Group Trying to Organize Nonbelievers : Image: The small Sherman Oaks organization is focusing on church-state separation issues and is broadcasting programs on cable television and radio.


Just because many people are deserting the ranks of organized religion doesn’t mean that they’re signing up with organized atheism--which the militant unbelievers hope to change.

A widely discussed recent book, “The Culture of Disbelief” by Stephen Carter, says U.S. society largely ignores religion, and studies show that the news and entertainment media give short shrift to spiritual matters today.

In addition, recent surveys, including a 1989 statewide study by UC Santa Barbara researchers, have shown that about 20% of adults have no religion.


Does all that mean popularity for Atheists United, a 12-year-old organization based in Sherman Oaks? No, says Ken Bonnell, the group’s president.

“Atheists and humanists tend not to be joiners,” Bonnell said. The group has only 350 members, and only about 100 people normally attend its monthly meeting at Burton Chace Park in Marina del Rey, he said.

Alexander Prairie, who had been president since 1989, resigned last year when the board of the all-volunteer Atheists United denied his request to get paid for his work. “If they want to expand and become more than a backwater outfit, they need to have some paid help,” Prairie said recently.

Yet, hope springs eternal, even among nonbelievers.

With a reorganization that enlists more members in more duties, Atheists United is also seeking a more positive public image and focusing on church-state separation issues.

The group is showing videotaped programs on public access cable television in the Los Angeles area, expanding its weekly radio program on KPFK in coming months and will be hosting the first national meeting of Atheists Alliance in the Valley next year.

Lee Baker of Toluca Lake, vice president of Atheists United and co-chair of the Atheists Alliance meeting, brings a moderate tone to the nonbeliever groups.


The image of atheism is not enhanced by “futile attempts to convert fundamentalists” or by caustic critiques of religion’s holy books, she said.

“Some of my best friends are religious,” said Baker, a former fashion designer who has been active in Democratic Party work. She said Atheists United is forming an activist roster and a Toastmasters club in hopes of alerting the public “to the dangers of religious right-wing encroachment on our secular society.”

“It is time to take our place in the general community as contributors to the common good in practical ways,” Baker urged in the organization’s last newsletter.

Atheist United leaders applauded a federal lawsuit filed June 8 in Denver by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, challenging the presence of the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency.


The foundation, based in Madison, Wis., contended that the 1956 law placing the motto on money was unconstitutional because it implied government endorsement of religion. Two previous legal challenges to the motto, including one by Madalyn Murray O’Hair of Austin, Tex.--who brought the lawsuit that banished Bible-reading from U.S. public schools--were dismissed by federal judges.

Dan Barker, press spokesman for the Wisconsin foundation, said the suit seeks to show that “In God We Trust” is commonly understood as a religious expression, not as a symbolic or patriotic phrase. A national survey commissioned by the foundation found that 61% said the motto was religious and 71% said it endorsed a belief in God.


Barker credited Bonnell as “one of those people who has helped on this” by urging the foundation to collect evidence to support just such a lawsuit.


A retiree who lives in Eagle Rock, Bonnell said Atheists United has few resources at present to bring legal action, but he has asked Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman to reconsider the legality of a cross that was re-erected on county land in the Cahuenga Pass in December.

Atheists United was formed in the winter of 1982-83 by breakaway members of American Atheists, a Texas-based group founded by O’Hair, after a dispute over tactics. The Los Angeles chapter, which objected to Nativity displays on parkland owned by the city of Santa Monica, had accepted a compromise that permitted the atheists group to add its own display in Palisades Park.

After O’Hair strongly criticized them for accepting such a deal, the chapter officers resigned and Atheists United was formed in May, 1982, with Bonnell as its first president.

Advocates of atheism nationally are still struggling to get out from under the long shadow of O’Hair, the country’s best-known atheist because of her suit leading to the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision to ban devotional Bible readings in public schools. O’Hair has taunted other nonbelievers to “come out of the closet” and declare themselves atheists rather than calling themselves agnostics, freethinkers or humanists.