Godless Who's Who
A look at some of the major players among American nonbelievers.
BY: Rebecca Phillips
Debbie Goddard is student president of the Campus Freethought Alliance, an international network of secularists, rationalists, atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers on college and university campuses. Started in 1996 as an affiliate of the Council for Secular Humanism, CFA now includes 120 member groups from Canada to Nigeria and the Philippines.
Goddard heads the chapter at Montgomery County Community College, outside of Philadelphia, where she majors in philosophy and foreign languages, and she will transfer to Temple University in the spring. Her 25 or so fellow students meet to discuss the existence of God, the implications of evolution, censorship and academic freedom and other topics. Goddard, 22, says CFA offers a haven for those alienated by a religious atmosphere on campus. "A student can feel like the lone critical thinker or atheist," she says.
The Opinion Maker
While many nonbelievers keep their views hidden or publish them in journals that cater to the atheist or scientific community, Wendy Kaminer has long brought the plight of the atheist to public attention. "Atheists generate about as much sympathy as pedophiles", Kaminer wrote in her oft-quoted 1996 essay in The New Republic, "The Last Taboo." "But, while pedophilia may at least be characterized as a disease, atheism is a choice, a willful rejection of beliefs to which vast majorities of people cling."
Now a senior correspondent for the liberal opinion magazine The American Prospect, Kaminer was a lawyer before writing her 1999 book, "Sleeping With Extraterrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety." The book argued that though religion and belief in the supernatural can provide comfort, they become dangerous when it enters public life and begins to have public consequences, especially in terms of education and civil liberties.
But Kaminer's gripe is not just with organized religion; she condemns American fascination with New Age beliefs and popular spirituality as well. "These particular kinds of New Age therapies seem to be a spiritual refuge for more affluent people," she told the New York Times recently. Kaminer has also decried the tendency of American media to fawn over religion. "You won't find anyone mocking religion in Time or Newsweek," she told The Atlantic in 1999. She has spoken at American Atheist conventions and in 2000, she was named "Freethought Heroine" by the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Since September 11, she has turned her pen to defending civil liberties. Her most recent book, "Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today," exposes infringements on civil liberties and argues for unrestricted Internet use, pornography, and flag burning, among other freedoms.
At 77, Paul Kurtz is the elder statesman of secular humanism. The author of more than 20 books, he runs Prometheus Books, which publishes books about science, critical thinking, and philosophy. In 1980, as a reaction to "the so-called moral majority," he founded the Council for Secular Humanism. Today, as part of the Center for Inquiry, the group reaches about 100,000 subscribers through its magazines, including the popular "Skeptical Inquirer" and "Free Inquiry."
Kurtz shuns the terms godless and atheist. "I don't want to look upon myself as a nay-sayer," he says, though, he adds, "I don't believe there's any evidence for God." Instead, he and other secular humanists promote "living the good life without religion."
Kurtz said he first identified as a humanist in his early teens, when he realized the theory of evolution didn't match up with accounts in the Bible. It helped that his parents weren't religious. Growing up, he said, "I had the advantages of an independent point of view."
He sees two major battles ahead. One is fighting the mixing of church and state in the United States, offering as an example the Bush administration push for faith-based programs. The other, he says, is "trying to bring secularism to the Muslim world."