Religion Today

Madison, USA - Americans may dislike atheists, but for one weekend those who don't believe in God will find sanctuary here.

Members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation's largest group of atheists and agnostics, will gather for a weekend of nonprayer breakfasts and raffles for God-free currency at the group's 30th annual convention.

Despite a new survey that shows most Americans still have negative views toward nonbelievers, it's been a pretty good year for atheism.

The foundation has added thousands of members, is starting a national talk radio show and claimed two legal victories in disputes with states in recent weeks. Meanwhile, a spate of books have been selling around the nation, spreading its message that religion is the root of many evils.

Against that backdrop, prominent atheists and agnostics will gather on Oct. 12-14 to hear speeches, give awards and plot strategy in downtown Madison's Monona Terrace. Christopher Hitchens, author of the best-selling book, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," will be there.

So will comedian Julia Sweeney, who played "Pat" on Saturday Night Live and now has a one-woman show describing a spiritual journey in which she ultimately gives up on the idea of God.

"It's kind of a celebration, a celebration of free thought," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation's co-president. "It's also a chance to recharge your batteries for separation of church/state activism."

The foundation, based in Madison since its founding in the 1970s and now boasting 11,300 members, has helped give Wisconsin's capital a reputation as a city filled with Godless heathens in some circles.

In Madison, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly once said, "you expect those people to be communing with Satan." Group co-president Dan Barker said he gets thumbs-up signs when he wears his "Godless" shirt to the grocery store.

It's no surprise, then, the city is rolling out the welcome mat for the estimated 600 or more convention-goers.

The foundation placed a 48-foot-wide billboard overlooking Madison's busiest freeway. Picturing a church's stained-glass window, the sign says "Beware of Dogma" and lists the group's name and Web site. A similar billboard is up on the other side of town to greet visitors from the airport.

The warm welcome is an aberration in America. Atheists are viewed far more negatively than any religious group, according to a recent survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Religious Americans are not comfortable with atheists' refusal to believe in God and think they must lack morality, said John Green, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan forum.

Green said the number of people who do not worship is slowly growing but the exact number of atheists in America is unknown because many people are reluctant to identify themselves that way. About 4 percent of people in Pew's latest survey said they were atheist or agnostic and an additional 10 percent said they followed no religion.

"There's ample evidence that atheists have become much more vocal and also they've become much better organized," Green. "The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a very good example of that."

The foundation is a watchdog group that advocates for the separation of church and state and promotes free thought, which it calls science and reason as opposed to faith in the unknown.

The group has grown more than 50 percent from last year, co-president Dan Barker said. He credits an advertising campaign and publicity surrounding its high-profile lawsuit that challenged President Bush's faith-based initiative.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that ordinary taxpayers do not have standing to challenge the program, which helps religious charities receive federal money.

Still, the group claimed victory in two other recent cases.

In Indiana, the state eliminated a chaplain who had been hired to encourage state employees to show their faith after the foundation filed suit. In Wisconsin, the Department of Justice removed a prayer and a religious hymn from a planned ceremony to commemorate murder victims after Gaylor complained the content was unconstitutional.

Gaylor and Barker recently recorded their first radio show that will be broadcast nationwide on several affiliates of Air America, the liberal radio network. Gaylor said she believes it's the first national show of its kind.

The convention will tackle heavy subjects, such as Hitchens' argument that "religion kills," and also feature some lighter moments.

Instead of a prayer or a moment of silence, Saturday's nonprayer breakfast will include the foundation's traditional "Moment of Bedlam." That's when those sitting down to eat can make as much noise as they want by pounding their silverware, reading their favorite poem or simply yelling.

"It's our chance to fight back," Barker said. "How many events have you gone to and you've been told to bow your head in prayer?"

And then there's the raffle for U.S. dollars manufactured before 1957, when the words "In God We Trust" were added to bills. Winners will receive "clean" $1s, $20s and even a $100 bill _ and chalk up their luck to chance and not some higher power at work.