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Are atheists becoming the hot new political force?

April 27, 2009 | 11:12 am

Atheist Billboard in Philadelphia

In a nation that regularly bows its head in prayer -- and that begins many public meetings with the God-fearing Pledge of Allegiance -- atheists may be coming into their own.

As the National Journal's Paul Starobin reported last month, exit polling suggests that nonbelievers represent a growing segment of the U.S. electorate.

In every presidential election since 1988, he wrote, the ranks of what pollsters call "the religiously unaffiliated" has grown. In 2008, some 12% of the electorate -- or 15 million voters -- identified themselves as nonbelievers. That's bigger than the Latino vote (9%), the gay vote (4%), or the Jewish vote (2%), and it's competitive with the African American vote (13%).

During George W. Bush's administration, they chafed at what they saw as the fudging of the line between church and state (think faith-based initiatives).

Now, after President Obama reached out to them with a first-ever mention during his inaugural address ("We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers," Obama said),  atheists think the time is right for a return to humanistic principles over religious influences in public policy.

"The climate is right in the country today for a major expansion of humanist ideals and humanist thinking -- atheism, free thought," Louis J. Appignani, the Florida tycoon who has earmarked $30 million for various atheist causes, told the National Journal. "I think we are on the threshold of a counter-revolution from the Bush years."

Today the New York Times profiled the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry in Charleston, S.C., the beautiful community of southern gentility where the Civil War began. This time, said the group's founder, the mission is not to declare war but to declare themselves.

“It’s not about carrying banners or protesting,” said Herb Silverman, a math professor at the College of Charleston who said the group has about 150 members on the coast of the Carolinas. “The most important thing is coming out of the closet.”

Silverman said that 10 national organizations of "atheists, humanists and free-thinkers" recently united to form the Secular Coalition for America, pooling resources to lobby in Washington for separation of church and state.

And you know how that goes. Once you have a lobbyist in Washington, you have power and influence.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo credit: Greater Philadelphia Coalition of Reason

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