Atheists Reach Out -- Just Don't Call It Proselytizing

Nonbelievers Think the Time Is Right to Better Organize Their Nonreligion and Swell the Membership; 'Reason's Greetings'

Late next month, atheists, humanists, freethinkers, secularists -- in short, nonbelievers of every description -- will gather in dozens of cities to mark the holiday they call HumanLight.

Whether by singing from a Humanist Hymnal, decorating a winter wreath or lighting candles dedicated to personal heroes, they'll celebrate what has been an exhilarating ride for the faithless -- a surge in recognition that has many convinced they're on the brink of making a mark on mainstream America.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which represents atheists and agnostics, kicked off an ad campaign with this billboard in Madison, Wis.
Jeff Dean

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which represents atheists and agnostics, kicked off an ad campaign with this billboard in Madison, Wis.The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which represents atheists and agnostics, kicked off an ad campaign with this billboard in Madison, Wis.

During the past three years, membership has grown in local and national associations of nonbelievers. Books attacking faith as a delusion shot up best-seller lists. For the first time, the faithless even raised enough funds to hire a congressional lobbyist.

Building on that momentum, nonbelievers have begun a very public campaign to win broad acceptance. On billboards and bus ads, radio commercials and the Internet, atheists are coming forward to declare, quite simply: We're here. And we're just like you.

"We've had an undercurrent of emotional and academic support, but we've been waiting to make a movement happen," said Joe Zamecki, an Austin landscaper who recently organized Texas' first statewide convention of nonbelievers. "It's a very new age."

Not so fast, religious leaders respond. They point out that the vast majority of Americans believe in God. A poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life earlier this year found 71% of American adults are absolutely certain God -- or some sort of universal spirit -- exists, and a further 17% said they were fairly certain. Only 5% said flatly that they don't believe.

Atheists "are talking to a very small slice of the population," said Mathew Staver, a leading Christian conservative and law-school dean. "In some ways, they're really just talking to themselves."

Nonbelievers point to a different set of statistics and societal trends. Americans are shifting away from formal allegiances with specific faiths. In 1990, about 90% of the U.S. adult population identified with a religious group, according to the widely cited American Religious Identification Survey. When the most recent survey was conducted in 2001, that dropped to 81%. Relatively few go so far as to call themselves atheists, but young Americans, especially, are drifting from organized religion, other surveys have found.

Unlike in Europe, where secularism has a strong hold, many atheists in the U.S. have felt like a shunned minority. Politicians often reflexively end speeches with "God bless America." Schoolchildren pledge their allegiance every day to "one nation, under God." City parks display the Ten Commandments. When atheists talk openly in public, "we often see people shaking their heads and moving away, like there's a plague zone around us," said Iggy Dybal, a real-estate broker in Kansas City, Kan.

Secularist groups say their membership began to surge in 2005, when Congress sought to prevent Terri Schiavo's husband from removing her feeding tube. Many new members said they hoped nonbelievers could serve as a counterweight to religious influence in political affairs.

Rather than renew old battles, such as the symbolic fight to remove "In God We Trust" from currency, members are mobilizing to repair what they view as breaches of the wall between church and state -- such as federal funding for faith-based charities and teaching of intelligent design in science class. They believe many others sympathize with their views -- but are too timid to commit.

The new ad campaigns and other public-relations efforts are designed to raise comfort levels about atheism by making the point that nonbelievers are "just as ethical and moral as anyone else," said Lori Lipman Brown, who lobbies Congress on behalf of the Secular Coalition for America.

As Doug Krueger, a philosophy professor in northwest Arkansas, put it: "Step one is for people to know we're not crazy, we're just regular people [who have] perfectly satisfactory lives without believing in God."

So the American Humanist Association is spending $42,000 to plaster buses in Washington, D.C., with ads asking: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." FreeThoughtAction and its local affiliates have put up billboards all over the country asking: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." Eight billboards are going up this month in Denver.

At the same time, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., has hit at least nine states in the past year with billboards that look like they're made of stained glass but say "Beware of Dogma," "Imagine No Religion," or -- coming soon -- "Reason's Greetings." The group also advertises on the liberal radio network Air America. One spot features Ron Reagan, son of the former president, who signs off: "Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist. Not afraid of burning in hell."

Local groups of atheists are also making a point of getting out in public to show that they're part of every community.

The Pennsylvania Nonbelievers rehabbed a women's shelter this fall. Kansas City FreeThinkers hold monthly walks in a dog park and weekly coffee-house meet-ups, advertised online. Secularists in Sacramento, Calif., stage a family-friendly Freethought Day each fall, complete with roving magicians.

Organizers of such efforts generally say they aren't trying to evangelize. Instead, they say their goal is to make the public more comfortable with the concept of atheism and give fellow nonbelievers a sense of community.

In seeking the spotlight, the movement risks a backlash. Some Christians find the billboards deeply offensive, especially at this time of year. In recent weeks, press releases from the religious right have accused atheists of "mocking" and "insulting" Christmas. In rural Chambersburg, Pa., one Christian group responded to an "Imagine No Religion" billboard with a giant sign of their own, asking: "Why Do Atheists Hate America?"

Even some who share common goals with nonbelievers are uneasy with the provocative nature of the ad campaign.

"Atheists can act very much like Christian fundamentalists from time to time," said James Webb, president of the Community of Reason in Kansas City, which includes both believers and skeptics. "It's important not to be in-your-face with people."

Some nonbelievers respond that this is a critical time to reach out, as a new administration prepares to take office in the White House.

For instance, some atheists are dismayed by some of President-elect Barack Obama's proposals, such as his pledge to funnel more tax dollars to faith-based groups running soup kitchens, tutoring programs and the like.

Others are more hopeful.

They note that in a big speech on faith last summer, Mr. Obama called for "Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and nonbeliever alike" to work together. It isn't often that politicians specifically mention nonbelievers, they say.

Secularists also are encouraged by Mr. Obama's eclectic upbringing. He has written that his mother disdained organized religion but exposed him to a variety of faith traditions and holy books as an anthropological study. Though he now talks often of his Christian faith and envisions a role for faith in the public square, Mr. Obama has sought to use inclusive language and signal respect for different traditions.

Obama transition spokeswoman Amy Brundage, in a statement, said, "People of all backgrounds and beliefs will have a voice in the Obama-Biden Administration."

Still, leading activists say nonbelievers tend to be just as wary of organized atheism as they are of organized religion -- making it tough to pull together a cohesive movement.

"A pastor can say to his flock, 'All rise,' and everyone rises. But try that in an atheist meeting," said Marvin Straus, co-founder of an atheist group in Boulder, Colo. "A third of the people will rise. A third will tell you to go to hell. And a third will start arguing....That's why it's hard to say where we're going as a movement."

Write to Stephanie Simon at stephanie.simon@wsj.com

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