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Bible Belt atheists keep their views under wraps

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The note on Blair Scott's windshield wasn't a nice one. The anonymous writer had to have seen Mr. Scott's atheist-themed bumper sticker, an uncommon sight in the small south Alabama town where he lived at the time.

"It just amazed me that people would take time out of their day to return to their car, grab a pen and paper and write a 'You're going to hell and you're going to burn in a lake of fire,' and stick it under my windshield," said Mr. Scott, a 36-year-old veteran who installs computer systems in prisons.

Outspoken atheists such as Mr. Scott remain a minority, but there are dozens of atheist chapters sprouting up across the country, and even many in Southern states dominated by conservative Christians.

Many who consider themselves atheists said they're afraid to mention their views on religion or that they don't believe in deities. It's an especially unpopular opinion in the South, they said.

"Do I think that any of these people are really afraid if someone knows they're an atheist that they're going to get shot down on the street tomorrow? No. But the thought is always there in the back of your mind," said Joe Mays, Louisville computer technician who helped organize an atheist group that meets monthly.

Atheism is generally considered a disbelief inGod or other deities, but some self-described atheists said they feel it is better described as a conclusion one arrives at sometime in their life.

"I don't really care for the word 'belief,' " said Edwin Kagan, a northern Kentucky lawyer who has defended atheist clients. "People say, 'Do I believe in evolution?' It's not something to be believed in; it's something to be learned. Like the multiplication table. Do you believe in the multiplication table, or do you use it, do you learn it?"

Some estimates suggest that as much as 15 percent of the population is atheist, though few call themselves by that title, said Jim Heldberg, national affiliation director for American Atheists in San Francisco. Other estimates, however, put the number much smaller, as low as 2 percent. Mr. Heldberg said his group has 60 independent groups in many cities across the country. And there are many high-profile people who have expressed atheist views or a disbelief in God, including cyclist Lance Armstrong, golfer Annika Sorenstam and actresses Angelina Jolie and Jodie Foster.

At a meeting of the Louisville atheist group earlier this year, several members spoke of a fear of retribution if they mentioned their views around family or at work. Most didn't want to be identified. The members -- including a factory worker, a nurse, a real estate agent, an accountant and some who work in computers -- considered putting up flyers in local bookstores to attract new members, but they scrapped the idea when one said they would likely be torn down.

"Nobody's your friend when you're an atheist," one member said. Another member, Christopher Helbert, wryly suggested that he would rather his parents know he was homosexual than an atheist, because they would say "gay is curable."

A study at the University of Minnesota this year lends credence to the group's discussion. It found that Americans favor homosexuals, recent immigrants and Muslims over atheists in "sharing their vision of American society." Respondents also said they were least accepting of intermarriage with atheists than with any other group.

"I think the key to this animosity is probably this idea that somehow morality and religion are deeply linked and if you lose any kind of religious doctrine, you inevitably lose some purchase upon morality," said Sam Harris, best-selling author of "Letter to a Christian Nation."

Mr. Harris' book is a response to Christians who have criticized his writings on atheism. "People think unless you've found Jesus, you can't love your neighbor in any significant sense," he said.

Mr. Scott said when he was living in Mobile, Ala., people were tipped off to his atheist views after he wrote an editorial to the local newspaper protesting a proposed Bible class at a public school. Mr. Scott said after that, his car was bashed by a baseball bat and a cross was planted in his yard.

He has since moved to Huntsville and now heads a local atheist chapter in that town, which he said is much more tolerant because of the number of NASA scientists who live there.

"I think there's almost an unwillingness to come out of the closet for most atheists, especially in the Bible Belt, because of the type of repercussions from people of faith," he said. "Some nasty stuff has happened to people, some really nasty stuff. And people are afraid of that."

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