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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Atheist groups growing over last 6 years

By Rebecca Rosen Lum

Contra Costa Times


WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - When Richard Golden put the word out that he was starting a group for atheists in Walnut Creek, Calif., about a dozen people showed up.

Two years later, 80 are dues-paying members and several more drop in on twice-monthly meetings to chew on everything from particle physics to court cases.

Horrified by escalating religious violence and alarmed by the Bush administration's "faith-based initiatives," which make government money available to religious organizations, atheists are coming out of the closet - and organizing.

"Local groups are springing up all over the place," said Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists. Active groups have grown by about 90 percent over the past six years, she said.

In the past few years, groups affiliated with American Atheists have taken root in Berkeley, San Francisco, Davis, Calif., and Silicon Valley.

National membership in the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics that monitors the separation of church and state, grew from 5,000 in 2004 to 6,400 members by the beginning of 2006, said co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Meetings and rallies, once the province of older folk, now include younger people with tattoos and dreadlocks. The Internet, radio spots during "Al Franken's Air America" radio show and campus groups are responsible, Johnson said.

"They don't have the baggage that someone my age does," Johnson said. "Atheism was such a dirty word - associated with communism. Plus, this is a very scientific era. They're not afraid to say what they think."

But atheism appears to be gaining ground as a belief, not just a wave of political activism by those who fear the wall between church and state is being disassembled. Books challenging religion like "Letter to a Christian Nation," by Sam Harris and "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins appeared at No. 5 and No. 23 on the bestseller list Sept. 20.

"Our primary conviction is that there is only one world - there is no supernatural world - the world that is the subject of scientific investigation," he said. "We are focused, as the humanists are, on having our human potential increased in this world, rather than working everything out in the world to come..."

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