More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
Published: April 26, 2009
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Two months after the local atheist organization here put up a billboard saying “Don’t Believe in God? You Are Not Alone,” the group’s 13 board members met in Laura and Alex Kasman’s living room to grapple with the fallout.
The problem was not that the group, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, had attracted an outpouring of hostility. It was the opposite. An overflow audience of more than 100 had showed up for their most recent public symposium, and the board members discussed whether it was time to find a larger place.
And now parents were coming out of the woodwork asking for family-oriented programs where they could meet like-minded nonbelievers.
“Is everyone in favor of sponsoring a picnic for humanists with families?” asked the board president, Jonathan Lamb, a 27-year-old meteorologist, eliciting a chorus of “ayes.”
More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).
They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.
They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.
“It’s not about carrying banners or protesting,” said Herb Silverman, a math professor at the College of Charleston who founded the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, which has about 150 members on the coast of the Carolinas. “The most important thing is coming out of the closet.”
Polls show that the ranks of atheists are growing. The American Religious Identification Survey, a major study released last month, found that those who claimed “no religion” were the only demographic group that grew in all 50 states in the last 18 years.
Nationally, the “nones” in the population nearly doubled, to 15 percent in 2008 from 8 percent in 1990. In South Carolina, they more than tripled, to 10 percent from 3 percent. Not all the “nones” are necessarily committed atheists or agnostics, but they make up a pool of potential supporters.
Local and national atheist organizations have flourished in recent years, fed by outrage over the Bush administration’s embrace of the religious right. A spate of best-selling books on atheism also popularized the notion that nonbelief is not just an argument but a cause, like environmentalism or muscular dystrophy.
Ten national organizations that variously identify themselves as atheists, humanists, freethinkers and others who go without God have recently united to form the Secular Coalition for America, of which Mr. Silverman is president. These groups, once rivals, are now pooling resources to lobby in Washington for separation of church and state.
A wave of donations, some in the millions of dollars, has enabled the hiring of more paid professional organizers, said Fred Edwords, a longtime atheist leader who directs an umbrella group, the United Coalition of Reason, which plans to spawn 20 local groups around the country in the next year.
Despite changing attitudes, polls continue to show that atheists are ranked lower than any other minority or religious group when Americans are asked whether they would vote for or approve of their child marrying a member of that group.
Over lunch with some new atheist joiners at a downtown Charleston restaurant serving shrimp and grits, one young mother said that her husband was afraid to allow her to go public as an atheist because employers would refuse to hire him.
But another member, Beverly Long, a retired school administrator who now teaches education at the Citadel, said that when she first moved to Charleston from Toronto in 2001, “the first question people asked me was, What church do you belong to?” Ms. Long attended Wednesday dinners at a Methodist church, for the social interaction, but never felt at home. Since her youth, she had doubted the existence of God but did not discuss her views with others.
Ms. Long found the secular humanists through a newspaper advertisement and attended a meeting. Now, she is ready to go public, she said, especially after doing some genealogical research recently. “I had ancestors who fought in the American Revolution so I could speak my mind,” she said.
Until recent years, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry were local pariahs. Mr. Silverman — whose specialty license plate, one of many offered by the state, says “In Reason We Trust” — was invited to give the invocation at the Charleston City Council once, but half the council members walked out. The local chapter of Habitat for Humanity would not let the Secular Humanists volunteer to build houses wearing T-shirts that said “Non Prophet Organization,” he said.
When their billboard went up in January, with their Web site address displayed prominently, they expected hate mail.
“But most of the e-mails were grateful,” said Laura Kasman, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina.
The board members meeting in the Kasmans’ living room were an unlikely mix that included a gift store owner, a builder, a grandmother, a retired nursing professor, a retired Navy officer, an administrator at a primate sanctuary and a church musician. They are also diverse in their attitudes toward religion.
Loretta Haskell, the church musician, said: “I did struggle at one point as to whether or not I should be making music in churches, given my position on things. But at the same time I like using my music to move people, to give them comfort. And what I’ve found is, I am not one of the humanists who feels that religion is a bad thing.”
The group has had mixed reactions to President Obama, who acknowledged nonbelievers in his inauguration speech. “I sent him a thank-you note,” Ms. Kasman said. But Sharon Fratepietro, who is married to Mr. Silverman, said, “It seemed like one long religious ceremony, with a moment of lip service.”
Part of what is giving the movement momentum is the proliferation of groups on college campuses. The Secular Student Alliance now has 146 chapters, up from 42 in 2003.
At the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, 19 students showed up for a recent evening meeting of the “Pastafarians,” named for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — a popular spoof on religion dreamed up by an opponent of intelligent design, the idea that living organisms are so complex that the best explanation is that a higher intelligence designed them.
Andrew Cederdahl, the group’s co-founder, asked for volunteers for the local food bank and for a coming debate with a nearby Christian college. Then Mr. Cederdahl opened the floor to members to tell their “coming out stories.”
Andrew Morency, who attended a Christian high school, said that when he got to college and studied evolutionary biology he decided that “creationists lie.”
Josh Streetman, who once attended the very Christian college that the Pastafarians were about to debate, said he knew the Bible too well to be sure that Scripture is true. Like Mr. Streetman, many of the other students at the meeting were highly literate in the Bible and religious history.
In keeping with the new generation of atheist evangelists, the Pastafarian leaders say that their goal is not confrontation, or even winning converts, but changing the public’s stereotype of atheists. A favorite Pastafarian activity is to gather at a busy crossroads on campus with a sign offering “Free Hugs” from “Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 4, 2009
An article last Monday about the increasing visibility of American atheists misidentified the founder of an atheist umbrella group, the United Coalition of Reason. He is Steve Rade — not Fred Edwords, who directs the group.
More Articles in US » A version of this article appeared in print on April 27, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition.