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There Really Is a War on Christmas -- It's Being Fought by Brave Atheists in the Heartland

There is a growing contingent of atheists from the American heartland who live surrounded by the faithful.

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In 2009, he started driving 30 minutes south to attend freethinker meetings in Hagerstown. In small towns, church is often the center of community life. These meetings create a sort of substitute.

“I was very involved, even writing Christian music,” said Brad. “All of a sudden, something started tugging at the rug under my feet, and all of a sudden it was gone. I was looking for a foothold.”

Science provides many new converts to atheism with that foothold, and the celebrities of so-called New Atheism are often combative scientists like Richard Dawkins. And the strident tone fits.

“It is in-your-face explosive,” said a 30-year-old IT director named Josh Trayer, when asked about the area’s religious life. “There’s a church on every corner.”

Andy, a member in his 60s, feels isolated in more ways than one: He is gay.

“I’m still pretty much in the closet as an atheist,” he said. “I really need to do something, because I’m sick of feeling like I’m out in the middle of nowhere … I think some of my straight friends would be more unhappy to find out that I’m an atheist.” This small group accepted him for being both.

Nonbelievers in a large metropolis are likely to take in a diversity of religious expression, including black Protestant ministers, Latino Catholics and liberal rabbis. Jerry Falwell might be on one side of a political debate, the Rev. Jesse Jackson on another.

“Patterns of religiosity are much greater in rural communities,” says Daniel Cox, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute. And those patterns are much more monolithically Protestant and evangelical. Cities, however, have a “level of diversity [that] leads to greater levels of tolerance for all different faiths, including atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers.”

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PAN experienced a schism later that year. The behavior of a man called “the Saint,” who frequently paraded before churches throughout greater Harrisburg wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and holding a massive sign picturing Jesus giving the middle finger, was its subject.

When the Saint was a charismatic, faith-healing, tongue speaking, street-preaching Christian minister he walked around with those massive “you will burn in hell” signs. A graduate of Grace Bible College and Rhema Bible Training Center, he named his child “Praise.”

“I’m having a hard time with him,” the Saint told me. “Because we were 250 nights a year in ministry. Now I’m an atheist and he’s had all that his whole life, for five years, and that’s the hardest part: deconverting my kid.”

PAN ultimately expelled the Saint, but he was, at about the same time, named state coordinator of American Atheists — a position he retains.

The public face of atheism has long been a militant one, and just how nice to be toward religious people has  been a subject of fierce debate among the minority of nonbelievers who cared to think about it. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who founded American Atheists in 1963, embraced the moniker “most hated woman in America” and derided Christians as “Christers.” She served as the lead plaintiff in Murray v. Curlett, the Supreme Court case that ended prayer in public schools. Murray was Phil Donahue’s first guest when the show premiered in 1967.

“Friendly atheists” like Chris Stedman, the young assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University and the author of “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground With the Religious,” likely have far more sympathizers among the swelling ranks of secular youth. But most friendly atheists don’t care much about atheism. PAN, meanwhile, has a largely middle-aged membership. It recently held its first statewide conference, and drew a large crowd of 180. Only a dozen came from Philly.

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