Atheists in America
Make Significant Progress
in Two Very Important Ways

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Come To Power

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by Cliff Walker


November 15, 2001

Until last week, we and several other atheistic organs and groups have been working with a very general, nonspecific figure, saying that about 10 percent of Americans are nontheists. A nontheist is what we at Positive Atheism would call an "atheist"; we define the word atheist as any person who lacks theism (a god belief), for whatever reason. Some use the words nontheist or nonreligious to mean pretty much the same thing.

We've always considered 10 percent of the American population to be quite impressive. On top of that, we've bragged that according to the 1990 U.S. Census, PAM's home state of Oregon reported a whopping 17 percent as answering "No Religion," with our neighboring state of Washington trailing us by a few points.

Still, 10 percent of the American population made us anything but a minority.

However, public figures are only now being made to realize that they can no longer use the word atheist as an epithet or byword. Or at least, gauging by recent reaction on the part of atheists, we have been making one thing perfectly clear: they will no longer be able to degrade or slander the atheistic communities and get away with it!

After The Day of Atrocity,* numerous celebrities and spokespersons equated evil with atheism and otherwise reviled and degraded atheism. These appeared to be attempts to bolster religion -- or, at best, to join those who'd hoped for what at first appeared to be a post-terrorism religious revival (even though reports of late now show church attendance to have since fallen back to below the pre-September 11 level). Since racial bigotry is the ultimate taboo in this day and age, the more arrogant Americans among us quickly ceased their anti-Arab rhetoric, their one remaining recourse being that widely accepted, almost universal form of clannishness: antiatheism.
                [*Note: "The Day of Atrocity" is Cliff's one-time name for what most people call 9-11.]

In response to President Bush's call for religiosity, Americans, particularly those with something to sell, quickly jumped on the bandwagon. In just two months, "God Bless America" is already advertising's most overused slogan ever.

The faithful show their lack of faith in faith by pointing to the shortcomings of atheism! When they've got nothing to show for themselves, they take it out on their opponents. Never before has religion more clearly lacked a solution. Faith's pundits are hard pressed even to explain this situation!

Every time the religious columnists mentioned the two dozen congressmen who sang a hymn on the Capitol steps, we'd hear about "the deafening silence of the atheists." I had always thought it was inappropriate to drag one's views out the very day a tragedy strikes! So it was with most atheists: we just sat and watched, wondering what it all meant and what they were trying to say. For so doing, we're portrayed as having run, tails between our legs, in the face of an overwhelming religious revival!

Similar slurs and slams and slanders kept coming our way -- the Letters to the Editor section, the columnists -- even the entertainers and comedians -- all took pot shots at atheists, as if proving to us how kind and thoughtful these religious folks can be!

For the past two months, we atheists have been taking it left and right.

Just watching the responses from all sides of the atheistic communities has been very exciting, indeed! When one of these newest recruits to piety began talking about atheists in foxholes, the atheists came out fighting! When one of these armchair historians yammered about God on our money, the atheists bought them a load of grief! If moralists accused atheists of "ruining America" by "kicking God out of" -- wherever -- then all those "silent," "ashamed," and "hidden" atheists instead kicked into action!

Atheists appear to have had it with being called: not decent humans; not good citizens; not patriotic.

And why!? All because we refuse to play with somebody's imaginary friend!

We've started to do something about it. This is quite a change from a mere 21 months ago when, during the flap over Cuban child refugee Elian Gonzalez, the Mayor of Miami vilified the INS agents by calling them "atheists." Back then, on April 23, 2000, Positive Atheism was the only atheist anything to speak a word about this aspersion, which we knew ofonly because an alert reader in Florida sent us the local coverage of this slam against (what we thought was) a whole 10 percent of the American population.

Yes, a few groups later posted what we distributed; however, we got very little reaction to this from readers.

Today it's much different: since the September 11 Day of Atrocity, atheists have been getting creamed in opinion columns across the land. But unlike 21 months ago, today we are fighting back. Twenty-one months seems like nothing, but often it takes much less time than that for a social revolution to catch on within a subculture.

'Get Off Of Our Country!'

On October 22, 2001, the Augusta, Georgia, Chronicle published a viciously spiteful letter (below) telling atheists, in no uncertain terms: "If you don't believe in God, then get out of this country."



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Kick Atheists Out of US
The Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle
(used with permission)

October 22, 2001

Editor, The Chronicle

It’s time to stomp out atheists in America. The majority of Americans would love to see atheists kicked out of America. If you don’t believe in God, then get out of this country.

The United States is based on having freedom of religion, speech, etc., which means you can believe in God any way you want (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.), but you must believe.

I don’t recall freedom of religion meaning no religion. Our currency even says, “In God We Trust.” So, to all the atheists in America: Get off of our country.

People like Gail Pepin (The Chronicle, October 11) have caused the ruin of this great nation by taking prayer out of our schools and being able to practice what can only be called evil. I don’t care if she has never committed a crime, she is the reason crime is rampant.

To The Chronicle, please do not give atheists a voice. You do more harm than good.

Gloria “Wendy” Ray
Aiken, South Carolina

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Its writer, Gloria "Wendy" Ray, conclusively demonstrates that the United States of America was founded by Christians, for Christians, upon Christian principles. How does she prove this most remarkable of claims, you ask? We can know that America exists for the exclusive benefit of religious people, she seems to be telling us, because "our currency even says, 'In God We Trust.'"

Ah, but of course! As George Carlin pointed out, "Such logic! Such law!"

Gloria "Wendy" Ray continues her proclamation: "So, to all the atheists in America: Get off of our country."

Oh ka-a-ay! -- I've been told to get out of the land of my birth and my heritage (a blend of European Colonial settler, Native American, and recent immigrant -- how much more "American" does one get?). Folks have insisted that I depart from this nation whose Declaration of Independence and Constitution boast the signatures of three of my ancestors. But never until now have I been ordered to "get off of our country" by somebody who pretends to be even more American than I (but who is, in fact, no less of an American than I am, since there are no degrees of American citizenship)!

Chronicle editor Suzanne Downing tells me: "It has received more response nationally than anything I've ever dealt with. Very little local response, however. Strange." Recalling the sheer lack of response to the Miami Mayor's quip, I am tempted to echo that remark: "Strange." Then I remembered reading about how not three months before Thomas Paine wrote the "Common Sense" pamphlets, George Washington himself was averse to the idea of a Revolution. After that I was reminded of how, in 1986, two weeks before school got out, only three anti-Apartheid activists were predicting that the University of California would ever divest. Within only four weeks, after the Amnesty International concert and one hell of a demonstration at UCLA, hardly anyone thought UC would be so stupid as to not divest. Four weeks! And at the very next Regents meeting, they pulled several billion out of that racist regime in South Africa. By the end of summer, anti-Apartheid was so mainstream that it was being commercialized, used as a theme for advertisements and the like.

Group dynamics can change rapidly, and we're seeing this change right now in the atheistic communities. We're not just making up for the lenience that the formerly sleepy atheists dished out to the Miami Mayor some 21 months ago; not many even remember that incident. Rather, a critical mass of the atheistic communities have been made aware of just how poorly we've been treated, and have decided that it's time for change.

USA Today's Kathleen Parker wrote a belligerent piece on October, 1, 2001. It was a fine example of patriotism (below): God and America and Mom and the flag and apple pie and, of course, atheists in foxholes. She seemed to be celebrating the recovery of America's long-lost piety -- or, at least, the start of such a "revival."

Parker called the piece, "God, Country Gain Fragile New Toehold." Obviously a stream-of-consciousness effort, it had to have been titled and sold long before she even worked up an outline. Does anyone really think that faith offers anything to even explain this situation? No. But she nevertheless falls back on the one argument that will never fail to convince a readership who already knows all the answers: she takes a few below-the-belt swipes at her ideological opponents! In this case, it's the atheists. The fact that she begins and ends by taking pot shots at the atheists serves only to remind us that her argument provides nothing in the way of a solution to the problem. In the end, all that's left is for her to ridicule the opposition. In this case, she offers religion as the proposed solution. But I'm not quite sure what her problem is.



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Excerpted from:

God, Country Gain Fragile New Toehold
by Kathleen Parker

One can't help notice the silence of atheists these days. Suddenly "God" is everywhere, as ubiquitous as American flags, spreading -- as Dan Rather said in a spasm of simile-rapture to describe rumors following the September 11 attacks -- "like mildew in a damp basement."

War has that effect. There are no atheists in foxholes, we've always known. There were none in the World Trade Center on September 11, we can guess. And now there are none anywhere to be found. America today is about God and country, but then it always has been. We just lost track.

We lost track when we evicted God from our public institutions and when we stopped honoring our nation with the songs and rituals that defined American childhood until a few decades ago. We of a certain age remember beginning each school day by pledging allegiance to the flag, singing My Country, 'Tis of Thee and, finally, reciting The Lord's Prayer.

(Copyright ©2001, USA Today. Excerpted for review and discussion purposes according to the Fair Use provisions of United States Copyright Law. Excerpt word count: 167.)

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Ms. Parker explained to a disgruntled reader that she was merely making the observation that prior to September 11, nobody gave a rat about religion or faith -- so where'd all these religious people come from, anyway? Er -- Ms. Parker? If this were the only point you were making, then why does your piece come off the way it does? How could so many of us be so completely mistaken as to the point (you say) you tried to make?

Atheists wouldn't let her slide, either. We may have broken the record with our reaction to the Chronicle's letter, but Kathleen Parker had to shut down her web site's bulletin board. Her web site had literally become the online atheist community's hottest new hangout!

Enough of Positive Atheism's readers sent letters to Parker (forwarding copies to us) to justify forming our very own collection of letters to Kathleen Parker! Several other online projects, ranging from American Atheists and Freedom from Religion to the tiny Mom-and-Pop e-lists, likewise acted on this one. As many as two dozen independent activists alerted us to Parker's editorial.

And this pattern continues. Several similar incidents occurred during the past two months that rightly shock the sensibilities of anybody interested in Religious Liberty, as well as religious and cultural dignity. And almost like clockwork, the online atheistic communities, the various individuals and organs, and the larger organizations alerted one another, bringing to each offending party a flood of outrage that ranged from simple clarification to full demands for public apology. The days when a Miami Mayor can describe evil by calling it "atheism" appear to be over.

This, to me, is the most significant progress we've made; it certainly is the most important progress for which we could hope. True, each of us has joined the fray, but each person controls only a single individual. As for the rest of the subculture, we can only ever hope that our fellow atheists become aware of the situation and awaken to the realization that collectively (though not necessarily together) we can do what no individual can accomplish as a lone voice.

Enough of us are aware of our power and our situation that our reactions to the recent public acts of indignity have brought unprecedented attention to the public relations departments of several institutions. We have commanded the attention, but do we have the numbers to demand action? Well, it's not easy to draw a clear picture (to which we and others can relate) when using a vague figure with no identifiable source, like that "10 percent" we've been citing.

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But now comes the news of another significant step that nonreligious Americans have taken. Immensely important, this progress comes not by any effort on our part; rather, it comes as the result of our mere existence.

Q. How can progress come from simply existing?
A. From our numbers.

That's right, atheists in America now get to revise the statistics we use when we discuss atheists as a class. The City University of New York has just released an extensive study of the religiosity (and the lack thereof) of the American people. This study replaces the vague, virtually untraceable figures we've been using for the past several years. In addition, this new report makes some very important statements about atheism -- statements that neither our ideological nor political opponents will be able to ignore.

One of the most significant facts to come out in this survey backs up what I've been saying for some time: the one class that is least likely to fall for those forms of fundamentalism most likely to make an atheistic observer cringe is the group of Americans who are currently under the age of 30. These range from studies of who is least likely to believe in "Young-Earth Creationism" to a little news report about this poor clown who wheeled a wooden cross from Oklahoma City to Denver to meet with the students of Columbine High -- only to be literally booed out of town by the very kids he'd hoped to evangelize! [pam: 12/1999]

As I listen to the reports and see the polls, as I meet and watch people in my day-to-day life, I am becoming hopeful that this could be the generation which pulls America over the hump of her love affair with religiosity, and brings us to the same level that Europe has been for several decades. My generation was, for the most part, still raised with religion; we didn't start "getting back to God, to the roots of faith," however, until our kids had grown past that crucial age where indoctrination doesn't really work any more. Thus, today's younger generation really doesn't have any religious "roots" to "get back" to. If I'm right, if this is the point where the cycle is broken, perhaps I'll still be alive to see it happen! They talk about the technological advances my grandmothers got to see, maybe I'll see a whole world of cultural change.

The new CUNY survey backs up what I have been hoping, what I have been talking about: those American adults who are below the age of 30 who are not believers in gods or religion, if set aside and considered a "sect" on their own, would be the sixth-largest "sect" in the United States (nonbelievers as a whole are already the third-largest "sect").

Not two days ago, I told a friend that the under-30 crowd consistently shows significant drops in such beliefs as the Christian Armageddon, Young-Earth Creationism, and other ditties marking Evangelical Christianity. Belief in these and similar variants remain the domain of the elderly and the poor. I find these facts encouraging because the under-30 crowd starts leading this country in just a few years; the elderly, I'm sorry to say, won't call the shots for much longer; the poor never called any significant shots to begin with. The ones who are slated to be in control, politically, culturally, and economically, don't buy the claptrap of Christian Fundamentalism that most critics consider destructive.

I've been saying this for several years: Our future is in good hands. Yesterday I told my friend, "I am one of a few people in America who is in a prime position to place all of my hope for my country in those who are currently under the age of 30. The demographics show a rather significant drop in the religiosity of the adults who are under the age of 30. My hope for America lies almost entirely in our prospects for outgrowing religiosity -- like Europe did last century."

This came after our monthly trip to Price-Costco, where at one point I just stood and shook my head at this bigger-than-huge display of boxed-sets of the Left Behind series of patently dangerous fiction from the Rev. Tim LaHaye.

And the Evangelicals are frightened out of their wits by the popularity of the Harry Potter series of books? The Left Behind books will warp your mind.

First of all, nobody pretends that the Harry Potter material is real: so what if it uses authentic occult exercises for its fictional stories, Robert Anton Wilson already did that. But nobody calls the Harry Potter series a work of nonfiction. Left Behind, on the other hand, allegedly dramatizes events that are supposedly in store for us in the near future. Left Behind is openly touted as really real.

We lost many friends to the similar Late Great Planet Earth craze during the 1970s. They never really came back: even after they woke up and left the church, they were never really the same. But I just stood there at Price-Costco, asking myself: "Do that many people read this stuff?" What impressed me about this display was conspicuous by its absence: there weren't any younger folks mulling over the merchandise during the time we were near it -- as I kept looking over, half in disbelief that it was even there.

About a dozen or so folks my age or older (I turn 45 next week) fondled the sets and fawned at the opened copies. I didn't even see any "under-40s" -- much less any "under-30s"! Like all the studies that I've seen over the years indicate, only the older folks go for this crap. The youngsters, even the religious ones, just don't go for this business about Jesus duking it out with Satan made flesh, in a literal Battle of Armageddon, complete with driverless cars, a novel new National ID (Swipe Your UPC Tattoo Here), with motorcycle gangs wearing breastplates of fire, shouting, "Rise! Rise! Ri-i-i-i-ise!" (just like on the record!) like the plague locusts from the cave that leads to The City of Gold (built 'neath the sands of the Great South-West Desert), inaugurating an era of destruction: plagues, disaster, unrestrained violence, mass killing, war, famine, natural disaster, bloodshed, and the stench of death -- as has never been seen before (nor will be again -- keeping in mind, of course, that this is supposed to be the end of the world).

And then (get this!), one-third of all the stars will literally drop from the sky!

Wait a minute! Do you believe all of that? Do you believe any of it!? Know what? Neither do I!

And you know what else? Neither do most of the kids who will very shortly be taking the reigns of our governments, businesses, media, and even (gasp!) our churches. They don't buy this bullogna about the Earth being only 6,000 years old (some ancient scroll says so; therefore, we must let this drivel be taught in our public schools as the latest results of diligent scientific inquiry).

The schools are even having a tough time getting kids to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or practice this "Moment of Silence" ritual. It's too late to go back to "normal," now. Too many of our youngsters now realize that the "under God" part was inserted during the McCarthy Era, when nobody dared to even be seen opposing anything religious. Too many of the younger people can recognize the parallels between all that has happened since September 11 and what little they know about what happened during the McCarthy Era. Those times are difficult to fathom: how could they have let that happen? As such, even the most vague description of that era will linger in the imagination of someone from today -- someone who could not imagine such a state of affairs -- not in America, anyway. So, when they see it happening again -- rather, see it in real life for the first time, in living color and in real time, instead of a choppy, oversimplified description of it in a post on some online board, the impact will remain for life. Not unlike Medusa, it's too late: you already saw it!

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So, what does the City University of New York's new "American Religious Identification Survey" tell us about the incidence of nonreligion in America, and in particular nonreligion among those American adults under the age of 30?

More importantly, what does it tell us about atheists (nonreligious) in general? If you count atheism (no religion) as a religious "sect" or "denomination," we are the third largest religious "sect" in the United States. Here are the figures: of all American adults (207.98 million), the top five "denominations" or "sects" are as follows:

24.5% Roman Catholic (50.87 million)
16.3% Baptist (33.83 million)
14.1% Not Religious (29.48 million)
6.8% "Christian" -- no denomination supplied (14.19 million)
6.8% Methodist or Wesleyan (14.19 million)

The sixth "category" consists of those who refused to answer the question.

Thus, the group of Americans who say they are "not religious" (or "atheist," "agnostic," "humanist," or "secular") is the third-largest "denomination" in the land, exceeded only by the Baptists and the Roman Catholics.

Consider this, the group whose name was, just 21 months ago, uttered by the mayor of one of America's largest cities as a word meaning "evil." We were even shut out from the ceremony mourning victims of the Day of Atrocity.

However, thirty-five percent of the 29.4 million Americans who are "not religious" are adults under the age of 30. To get an idea of the size of this group: if we divide the group of nonreligious people into two groups (the under-30 nonreligious adults and the 30-and-older nonreligious Americans), the under-30 nonreligious adults themselves become a force to be reckoned with. The "sects" that are larger than that of the under-30 nontheists are as follows:

all Roman Catholics (50.87 million)
all Baptists (33.8 million)
all 30-and-older Nonreligious (19.16 million)
all Christian -- no denomination supplied (14.19 million)
all Methodist or Wesleyan (14.15 million)

In other words, the group consisting of under-30 nonreligious Americans is the sixth-largest "denomination"!

I find this utterly staggering!

Let's back up and look at the total figures again: Of the 207.98 million adult Americans, 14.1 percent (29.48 million) are not religious! This is almost twice the percentage, 8.2 percent (13.1 million), we represented a mere ten years ago.

When a Miami Mayor can't think of language vile enough to convey his disdain for that day's arch-villains, if he calls these evil ones "atheists." Numbers accomplish nothing when what we do with those numbers is remain silent, as if behavior such as the Mayor's is acceptable. This is why I am doubly excited: not only has it come out that we have the power in numbers, you have begun to "Get up, stand up / Stand up for your rights," as Bob Marley used to chant!

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Cultural Differences Reflected in Marriage Statistics

One item of note woke me up to something that's very important to me. The CUNY study shows us that we're dealing with a vast set of cultural differences. First off, I have never believed in the institution of marriage. What got me started at a very young age was the unfairness of the woman giving up her name! Why? Simple: I didn't like my own name at all (and eventually changed it). But for a while, the one inevitable "must" that was in store for me was that I not only didn't have the option of changing mine (like a woman does) but was also forced to saddle some poor woman with my name! Because of my work's priority, amorous pursuit now takes a back seat.

But when I look at the CUNY study, we atheists run conspicuously ahead of (or behind) all other groups in two very similar social categories. First, we're the least likely of all religious groups to be married. Secondly, we're most likely of all groups to either "shack up" with a serial companions or "cohabit" with a permanent life-partner. To be fair, "non-denominational" Christians run close behind in both respects, being closer to us than to their Christian counterparts in each category.

Here's what it looks like (below) with nonreligious first, nondenominational Christians second, and running third in both categories are Buddhists, which includes traditional Buddhists as well as American converts.

Family Unit Make-Up



Married (19%)


Cohabiting (22%)



Married (27%)


Cohabiting (19%)



Married (35%)


Cohabiting (7%)

Fourth-Place Ties:






Married (58-59%):


Episcopal (or Anglican); Baptist; Pentecostal


Cohabiting (6%):


"Christian"; Muslim; Episcopal (or Anglican)

We see not only our standing when it comes to population figures, but we can also see that when it comes to that one "family value" which most Americans consider most important, heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family, we who are not religious appear to be a world unto ourselves. It makes sense to me that the hard-core politicized Radical Right-Wing Evangelical Fundamentalist Christians work tirelessly to introduce bills that will give heterosexual married couples both social as well as economic advantage. The same politically active Christians likewise do whatever it takes to thwart any move to allow unmarried and homosexual couples from enjoying these same advantages (that they freely give to those who have undergone the rite of marriage). Adding insult to injury, they also go to great lengths just trying to discredit these lifestyles.

To keep from being swallowed up by the piles of legislation intended to give heterosexual marriage an economic and social advantage, we ought to consider this whole mess a religious issue. I have for a long time thought of marriage as a religious ritual. To me, that's what it is. I've had plans to marry a few women in my lifetime (although these plans never panned out for whatever reason). Each time (except for one), marriage was not really the issue: either of us would have been glad just to commit to each other and create a family. Usually we'd make the plans to please her religious Mom.

So what I'm suggesting (and the CUNY figures make it all the more imperative), is that we start asserting that marriage tends to fall along religious lines. Those who are religious are far more likely to celebrate this very religious ritual, but atheists are likely to shun the ritualized elements of the very same institution (a committed relationship), preferring, instead, to focus on the job of trying to make this commitment work! However, the laws specifically (and deliberately) specify that only "married" people get the social and economic benefits.

Since this is a new and novel idea, I'd be interested in hearing from readers as to what you would think of a campaign to portray heterosexual marriage as a religious ordeal. My goal would be to see a legal contract under which the ritual of marriage would be considered one of several options. Legally, however, all options would have the same weight as marriage does today. This way, more of us would likely register with the state as a committed union, and would end up receiving the same benefits as those who marry simply because of cultural or religious tradition.

When considering the differences we noted in the charts, when we consider the world of advantages that are deliberately given only to those who fit into this very narrow description of family union, and when we consider that bills bringing social and economic advantage to "married" couples are being brought on almost exclusively by admittedly and decidedly religious groups (and argued for admittedly and decidedly religious reasons), and considering that the very same groups are working to prevent any other style of family union from having these advantages, doesn't it make sense to see marriage as being, in at least one respect, a religious ritual?

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The figures for the continental United States, here reflected not as raw data but as "weighted" data (taking into account the "disproportionate probabilities of household projection," which researchers say more accurately reflect "a true statistical portrait of the United States"), are used in the chart below:

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CUNY Chart ''American Religious Identification Survey, 2000'' (weighted data)

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