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Monday, February 18, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Atheists An Increasingly Outspoken Minority

In this presidential campaign season, Democrats and Republicans alike have declared their religious faith. They do it, in part, because they believe it wins political points. After all, the latest Harris polls show somewhere between 73 and 80 percent of Americans believe in God. But what about the rest?

Agnostics say they just don't know; others say they are firm non-believers. Whichever is the case, non-believers are increasingly outspoken in modern America.

By all appearances, the Lows are a tight-knit, loving family. Ron and Alice are devoted parents. Daughters Morgen and Maddy are good students involved in wholesome activities.

And there is one other significant fact of their lives: the Lows -- all four them -- are atheists. They say it's the certainty of science as opposed to what they call the "magic" of religion.

"I do feel like it's really important the whole world think rationally," Ron Low said. "I think a lot can go wrong when people make decisions based on things they don't really have evidence for."

Some atheists, like the Lows, lead quiet lives. But others are famous, including Lance Armstrong and Jodie Foster.

The numbers might surprise you in country with such a strong religious tradition.

"If you look at polls and scan them carefully, you can easily surmise atheists comprise somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population," said S. Van Maren of American Atheists.

Today, atheism is mainstream. Authors who don't believe in God find their works prominently displayed in bookstores and topping the bestsellers list.

Why are atheists today so open? Non-believers and believers alike agree on one point: Different views are more tolerated in a country that is more diverse than ever.

"I don't know whether there are more atheists or we've created a culture where it's safer for people who have struggled with faith, or don't believe in God to be more forthright and honest about that," said Bishop Mark Hanson.

North Park College Professor Scott McKnight, himself a Christian, offers another reason for what he calls the new atheism. Atheists, he says, are vigorously responding to outspoken Christians who are involved in politics – the so-called religious right.

"There are people who say, 'I don't have any religious persuasion. I'm an atheist. Which party is there for me?'" McKnight said. "And I think that is part of the reason they've begun to lash out."

And statistics show there are more young atheists than older ones. At the University of Illinois at Chicago a group called the Rationalists and Free Thinkers includes students who don't believe in God, though some grew up in religious homes.

"I used my biological background that I have to create my own views," said atheist Neil Schultz. "And I just realized that is what I was raised to believe, just didn't make sense to me anymore."

Somewhere in the middle of it is a "humanistic Jewish" congregation.

"We celebrate our Judaism as our peoples' cultural, history, heritage, our food… all of that richness," said Rabbi Adam Chalom.

But they don't believe in God.

"We believe in people… that people have the ability to be useful to others and to take charge of their lives," Chalom said.

As a man of faith, Bishop Hanson still has a key question for those who don't believe in God.

"Where do you place your trust in times of need? Where do you place your hope in the time of a crisis of confidence?" Hanson said.

"An atheist will just deal with it, try to find a logical and reasonable solution," Van Maren said.

One particular question that bothers the Lows is when people ask "how can an atheist lead a good and moral life, without God?"

"The fact that I'm raising children and I want to be a good person and I like to do good things for other people -- that's not driven by religion," Alice Low said.

The Low children -- Morgan and Maddy -- say they've had no trouble making friends at school, even among those from religious families.

And religious scholars said some people who believe in God are also buying books written by atheists to see how the other side thinks, and perhaps test their faith against the arguments atheists make.