Ditching God

The Centre for Inquiry Ontario office is on the main floor of an old row house in downtown Toronto, but has the look of a spacious church basement. It has a piano, folding chairs in neat rows, and shelves of books, many with God in the title. But because it is a drop-in centre for atheists, humanists and secularists, the books are entitled, The God Delusion, Can We Be Good Without God? and Road to Reason; the magazines include the Canadian Free Thinker and Skeptical Inquirer; and there are T-shirts for sale emblazoned with "Darwin" and "Heretic." There is a kitchen in the back to cook the occasional mass spaghetti dinner.

"The church basement was the place where people came on a Saturday night -- it wasn't necessarily religion-related," says Peter Aruja, a 23-year-old political science student at nearby University of Toronto who volunteers at the centre. "And that's what we're trying to build here: the atheist church basement."

The centre has been open for a year; it has 70 active members, an anonymous donor who pays the rent, and on almost any day, there is a meeting or someone who drops by for advice on how to tell their family they have given up on God.

"Big questions have been monopolized by religious institutions," says Justin Trottier, 24, who has a degree in engineering, comes from a secular Jewish background and is the centre's executive director. "Atheists are just as interested in questions of meaning, purpose and beginning. Why shouldn't we have a place where we can chat?"

He says the recent spate of books about atheism, from Christopher Hitchens and others, have helped to attract interest, but he is convinced the movement is built on more than best-sellers. He and others see a confluence of events that have drawn atheists out of the shadows: the rise of fundamentalism, the evangelical politicking of George W. Bush, including his interference in a tragic right-to-life battle, and the anti-religious fallout from 9/11.

"People who are not religious are finding themselves marginalized, and they think it's time they spoke up and fought back," says Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. "There is a sense that the pendulum has swung too far."

A City University of New York survey found the number of non-religious adults grew from 8% to 14.3% between 1990 and 2001, to more than 29 million Americans. The current issue of The Atlantic magazine cites a study that showed 14% of Americans "were distancing themselves from organized religion as a symbolic gesture against the religious right." A 2006 Pew study found that 20% of today's 18-to 25-year-olds have no religious affiliation or are atheist or agnostic, up from 11% in the late 1980s.

In Canada, the number of people who categorize themselves as atheists, agnostics, humanists or no-religion rose to 16.2% in the 2001 census, up from 12.3% in 1991, and 7.4% a decade earlier.

There are now dozens of atheist groups in the United States and Canada, under such banners as the Atheist Alliance International, the Secular Coalition for America and the Humanist Association of Canada. Membership in these groups is still relatively small, usually in the several thousands. Most report a leap in interest since the books came out.

It began in 2004, with The End of Faith by Sam Harris, followed two years later by Letter to a Christian Nation, which intended "to demolish the intellectual and moral pretenses of Christianity in its most committed form." Then came The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, who espoused an aim "to raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one." The most recent addition was Why God Is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens, which paints religion as a collective form of idiocy. The New Yorker calls them "atheists with attitude;" the publisher behind a new collection to be called The Portable Atheist (edited by Mr. Hitchens), said we are living in "atheism's moment."

In describing the collective impact of the new atheists, Mr. Dawkins recently told CBC Radio, "I'm not that optimistic that I am shaking people's faith ... What I think I, and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are doing is making it easier for those who are already skeptical to come out and admit the fact."

Dan Barker knows all about coming out as an atheist, and just how long and difficult that road can be.

When he was 15, he was "born again," accepted a call to the ministry and then went on the road for Christ.

"I thought Jesus was coming soon and we needed to go out and save souls," says Mr. Barker, now 58, who was raised in a religious family in California. "I was a true believer. As an evangelist I was living by faith -- hoping to get in one more sermon before Jesus came back."

Over 19 years he preached and penned Christian songs. He got a degree in religion, was ordained and became an associate pastor in three evangelical churches. He played piano for such Christian personalities as Pat Boone and still receives royalties from his children's Christian musicals, Mary Had a Little Lamb and His Fleece Was White As Snow.

Then, in the early 1980s, he underwent a "de-conversion."

"I gradually swung across the theological spectrum from right-wing fundamentalist to a more moderate Christianity. Eventually I became one of those liberals I used to hate," he explains in a telephone interview from Madison, Wis., where he and his wife, Annie Laurie Gaylor, run the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the largest atheist group in the United States.

"I realized the Bible has all this metaphor in it. If Adam and Eve are just a metaphor, and if parables are just parables, then maybe God himself is one big metaphor."

Mr. Barker's latest CDs are called Friendly Neighborhood Atheist and Beware of Dogma.

Mr. Aruja, the Toronto student who volunteers at the Centre For Inquiry, said he knew he was an atheist by the time he was 10 years old, but his formal move away from his family's devout Catholicism took place over several years. His grandmother still believes that one day he will return to the right side.

"Religion seemed to be the status quo, but no one could give me a decent reason why," he says. "I was still living under my parents' roof, so there was only so much confrontation I was going to take there ... The [books] that came out in the past couple of years began to cement my beliefs. And I felt it was time to express those beliefs."

Michael W. Higgins, president and vice-chancellor of St. Thomas University, a Catholic university in Fredericton, N.B., believes anti-religious feeling is "in the air."

"There is a profoundly anti-religious sentiment that exists in the culture-at-large as a result of 9/11," he says. "There is a souring against religion. There is a general perception that most political and social problems have been generated by religion [and] this comes from the danger people fear as a consequence of 9/11."

For Ms. Gaylor, who runs the Freedom From Religion Foundation with her husband, Mr. Barker, a key moment took place two years ago with the highly divisive case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman in a vegetative state who was at the centre of a long-running right-to-die dispute between her husband and her parents. Mr. Bush and the Republican Congress weighed in on the side of the parents with a bill that would have allowed the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Ms. Schiavo died before that happened.

"The President interfered in this tragic medical situation just to kowtow to the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant fundamentalists," Ms. Gaylor says. "If they can do that, what else can they do to interfere with privacy in the name of religion?"

Faith still matters in U.S. politics. Every Republican vying for his party's presidential nomination has made a declaration about a belief in a higher authority. A Gallup poll this year found that only 45% of U.S. voters would vote for an atheist to be president. Meantime, 55% said they would vote for a homosexual and 67% said they would vote for someone who had been married three times.

Ms. Gaylor, who said her group has grown from 7,000 to more than 10,000 since the fall, is not sure that the recent rash of books is winning converts to atheism, but she is certain it is emboldening those in the closet.

When Herb Silverman became a professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston in South Carolina in 1976, people would say to him: "You're the only atheist I know," and he would respond: " No I'm not. You know hundreds of atheists, I'm just the only one who acknowledges they're an atheist."

In 1990, he discovered that the South Carolina state constitution had a religious test for public office. It was rarely put into practice. He was told the only way the court would rule on it was if he won. So he applied to become a notary public, the only public office that didn't require getting elected.

Eight years later, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the religious test was struck down and removed from the state's constitution.

He hopes Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris and others will make atheism more respectable: "What I would really like is for atheists to come out of the closet because we are so demonized in our culture."

While Mr. Hitchens has said most atheists do not need to join organizations or gather together regularly to espouse their beliefs, not all atheists agree.

"I was quite content discussing religion only when I was asked about it, but when our son was ousted from the Boy Scouts of America in 1991 for being from an atheist family, it made me so angry I began to speak out about the injustice," says Margaret Downey, who now runs a group called Atheist Alliance International out of West Chester, Penn. "It's very scary to be the lone atheist out there -- I've experienced that myself. When you announce that you're an atheist, it's very comforting to know your neighbour or co-worker is an atheist, too."

Mr. Aruja would agree. At the Centre for Inquiry they even run a support group called Living Without Religion.

"Sometimes people come in having read a book that confirms their atheism but have trouble letting their family know. We have people come in here regularly [and they say]: 'I've tried to go to church, I've tried to be Christian and there's no way I can believe in that. One woman didn't know how to tell her family. I told her it takes time. Take it step by step.' "