Godless in America

It's time for atheists to show some pride, says the Infidel Guy.

"I'm really trying to show people that it's OK that you don't believe," he says.

The Infidel Guy, whose real name is Reginald Finley, is one of a considerable number of nonbelievers who feel they are dismissed as an insignificant group on the fringes of society. "I believed for a long time that atheists were evil people," says Finley, who hosts a series of "Infidel Guy" Internet radio shows about atheism.

Spurred on in part by controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance, the religious tone of 9/11 remembrance services, some atheists appear ready to speak out.

This week, avowed atheist Darrell Lambert faces expulsion from the Boy Scouts for refusing to profess a belief in God but the 19-year-old Eagle Scout says he won't lie about his views on religion. On Saturday, the American Atheists are organizing a "Godless Americans" march on Washington to draw attention to the concerns of non-believers.

"There's a high level of activism now," says Ellen Johnson, the American Atheists' president. "Maybe it had to do with Sept. 11 … I never saw such activism and anger from nonbelievers to the way the government treated them."

A ‘Sept. 11 Effect’

For nonbelievers like Johnson, the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was particularly troubling. The overtly religious tone of remembrance services failed to acknowledge that some Americans were horrified by the attacks, but did not believe in prayer or looking to God, she says.

Johnson and other atheists stress they understand that many people sought comfort in religion after 9/11. They wish people recognized that religion was not the only way to cope, however.

"It's just a frustration at saying that only through faith can people come together," says Jeremy Warach, a 38-year-old project manager in New York.

In addition to raising the profile of atheists in America, the marchers cite a number of hot-button political subjects, such as teaching creationism in schools, abortion, stem-cell research, and First Amendment issues of the separation of church and state.

"Religion and morality are separate issues," says Ed Buckner, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, which is participating in the march.

It is tough to shake the image of atheists as a fringe group, however. The Godless Americans march made headlines when it agreed to allow some Satanist groups to participate, on the grounds that they were not actually religious organizations.

Atheists Minding Their Own Business

To the frustration of activists among their ranks, most nonbelievers seem content to live their lives without going to First Amendment rallies or attending "freethinker" workshops.

"It doesn't really affect me enough in day-to-day life that you would want to join an organization to try to combat it," admits Ross Johnson, an Internet software consultant in Chicago who is a skeptic on religious matters.

"I'm not here to promote atheism … I don't need to fight with everybody," agrees Phil Leone, a 35-year-old bank credit manager who lives outside Philadelphia. Leone says out of deference to his wife, who is a practicing Catholic, both his children were baptized.

Many unaffiliated atheists like Pam Sellman cringe at the combative approach of America's most famous atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who said she was proud to be labeled the "most hated woman in America."

In the 1960s, O'Hair successfully challenged the constitutionality of prayer in public schools, but alienated many moderates with her inflammatory rhetoric. She was kidnapped and killed in an extortion scheme in 1995.

"I think to try to shock people into it is just going to do what Madalyn did and set everyone against her," says Sellman, a graphics designer in Maryland.

Not all atheists have forsaken O'Hair's approach. This summer, Michael Newdow drew considerable public scorn for challenging the constitutionality of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Sellman says she mostly keeps her opinion on religion to herself. But it can be awkward when she tells people she does not believe in God, she says. "People have actually accosted me at work … and said, 'You don't believe in Jesus?" she says. "You're looked at like some kind of nut."

"I think it's hard to be a nonbeliever in America," says Michael Shermer, the head of the Skeptics Society. "We're such a minority."

Five Percent, Say the Experts: But Many Disagree

America is one of the most religious nations in the developed world, with far more people attending church and professing their faith than in many European countries, for example.

Roughly 5 percent of the population consider themselves nonbelievers, according to numerous polls, and that number has been relatively steady over recent decades, says Rodney Stark, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Washington.

"I've looked at polls going back to the 1930s and, hell, nothing's changed," Stark says.

Nonbelievers tend to think that number is artificially low, however. The American Atheists believe there are about 30 million "Godless" Americans.

"People don't always give accurate answers [to surveys and polls]," says Ed Buckner, of the Council for Secular Humanism.

Buckner points to a 2001 study by the City University of New York, which found a drop in religious identification over the past decade. In 1990, the report found 90 percent of the adult population identified with a particular religious group, such as Catholic or Jewish. In 2001, that figure dropped to 81 percent.

A 2001 ABCNEWS poll found that 13 percent of respondents said they had no religion.

"I do believe the number of people without religion is growing slowly," Buckner says.

Likewise, Reginald Finley, the host of the online "Live With the Infidel Guy," atheist radio show, is convinced large numbers of nonbelievers keep their views to themselves. "I get tons of e-mails from atheists in the closet," he says.

Some experts, such as Stark of the University of Washington, are skeptical, however. "The thing that's remarkable about American religion is how durable it is," says Stark, the sociologist of religion.

"No competent study has ever shown an increase in atheism in the United States," says Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University and an avowed atheist himself.

Complicating the question is the fact that there is no clear line between believers and nonbelievers. Some people say they are religious, but do not believe in a God that oversees the fates of human beings. Others have spiritual doubts and do not belong to an organized faith, but would not call themselves Godless or atheist.

"These categories aren't so easy," says Bruce Forbes, a United Methodist minister who is also a religious studies professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.

"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."