Convention gives atheists chance to share nonbeliefs

Associated Press
Annie Laurie Gaylor, a Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president, says the foundation's weekend gathering offers atheists and agnostics "a chance to recharge your batteries for separation of church/state activism." The event in Madison, Wis., is considered one of the largest of its kind.

MADISON, Wis. - Through Sunday, people who don't believe in God will find sanctuary in downtown Madison.


Members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation's largest group of atheists and agnostics, have gathered for a weekend of nonprayer breakfasts and raffles for God-free currency at the group's 30th annual convention, which began Friday.

Despite a new survey that shows most Americans have negative views toward nonbelievers, it has been a pretty good year for atheism. The foundation has added thousands of members, is starting a national talk radio show and has claimed two legal victories in disputes with states in recent weeks.

A spate of books has been published, spreading the organization's message that religion is the root of many evils.

Christopher Hitchens, the author of the best-selling God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is in attendance.

So is comedian Julia Sweeney, who played "Pat" on Saturday Night Live and now has a one-woman show describing a spiritual journey in which she ultimately gives up on the idea of God.

"It's kind of a celebration, a celebration of free thought," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, a foundation's co-president. "It's also a chance to recharge your batteries for separation of church/state activism."

The foundation, based in Madison since its beginning in the 1970s and now claiming 11,300 members, has helped give Wisconsin's capital a reputation as a city filled with godless heathens in some circles. In Madison, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly once said, "You expect those people to be communing with Satan."

Another co-president of the group, Dan Barker, said he gets thumbs-up signs when he wears his "Godless" shirt to the grocery store.

It's no surprise, then, that the city is rolling out the welcome mat for the estimated 600 or more convention-goers.

The foundation placed a 48-foot-wide billboard overlooking Madison's busiest freeway. Showing a church's stained-glass window, the sign says "Beware of Dogma" and lists the group's name and Web site. A similar billboard is up on the other side of town to greet visitors from the airport.

Atheists are viewed far more negatively than any religious group, according to a survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Religious Americans are not comfortable with atheists' refusal to believe in God, and they see them as lacking in morality, said John Green, a senior fellow for the nonpartisan Pew Forum.

Mr. Green said that the number of people who do not worship is slowly growing but that the exact number of atheists in America is unknown because many people are reluctant to identify themselves that way.

About 4 percent of people in the Pew survey said they were atheist or agnostic, and an additional 10 percent said they followed no religion.

"There's ample evidence that atheists have become much more vocal and also they've become much better organized," Mr. Green said. "The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a very good example of that."

The foundation is a watchdog group that advocates for the separation of church and state and promotes free thought, which it calls science and reason as opposed to faith in what they say is the unknown.

The group has grown more than 50 percent from last year, Mr. Barker said. He credits an advertising campaign and publicity surrounding its high-profile lawsuit challenging President Bush's faith-based initiative.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that ordinary taxpayers do not have standing to challenge the program, which helps religious charities receive federal money.

Still, the group claimed victory in two other recent cases.

In Indiana, after the foundation filed suit, the state eliminated a chaplain who had been hired to urge state employees to show their faith. In Wisconsin, the Department of Justice removed a prayer and a religious hymn from a scheduled ceremony to commemorate murder victims after Ms. Gaylor complained that the content was unconstitutional.

Ms. Gaylor and Mr. Barker recently recorded their first radio show that will be broadcast nationwide on several affiliates of Air America, the liberal radio network. Ms. Gaylor said she believes it's the first national show of its kind.

This weekend's convention will tackle heavy subjects, such as the author Mr. Hitchens' argument that "religion kills," and also feature some lighter moments.

Instead of a prayer or a moment of silence, today's nonprayer breakfast will include the foundation's traditional "Moment of Bedlam." That's when those sitting down to eat can make as much noise as they want by pounding their silverware, reading their favorite poem or yelling.

"It's our chance to fight back," Mr. Barker said. "How many events have you gone to and you've been told to bow your head in prayer?"

And then there's the raffle for U.S. dollars manufactured before 1957, when the words "In God We Trust" were added to bills.



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