Washington Week

Jewish World Review April 19, 2001 / 26 Nissan, 5761

Atheists of America unite?

By David Waters

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- ORLANDO,
Fla. | American atheists are mad as, well, hell, and they ain't going to take it anymore.

"Unless we change our tactics, we can expect more erosion of our rights," Ellen Johnson told about 200 folks here last weekend at the 27th national convention of American Atheists.

"The president's phone number should be on every atheist's speed dial."

Johnson, president of American Atheists Inc., has the number memorized. Just in case other atheists don't, she gave everyone at the convention a card with the White House's phone and fax numbers and e-mail address.

The suburban mom from New Jersey is on a crusade to revive and redirect the organization, founded in 1963 by the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

American atheists have been pursuing their civil rights through the judicial system since the early 1960s. Johnson wants them to get more active in the executive and legislative branches of government.

"If we don't like the theocratic politics of the people in the White House and on Capitol Hill, we have to vote them out of office," Johnson said.

Johnson said American Atheists plans to form a political action committee to support candidates who support not only freedom of religion, but freedom from religion.

Theoretically, such a PAC could become a political powerhouse. One in 10 Americans is a self-described atheist, agnostic or nonreligious, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

Realistically, such a PAC would be a miracle, and atheists don't believe in miracles. Atheists, who often describe themselves as "free-thinkers," are fiercely independent. They also are reluctant to be public about their atheism.

Quick: Name a famous living American atheist or a living atheist public official.

Gays and lesbians, African-Americans, and nearly all minority groups in America have celebrity spokesmen as well as advocates in public office.

The closest thing to an atheist celebrity at last weekend's convention was William B. Davis, who plays the "cigarette-smoking man" on TV's "The X-Files."

"We don't need a celebrity to validate us," Johnson said. "It's time for atheists to stand up and be proud of their atheism."

"George Washington warned us never to indulge the supposition 'that morality can be maintained without religion,' " vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman told a congregation last fall.

Johnson and her fellow atheists are fighting more than negative images, but that's where they will have to start. Atheism is, by definition, a negative stance. Atheists are defined by what they are not.

In Greek, the prefix 'a' negates the word that follows. A theist is a person who believes in G-d. An a-theist is not a theist.

David Waters is a writer with The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Comment by clicking here.

© 2001 SHNS