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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Time of Doubt for Atheists

With the religious making inroads in popular culture and politics, nonbelievers yearn for higher power in Washington.

July 18, 2005|Gina Piccalo | 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.

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.

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."

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.

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