More atheists are sharing their views
When she first logged onto an atheist Web site five years ago, Mikel Childers' hands were shaking.
Since she was a teen, she had harbored growing doubts about the conservative Christian faith, "but I was so programmed against the word atheist," she said.
When she eventually decided she was one, a "feeling of almost euphoria" descended upon her, said Childers, now 28.
"I no longer had to justify why a good and loving God would allow (bad) things to happen," she said.
Her experience is shared by others who are part of Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers, a loosely organized group that meets monthly in an upstairs room at Kaelin's Restaurant for burgers, drinks, discussions and fellowship. About 35 attended a recent meeting.
"We believe in living for this life and this world and using science and reason to understand the natural world better," said John Armstrong, one of the organizers.
They're part of an increasingly vocal minority of atheists, and other Americans who claim no religious affiliation, who are fighting the influence of religious groups on politics, schools and scientific research.
The percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans has doubled since 1990 -- rising to 16 percent.
That growth represents one of the largest trends in American religion today, according to a poll released earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
About 2 percent each describe themselves as "atheist" or "agnostic." Most of the rest say they're nothing in particular -- and half of that group actually still has religious beliefs or practices.
Twelve percent of Kentuckians and 16 percent of Hoosiers have no affiliation with any religion, according to the survey, which didn't provide a breakdown by state of how many describe themselves as atheists.
Those trends coincide with the rise of the "new atheism" -- attacks on religious dogma mounted by such best-selling authors as Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion") and Christopher Hitchens ("God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything").
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Muslim terrorists "brought a lot of people here," Armstrong said. "But you really don't even need to go to 9/11 for an example of why religious certainty about things nobody can be certain about is dangerous."
Members of the Louisville atheists group also say they want to combat conservative Christians' political activities in areas ranging from embryonic stem-cell research to creationism to courthouse postings of the Ten Commandments.
Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst of the Family Foundation of Kentucky -- which has worked alongside religious groups endorsing conservative causes such as the 2004 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage -- said he welcomed the atheists' involvement.
"As long as they believe in the legitimacy of people of faith furthering what they believe, I don't see any problem with groups like this furthering their agenda," he said.
Religion And Voting
In recent years, religious practice has been one of the leading indicators of voting patterns.
The more frequently people attend worship, the more likely they are to vote Republican.
And while Democrats are struggling to regain some of that voting share, they won the religiously unaffiliated vote by a 75-25 percent margin nationwide in the 2006 congressional elections, according to exit polls.
In this year's 3rd District rematch, Republican Anne Northup leads among those who attend worship frequently, while incumbent Democrat John Yarmuth leads among all the rest, according to a SurveyUSA/WHAS-TV poll in July.
Atheist group member Alan Canon of Louisville, who often wears a pin with a scarlet-letter "A" to prompt conversations about atheism, grew up in a fundamentalist household and was a Bible camp prize winner.
But his family also valued science, and he ultimately couldn't reconcile the two.
"For people openly to say they're atheist is similar to gay people coming out," Canon said. "It's not popular at all for people to say they're atheist, especially in these parts."
Members of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers reflect the complexities presented in the Pew survey -- that people with no religious affiliation often have some religious practices.
Some meditate or practice Wiccan spiritual rituals, tied to the rhythms of nature.
Several belong to Unitarian Universalist churches, which have no theological creed but proclaim values of love, justice and truth-seeking.
"We do believe in spirituality," said David Cooper, 59, who belongs to Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church. "It may not necessarily be a type of theistic spirituality."
Religious groups, meanwhile, are responding to the new trends.
The Kentucky Baptist Convention -- alarmed by a 2004 report showing one-third of Kentucky adults with little or no church connection -- has seen many churches work to be more "culturally relevant," said Larry Baker, director of new work and associational missions.
"We have to meet people exactly where they are, respect them as individuals and then share boldly and with clarity about what we believe about our relationship with Jesus Christ," he said.
Others are finding common ground with atheists.
The Rev. David Emery, pastor of Middletown Christian Church, recently led a sermon series on the recent atheist best-sellers.
While he criticized them for ignoring the positive work of religious people for social justice, he applauded them for raising issues of religious violence and the problem of suffering.
"The questions that these atheists raise are questions people of faith have also, that they haven't been given permission to ask," he said.
Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.