NOAH ADAMS, host:
This week NPR is profiling people whose lives changed five years ago as a result of the attacks on 9/11. They might have moved or changed professions. Or the attacks may have transformed the way they view the world, spiritually or philosophically. Today we tell the story of Patricia Berger, a 78 year-old retiree in New York City. Her first response, which we reported on NPR, 11 weeks after the attacks, was to drastically circumscribe her movements to 24 square blocks of her neighborhood.
Ms. PATRICIA BERGER: (New Yorker): I wanted to be able to get home if something happened and, you know, put up my plastic and things like that. I wanted to be able to be home. And I said to a good friend of mine, I said, do you think I'm getting a little crazy? She said, a little.
ADAMS: And now five years later, Berger travels throughout the city once again. But in response to the events of that day she has become an atheist activist.
NPR's Margot Adler has a report.
MARGOT ADLER: When Pat Berger talks about her neighborhood firefighters, like those who come to a party every year at her community garden, you realize that 9/11 is never far from her thoughts.
Ms. BERGER: It's a potluck, and the firemen let the kids go on their trucks. It's quite touching. It's a very small town. I still cry when I walk by firehouses.
ADLER: Pat Berger says 9/11 traumatized her.
Ms. BERGER: Maybe that sounds sort of facetious, because nothing happened to me, except wondering where is this life going for all these people.
ADLER: She remembers learning that a woman in her son's apartment building died in the towers because she just happened to walk into a meeting.
Ms. BERGER: And then I really realized that it's all chance and it's all random. There's nobody, you know, watching out for anybody.
ADLER: Brought up as a Methodist in a small town of 6,000 in western New York, Berger had never been particularly religious. She remembers being told not to play with Baptists. She hated the petty attitudes. But 9/11, she says, was a wakeup call.
Ms. BERGER: I knew vaguely about the Crusades, about the Protestant Reformation, how they, you know, destroyed everything as they marched through, about the Inquisition. And I thought all of this for some, you know, the imaginary Harvey, the imaginary rabbit. Well, you know, that's the way I started to think of this supposed person whose - our fate was in his hands. Well, I didn't buy it.
ADLER: She says she started to believe that religions were responsible for the wars and violence in the world.
Ms. BERGER: That's what I think. That's what I think.
ADLER: So Berger became one of the charter members of New York City Atheists. Today her tiny apartment in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan houses the organization's small but growing library. She points out books.
Ms. BERGER: This is The History of Doubt. I couldn't resist that. This is Breaking the Spell. Do you know that...
Ms. BERGER: ...Daniel Dennett book?
ADLER: On Saturdays, the New York City Atheists put up a table and a little tent at Columbus Circle, right in front of the huge Time-Warner Building with its multitude of stores. Berger is a lithe and lively woman with short, gray hair, who in no way looks her 78 years.
Martin Yazdik(ph) stops by the table. He says he's a conductor and a former constitutional lawyer.
Ms. BERGER: Would you like a copy of our newspaper?
Mr. MARTIN YAZDIK (Former Constitutional Lawyer): I would you like a copy of your news, yes.
Ms. BERGER: How do you characterize yourself, belief-wise?
Mr. YAZDIK: I'm a Jeffersonian rational humanist.
Ms. BERGER: That's good enough.
ADLER: But even in this huge and anonymous city of eight million, it's not so easy to call yourself an atheist. You can occasionally get hassled or lectured at. Berger is un-phased.
Ms. BERGER: Some people pray for us. There's been a few people that actually have Bibles that, you know, thumped them on the table, literally Bible-thumpers, not make-believe Bible-thumpers. We also have people who call us Communists.
ADLER: But many people who pass on the two Saturdays I show up give the thumbs up sign. Back in her small apartment, Berger mostly talks about atheism with a touch of humor. You know, she says, first they tell you to believe in Santa Claus, then the Easter Bunny, then the Tooth Fairy; it's the same thing with God.
Ms. BERGER: It's a way of controlling you. If you're not good, you're not going to get a Christmas present.
ADLER: You began to question religion at a very early age.
ADLER: But you suddenly said, oh my God, there's been this horrible event.
Ms. BERGER: But I didn't say oh my God.
ADLER: Yeah. Right. I'm sorry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ADLER: I asked Berger, if there is no God, what does she do when she needs solace? Is there a particular poem or saying that she thinks about?
Ms. BERGER: I quote Dover Beach a lot. Dover Beach is Matthew Arnold. It says, Let us be true to one another. We are here as on a darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night.
ADLER: She says the hardest conversation about atheism that she ever had was with a dear dying friend who begged her to believe so they could be together in heaven. All I could say, she says is, Roseanne, I love you.
ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
ADAMS: And you can find all of our profiles of people who changed their lives as a result of 9/11 on our Web site, npr.org.
You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.