'No religion' is how more people identify themselves.

Friday, January 16, 2004

The Express-Times

Pete Hance said he didn't have a problem with his upbringing in the
United Church of Christ. He liked the people at the Allentown church
which he attended. And he had no bad experiences.

At age 14 he set out to read the Bible from cover to cover.

But something happened when he began reading it.

"There was so much that was in direct conflict with science that it
put the seeds of doubts in my mind," he says.

He didn't immediately become an atheist. That happened gradually,
over time, he says.

Hance says people have generally accepted his atheism. But he's
heard some criticism about atheists. The worst of it?

"If you don't believe in God you're not a patriot, or if you don't
believe in God you're evil and you're going to hell," he says.

He especially doesn't like the idea that atheists can't be
patriotic. So he displays an American flag at his Fogelsville home.

Something else bothers him. That's when he hears some people say
atheists are immoral and unethical.

"Atheists do the right thing and they would help a person in need
just because it's the right thing to do, not because they expect to
be treated favorably in the afterlife," he says.

He's even compiled some guidelines he likes to follow. He refers to
them as "Ten Ethical Principles for Atheists."

Among the principles are: "maintain and project an ethical outlook
in every aspect of one's life," "accept responsibility for one's own
actions," and "spend quality time with those closest to you."

Hance is part of the 11 percent of the U.S. population who identify
themselves as either atheists or agnostics, according to Barna
Research Group, a Ventura, Calif., organization which conducts polls
on religion topics.

The number of people who identified themselves as belonging to "no
religion" increased from 8 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2001,
according to a survey by the City University of New York. The people
who claimed no religious preference ranged from those who declared
themselves secular humanists to those who defined themselves as

While it's difficult to track if atheism is on the rise overall, a
spokeswoman for the New Jersey Humanist Network in Bridgewater says
membership in the group shot up after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"For a lot of people Sept. 11 was a concrete example of how religion
can give people the wrong motives," Tamara Mount says. "Considering
that the terrorists did it for God and to have a wonderful

Atheists -- who also sometimes call themselves humanists,
freethinkers or secular humanists -- also are in the news more
lately because they have been politically active.

Some observers say there's a renewed atheistic activism which
recalls the work of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, founder of American
Atheists. O'Hair's legal challenges led to a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court
ruling which banned mandatory Bible reading in public schools.

Ellen Johnson is now the president of American Atheists, which has
its headquarters in Cranford, N.J. She says atheists have become
more politically active recently. That's to counteract support by
some religious groups on issues such as faith-based initiatives and
vouchers for religious schools, she says.

Last year, atheist groups initiated some high-profile cases which
forced courts to define the separation of church and state.

A humanist group challenged whether a Ten Commandments plaque could
hang in the Chester County, Pa. courthouse.

The Supreme Court declined to hear about whether the Ten
Commandments can be displayed in government buildings or in public
spaces. For now, that leaves it up to lower courts to decide.

However, the high court agreed to hear the case of an atheist who
challenged the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

This year the Supreme Court will hear a case brought by a California
atheist who says the use of the words "under God" in his daughter's
class amounted to the government endorsing a belief in one God.

Although atheists say they have no creeds, dogma or religious
beliefs, some local atheists say that doesn't stop them from holding
regular meetings and social functions. In December, 130 members of
the New Jersey group gathered at a Parsippany hotel and celebrated a
non-religious winter holiday.

"There's a strong need to develop a sense of community with people
who don't believe in a deity," Mount says. "People like that sense
of community, particularly after they have children."

The reason some religious pollsters put agnostics and atheists in
the same category is that sometimes it's difficult to tell the
difference between them.

Agnosticism is a doubting or questioning if there is a God.
Agnostics usually say it cannot be proven one way or another if God

Some atheists completely reject the concept of any type of God.
Other atheists reject definitions of a personal or deistic god and
sometimes sound like agnostics stressing the uncertainty of knowing
if there is a god.

In some theology, both agnosticism and atheism are being viewed not
only as ideologies but as components of spiritual maturation. Even
some people who define themselves as religious or spiritual say
agnosticism or atheism is sometimes part of a person's spiritual

The Rev. Julie Newhall of the Skylands Unitarian Universalist
Fellowship in Hackettstown says she's heard people refer to
themselves as atheists or agnostics for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes people no longer believe in the same definition of God
they had when they were growing up. So they must outline another
one. Sometimes they grow up unchurched and have to explore their
views on religion. Sometimes they confront a tragedy or crisis in
their life and question their belief in God. Other times, people
stay committed to a belief there is no God or a doubt about the
existence of God.

But Newhall says she isn't shocked at people who say they experience
atheistic or agnostic feelings.

"I would reassure them that it's perfectly natural for someone to go
through it," she says. "You can see it in famous spiritual searches.
Sometimes it's a short phase, sometimes it's a lifelong position."

But for atheists who take that firm lifelong position, they
emphasize they don't follow any religion. But some atheists say that
they don't disdain all religious people or clergy.

"Those that encourage tolerance, understanding and community spirit
are good religious leaders doing good work," Hance says.

At the same time, some atheists work to promote atheism so people
can know it exists.

Johnson says that when she grew up, she didn't know what atheism
was. Although her parents weren't regular churchgoers, some of her
friends were strict Catholics and Lutherans. So when she was young,
she prayed. But she says she didn't get anything out of it.

Years later, she heard O'Hair on television.

"I never heard the word atheism once in my life, but she was not
religious and there was a name for it," she says. "It's almost like
being gay. When you growing up you know you're different and then
later you find out you're not the only one."

As for what she calls some of the "big questions" in life, she says
she's reached some resolutions about them. But she says she looks to
science to answer those questions, not to religion.

As for life after death, she believes this life is all there is.

She says even if it could be proven there was a God, she'd have some

"Where was God on Sept. 11?" she asks. "What about children who die?
If you or anyone in your office had the power, would they allow a
child to die from bone cancer?"

She says in some parts of the country, it's difficult to ask those
questions and to publicly declare oneself an atheist.

"It's similar to what happens to gays," she says. "They don't like
it when you come out of the closet. If you don't challenge the
status quo then it's not a problem. But once you do then it's a

Reporter John A. Zukowski can be reached at 610-258-7171 or by e-
mail at jzukowski@express-times.com.