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A Time of Doubt for Atheists

Times Staff Writer

It’s been years, decades even, since the Almighty was so hot.

The evidence is everywhere. President Bush rallied the faithful to hold on to the White House. A book by an Orange County preacher extolling God’s purpose in our lives stays a bestseller for more than two years. And Hollywood, frequently seen as a den of iniquity, is courting a more spiritual audience in movies and TV.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 3, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
Salvation Army -- A July 18 article in Section A about atheists said the Salvation Army required employees to embrace Jesus Christ. The religious nonprofit requires only that its uniformed officers, who are also ordained ministers, be Christian. Other employees must “understand and support” the group’s mission statement, which is “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in his name without discrimination.”

Faith is the new must-have, evident when a major leaguer points skyward after his base hit, when a movie star credits the Big Guy for his Oscar, when the Justice Department backs the display of the Ten Commandments at two state capitols, and when it defends the Salvation Army’s requirement that employees embrace Jesus Christ.

So where does that leave the fraction of Americans who define themselves as godless? Although the percentage of Americans who claim no religion is about 14%, less than a quarter of them identify themselves as atheists, according to recent polls.

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Some are using humor to cope, such as actress Julia Sweeney in her one-woman play “Letting Go of God,” which ran in Los Angeles for several months this year. “It’s really because I take you so seriously,” she tells an imaginary God, “that I can’t believe in you.”

Others see the future as a time when nonbelievers are outcasts and religion dictates law, social protocol, even private life.

“The McCarthy era is the last time this climate existed,” says Simi Valley resident Stuart Bechman, co-president of Atheists United, a local affiliate of Atheist Alliance International.

Although the comparison sounds melodramatic, atheist activists believe the climate to be so perilous that they’re considering something drastic: unity.

Atheists aren’t by nature of one mind. There’s a godless organization for every wrinkle of nonbelief -- the prayer-never-hurt-anyone, live-and-let-live atheists; the prove-the-God-fearing-world-wrong, keep-America-secular atheists; and the contrarian I-don’t-believe-in-God-but-don’t-call-me-an-atheist atheists.

Fear, however, is a great motivator, and politically active atheists know that they need an advocate in government to be heard. Unfortunately, as one activist noted, most politicians are as eager to align with the godless ranks as they are to lobby for pedophiles. Hence the need for an image makeover.

Keen to cast off stereotypes of immorality, atheists are stressing their integrity, patriotism and respect for the faithful while staying true to their age-old commitment to the separation of church and state. Some even bristle at the terms “atheist” or “nonbeliever.” Others have begun raising funds, lobbying politicians and building online communities.

There have been larger-scale actions as well. The first godless march on Washington drew thousands in fall 2002, and a few months later the Godless Americans Political Action Committee was formed. This year, an Inauguration Summit of 22 like-minded groups was held in Washington to stimulate cooperation days before Bush’s swearing in. And this Veterans Day, so-called foxhole atheists (servicemen and women who are nonbelievers) will be honored in the capital.

If all goes as planned, says Ellen Johnson, longtime president of American Atheists, at least one presidential candidate will be courting their vote in 2008.

“We can’t complain about what the religious do,” she says. “All we have to do is copy their strategy.”

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Best or Worst of Times?

Some among the nonbelievers say life is pretty good compared with decades past when violence was a common threat and professed nonbelievers were driven from their jobs and homes.

“I actually think it is getting better for atheists in the U.S., despite the religiosity of the current administration,” Las Vegas atheist Clark Adams writes in an e-mail. “Many celebrities are on record as nonbelievers, and it’s not too uncommon to see an atheist positively portrayed on TV or in movies.”

Others, though, label this argument “denial.” They’re quick to reference the many atheists who so fear harassment that they join atheist groups anonymously and others who are cast out of their families, refused positions involving children or relieved of jobs because of their nonbelief.

It’s this group that pushes the separation of church and state, a debate energized during the 1960s by legendary atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who proclaimed herself “the most hated woman in America.”

They reject the argument often cited by Christian activists that the nation’s government was founded by Christians. They argue that although some of the authors of the Constitution may have been religious men, they consistently maintained a clear boundary between their faith and their government. They note that until the communist scare of the 1950s, “In God we trust” wasn’t the national motto, nor did it appear on paper currency, and “under God” was absent from the Pledge of Allegiance.

They point out that Bush -- who as Texas governor declared April 17, 2000, Jesus Day -- has awarded religious “armies of compassion” and other faith-based groups more than $3 billion in public funds since 2003. And they feel the steel in remarks by former California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, now on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, who told Roman Catholic legal professionals in April that people of faith were embroiled in a “war” with secular humanists.

“I have been threatened with damnation so many times it’s stupid,” says Dave Silverman of Piscataway, N.J., communications director of American Atheists and founder of NoGodBlog.com. “The amount of intolerance in this country is staggering.”

Atheists often keep quiet about their worldview. Some say that to volunteer their atheism offends believers.

“We have a social idea that it’s rude,” says Bobbie Kirkhart, Los Angeles-based president of Atheist Alliance International.

Others say it instantly taints society’s perception of them.

Silverman says his 8-year-old daughter, who he says is also an atheist, has been taunted as a Satanist by some of her Christian playmates. Atheist United’s Bechman says he usually receives hate mail or prank calls after he takes a stance on church-state issues. Los Angeles acting teacher and Thomas Jefferson impersonator Dale Reynolds says he’s sometimes consoled by believers saddened by his lack of faith.

“It is the kind of thing that if you bring it up, there are ramifications,” Reynolds says.

Still, there are those outspoken nonbelievers doing their best to influence the masses.

American Atheists’ Johnson, whose national organization claims 2,200 members, is a regular on news talk shows. She is also executive director of the Godless Americans PAC, and meets with politicians to build awareness and support for church-state separation legislation. She helped organize the 2002 march on Washington and is organizing November’s Atheists in Foxholes parade and ceremony. Yet, she acknowledges, atheism is a hard sell.

“The candidate is in an awkward position,” she says. “They’re wary to be endorsed by an atheist.... We have to be able to deliver the votes to get them into office. I can’t do that yet.”

Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert of Sacramento hope to change that with a new name and an online community. They founded the Brights’ Net (the-brights.net) in 2003 to create a place for people who share “a worldview free from supernatural and mystical elements.” They chose the term “brights” because, unlike “godless,” “atheist” and “nonbeliever,” it did not define them in religious terms. By creating this label, Futrell and Geisert hope to “level the playing field” and recast members of their community as independent thinkers who celebrate knowledge without identifying themselves as vociferous anti-theists.

They want to build a large, influential community, similar to MoveOn.org, to sway public opinion. So far, they say, there are Brights in more than 115 countries.

“There’s this tremendous feeling of being a second-class citizen when you know you’re patriotic and working for all kinds of good things for the country, and yet you’re ranked with the pedophiles,” Futrell says. “You have to have political influence in order to get cultural change of any kind.”

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Celebrity Heroes

If the politicians don’t come, it doesn’t hurt a cause to have a celebrity.

In 1999, then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura became a hero for the movement when he refused to endorse the National Day of Prayer and told Playboy magazine that organized religion was “a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.”

Actress-writer Sweeney emerged this year as a sort of amiable advocate for nonbelief. “Letting Go of God,” which played at a small Hollywood theater, proved so popular that Sweeney is recording a CD of the performance, writing a book based on it and has plans to release it as a film.

Her show aims to entertain and disarm audiences as it traces Sweeney’s path away from Catholicism.

In one scene, a Bible study class causes her to find the book outrageous and disturbing. She asks herself, “Is this one big practical joke?” Her skepticism isn’t limited to one religion; after a journey to the Far East and a run-in with Deepak Chopra, she chooses science over faith because “for the first time, knowing too much didn’t ruin it.”

Breaking the news to her devout Catholic parents, however, didn’t go well. Her father forbade her from attending his funeral. Her mother complained that “at least being gay is socially acceptable.... Why can’t you just say you’re still searching?”

Sweeney didn’t respond to interview requests, but on her blog at juliasweeney.com, she described the fallout of the recent publicity.

The mail was so voluminous and, she writes, “so outraged and so filled with hate” that on June 13 she decided to stop blogging for a while and has considered moving.

“I think I tried really hard not to be hateful in my monologue,” she writes. “I tried to make a case for faith and show the struggle with compassion to all sides.... I think I have a lot in common with Christians ... because I think it’s majorly important if someone is religious or not. Only I think it should be on the ‘not’ side.”


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