NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In London, in Barcelona and here in the District of Columbia, advertisements on buses asked variations of an age-old question - why believe in God? We're all accustomed to seeing ads from churches of all sorts, but this is something new, part of a wider and more public discussion of humanism and atheism. The issue is particularly relevant today, as a U.S. district court considers whether the phrase "so help me God" should have a place in the president's oath of office. But the more public discussion of religious skepticism has been under way for quite a while now, with popular books by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Indeed, some atheists appear to be preaching non-belief.

We're going to begin with discussion of the dueling ads that have appeared on buses here in Washington, D.C. But what's going on where you live? Are you seeing more atheist activism and how is this playing out? Our phone number, 800-989-8255; email is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, just click on Talk of the Nation. Later in the program, a health activist back from Zimbabwe says the government there could be guilty of crimes against humanity - against its own people. But first, atheist activism. Fred Edwords joins us here in studio 3A. He's the director of communications at the American Humanist Association. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. FRED EDWORDS (American Humanist Association): Well, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And tell us about your ads. What are they saying?

Mr. EDWORDS: Well, our ads on the buses said, why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness' sake. And of course, this was during the holiday season. We launched them in the latter half of November on the sides and tails of buses and then, at the beginning of December, inside the buses showing a Santa Claus-like character - somebody in a Santa suit - shrugging his shoulders because - really, a rhetorical question. The question isn't really asking people to send us their answers as to why believe in a God. It's really a way of reaching to our own audience, who already kind of think that way and really already think, you know, you can be good without belief in a God, that there are other bases for moral values.

CONAN: So, this was appealing to people who pretty much already agree with you; you're not necessarily trying to proselytize here?

Mr. EDWORDS: I can't imagine anyone changing their faith from two sentences on the side of a passing bus. That would be rather strange indeed and a rather weak faith. If our signs, our ads get anyone to thinking and get him to start questioning, we're not going to object or complain. That's fine. But we just don't think the idea of proselytizing is a very effective use of our time. And since there are literally millions of people who think like us in America - roughly, we guesstimate around 30 million - then we've got our hands full just gathering our own and making our choir bigger by just finding everyone who already sings the same tune, that we don't really need to try to change anybody.

CONAN: Just figure out a way to get to them all in the same place every Sunday morning maybe?

Mr. EDWORDS: Well, or any morning or evening or afternoon or - and in fact, just to let them know that we're here and how to find us and that they're not alone, because I think a lot of people like us feel that they're the only ones.

CONAN: Why buses?

Mr. EDWORDS: Well, buses in the Washington, DC, area are kind of necessary because billboards aren't allowed in the greater metropolitan area. And we have been running billboards in other areas - in the New York City area, in the Philadelphia area, in Colorado and Colorado Springs, and we've got ones coming up in North Carolina. And they say, don't believe in God? You are not alone. So, again, it's just our way of outreach to our own, and we want to make it interesting, though. We want to make it catchy, because then the news media takes an interest in it, and then we get even more publicity, which then lets even more of our own find out where we are.

CONAN: Well, among those who saw the ads here in Washington, DC, was JoEllen Murphy, who lives in the city and, well, decided to take action of her own. JoEllen is also with us here in studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today, too.

Ms. JOELLEN MURPHY (Founder, IBelieveToo.org): Nice to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And you took out some ads, too?

Ms. MURPHY: I did. I saw that the humanist organization was taking out ads, and I thought, well, let's do our own. And because it can be a little bit discouraging, especially around Christmastime for Christians, because we're constantly told, you know, you can't say Merry Christmas. It's not a Christmas party at school; it's a holiday party with no green and red. It's not a Christmas tree, it's a holiday tree. And so, to see the ads - the Christians might take it in the wrong way. It's another attack on Christmas. The ads were run during the holiday season. So, I decided to see if there was any interest in - out there in supporting getting ads on the buses, because I didn't have the money of my own. And there was a lot of interest, so we did it.

CONAN: And you went and raised, well...

Ms. MURPHY: Over $14, 000.

CONAN: It had to cost over $10,000, I was going to say.

Ms. MURPHY: Yeah, it was over 14…

CONAN: And what was your ad?

Ms. MURPHY: Our ad says, why believe? Because I created you and I love you for goodness' sake - God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And so, you have no problem writing ad copy for God?

Ms. MURPHY: No, I'm sure he's OK with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EDWORDS: Well, we would say that that was ghostwritten.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MURPHY: It's excerpted somewhere from the Bible.

CONAN: And I just have to ask, did you take offense at the original series of ads?

Ms. MURPHY: No, when I saw it - I know a lot of people did, but when I saw it, I thought, oh, good, let's have a little fun with this, you know, during the Christmas season - a little, you know, ad war going on. And they can have their ads, we'll have our ads and...

CONAN: And the Washington bus people will be (Laughing) very happy.

Ms. MURPHY: (Laughing) Exactly.

Mr. EDWORDS: And they are.

CONAN: And they are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MURPHY: Right. Exactly.

CONAN: I should say also - the visual of yours that was - the words were against the backdrop of that scene of...

Ms. MURPHY: From the Sistine Chapel. Correct.

CONAN: The Sistine - of Adam's finger...

Ms. MURPHY: Finger.

CONAN: And God's finger, so I think that's in public domain now, (Laughing) so you didn't have to…

Ms. MURPHY: Yes. Well, we did have to pay for whoever took the picture of that particular one (Laughing)…

CONAN: But nevertheless...

Ms. MURPHY: But, yes (Laughing).

CONAN: Yes. And I have to ask, what's been the reaction, JoEllen?

Ms. MURPHY: Well, there was overwhelming support for it. You know, it took us two weeks and two days to raise the $14,000, and we have over 2,000 members on our Facebook group, for whatever that's worth. And - so, it's been very positive.

CONAN: Let's - and the reaction to your ads, Fred Edwords?

Mr. EDWORDS: Oh, yeah, we were very pleased with the reaction. And in fact, when she ran her counter ads, that gave us even more publicity because oftentimes, when they mentioned hers, they mentioned what they were in response to. And so, we did not object at all to her ads out there, and we support freedom of expression and the interplay of ideas. So, we got up to about a thousand new members as a result of this. We got tens of thousands of dollars of new contributions. We met our million-dollar challenge that we had set for the year - to raise a million dollars. And on top - overall in the organization, and this helped. And then also, we had about 40,000 hits on our special Web site that's still up, whybelieveinagod.org, where we kind of explained what we were trying to do.

CONAN: And JoEllen, are you now motivated to do more of these ads? He's got new ones going up in North Carolina.

Mr. MURPHY: No, I think I will stick to the Washington, D.C., area. And it was fun to do, and now, I'll move on.

CONAN: OK. We're asking what kind of atheist activism, if any, you're seeing where you live. 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. We have this email from Judy in Little Rock. When my 13-year-old shared with his school friends that he just doesn't experience anything like God and quite honestly doesn't believe, he was cruelly shunned. People thought he was weird. My husband and I were actually believers at the time. He was probably the most deeply honest and thoughtful person in the house. Thank goodness, atheists are coming out. It needs to be OK to ask deep questions. And I think everybody in this room would probably agree with that. Anyway, let's see if we get a caller on the line and go to Troy, Troy with us from Redding in California.

TROY (Caller): Hi. Glad to be here. And I was just calling to say that, in my personal experience, I've found that, in general, people are very off-put when I tell them originally that I'm an atheist, if they don't know me. And then, once I talk to them for a while, they're actually very accepting. They sort of get the idea that no, I'm not going to try to kill them or, you know, convert them or anything. I'm not in...

CONAN: I was going to say, do they look for the horn and tail?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TROY: (Laughing) No, not quite. But I've definitely had the experience that your email was referring to in elementary school, when I told people I didn't believe, and I've had entire classes try to convert me before. But I find as long as I'm open and accepting of other people, eventually they come around.

CONAN: And - well, people tend to be people after a while, but I was wondering - Fred Edwords, as you consider this, I guess part of your message was to try to reach out to people like Troy, like that young man whose mother wrote the email.

Mr. EDWORDS: Yes. I think a lot of people are of our mind, who are in the closet as it were, because it just isn't always prudent to acknowledge that - and many people, in fact, don't acknowledge it publicly until they've retired because they don't want to suffer any harm to their careers or anything like that by being out. And it isn't just atheism, you know, it's agnosticism, any kind of free thought or questioning. And very often, just by raising the question - why believe in a God? - which is not an atheist question, it could just as easily be seen as an agnostic question. But just raising...

CONAN: Well, you have to think believers would have to ask themselves that question, too.

Mr. EDWORDS: Yes. And so - but just to ask the question is considered by some offensive, and yet it is not offensive to ask the question - why not try Jesus? And I'm not offended by that question. And so, what - part of what we're also trying to do is get people used to the idea that, you know, we're here, too. We deserve a place at the table. We also celebrate the holidays, because the holidays actually have a pre-Christian origin. And we celebrate them and enjoy them, and they're our holidays, too. So, we don't think it's an attack on Christmas for us to come out during our season as well and comment on these things.

CONAN: Troy, thanks very much for the call.

TROY: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And Fred, let me ask you. You work for the American Humanist Association.

Mr. EDWORDS: Yeah.

CONAN: I mean, this is an organization of people who are, as you would put it, "out" on this issue. Why do you think there has been so much quiet for so many years? And, why do you think it's less quiet now?

Mr. EDWORDS: Well, I think, first of all, people like me - I'm not going to lose my job for advocating my outlook, because that's what I'm paid to do. And so, I don't ask other people to come out if it's going to be difficult for them, if it's going to create career issues for them. I can be their voice, others in the American Humanist Association can do so. But by us speaking out, we help create an atmosphere where in the future - as has happened with the gay rights movement and so on - in the future, others can come out as well.

I mean, we got a member of the House of Representatives, Pete Stark, to acknowledge that he, too, doesn't believe in a supreme being. And there are, we guesstimate, about as many as 22 others who - in Congress who don't believe, but it just isn't prudent for them to come out. And because we are a nation with a Protestant majority religion - a Christian majority - and so, it just often has been considered not prudent to go so far as to suggest that maybe none of that's true.

CONAN: Fred Edwords, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. EDWORDS: Thank you.

CONAN: Fred Edwords is director of communications at the American Humanist Association, which ran a series of ads on the buses here in Washington, D.C. And as he mentioned, they've been on billboards elsewhere in the country. And JoEllen Murphy, thank you for your time today. Appreciate it.

Ms. MURPHY: Thank you.

CONAN: Kind of you to come in. JoEllen Murphy, a resident of the Washington, DC, area who took up a collection and ran a series of counter ads on the Washington buses. Does it bother you that atheists are pushing their views more? Does it demand a response? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about the new and more public face of atheism. Its views are touted in any number of recent bestselling books, and you can get their message while riding buses in Washington, DC, or Barcelona or London. If you're seeing more atheist activism, how is this playing out where you live? Does is bother you that atheists are pushing their views more? Does it demand a response? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org, just click on Talk of the Nation.

Joining us here in studio 3A is Jacqueline Salmon, the religion reporter for the Washington Post. And she says, there are some good reasons why we're seeing more atheist activism. Nice of you to be with us today.

Ms. JACQUELINE SALMON (Reporter, Religion, The Washington Post): Absolutely. It's very - it's really unclear at this point, Neal, whether there are more atheists or not. But it is clear they're getting a lot more vocal, as well as - you've talked about the ads, the books - as well, they've gotten very active in Washington. There's now an atheist think tank. There's an atheist - the atheists have their own lobby. They are really coming out of the closet.

CONAN: You'd think organizing atheists (Laughing) would not be the easiest thing in the world to do.

Ms. SALMON: Actually, it is not easy. And getting some of these folks together in coalitions has been quite difficult. In fact, this is the first year - for example, the lawsuit against the words about God in the...

CONAN: Presidential oath?

Ms. SALMON: Right - has been filed two years in previous - before previous inaugurations. But this is the first year that all the - that there's been a large coalition of atheists that have come together and have decided to form it.

CONAN: And so, it may not be more atheists, as you're suggesting, just louder ones?

Ms. SALMON: Precisely. There's a couple of theories for that. One of which is that some of it has to do with September 11th and that people became horrified at the sight of these religious fanatics, you know, murdering all these people for the sake of their religion and decided they really need to speak out more about their non-beliefs. There's a couple of other reasons, too. It's entirely possible that it's just a continuation of a secular trend in the United States. It's also possible, because of the Bush years, where conservative Christians had a real voice, that atheists felt that they needed to come out and speak.

CONAN: Yeah. We have an email on that question exactly from D.C. McGuire in Idaho. Is the push for atheism a push back against the fundamentalist thinking of the Bush administration, which many Americans see as having done so much damage to our country and the world as a whole?

Ms. SALMON: Well, I think you can definitely see it as a pushback. The question is whether it's achieving anything at all and whether it is causing more, quote, unquote, converts to atheism. That's really unclear. The numbers of atheists in the United States, or the percentage, tends to vary anywhere from less than a million up to, as Fred said...

CONAN: Thirty million.

Ms. SALMON: Thirty million. It depends on the survey you've seen. It depends on how the question is asked.

CONAN: And it depends how you define the term. And there's a range of - there's not just one atheist belief, I guess.

Ms. SALMON: Precisely. How you define the term and also - for example, in some of the studies, they'll ask you what your denomination is, and someone might answer, I'm a Unitarian, in which case you're classified as a Unitarian. Well, there's a lot of Unitarians who are atheists, therefore, that might be slightly reducing the number.

CONAN: And as you look at this, there was a time when there was a very public face of atheism in this country. There was a woman named Madeleine Murray O'Hare, and she was - well, filed a lot of lawsuits and was treated, I think, largely as sort of a - I'm not too sure "wacko" is the right word but...

Ms. SALMON: I was thinking of the word "nut," yeah.

CONAN: Yeah - and seemingly easily dismissed, and the end of her life and the end of her organization - well, it was very unhappy. Let's put it mildly. Nevertheless, it was seemingly very quiet after that.

Ms. SALMON: Well, I think with them, we were in a very conservative period of time when - and maybe more of a conformist period of time, when there's less diversity in this country and less tolerance for diversity. And now, with - you know, we all know the reasons why this country's more diverse now. And there's more tolerance for a diverse viewpoint, including, you know, a belief - or a non-belief in God.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. What are you seeing where you live? And if you're seeing more atheist activism - and we're using that term very broadly - do you think it requires a response? Let's begin with Peter, Peter with us from Saugatuck in Michigan.

PETER (Caller): Yes. I have the Darwin fish on the back of my van.

CONAN: As opposed to the Christian fish, it has little feet sticking out the bottom.

PETER: Right. And it says Darwin in the middle. And I regularly get - I live in a very conservative religious area - and I regularly get comments from people. And most of the comments are astonishment and then sympathy, because I'm not a believer; I'm obviously going to go to hell.

CONAN: Obviously going to go to hell?

PETER: Yeah.

CONAN: Well, (Laughing) are you having a good time on the way?

PETER: Yeah. (Laughing) And I figure, if they can wear their Christian fish on the back of their cars and advertise how they believe, then I should have equal rights and be able to put my Darwin fish on the back of my van and advertise how I believe.

CONAN: And I should say, though, the Darwin fish doesn't necessarily mean you're an atheist; it just means you're not a believer in creationism.

PETER: Right.

CONAN: All right. Peter...

PETER: It does sort of lend how my beliefs do lean towards, so...

CONAN: Yes, indeed. And I've seen those fish on a lot of cars, Jackie.

PETER: That's true.

Ms. SALMON: Precisely, and the bemused attitude that Peter's getting is quite typical. We are a very religious country. I mean, it's very easy to focus on atheism and the type of attention it's getting right now. But 92 percent of Americans - the most reliable study I've seen - believe in God. And so, you know, unlike Europe, which is quite secular, atheists are very much, very much of a minority here.

CONAN: Peter, thanks for joining us on the road to perdition.

PETER: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

PETER: Bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from Betsy in San Antonio. I was surprised to see a billboard stating "imagine no religion" on my drive home in deeply Catholic San Antonio. I'm not sure who sponsored the ad, but I'm happy to see big questions being addressed during my commute. Why not give everyone something to think about while sitting in traffic? And I think we did a little research, and that was sponsored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, another group that's been highly active.

Ms. SALMON: Very much so, and in fact, that's actually a quote from a John Lennon song that actually was quite controversial. I remember a number of years ago in Long Island, some high schoolers wanted to sing it at their high school graduation, and the principal had them change the words to take out that particular phrase.

CONAN: Let's get John on the line, John with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

JOHN (Caller): Good afternoon. How are you folks?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

JOHN: I've often wondered if, as an atheist, if I ever were to run for any kind of political office, if it's even possible to - for an atheist to gain any kind of political ground. And I guess here in Charlotte, I'm used to seeing it in the bios of people running for political office - which church they're affiliated with. And I just have a gut feeling that if somebody said I'm not affiliated or I'm an atheist, that that would ruin their chances. And I was wondering if your guest could comment on that.

Ms. SALMON: You're absolutely right; you would not get elected. There have been some studies done asking people whether they would vote for an atheist, particularly whether they would vote for an atheist for president. And more than half of Americans said no. Americans tend to have a fairly negative view of atheists. They tend to equate them with rampant materialism, with dishonesty. They say that they would vote for a Muslim, they would vote for a gay or a lesbian, before they would vote for an atheist for president.

JOHN: Fascinating, it's just what I expected.

Ms. SALMON: (Laughing) Yeah.

JOHN: Imagine - somebody who's not religious can't be trusted to make judgments of good and evil based on other factors.

Ms. SALMON: Well, that seems to be what the surveys show, for better or worse.

CONAN: What happened - we mentioned Pete Stark, a congressman from California, Democrat, who said he does not believe in a higher power. What happened to Pete Stark?

Ms. SALMON: He seems to be doing well. Now, he is from California, which is much more liberal. He is a Unitarian, too, which might be helping that, because he is a member, then, of a religion, if you want to call it that. And I suspect that's probably helping him a bit.

CONAN: John, thanks very much.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email - you mentioned Europe, which has become much more secular - you're talking about Western Europe, not Poland or places like that, but nevertheless, certainly France, Britain, Germany, even Italy to a large degree.

Ms. SALMON: Yeah, Sweden.

CONAN: Sweden. Why do you think that is, as opposed to this country, where a large number of people - certainly white people - come from, well, France, England, Germany, Sweden and Italy?

Ms. SALMON: Well, there's been a long-term trend, some people would say a hundred years of a trend, that started maybe with the 18th century Enlightenment and that really picked up steam after World War II. Obviously, in this country, we didn't see the horrible devastation that Europeans saw - World War II - and that there were many people at that point who decided that they simply couldn't believe in a God any longer. As well, there was Karl Marx in Eastern Europe and his rejection of religion.

CONAN: And going back as far as the Lisbon earthquake that I know a lot of the humanists said, how could there be a God if he would cause - allow such devastation?

Ms. SALMON: Yes. Yes. Mm hmm.

CONAN: Email from George. I am Baptist clergy and find it refreshing to hear this kind of open discussion. The founding fathers would be pleased, especially Jefferson. This was never intended to be a Christian nation, and there are appropriate protections in place, not only for freedom of religions, but freedom from religion. Being a believer with lots of room for doubt, I find that religion and faith prosper best when we are in a free society where there is a free exchange of thoughts and practices with no interference from the state.

Ms. SALMON: There - I'm not a historian, but there are - atheists and Christians will argue until the cows come home after this one - about whether our founding fathers were religious and whether they founded this country on religion.

CONAN: Whether they were a deists, as some would argue...

Ms. SALMON: Or theists.

CONAN: Or theists. So - and well that's (Laughing) another conversation and, as you say, a big argument. Let's see if we get another caller on the line. And this is Sheryl, Sheryl with us from New York.

SHERYL (Caller): Yes. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SHERYL: I just have a couple of quick comments. And firstly, relating to just - I just hope that this sort of discussion and movement, you know, starts to educate the public for people who are atheist, humanist, and - you know, just then takes the edge of. Going back to what the previous caller had said very quickly, and this relates to what you were just discussing. I have a son who declared himself an atheist in a classroom, and he was shocked by the reaction to his classmates and the teacher.

And I, you know, explained to him, you know, perhaps if you - and you could look at this on a broader application, too - you know, instead of - perhaps if you had described yourself as a humanist and given people a definition of what you were before you, you know, threw on the label of atheist, you know, you would have served to give people a little information about what you stood for, which really would've helped people sort of accept the idea.

And you know, again, what Jacqueline had just said as far as people declaring themselves, you know, agnostic, atheist, what have you, after, you know, after great conflicts in the world where, you know, people would say, oh my goodness, there cannot be a God because this, that or the other thing. And rather than taking that approach, an approach that I like to think of is just to say to well, you know - which is really what humanists believe - that we have the good in us. You know, we as individuals have the good in us to do good things on earth - and then in parentheses, of course, without a deity.

And you know, I tell my kids, you know, you've got everything you need when you walk out the door. And I think that put much more of a positive - like, I choose to be an atheist. I choose to be a humanist, rather than just wind up as one because, you know, conflicts in the world dispel the, you know, dispel the ability - or make it difficult for people to believe in a God. Does that make sense?

CONAN: Jackie, what do you think?

Ms. SALMON: Tell me a little bit more of what you're thinking? It sounds like this - you've got two children who are atheist. Are you an atheist yourself?

SHERYL: I'm an atheist myself. I have twin boys, one doesn't really discuss his religious, you know, his system - religious, atheist, what have you, view. But my other boy has long classified himself, you know, first as an agnostic and then as an atheist.

Ms. SALMON: You know, I'm convinced that a lot of teenagers go through the atheist phase. I don't know what it is about the hormones of teenager-hood, but both my kids have decided that they're atheists as well. And I think it's - for a lot of kids, it's an almost obligatory phase. Whether they keep it up or not, that'll be interesting. In fact, most studies have found that, actually, the percentage - the younger you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist. Now, the question is - we're going to find out over the years - is whether those young people keep their atheism or whether they gradually acquire a faith as they get older.

CONAN: Sheryl, thanks very much.

SHERYL: OK, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: OK, good luck to you all. We're talking about more active atheism with Jackie Salmon of the Washington Post. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Ian's with us - excuse me - Jan, Jan's with us - Waynesboro, Virginia.

JAN (Caller): Yes, I'm a Presbyterian clergyman. I agree that it's important to have this kind of open dialogue. I think it's important to acknowledge, however, that to say that there is no God is every bit as much of a faith statement as to say that there is a God. Neither can be proven. I would hope that we could probably use the word agnostic as the more legitimate term, unless atheists are willing to acknowledge that what they're making is a statement of faith.

CONAN: Well, here's an interesting email we have from Billy in Winona, Minnesota. I find atheists to be the fundamentalists of the left. I'm an agnostic because, as Clarence Darrow once put it, I'm agnostic, I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.

JAN: I have no problem with that, except for the categorizing of the people as ignorant.

CONAN: OK. And Jan, are you seeing more talk about atheism where you are in Waynesboro?

JAN: Actually, I'm seeing - hearing more talk about agnosticism - people who simply find that they cannot affirm the existence of God, but acknowledge that they simply do not know. But yes, it's more common now than I can - than in the recent past, yes.

CONAN: And so, less of a belief in a God who is personally engaged?

JAN: Less of a sense of certainty that there is a God who is officially engaged, yes.

CONAN: All right. Jan, thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

JAN: Very welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

JAN: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Another email, this one from Sarah in Green Bay. I am an agnostic atheist, as is my fiance, and we are in the 29 to 33 age group. We're more comfortable voicing our beliefs now. I do think it's a silent social movement. I think part of the reason is that generation XY seems to be more accepting of everyone's beliefs, and we don't feel as persecuted. I look forward to the future, when I can announce it without fear of retribution in our professions. Socially, it is changing. We aren't viewed as Satanists; People sometimes actually agree. And I was going to ask you about that, Jackie. Is this more prevalent among young people, or at least more people are - younger people are tolerant of it?

Ms. SALMON: Definitely, it's more prevalent. The percentage of people over the age of 60 who are atheists is quite small, and it grows the younger you get. And as I was saying before, what's going to be really interesting to see is whether that percentage of atheism stays in the population, which of course, tells you then that the percentage of atheism overall is going to grow, or whether, you know, as I mentioned almost half-jokingly, whether this is a phase for young people, and as they grow, as they acquire children, whether they then will acquire some faith. And there seems to be some evidence that that does happen.

CONAN: Or glimpse their own mortality perhaps. Yeah.

Ms. SALMON: Yeah, very much.

CONAN: This is from Lynne in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. I'm against any faith, or lack of it, advertising, proselytizing or in any imposing themselves on others. I come from a religious tradition that specifically discourages potential converts and says that doubt is good. If one is too sure, then one cannot act with free will. I find any mention of g-d in public life offensive. Under g-d was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in order to distinguish us from communist Russia. So, well, there we get in to a (Laughing) First Amendment issue, so…

Ms. SALMON: Very virulent, and some atheists really are. They are deeply offended by any mention of God in the public square.

CONAN: Jackie, thanks very much for being with us. Jaqueline Salmon is a religion reporter for the Washington Post and was kind enough to join us here in studio 3A. Coming up, the health catastrophe in Zimbabwe - who's responsible? And people asking - is this a crime against humanity? Join us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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