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Imagine No Religion? Atheist Movement Gains Momentum

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is using quotes from famous atheists to spread the message in its national billboard campaign.

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There was a relatively recent study -- 2005 -- by the University of Minnesota, where they took polls on unpopular people. This included gays, Arabs, blacks, women -- analyzing, would you vote for these people, what do you think about them?

They found the bias against atheists and agnostics dating to the 1960s had not changed, while so many attitudes have greatly changed, fortunately, about African Americans, gays, even Arab Americans.

We're at the bottom of the totem poll when it comes to social acceptance in America.

And I think about Julia Sweeny, from Saturday Night Live. She has that one-woman play, "Letting Go of God," and she likes to tell this story about how she called her parents, who were devout Catholics, and at some point told them, "I don't believe in a god anymore," and they kind of accepted it.

But then she spoke at some event, and a story went out around the wire referring to her as an atheist, and her mother called her up and said, "this was too much!" The word atheist: that's what not believing in a god means, but until her mother heard the label, she was able to tolerate it. It's a pejorative in our society. And we're trying to change that.

Our members are atheists, agnostics, skeptics, but we're trying to change that kneejerk reaction that somehow people who do not believe in a god are bad people. Or you don't know any of them, or we're immoral; that's the greatest stereotype that we face.

I don't know why these people, who don't go to church, think atheists are so bad, but most people don't go to church in our society but still have these prejudices.

When I talked to the researcher, Penny Edgell at the University of Minnesota, what did she think accounted for this? What she said was, she believes most of these people don't realize they know atheists and agnostics. And that's 'cause we're afraid to speak out. We don't wanna ruin a party or speak out socially -- don't want to offend. We're being polite.

And I think free-thinkers are becoming more direct. They realize it's time, like the gay movement, to come out of the closet.

AlterNet: There's a very common argument, which essentially tells public atheists to shut up: Its main premise is that very vocal atheists are as annoying as very vocal religious people. For example, one columnist called your work with the billboards more like "evangelism than a fight for civil rights." What's your reaction to that argument?

ALG: Well. Boy, I don't like the term evangelist. But it isn't just a fight for civil rights; it's a fight for social acceptance. What we're being told is constantly to shut up. We're constantly told to leave the country. That's what most of our crank mail says.

If you don't like religion, God, Jesus, you're not an American, leave the country. It's just a joke. We ran a page of crank mail a few months ago in our newspaper, Free Thought Today. To make it more humorous, we put all the different countries with all the different quotes together. There were some new ones for me; usually you hear Russia, and you hear China. But this had Pakistan, Afghanistan. Even Canada! Which is a lovely country.

But there's a belligerence that it's wrong to say atheist. I think a lot of religious people think that the word alone is … that we don't have the right to those views, because that reflects badly on them. If we say, "We don't believe in a god," that puts them on the defensive.