Atheists come out of the closet

By Kim Vo
San Jose Mercury News

At a Thai restaurant in Campbell, the talk was spicier than the fish.

Someone asked why jocks thank God if they win a game. Does the Almighty really care if you covered the spread? And isn't scaring children by telling them they could burn in hell a form of child abuse?

That kind of gleeful, irreverent chatter, which lingered long after the restaurant closed, was the whole purpose of the meeting for the Santa Clara Brights, a group that formed in late 2003. The outings give atheists a chance to openly express their beliefs without fear of rejection or retribution.

"I joined this group so I can meet people of like minds, so I can commiserate," said Tom Nowitzky, a satellite engineer from Morgan Hill. "There's very little we can't say to each other."

Non-believers are forming more social groups as they increasingly "come out of the closet," as they put it. The number of atheists is elusive, anywhere from 1 percent to more than 10 percent of the country, depending on the survey.

Broadly stated, atheists believe in natural laws instead of supernatural forces like a divine creator. The number of people open to such beliefs is growing and has created sub-groups, each with its own distinctive twist: humanists, secularists, freethinkers, atheists, rationalists, skeptics, agnostics, non-theists and - a new addition to the lexicon preferred by many atheists - "brights."

Atheists say this sprouting visibility is partly a response to thecountry's growing religiosity - especially under President Bush.

"The Bush administration kept pushing religion harder and harder," said Dave Kong, California state director for American Atheists. "It caused people to speak up for what they believe in - or don't believe in."

And the profile of atheists may continue rising. A new study found that atheism is more common among younger generations: While 6 percent of seniors define themselves as secular, the percentage steadily increases among younger age groups, hitting 19 percent among the 18 to 22 set, according to The Barna Group, a religious research group.

"The younger generation is not intimidated in the least," said Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists. She also belongs to an atheist political action committee and has seen candidates begin asking for the group's endorsement. Those candidates didn't get elected, Johnson noted, "but they were bold enough to say: This is who I am."

Atheists also credit a new crop of bestselling books for emboldening them. Works like "The God Delusion," by Richard Dawkins, "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris and - the latest high-profile contender, "God is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens - give full-throated voice to what atheists have long silently thought.

It can be dangerous, people said, to admit you're godless in a culture that equates religion with morality. (Hence, a popular atheist quip: "I'm an atheist and I haven't killed anyone today.")

Shifting attitudes

Despite the new attention to atheism, public attitudes are still shifting.

"I'm a schoolteacher in a pretty small town," said Sherry, a Bay Area teacher who asked that her full name not be printed. She worries that her students might discount science lessons taught by an atheist. "It can affect how my job gets done."

Yet, when Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, confirmed in March that he didn't believe in God - the highest-ranking politician to do so - Mark Thomas felt compelled to attend the congressman's next community meeting to show his support. It wasn't necessary.

"People weren't upset; they had more important things to worry about," said Thomas, president of Atheists of Silicon Valley. "My worst nightmare was that people would be protesting."

Some skirmishes, however, are developing among atheists themselves. Some atheists, critics complain, are becoming as strident as the fundamentalists they criticize.

At an Atheists of Silicon Valley meeting, Godfrey (Ben) Baumgartner, sporting a "Born Again Skeptic" shirt, recounted how he questioned his niece's Christianity so much during her last visit, her husband half-jokingly said he wasn't sure she should stay over again. He wasn't trying to convert her, Baumgartner said, just set her free.

"I don't care what she believes," he said, "as long as what she believes is true."

Chris Lindstrom of Los Altos understands the smack talk. After years of tight smiles as people pray for your soul, new atheists want to rant, she said. And social groups provide a supportive place to do that.

But Lindstrom is more focused on how her brethren can build a community while defanging their image. She's helping organize Camp Quest, a summer camp for children of atheists. She also started a dialogue between atheists and Christians so they could better appreciate each other's positions, even if it's unlikely they'd ever agree.

"It's about showing people the humanity of the other side," said Lindstrom, a member of Atheists of Silicon Valley. This year, the group refrained from protesting Christians during the National Day of Reason (scheduled on the same date as the National Day of Prayer) and opted for a blood drive instead.

An image makeover is also a priority for Chuck Cannon, a member of San Francisco Atheists who organized a scholarship at City College of San Francisco for the student who writes the best essay on Darwin. He also worked with a new group to adopt a section of Interstate 680, which will soon boast a sign saying "Atheists and Freethinkers of Contra Costa County."

Cannon's activism started two years ago, although he decided during the 1960s that it "doesn't seem credible that there's a God or a sky creature and when we died we don't really die," he said. "When you view it as an outsider, it becomes easier to see it as not credible, but absurd."

For decades, he was "happy to quietly be an atheist." But he grew increasingly troubled by the Evangelicals' forays into political policy. "There was not a need to tell people they were wrong - until the religious right stood up and told everyone else they were wrong."

Sense of community

B.J. Bryan of San Jose joined the South Bay's nascent Ethical Culture Society for its sense of community. At the beginning of each meeting, people do "check-ins" to discuss their lives, concerns and triumphs. Some describe it as church without the deity.

"A lot of times, when you're not a member of a mainstream religion, you feel like a minority," Bryan said.

Both the Santa Clara Brights and local Ethical Culture Society were started by Benjamin Wade of Saratoga. There are new members every week, which amazes him.

"It's become more acceptable. I compare it to the advent of feminism and gay rights, a group that's coming out of the closet, a group that for many years has been marginalized," Wade said. "I feel the ice is breaking."

Contact Kim Vo at or (408) 920-5719.

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