The Washington Times - September 11, 2008, 02:40PM

 I got a call the other day from Fred Edwords, the communications director of the American Humanist Association, about an ad placed in the New York Times by the Freedom from Religion Foundation showing a photo of the Twin Towers and a suggestion to imagine the world without religion. 

   But Fred, I said, this was extremist religion. Religion is also responsible for good things: schools, hospitals; in fact western civilization is built on religion. He was not convinced.


    “They (religious people) will say that’s not us and it’s true the majority of religious folks would not do that,” he said of the attacks. “But it also shows what happens when you are fanatically religious. We draw attention to 9-11 and say, look, this is what fanaticism can do.”

    Seeing an opportunity, the AHA has posted billboards near New York and Philadelphia saying: “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” Lots of people do not want religion, he said, and they are grateful to learn there are organizations out there that support them. They are also not happy about the injection of religion into politics during this electoral year.

    “People in this country say we have to heat up our own religious zeal to beat the Muslims. Well, that is not the way to do it,” he said.

    The numbers of unbelievers have been climbing in recent years. The fraction of Americans with no religious preference doubled during the 1990s from 8 to 14 percent, according to a 2001 City University of New York American Religious Identification Survey. However, of that 14 percent, less than half (40 percent) were atheists; the other 60 percent were merely “religious” or “spiritual.” 

   A February 2008 Pew survey showed 16 percent of those polled were not affiliated with any religious group. Twelve percent said they were “nothing,” 2.4 percent said they were agnostic and 1.6 percent said they were atheists. Hardly a stunning amount compared to the 25 oer so percent of the population that call themselves evangelicals. And many of those who called themselves unaffiliated reported they prayed, read the Bible and attended weekly religious services. It’s hard to get statistics on a negative, which are people who do not belong to your target group. But it’s occasionally possible to get a bead on who believes - or disbelieves - what. 

    It’s true there’s a movement dubbed the “new atheism” based on a slew of recent books by anti-God authors. Debates between believer and non-believer are the rage now on college campuses. But how widespread is this really? I notice Philip Pullman’s 2007 atheist children’s movie, “The Golden Compass” bombed at the box office. Is there really a groundswell?

    I don’t think so. Granted, there is nowhere near two-fifths of the American population in church every Sunday, as the Gallup pollsters say. You only need to see the empty streets on Sunday mornings to guess that churches aren’t overflowing. But there are many reasons for that, some of which I detail in my new book, “Quitting Church,” which deals with why many believers have left. We’re all shifting shapes, it seems. The atheists aren’t the only ones spending Sunday morning over at Starbucks. 

— Julia Duin, assistant national editor/religion, The Washington Times