Godless in America

"If you ask [some] people if they are religious, they aren't," he says, "But if you asked them if they were spiritual, they'd say yes."

Some Pick Fights, Some Just Shrug

Like many people of faith, atheists vary greatly in whether and how they express their views, and what they think of people who disagree with them. Many admit they simply think religious people are wrong, and even foolish to maintain their faith.

Paul Kurtz, the head of the Council on Secular Humanism, wants to promote nonbelief as a positive alternative world-view. "What we want to argue is the use of reason," he says, "And that's very radical now."

Kurtz says he is not anti-religion, but he worries that the Constitutional separation of church and state is under attack.

"I think secularism is being eaten away," he says. "We have a quasi-theocracy developing."

Steve Azadian, a compliance officer at a brokerage firm in Florida, an atheist since he was 12, says religion is partly to blame for extremism and terrorism. "Where is people's common sense? How could they possibly believe what they believe?"

Other leaders in the nonbeliever community stress they want their views recognized and accepted as a valid alternative to religious faith.

"We're not trying to end religion in America or anything like that," says Michael Shermer, the leader of the Skeptics Society. "It's just to try to get people to be rational and open thinkers."

Ed Buckner, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, is equally quick to say he does not think religion is the source of all humanity's problems.

"I'm certainly not trying to suggest atheists can't be dangerous, too," he says. "Joseph Stalin springs to mind."

Many atheists openly say they hope more people will one day give up their belief in God, however — a view which may trouble many religious people.

Can We All Just Get Along?

Some experts think the tension between believers and nonbelievers can be resolved.

"I think it comes and goes, and it comes and goes," says Jennifer Michael Hecht, a history professor at Nassau Community College in New York, who is writing two books about the history of doubt.

Part of the problem, she says, is that believers and nonbelievers often think of atheism as a new, modern phenomenon. Religious leaders are concerned about a possible rise in atheism, while nonbelievers are excited by the possibility.

In fact, atheism has appealed to a small portion of Western Civilization for millennia, Hecht says, noting she has found records of religious skeptics dating back to 600 B.C.

In her view, neither atheism nor religion is likely to vanquish the other.

"It's been a sort of understood thing that these things coexisted."

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