By MELISSA FLETCHER STOELTJE
San Antonio Express-News LINK TO ORIGINAL
SAN ANTONIO — Melissa and Chanse nibble on club sandwiches and french fries at a local coffee shop. To look at them, they’re just another young couple enjoying lunch on a weekday afternoon.
She wears stylish glasses, and her thick black hair is swept up in a ponytail; the only hint of a slightly rebellious streak is the tattoo that peeks from under her shirtsleeve. He is a slight, soft-spoken man with a laid-back demeanor and a full beard.
Melissa and Chanse are young atheists. They don’t believe in God. As such, they’re part of a small but substantial minority that swims against the overtly religious mainstream of America, a spiritual tenor that has grown more strident in recent times as issues of faith increasingly become entangled with politics and public policy.
The public face of atheism in recent times has been Michael Newdow, who filed a lawsuit over his daughter’s having to repeat the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually dismissed his case, stating he did not have proper parental standing on behalf of his daughter.
The story made headlines for months. But for most atheists, it’s not headlines or scandal they desire. They simply want to go about their own lives without hassle or pressure.
Atheists, they lament, are the last minority in this nation that is fair game for bigotry. Experts who study religion in public life concur.
“Atheists are not very well-thought-of in America,” says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “It’s still acceptable to criticize atheists in a way that’s not polite. People may harbor negative views about Jews, Catholics, Muslims and evangelicals, but they know they’re not supposed to voice those views, so they don’t. But it’s still OK to say anything bad you want about atheists.”
The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens profess some religious faith, although far fewer attend worship services on a regular basis. The public square has become increasingly dominated by religious (specifically, Christian) rhetoric, from the “values voters” of the 2004 presidential election to hot-button cultural issues that carry a religious edge — abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, intelligent design, the right to die.
And yet at the same time a compelling undercurrent is at work. A study done by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that the percentage of the population that describes itself as “nonreligious” more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, from 14.3 million to 29.4 million people. The only other group to show growth was Muslims.
“Right now, the fastest-growing religious identity in America is the nonreligious,” says Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Madison, Wis.-based group that champions church-state separation and works to educate the public on nontheism.
A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 16 percent of Americans (about 35 million) consider themselves “unaffiliated” — a category that includes “unaffiliated believers,” “secularists” and atheists/agnostics.
The latter terms — atheists and agnostics — are lumped together, says Green, because they share so many similarities. But there is a subtle difference: Atheists forthrightly affirm that there is no God; agnostics simply say as humans we can never know. Together, they constitute about 3 percent of the American population.
Green says atheists/agnostics as a group tend to be well educated and politically liberal (although, he says, there are atheist Republicans). They tend to cluster in big cities on the East and West coasts. They tend to be younger, not older. They tend to be male more than female.
But what, exactly, do atheists believe in, if not in God?
In a nutshell, atheists believe in reason alone, in those things that can be arrived at through intellect and the scientific method. Concrete evidence for God, they argue, simply doesn’t exist. They don’t cotton to leaps of faith or anything that involves a supernatural being reaching into human lives. They believe you can live a happy, respectable life based on human ethics that were derived not from God handing down a tablet but from a code of rules that emerged naturally through an evolutionary process in which humans learned how to live together successfully.