Godless Who's Who
A look at some of the major players among American nonbelievers.
BY: Rebecca Phillips
Ellen Johnson, a self-described New Jersey "soccer mom," little resembles Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her predecessor as president of American Atheists. But under Johnson, the 2,200-member national group has carried on O'Hair's spirit. It is often characterized as the most militant nonbeliever organization, condemning and poking fun at American believers. American Atheists, says Johnson, is not afraid to "challenge religion in the public arena."
In November, Johnson helmed the Godless Americans March on Washington, which drew 2,000 nonbelievers to protest the increase of religion rhetoric in government and public policy. Though disappointed by the lack of media coverage, Johnson says the march was an "internal lesson" about which issues were important to nonbelievers.
She also cites the pledge ruling as a big moment, but says "unless it's upheld, it was symbolic and short-lived." And as long as "In God We Trust" remains on American currency, she says, the pledge case is "a drop in the bucket"--though "a significant drop," she admits. "We were delighted to win after losing time and again."
For now, Johnson hopes American Atheists can funnel the energy of the march into forming an atheist political action committee for 2004. While other nonbeliever organizations pursue more esoteric concerns, hers will spend the next two years lobbying for a presidential candidate. "That's what will affect us," she says. "Whoever wins in 2004 will select Supreme Court justices."
The hardest thing about being an atheist in America, she says, is "not being able to talk about your beliefs among friends or family or at work--you might as well be living in Iraq, or in Saudi Arabia, or in Iran."
Science, not politics, is Michael Shermer's field, and he defends it every bit as vigilantly against incursions of the supernatural. The founder and head of The Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, Shermer is dedicated to debunking what the scientific community refers to as pseudoscience--the John Edwards and James van Praaghs of the world, cryonics, and even Holocaust denial.
Once a Christian himself, Shermer tells in his 1999 book, "How We Believe," how he gave up his faith to find "a world absent monsters, ghosts, demons, and gods unfetters the mind to soar to new heights, to think unthinkable thoughts, to imagine the unimaginable, to contemplate infinity and eternity knowing that no one is looking back." Shermer admits that the existence of God can't be proved or disproved by science, but "I'd be very surprised if it turned out there was a God," he says.
Shermer reaches more people than any atheist activist, with a monthly column in Scientific American, his "E-Skeptic" email newsletter, frequent television appearances, and as host of a lecture series at the California Institute of Technology. Despite his extensive reach, Shermer explains he doesn't attempt to convert believers to skepticism. "We're not trying to reach believers, nor are we just there to preach to the converted." He says he is most interested in reaching those who haven't yet made up their minds about religion.
Shermer's newest book, which he expects to publish in 2004, will be called "Why We Are Moral." He plans to address the origins of morality and how people can be good without God.