Beyond Belief

Being an outspoken atheist in America has never been a walk in the park, but these are particularly trying days for nonbelievers.

At last month's inauguration of George W. Bush, the Reverend Franklin Graham dedicated the ceremony to Jesus Christ, and proclaimed Him to be "our savior," a declaration which probably came as news to the estimated 100 million non-Christians in the United States.

A week later, Bush created a federal office designed to expedite government funding of church-based social programs. To strict church and state separationists, the new administration's move smacked of an attempt to insinuate Christian doctrine into people's lives, under the guise of philanthropy.

"Unlike someone like Jimmy Carter, who talked about his religion a lot but never tried to alter the laws to favor religion, Bush not only talks about it, but he wants to shove it down everyone's throat," says Monty Gaither, Arizona director of American Atheists.

But if the national climate has turned frosty toward nonbelievers, at least one atheist leader contends that Bush's efforts to promote Christianity might serve an unintended purpose: mobilizing atheists in unprecedented numbers.

"I think with all civil rights groups, whether it's a Rosa Parks or a Stonewall, you get pushed just a little too far," says Ellen Johnson, national director of American Atheists. "And the Bush Administration is coming pretty darn close to pushing us too far, where atheists are going to say, 'That's it, I don't care what happens. I'm out, and I'm putting my foot down.'"

American Atheists will bring their message to Phoenix for a regional meet on Sunday, February 18, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Metrocenter. The meet, the first regional gathering of atheists to be held in Arizona, is part of the organization's push to erase the stereotype of atheists as bitter, amoral wet blankets who want to deny others the spirituality that they themselves have been unable to find.

"We're taking the show on the road; we're trying to touch base with the grassroots," Johnson says. "I want the people to meet me, and I want to meet them, and we want to highlight the hard work that our state directors are doing."

For more than a generation, American Atheists was defined by the confrontational leadership of its founder, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who raised the group's public profile, but also alienated many religious fence-sitters. Although Johnson is a proud disciple of O'Hair -- who was kidnapped and killed in 1995, along with two of her children -- she has consciously adopted a more soothing public posture than her mentor, who once proudly proclaimed herself "the most hated woman in the U.S."

A blond, attractive, self-described "soccer mom," Johnson may be a more accessible representative of atheist thought than O'Hair, but she knows she faces an uphill battle in trying to expand American Atheists' membership beyond its current total of 1,900.

"All the free-thought organizations are small," she says. "It doesn't matter how you run your group. Because the atheist, in general, is not a joiner. Most atheists are still in the closet. They're very independent people. They're not like church people. They don't like to follow. That's good, and it's also bad. It's good for the atheist in general to be that independent, but for the organization, it's like herding cats."

American Atheists' leaders are quick to insist that they don't want to infringe on anyone else's beliefs, they simply want to keep religion from encroaching on their rights as nonbelievers. They see their organization as a watchdog group, fighting such religious overtures as school prayer, vouchers and displays of the Ten Commandments at public buildings.

"We're not trying to force other people to believe what we believe," Gaither says. "All we're trying to do is get them to obey the law, to stop trying to use government to help the religions get bigger and stronger. Any time we catch the government violating the law, we do what we can to stop it or undo it."

One of the scheduled speakers at the Arizona meeting, Dr. Seth Asser, is medical director for California Children's Services in San Diego, and he's devoted much of his work to protecting children from religion-based abuse or medical neglect at the hands of their parents.

"There was a father in Yuma years ago who beat his daughter to death, saying he was trying to beat the devil out of her," Gaither says. "And there are many cases of children who have died because their parents were Christian Scientists and wouldn't get them medical help."

The Arizona gathering will also feature Victor Stenger, a physics professor at the University of Hawaii; Dr. Alan Hale, co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp comet; Brian Barnard, head of the Utah Legal Clinic; and Arizona Republic cartoonist Steve Benson, whose speech is titled "Tooning Out Religion."

Attracting speakers for the conference was easier than the struggle Gaither regularly faces at his monthly meetings of the Arizona chapter of American Atheists. "I've been trying to get ASU professors who teach constitutional law and other speakers who would be of interest," he says. "And it's near impossible to get them because they don't want the schools to know, or something like that."

During the 2000 election campaign, Gaither also invited every local and statewide political candidate to be a guest speaker, and found only "one or two very liberal-minded Democrats and a whole bunch of third-party candidates" who were willing to affiliate themselves with an atheist group.

For the 44-year-old Gaither, it's part of the package that came with joining the atheist movement 20 years ago at a street fair in Tucson. A West Valley native raised in a Southern Baptist church environment, Gaither says in his teens, he began to question ministers about contradictions he found in the bible. He says, "The response was always to just have faith and read only what they told us to."

What attracted him to American Atheists, he says, was the freedom of thought and the willingness to accept divergent opinions. "No subject was taboo, and they didn't mind if you disagreed with them," he says.

Gaither says that over the years, he's become accustomed to the occasional acts of hostility that Christians direct at him. He says a man in a pickup truck once ran him off the road in Tucson for having a sign on his car in opposition to school prayer. "I had several other people beep their horn as they went by, and flip me off," he says.

Johnson says atheists won't begin to win acceptance until they conquer their fears of rejection and begin to speak out in large numbers.

"It's really difficult to break that glass ceiling and get through," she says. "People liked to blame Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Well, she's been dead for five years and we're still small, and these other free-thought groups who criticized her are all small, too. I'm afraid the government's going to have to strip the atheists' civil liberties away before they do something about it."

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia