Atheists Get Aggressive in Pushing Their Views

Saturday, 25 Jan 2014 11:41 AM

By Cheryl K. Chumley

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American Atheists, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, has started 2014 with an aggressive push, filing a legal challenge to the Ten Commandments displayed on Oklahoma state capitol grounds and taking out billboards in Utah targeting the Mormon faith.

The group is increasingly being joined by other atheist organizations in challenging public displays of religion and demanding equal access for their viewpoint.

For example, administrators with the University of Wisconsin-Extension this month ordered that all 137 of its Gideon Bibles be removed from guest rooms at the campus Lowell Center, after a group composed of "freethinkers: atheists, agnostics, and skeptics of any pedigree" questioned their presence.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) said that since the school was partially funded by public dollars, the placement of the Bibles in visitors' nightstands violated the Constitution because it could be interpreted as a government sponsorship of religion.

The group also this month demanded that the local police chief in the small town of Searcy, Ark., remove a small Christian cross from the plot of land outside his private office door. FFRF said allowing the cross on public property would be a constitutional infraction, and the police chief should instead relocate it to his own front lawn.

And in December, the humanist Center for Inquiry (CFI) re-launched a book project aimed at giving inmates an alternative to religious documents that are distributed in prisons.

Called the Freethought Books Project, it "offers donated books on atheism, humanism, science, and skepticism to prisoners who seek alternatives to the religious proselytizing and indoctrination that is often unavoidable within the prison system," a press release on the group's website stated.

The group tries to "connect inmates with volunteer pen pals at CFI branches with whom they can connect and share ideas."

Even President Barack Obama has gotten in on the act, declaring in his Jan. 16 proclamation for Religious Freedom Day that "America embraces people of all faiths and of no faiths," including "atheists and agnostics."

Despite the atheists' efforts, a Harris Poll in December showed that 74 percent of U.S. adults say they believe in God, although that is down from 82 percent in 2009. The poll also found that 12 percent of Americans are atheists and believe there is no God, while 14 percent say they are agnostic, or uncertain about a supreme being.

American Atheists, founded in 1963 by Madalyn Murray O'Hair — whose 1959 challenge to mandatory prayers in public schools was upheld by the Supreme Court — has been placing billboards across the nation aimed at raising doubts among the faithful, including a recent billboard in Utah that asked Mormons to "come explore your doubt with us."

Earlier billboards included one in New York in December that blared: "Who needs Christ during Christmas?" Another in 2012 in California described the Biblical story of Noah's Ark as "nonsense." One more, in New Jersey over the Thanksgiving holiday, decried those who provide prayer, rather than food or money, as a form of aid.

The group said it has held "Atheist Pride" marches in state capitals and "demonstrated and picketed throughout the country on behalf of atheist rights and state/church separation."

Meanwhile, atheist churches — Sunday or weekday services that are held for those who want togetherness minus religion — are growing in popularity.

Sunday Assembly was founded in London by Sanderson Jones, a British comedian, and his comedy cohort Pippa Evans. Services have spread to the United States, and in San Francisco the gatherings have become standing room only.

The atheist San Diego Coalition of Reason group sends members out on weekends to entice members of the public — via the likes of juggling shows and informational booths in Balboa Park — to question their faith.

Organizer Jim Eliason said in a recent Raw Story report that their overall mission is to "de-convert people away from these religious ideas that keep them stuck in this dogma." And when they do, "that's a moment of pure joy for us,” he said.

A main point of contention between nonbelievers and Christians is the atheists' repeated attempts to remove displays of religion from the public arena.

The Founding Fathers never intended the public arena to be wiped clean of any and all religion, David Azerrad, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation, told Newsmax.

The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"It's a complicated issue," Azerrad said. One side of the clause speaks to religious liberty; the other, to government's role in promoting religion, he said. The grey area in between is where much of the public controversy and debate springs.

With confusing guidance coming from the courts over the years, atheists are continuing their longstanding efforts to remove religious symbols from public areas, using the Establishment Clause to argue their cases.

Using the same argument as atheists, the New York-based Satanic Temple is seeking a permit to place a statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed pagan image, on the grounds of the state capitol, next to a Ten Commandments monument.

The Satanic Temple said its reason for seeking the permit is to have equal access on public grounds. If the Ten Commandments can be there, so can the Satan statue, they said.

It's cases like that that show just how skewed interpretations of the First Amendment have become, John Eastman, the founding director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, a public interest law firm tied to The Claremont Institute, told Newsmax.

"The Founders all thought that if we were going to succeed, we had to have moral people and without that, we'd be degenerating into anarchy or chaos," he said.

The nation's faithful have been pushing back on the atheist attacks, however.

In a speech at Liberty University in December, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin branded "those who would want to try to abort Christ from Christmas" as "angry atheists armed with an attorney. They are not the majority of Americans."

A judge in March tossed a lawsuit generated by atheists over a Christian cross at the Ground Zero World Trade Center memorial. That led the American Center for Law and Justice to applaud what it called "a victory for history and for common sense" on their organization’s website.

"It remains a largely religious country, and people feel [these attacks] are ridiculous. There will be pushback," Azerrad said. "I think the pushback will be very, very hard."

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