Godless Who's Who
A look at some of the major players among American nonbelievers.
BY: Rebecca Phillips
ELLEN JOHNSON | MICHAEL SHERMER | DEBBIE GODDARD
WENDY KAMINER | PAUL KURTZ
A generation ago, most Americans would have recognized Madalyn Murray O'Hair--"the most hated woman in America," according to Life magazine. O'Hair was a leader in the school-prayer battles of the early 1960s, and a plaintiff in the 1963 Supreme Court case,Murray v. Curlett
, that resulted in prayer being banned in America's public schools. But nearly 40 years after O'Hair's landmark case, the atheist movement in America became increasingly fragmented and much less public.
But with the events of this year, like the infamous Pledge of Allegiance case, the atheist Boy Scout Darrell Lambert being removed from the Scouts for his lack of belief, and the Godless Americans March on Washington, that's beginning to change. America's nonbelievers don't necessarily agree on tactics--or even on how godless they should be--but they agree that the increase of religion in the public sphere, especially since 9/11, is a new call to action. They want to make it easier for other nonbelievers to "come out of the closet." The godless Americans profiled here are at the forefront of this shift.
The Pledge Plaintiff
Michael Newdow became the most likely candidate to replace O'Hair as the best known--and most hated--atheist in America when he successfully sued his daughter's school district for including the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
After the 9th Circuit court in California ruled the pledge unconstitutional in June, nonbelief had a face, and an address. Newdow has received numerous death threats, and the two words "under God" have been embraced by the president, Congress, and conservative Christians as the new emblem of the church-state battle.
But Newdow has also had his fair share of support from across the religious spectrum. "People seem to understand," he told Beliefnet, "even staunch theists." Hailed as a hero, he was a featured speaker at the first Godless Americans March on Washington this fall. On his website, comments range from "Finally someone stood up to religious nutjobs in this country!!!" to "I am a Christian, and I feel that the pledge is unconstitutional."
Restoring the pledge to its original pre-1954 form--before Congress changed it to include "under God"--has been Newdow's full-time job for more than two years. A physician with a law degree, Newdow left work and is now living off his savings, fighting his legal battle, and running Restorethepledge.com, a website that includes a petition to ban the phrase.