2016-11-18
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.

In 1977, Newdow became an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church, which now ordains anyone in just three minutes online. But it was only when he brought the pledge suit did he begin signing his full name "Rev. Dr. Michael Newdow." "Back then," he says, "I just thought it was cool."

Newdow says he is not, as his detractors claim, out to convert the country to atheism. "I'm not a proselytizing atheist," he says. "It doesn't bother me if the whole world is atheist or if nobody is an atheist." He said his primary concern is to "have the establishment clause upheld. It was a brilliant idea to have religion and government apart."

The 'Infidel Guy'

 Reginald Finley is known by the name of his popular online radio show, "The Infidel Guy." Finley estimates that about 100,000 people listen to his radio show each year, earning him, he proudly boasts, the title of "America's most dangerous black atheist" by the parody website Landover Baptist Church. He also co-founded the Atheist Network, a collection of about 16 nonbeliever radio broadcasters.

On his show, Finley discusses the separation of church and state, evolution versus creationism, and the existence of the soul. "Anything dealing with the supernatural, I like to challenge that," he says. "The Infidel Guy" helps nonbelievers "feel like they have a place where they belong," He explains. "We're here, but for some reason we're treated as though we don't exist."

Finley, 28, grew up a devout Christian in Atlanta, where he sang in a Gospel group and did a spell in the army. ("There are atheists in foxholes," he notes), where, he says, religion wasn't talked about much. It was in college, at the Catholic Saint Leo College in Florida, that he realized he was an atheist.

Finley says he never hides his atheism. "I make it a point to be rather overt about my nonbeliefs." His openness isn't limited to his radio show. Having moved recently to California from Georgia, he has plans for an atheist show on local television. He has recently started posting atheist singles ads on his website, and founded a resource site for black atheists "to show that it's OK to be black and a nonbeliever."

Still, Finley, like Newdow, doesn't necessarily want to convert the world to atheism. " Despite his lack of belief, he isn't raising his children as atheists. "My 10-year-old calls himself an atheist but he doesn't really know," he says. "I'm going to allow my children to believe what they want to believe. If they become believers, I won't care." His radio show and other projects, he says, aren't "atheist activism, per se. It's intellectual activism."

The Soccer Mom

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."

The Skeptic

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.

The Student Activist

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.

The Humanist

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."