Tuesday, November 18, 2008

(Not just) Atheists Reach Out

It is reaching out, not proselytizing. Non-believers. or believers in the senselessness of religion, have an organization, Freedom from Religion, and -- of course -- a website.

Late next month, atheists, humanists, freethinkers, secularists -- in short, nonbelievers of every description -- will gather in dozens of cities to mark the holiday they call HumanLight.

Late next month? Around Christmas?

Whether by singing from a Humanist Hymnal, decorating a winter wreath or lighting candles dedicated to personal heroes, they'll celebrate what has been an exhilarating ride for the faithless -- a surge in recognition that has many convinced they're on the brink of making a mark on mainstream America.

Seems a secular religion. And get this: For the first time, the faithless even raised enough funds to hire a congressional lobbyist.

What the heck is that person going to lobby for? Oy vay.

"We've had an undercurrent of emotional and academic support, but we've been waiting to make a movement happen," said Joe Zamecki, an Austin landscaper who recently organized Texas' first statewide convention of nonbelievers. "It's a very new age."

That's Joe the Non-believer. Get it?

Secularist groups say their membership began to surge in 2005, when Congress sought to prevent Terri Schiavo's husband from removing her feeding tube. Many new members said they hoped nonbelievers could serve as a counterweight to religious influence in political affairs.

That was an awful incident. Congress and the President rushed into that one, tripping over one another to appear the most pious.

Rather than renew old battles, such as the symbolic fight to remove "In God We Trust" from currency, members are mobilizing to repair what they view as breaches of the wall between church and state -- such as federal funding for faith-based charities and teaching of intelligent design in science class. They believe many others sympathize with their views -- but are too timid to commit.

The wall has been breached, and it needs repair.

The new ad campaigns and other public-relations efforts are designed to raise comfort levels about atheism by making the point that nonbelievers are "just as ethical and moral as anyone else," said Lori Lipman Brown, who lobbies Congress on behalf of the Secular Coalition for America.

The Secular Coalition for America, of course, has a website. So does the American Humanist Association. As does FreeThoughtAction.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., has hit at least nine states in the past year with billboards that look like they're made of stained glass but say "Beware of Dogma," "Imagine No Religion," or -- coming soon -- "Reason's Greetings." The group also advertises on the liberal radio network Air America. One spot features Ron Reagan, son of the former president, who signs off: "Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist. Not afraid of burning in hell."

Emphasis added. Of course, there is a backlash.

In seeking the spotlight, the movement risks a backlash. Some Christians find the billboards deeply offensive, especially at this time of year. In recent weeks, press releases from the religious right have accused atheists of "mocking" and "insulting" Christmas. In rural Chambersburg, Pa., one Christian group responded to an "Imagine No Religion" billboard with a giant sign of their own, asking: "Why Do Atheists Hate America?"

Recycling that political slogan, aren't they? Palin used it, too.

Even some who share common goals with nonbelievers are uneasy with the provocative nature of the ad campaign.

"Atheists can act very much like Christian fundamentalists from time to time," said James Webb, president of the Community of Reason in Kansas City, which includes both believers and skeptics. "It's important not to be in-your-face with people."

For a non-believer, it seems contradictory that there is organized atheism. Still, it is an intriguing concept. But, can non-believers unite?

"A pastor can say to his flock, 'All rise,' and everyone rises. But try that in an atheist meeting," said Marvin Straus, co-founder of an atheist group in Boulder, Colo. "A third of the people will rise. A third will tell you to go to hell. And a third will start arguing....That's why it's hard to say where we're going as a movement."


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