I heard a teaser for this story last night, but seldom watch channel 2 here in Salt Lake. Here is the story as published on the KUTV website:
Number Of Atheists And Non-Believers On The Rise
Reported by: Fields Moseley | KUTV
We often hear this country was built on a belief in God, but others say it is really built on the freedom to choose. More and more people in the United States are choosing no religion, and that is true here in Utah. Atheists meet weekly and hold more formal meetings on a monthly basis.
Belief in a higher power is older than written history. Over time, religious dogma has taken those beliefs in many directions. Even now, religion in the United States continues to evolve, with more churches forming, while others disappear.
“The social diversity in terms of beliefs and belief systems is much broader in the United States right now,” said Dr. Muriel Schmid, Director of Religious Studies at the University of Utah.
But amongst the organizations of believers, there are non-believers and they are organized too.
“I don’t believe there is a God,” said Joel Layton, president of Atheists of Utah.
“Having the opportunity to get out there and talk to people and not worry about what you say,” explained Lily Wilder as she sat with a group that represents a handful of Utah atheists who get together at Mestizo Coffeehouse in Salt Lake City every Thursday. The conversations vary but religion is a consistent topic and there is some religion bashing.
“I do believe the world would be better off if we never had religion,” said Layton. He started these gatherings and wants them to be relaxed to counter the formal atheist meetings that have been taking place monthly for decades.
“We don’t only discuss religion,” said long time atheist, Stephen Clark. “We discuss politics just as much.”
“Atheists are a very diverse group and they have lots of points of view within the atheist organization,” said John Cooper.
“The growing number of atheists is only because a lot more are willing to step up and say yeah, I don’t believe it,” said Layton.
He is right. The numbers are growing, according to the on-going American Religious Identification Survey.
It says in Utah from 1990 to 2008, the number of people declaring no religion jumped from 9% to 14%. While the number saying they were Christians other than Catholics dropped by 10%. The survey says the total Christian population nationwide also dropped by 10 percent.
“Up to mid 16th to early 17th century, you still risked death if you declared atheism,” said Dr. Schmid. She says atheism in the United States is still widely misunderstood because it has been defined by dominant religious forces. But in Japan, more than half the population describes itself as non-believing. The same is true in Russia and Sweden. The U.S. is by no means a secular country, but atheists and non-believers in general have found their place.
“Clearly, we have reached a comfort for this kind of discourse and this kind of spiritual life,” said Schmid. “I think that may be the trend in the United States socially. That people will feel less compelled to identify themselves within a religious affiliation.”
In recent years, political leaders like President George Bush, whose religion was front and center, led many atheists to seek out like-minded groups.
“When the religion gets organized to the point when they’re forcing their point of view down our throat, then we need to do something about it,” said Cooper. “We need to stand up for ourselves.”
In Utah, the boundary between church and state often seems blurred to non-believers. Right now, a law-suit concerning crosses honoring fallen highway patrol troopers is winding it’s way through the justice system. Stephen Clark is a plaintiff.
“We are not opposed to having the state troopers honored for the sacrifices they’ve made, but we are opposed to having a religious symbol on government property,” said Clark.
Clark and other atheists generally see themselves as watchdogs. They bristle at being compared to religious groups just because they meet regularly. They say they aren’t looking for converts and they don’t want to be converted.
“People are afraid to call themselves atheists, and they shouldn’t have to be,” said Layton.
Does this mean atheists will find political common ground? On issues of separation of church and state they seem to come together. But just like religion, there are many types of atheists, with many different views.
A copy of the survey can be found HERE.