The Martha Stewart of Atheism

Ellen Johnson, the successor of the 'most hated woman in America,' makes American Atheists family-friendly

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The new office is close to New York City, the nation's media center, and to Washington, D.C., where American Atheists hopes to establish a political foothold. "We're changing our image," says John Obst, the group's Maryland state director. "The organization is more upbeat."

Last year on Good Friday, when much of the country solemnized the crucifixion of Jesus, Johnson unveiled the new version of American Atheists in Piscataway, N.J. At first, it seemed a lot like the old version, complete with O'Hair's sense of both persecution and privilege and her disdain for faith. Bumper stickers on the cars outside proclaim "Jesus Is Lard," and posters show a God-like figure sodomizing Uncle Sam. "Religion is really the culture of death," Ron Barrier, American Atheists' spokesman, tells about 75 attendees. "This week is a zombie festival predicated on death."

Johnson's keynote address is largely a polemic against the prevailing religious culture. "From cradle to grave, religious superstition pervades our lives, and it is not by accident, my friends," she says. She ridicules the notion that students might want school prayer. "The very same students who go to schools with rings in their tongues and lips? Oh, puh-leeez!"

Flashing the techniques and scorn of a Southern televangelist, Johnson runs down the standard litany of school-prayer abuses, reading testimonials from victimized atheists and, to the delight of the delegates scattered in half the available seats, making easy fun of religious belief.

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But hints of a new tack are also discernible, from the baby-boomer-friendly theme Johnson chose for the gathering--"Supporting Our Atheist Youth and Families"--to her insistence on setting aside a room for day care.

The difference is style rather than substance. In place of O'Hair stands a polished 44-year-old housewife with the demeanor of a den mother. She banishes two protesters from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), not because their sign billing Jesus as a vegetarian might offend, but because they're tacky. One protestor is dressed like a cow.

Johnson has established a Washington lobbying office, and earlier this year she snared New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, the Democrat and physicist who defeated Christian rightist Mike Pappas, to address the organization. Last year, the federal government flew Johnson to Seattle to testify on religion in public schools at a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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