March 4, 2007 — -- This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought by a group of atheists who claim the Bush administration's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives violates the separation of church and state.
It's just one example of how atheists are becoming increasingly assertive -- arguing not only that religion is false, but also a threat to civilization.
Outside the court, atheists and people of faith squared off. Inside, the Freedom From Religion Foundation made its case against the president's pet program.
The foundation's co-president, Dan Barker, was a fundamentalist preacher for 19 years. Now, he's preaching from a different text -- specifically, "separation of church and state, and reason and kindness in place of superstition and ideologies."
But Barker and his wife, Annie Laurie Gaylor, who is also the foundation's co-president, said the problem is bigger than the Bush administration and its faith-based initiatives. They see a world being torn apart by religious fundamentalists of all stripes.
"[Religion is] the source of the greatest violence in the world," Gaylor said. "More people have been killed in the world for religion over any other reason."
That atheist argument seems to resonating. There's an atheist Internet recruiting campaign, atheist summer camps and several bestselling books -- including "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris.
Harris claims religion is nothing less than a global threat.
"We have a world that has been shattered, quite unnecessarily, by competing religious beliefs," Harris said. "We have Christians against Muslims against Jews. They're making incompatible claims on real estate in the Middle East as though God were some kind of omniscient real estate broker parsing out parcels of land to his chosen flock. People are literally dying over ancient literature."
Perhaps not surprisingly, people of faith don't agree with the argument that faith is wrong or dangerous.
"I understand that people who claim certain religious beliefs have done terrible things throughout history," said Randall Baumer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University. "I think the challenge is for people of faith to be true to the principles of the faith. I think the challenge is coming back and reclaiming the real principles of the faith, so that we act decently toward one another."
While Ballmer agrees atheists have every right to their own beliefs -- or lack thereof -- he feels these new atheists have something in common with the fundamentalists they oppose.
"We talk about Islamic fundamentalists; we talk about Christian fundamentalists," Ballmer said. "I happen to think there are also secular fundamentalists out there, people who have no tolerance whatsoever for religion or faith, and in some ways their tactics and their arguments are just, to me, just as offensive as religious fundamentalists."
Atheists who envision a world without religion may have a while to wait. While polls show that the percentage of Americans who say they're not part of an organized religion has grown from 8 to 14 percent, only two percent of Americans identify themselves as atheist or agnostic.
One Evangelical minister called the atheist movement, "a firecracker going off in the forest."
Barker clearly thinks that firecracker has potential.
"If it's a dry forest, it can cause quite a conflagration there, can't it? There can be a tipping point in any society where people say enough is enough," he said. "And if enough atheists and agnostics speak out and that firecracker goes off, it can cause quite a sensation."