Report: Atheism On The Rise In U.S.

A study by Trinity College in Connecticut reveals atheism is on the rise in the U.S. Host Michel Martin interviews Blair Scott, Founder of the North Alabama Free Thought Association to talk about what it means to be an atheist and how they're working to find acceptance in communities throughout the country.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to another story about how religious practice is changing in America. According to a recent survey by Trinity College in Connecticut, 15 percent of Americans identify themselves as having no religious affiliation. That number has almost doubled since 1990. And now a growing number of atheists are forming their own congregations of sorts, with atheist and humanist societies experiencing a surge in new membership. Here to talk more about this is Blair Scott. He's the founder of the North Alabama Free Thought Association, and the Alabama state director of American Atheists, and he joins us from member station WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. BLAIR SCOTT (Founder, North Alabama Free Thought Association): Thank you. It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: Would you tell me - the term free thought has a historical root, doesn't it?

Mr. SCOTT: Well, free thought literally means coming to your own conclusion about religion and without the influence of religious dogma or doctrine or authority. It's kind of an umbrella term for atheist, agnostics, skeptics, secularists, rights and any other label that's out there that people want to attribute to themselves.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask about that also because simply not having a religious affiliation does not, by definition, mean you are an atheist.

Mr. SCOTT: Correct. There's a misconception out there that if you don't go to church, you're an atheist. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOTT: …you know, the last pupil that came out reported that 14 percent of atheists believe in a god. Well, if you believe in a god, you're not an atheist.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you, what drew you to atheism? Were you raised in an atheist tradition, an atheist household, or is it something that you came to as an adult?

Mr. SCOTT: No, I was actually raised Presbyterian. Between the sixth and seventh grade, I started asking a lot of questions and I didn't get satisfactory answers. Kind of looked on my own for a while, you know, jumped back and forth from church to church. And ultimately, I just kind of gave up. And, you know, what was sad, at the time, is I thought there was something wrong with me. You know, my family members were religious, my friends are religious. Why didn't I get it? What's wrong with me? And it wasn't even until my late teens that I even first heard the word atheist and what it was. I was like, aha, that's what I'm.

MARTIN: Why did you found the Free Thought Association?

Mr. SCOTT: The main reason is, you know, fellowship is a not religious word. Fellowship is a human word, and everybody needs a sense of fellowship. It's why firefighters hang out at the firehouse with each other. That's why police officers hang out with each other. That's why stamp collectors hang out with each other. And so, the main purpose was for that fellowship purpose and to get people together in a social aspect. And then from that social aspect, you could pull people that were interested and getting involved in activism for separation of church and estate.

MARTIN: I used the word congregation in the introduction to describe your group. But I really wasn't sure what word to use. Is it something where you meet on a regular basis to get together and discuss philosophical questions, or is it more about advocating for your point of view in the public sphere?

Mr. SCOTT: It's actually about both. You know, the majority of our get-togethers or gatherings, if you will, are social. We have a monthly dinner, a monthly movie night, a coffee social once a week, a bagel social once a week, a monthly picnic. And we're going to be starting skeptics in the pub in about a month here.

MARTIN: Skeptics in a pub?

Mr. SCOTT: Skeptics in a pub. It's basically just an excuse to go to a pub and drink a few beers. You have a 10-minute - 10-minute speech on a skeptical subject, whether that's ghost or the paranormal, ESP, whatever. And then everybody just sits around and hangs out and talks.

MARTIN: What, you know, we have to - I don't know that you can have faith without doubt. So there has to - atheism has to have existed, really, since there was religion. But I'm curious about what do you think is behind the numbers that we mentioned, which is this increase in the number of people who either don't claim a religious affiliation or do proclaim that they are atheist.

Mr. SCOTT: Actually, I think it's both. I think there is definitely a rise of people coming out of the closet courtesy of, you know, things like Richard Dawkins's Out Campaign. That's made a huge impact. In his book, he talks about several places where it's okay to be an atheist. There are so many people out there that are just afraid to use the dreaded A word, you know, because they're afraid of the repercussions, and those repercussions are real.

I mean, I've been the victim of discrimination and harassment. They are very real, and they are legitimate concerns that people have. But what we've seen recently is an increase in the general public's - maybe not acceptance, but more curiosity of what atheism is and is not. And when you have Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett and others on the New York Times best-seller list, that's a huge impact, and what we've seen in the last four years is a massive increase of atheist groups across the country and in places that are unexpected.

I mean, I expect an atheist group in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, etc. But where we're seeing them pop up is little places like Jackson, Mississippi; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Tallahassee, Florida, you know, so these little bitty mid-size and small towns, and that's an incredible phenomenon because what that means is that these people are finally willing to say, okay, I live in a small town or a midsize city, but you know what, I know there's others out there like me.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the rise of atheism in the U.S. with Blair Scott. He is the founder of the North Alabama Free Thought Society and a state leader of the group American Atheist.

Do you ever miss ritual? Many of the moments we associate with pivotal moments in one's life - you know, births, deaths, weddings - do have religious rituals associated with them. Do you ever miss those?

Mr. SCOTT: I can't say that I do. There are some atheists that consider themselves cultural Christians or cultural Jews or cultural Hindus, etc., and they go to church just for the ritual aspect of it because they enjoy singing the hymns, etc., but those are actually very far and few between.

One of the things that's been going on lately is the de-baptism ceremonies.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that.

Mr. SCOTT: Well, the de-baptism ceremony is basically you get in line, and somebody uses a blow-dryer to evaporate the baptism out of you, and the blow-dryers are labeled with science, logic and reason, etc. And after that, you go and get a de-sacrament wafer, and then you get a de-baptism certificate, and some people have sent those de-baptism certificates to their former churches and asked to be removed from the baptismal roll.

So far, I don't think any church has obligated - has obliged, but there's no malice there. It's not done with the intent to offend. It's done with the intent to have fun and just to have a good time and, you know, the byproduct of that is it is going to offend some people.

MARTIN: I think one of the things that may interest our listeners is that you have seen a surge of atheist membership in places traditionally viewed, as we've said, as the Bible Belt, places like Alabama, but you also found some advocates in the religious community. Is that right?

Mr. SCOTT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It's amazing how many times it pops up. A good example is Ponca City in Oklahoma. The Free Thought group started there, and there was a letter in the local newspaper that, you know, said that they should boycott the restaurant that was hosting this group, etc., and a lot of people, of course, signed on to that. And then one of the local preachers came out and put a letter in the newspaper and said, no, this isn't what we should do. We should support these guys. They have the right to do what they want.

And then I think some of it, you know, may also be a bit of the curiosity aspect. Four times in the last couple years here in Huntsville alone, we've had churches invite us to speak, you know, just a one-on-one conversation, not a debate, about what is atheism, and what atheism means to us as individuals.

So we're seeing this increase in curiosity and increase in just wanting to know what we are. And that is a good thing because if we're going to get rid of that discriminatory aspect of the way people view us, then there has to be an educational process that we're not bad people. We don't walk into the church with horns and a tail behind us.

MARTIN: Blair Scott is the founder of the North Alabama Free Thought Association and national affiliate director and Alabama state director of the group American Atheist. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBHN in Birmingham, Alabama. Blair Scott, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SCOTT: Thank you, have a good day.

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