Growth of atheism could play political role

With religion immersed in culture and politics, atheists boost efforts to ensure their side is heard

With religion immersed in culture and politics, atheists boost efforts to ensure their side is heard

Evident from the success of films like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and The Da Vinci Code, religion is as much a cultural discussion today as it is spiritual. Religion is also incredibly political in the 21st century, when coupled with the ascendancy of the religious right, a post-9/11 rise in spirituality, and a President who speaks candidly about his faith.

On the other side of the religious debate, atheists have struggled to keep their voices heard in a world where most pundits believe an atheist could not win a major party nomination for President and where many major news publications have a "religion" section, catering to the spiritual masses.

But with a spate of recent pro-atheism (or anti-religion) books and some grassroots efforts, the atheism movement is gaining traction both by polemic and by persuasion.

Thanks to the success of books like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' 2006 polemic The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens' similarly caustic God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, released May 1, atheism is becoming a more prevalent topic in today's media. Scientists are usually unengaged in political issues, but when a famous scientist comes out and takes a hard whack against religion head-on, it attracts attention.

Ellen Johnson, president of the American Atheists organization, says, "[Atheism has] pretty much always been prevalent, but certain media have been paying more attention to the Dawkins book." She notes that atheists have been doing this for 40 to 50 years, "but you can't just be anybody to get the media's attention.

"It's all been said before," she adds. "He's echoing arguments and using phrases that we've been saying forever, but he has a little celebrity status."

The increased dialogue has emboldened groups to reach out to promote messages of atheism.

The Rational Response Squad (RRS), working with Christian-critical production company Beyond Belief Media, engaged in grassroots outreach meant to "provoke conversation about the dangers of religious belief" in January. The outreach was part of its "Blasphemy Challenge," which solicits young adults to create a YouTube video "denying the existence of the Holy Spirit."

"There are scholars who debate this issue, but don't get attention from the media," says Brian Sapient, RRS cofounder. "We were controversial enough."

Likewise, Hitchens' media tour for his new book has included TV appearances, a Web video featuring a contentious debate with the Rev. Al Sharpton, and an NPR appearance where he chided one pastor for claiming his prayers helped to save his 11-year-old daughter from Hodgkin's disease.

David Kuo, Beliefnet.com's Washington editor, says the atheism discussion is there, in part, to counteract the spiritual conversation that has already been in place.

"It's part and parcel of the religious discussion that's ongoing and has been increasing in fervor over the past five years in particular," Kuo says. "People who believe and unbelieve want to have their say and also be heard, [so] it's perfectly natural that [atheists] are being heard."

Kuo sees the atheism discussion as a political effect because of the portrayal of Christians as being overtly and absolutely political. He says, "Jesus is increasingly identified with a political agenda, and so much of the backlash now is anger against the political agenda."

While Kuo is convinced that atheists are now more organized politically, Johnson disagrees, saying atheists are extremely independent, self-reliant people who don't join organizations.

But Johnson hopes to change that with the creation of a political action committee called the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. "We're trying to get the word out that 58 million Americans are not affiliated with any religious group," she says. "They do vote, and they are a voting block, so they should be [given] attention."

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