Gone are the dark days of atheism, when philosophers like Giordano Bruno were burned at the stake for denying that Jesus possessed God-like power and contradicting the belief that souls have the ability to transmigrate to heaven.
Even so, American atheists are a reclusive lot, trapped between a federal government they consider increasingly theocratic and a populace they consider increasingly fundamentalist. Their shyness is well-founded. While long-suppressed groups such as Jews and gays now command tolerance, atheists are still considered barely human in many circles.
When George H. W. Bush was asked about atheists on the campaign trail in 1987, he responded, "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."
Atheists would prefer it to be simply one nation, all-inclusive, and they have set about devising a scheme to make the United States more secular, rational and tolerant of the nonreligious. Some ideas on how to achieve those goals came to light at the Atheist Alliance International convention held Easter weekend at the airport Hilton in Tampa. The timing of the convention wasn't meant to insult Christians, says Ed Golly, president of Atheists of Florida. Easter means cheap hotel rates.
The Atheist Alliance is an offshoot of the American Atheists organization, which was founded by America's most famous atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the Baltimore activist who successfully argued against school prayer in 1963. But many atheists considered American Atheists too autocratic, so they formed the Atheist Alliance, stressing democracy and inclusiveness.
Gathered together in numbers, conventioneers reveled in tweaking the religionist establishment. They bought T-shirts that read, "Proud to be an infidel," and bumper stickers with the Mark Twain passage, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." During an open-mike session, one of the activists excited the crowd by repeating what he says to Christians when inviting them to his hometown: "Jesus died for your sins. Come to Las Vegas and get your money's worth."
These particular atheists were encouraged by a 2001 University of New York study that counted 30 million Americans as nonreligious, a significant increase from 1990 numbers. The problem is how to entice this great mass of people to compete with religious groups in public-policy debates.
One way is to win with kindness. That was the message from Herb Silverman, a 60-year-old math professor who lectured at the convention. Silverman's secular invocation before a March 27 Charleston, S.C., city council meeting caused an uproar when seven out of 12 council members walked out in protest, saying atheism ran contrary to American patriotism. The tone of Silverman's invocation was hardly abrasive or derogatory. "As you work together on behalf of all who live in this city, may you draw strength and sustenance from one another through reason and compassion," he read to the council.
When the council members walked, Silverman shrugged it off in the local newspaper as "outrageous behavior." Most readers of the Charleston Post and Courier supported him, denouncing the council members' action. "Many atheists had such a bad experience with religion, they want to come out of the closet and start bashing," Silverman says. "I don't think that's an effective approach."
Others at the convention believe that by questioning long-held assumptions, they can inspire others to do the same. Michael Newdow is the 49-year-old Sacramento physician who challenged the reading of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because McCarthyists inserted the words "under God" in the 1950s during the height of the red scare.
Newdown told atheist activists that he'd learned a great deal about the law and also had discovered that a determined individual can alter public policy. "My message is that anybody can do this," says Newdow, who lived in Fort Lauderdale for 14 years. "This is an amazing thing."
Other activists borrowed ideas from their religious counterparts. They are forming political-action committees and hiring lobbyists; they're opening secular charter schools to combat tax-paid vouchers to religious schools; they're becoming more media savvy; and they're adopting streetwise measures, including setting up booths in pedestrian-heavy areas to distribute propaganda and demonstrate to the public that atheists are everyday, working-class Americans.
Last November, atheists held their first-ever demonstration in the nation's capital. The Godless Americans March on Washington drew a crowd of 2,400 humanists, freethinkers, agnostics and atheists carrying signs that read, "Religion Kills, "One Nation Under the Constitution" and "Separate Church and State." Some of the atheists at last weekend's convention -- Newdow, Atheist Alliance president Bobbie Kirkhart and Margaret Downey of the Philadelphia Freethought Society -- were also in Washington.
But many weren't. They didn't like the "godless" part of the event's title -- not because they are closet deists, but because they say that the word denotes wickedness and evil. "That clearly is a loaded term," says Paul Geisert, a Sacramento atheist.
Geisert and his wife, Mynga Futrell, who write curricula for science textbooks, boycotted the march. They stayed home to devise a strategy to turn atheism into a political force. They believe the movement needs an image boost, the same way homosexuals received a boost when people stopped referring to them as "queer" and began to use the term "gay." Geisert and Futrell even came up with a catchy new term: "bright."
They define "bright" as anyone whose actions and beliefs reflect a world view free of supernatural and mystical elements such as ghosts, sprites or gods. The two academics plan to build a national constituency through the Internet. After 1,000 people enlist in their campaign, they will build a website (www.the-brights.net). After 100,000 enlist, they will begin lobbying for secular positions on behalf of the group.
"Stop being philosophers and start being pragmatists," says Futrell.
So far progress has been good, they say. Eighteen leaders of the Coalition for the Community of Reason, directors of organizations such as the Secular Students Alliance and the American Humanist Society, have signed on.
But will a group as eccentric and solitary as atheists unite under a hokey marketing campaign? Time will tell.
"It's an interesting idea," says Newdow, who didn't become a bright at the convention. "I hadn't thought about it until they brought it up."
Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptics magazine and director of the Skeptics Society, signed a petition declaring himself a bright. "I like the idea," he says. "Any group that has been marginalized has to do what others have done to protect itself. It has to follow the pattern. But there are a number of skeptics, humanists and freethinkers who do believe in God. Atheists, by definition, do not."
Geisert and Futrell are undeterred. They say the bright movement will change the way religionists think of them and how America looks at itself.
"Think about it," Geisert says. "From a politician's viewpoint, we're a totally ignored minority."