WALNUT CREEK, CA. — When Richard Golden put the word out that he was starting a group for atheists in Walnut Creek, Calif., about a dozen people showed up.
Two years later, 80 are dues-paying members and several more drop in on twice-monthly meetings to chew on everything from particle physics to court cases.
Horrified by escalating religious violence and alarmed by the Bush administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” which make government money available to religious organizations, atheists are coming out of the closet _ and organizing.
“Local groups are springing up all over the place,” said Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists. Active groups have grown by about 90 percent over the past six years, she said.
In the past few years, groups affiliated with American Atheists have taken root in Berkeley, San Francisco, Davis, Calif., and Silicon Valley.
National membership in the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics that monitors the separation of church and state, grew from 5,000 in 2004 to 6,400 members by the beginning of 2006, said co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Meetings and rallies, once the province of older folk, now include younger people with tattoos and dreadlocks. The Internet, radio spots during “Al Franken’s Air America” radio show and campus groups are responsible, Johnson said.
“They don’t have the baggage that someone my age does,” Johnson said. “Atheism was such a dirty word _ associated with communism. Plus, this is a very scientific era. They’re not afraid to say what they think.”
But atheism appears to be gaining ground as a belief, not just a wave of political activism by those who fear the wall between church and state is being disassembled. Books challenging religion like “Letter to a Christian Nation,” by Sam Harris and “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins appeared at No. 5 and No. 23 on the Amazon.com bestseller list Sept. 20.
“Our primary conviction is that there is only one world _ there is no supernatural world _ the world that is the subject of scientific investigation,” he said. “We are focused, as the humanists are, on having our human potential increased in this world, rather than working everything out in the world to come.”
Two University of California at Berkeley sociology professors found that the proportion of Americans with no religion doubled from 1990 to 1998, but has leveled out at 14 percent.
“We argue that … reflects a growing backlash against the role of organized religion,” said Claude S. Fischer, one of the authors. “People on the political left have reacted against the organization of churches on the right. Their statement is a reaction: `If that’s what religion means, than I’m not religious.'”
Studies suggest the surge in interest is more a wavelet than a tsunami. The Baylor University Institute Religion Survey, released Sept. 11, showed 10.8 percent of the nation’s population, or some 10 million Americans, do not adhere to some faith. The majority of the 1,721 respondents who were unaffiliated with a religion said they believe in “some higher power.”
On Oct. 6, many atheists will head to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s convention in San Francisco to hear author Sam Harris (“The End of Faith”) speak and to watch comic Julia Sweeney perform her “Letting Go of God.”
The Foundation has brought 30 First Amendment lawsuits since 1977 and has more percolating through the courts. Among its victories: winning the first federal lawsuit challenging direct government funding of a faith-based agency.
Sept. 11, 2001 hammered home the dangers of religious fundamentalism for Larry Hicok of Berkeley, who describes the terror attack as an ultimate “faith-based initiative.”
Now he chairs East Bay Atheists, whose membership has been growing over the past five years.
One of the most recent developments to galvanize activists is the Public Expression of Religion Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind.
The bill would deny attorneys fees and damages to those who successfully argue against violations of the church-state separation. The House Judiciary Committee passed on a party-line vote, Republicans for, Democrats opposed.
“There’s no other time in American history where the wall between church and state was in such danger,” Gaylor said. “We could be taking a faith-based case every day if we had the resources. This is the time to come out swinging.”