of other atheists. I thought I was in the only one alive."

Slowly, he began to meet other atheists. In 1963, he came in contact with Madalyn Murray O'Hair who was fighting against prayer in the schools.

But Via did not become actively involved with the national atheist movement until the mid-1970s when O'Hair's group -- then known as the Society of Separationists -- " came out of the closet" and regrouped under the name of American Atheists.

After retiring from the Merchant Marine in 1975, Via began an advertising and letter-writing campaign in Virginia newpapers proclaiming the merits of atheism. Last fall, he decided the newspaper work was not enough and he formed the Virginia chapter of American Atheists.

"We all love Arnold -- he's wonderful," says O'Hari. "Traditionally, atheists have had problems publishing in newspapers. Arnold has completely broken through that barrier."

Surprisingly, Via says, Virgnia's Christian community has not harassed him. His correspondence is equally divided between what he calls quack mail -- Christian pamphlets -- and interested inquiries.

He takes out two ads a month in Virginia newspapers -- few newspapers have refused his requests to buy space.

The cost of the ads, a newsletter he publishes and the Dial-an-Atheist line -- totaling about $300 a month --is footed almost entirely by Via, as witness, he says, "to my disbelief."

The $15 yearly membership dues for members of the Virginia atheists chapter goes to the national organization for legal fees. According to Austin headquarters, American Atheists is involved in more than 10 lawsuits charging the government with breaching its constitutional mandate of separation of church and state.

In one case, O'Hair is challenging being arrested after she refused to leave the Austin City Council room when she disrupted an opening prayer. In contrast to O'Hair fiery political involvement, Via maintains a low profile in Virgnia and leaves the politicking to headquarters.

"I picketed the General Assembly on its opening day last year to protest church tax exemption," he says, "but the organization is relatively new in the state and I have no desire to get into a battle."

Via, who is a bachelor, says he has no interest in personal or romantic battles."I guess you could say," he chuckles, "I have pledged my celibacy for atheism."

His one desire, then?

"To offer a presentation of American atheism that even the Pope will marvel at."