HACKENSACK, N.J. – A New Jersey-based group of atheists – one of the largest in the nation – is at the nerve center of an escalating media and legal campaign to draw attention to its cause and to lure nonbelievers “out of the closet.”
There’s a new round-the-clock television channel. There are new atheist organizations. And there are recent lawsuits alleging that atheists have been subjected to discrimination in school and in everyday life.
Atheist representatives say the efforts are working. They point to polls that show a dramatic increase in the number of atheists – growth fueled by the Internet – but say they still have a long way to go.
“The big picture is to eliminate privilege for religion and to create a normal situation for atheism,” said David Silverman, president of a Cranford, N.Y.-based organization, American Atheists. “We want atheism to be as normal in America as Christianity or Judaism.”
The campaign by American Atheists and other atheist organizations has also led to a backlash, with some critics viewing the tactics as an attack on their own beliefs. William Donahue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said he has no problem with atheism, but is opposed to “atheist militants” or activists who appear to be against Christianity. They try to stop public expression of religion, he said, by banning nativity scenes or putting up anti-Christian displays.
“There are atheists who are fundamentalists and dogmatists who are basically driven by that,” he said. “They’re not interested in putting out a positive message. They really don’t have a message.”
The American Humanist Association sparked controversy in April when it filed a lawsuit on behalf of an atheist New Jersey family against the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, alleging that the Pledge of Allegiance was discriminatory because it included the words “under God.” The group claimed the language in the pledge “marginalizes atheist and humanist kids as something less than ideal patriots.”
Some criticized the lawsuit as unnecessary and an attack on an American tradition – although atheists note the words “under God” were only added in 1954 amid a communism scare.
“I am so tired of atheists complaining about religion,” Teri McDevitt of Wayne wrote in a letter to the editor of The Record. “Just because they don’t believe in God does not mean they have the right to remove God from the lives of people who believe in religion.”
Also in April, Shannon Morgan of Leesburg, filed a federal lawsuit against the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission for rejecting her request for a personalized license plate reading “8THEIST.”
Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit, public interest law firm, said the activists “are going to run out of courts to lose these lawsuits in.”
“Ironically, they will have by then done a service to the nation by clarifying that the law doesn’t treat ‘God’ as a dirty word, even if some citizens believe differently,” he said.
Religious and conservatives groups also protested when American Atheists posted billboards around North Jersey and New York City during the holidays that struck at religion, stating: “You know it’s a myth, and you have a choice.”
“It’s our responsibility as Americans to call out these scams under the guise of religion,” Silverman said in defense of the billboards.
He said the advertisements were mostly aimed at nonbelievers. The outreach is working, he said, noting that the group’s membership has grown from 3,000 to 5,000 people in two years.
American Atheists also recently announced that it will launch a round-the-clock television channel dedicated to atheism. The channel, to be produced at the group’s Cranford headquarters, will be available through Roku, an Internet streaming player.
In a 2012 Gallup poll, 5 percent of Americans reported that they were atheists, up from 1 percent in 2005. A Pew survey the same year found that 2.4 percent of Americans identify as atheists, up from 1.6 percent in 2007. Many more Americans identify as having no religion, but not specifically as atheists.
More organizations have been founded to support atheism, including Openly Secular, a coalition launched in April. Openly Secular, which includes more than 20 groups, was formed to fight discrimination against nonreligious people and is led by several prominent atheist groups, including the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the Secular Coalition for America.
Atheism got a boost after the publication in the past decade of several popular books by authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
PZ Meyers, who wrote the 2013 book “The Happy Atheist,” believes the books, the Internet, scandals in the Catholic Church and controversies over wealth in evangelical churches have turned people toward atheism.
“I think overall we are making our way in the world and we are being more recognized as a legitimate part of society,” he said.
The Internet gave atheism its biggest boost, Silverman said, by giving nonbelievers a way to learn about atheism and communicate with each other.