'New atheism' is gaining its voice
One of the largest trends in American religion is the growth of those claiming no religious affiliation
Alan Canon grew up in a fundamentalist household and was a Bible-camp prize winner.
But his family also valued science, and he ultimately couldn't reconcile the two and became an atheist.
"For people openly to say they're atheist is similar to gay people coming out," said Canon, of Louisville, who often wears a pin with a scarlet-letter "A" to prompt conversations about atheism. "It's not popular at all for people to say they're atheist, especially in these parts."
He is part of an increasingly vocal minority of atheists and other Americans who claim no religious affiliation. The percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans has doubled since 1990, rising to 16 percent. That growth represents one of the largest trends in American religion today, according to a poll published this year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Some of the religiously unaffiliated say they want to combat conservative Christians' political activities in areas such as embryonic stem-cell research, creationism and courthouse postings of the Ten Commandments.
Religious groups, meanwhile, are responding by trying to make churches more culturally relevant or by finding common ground with atheists.
Among the religiously unaffiliated, about 2 percent describe themselves as "atheist" or "agnostic," according to the Pew survey. Most of the rest say they're nothing in particular - and half of that group actually has religious beliefs or practices.
Members of a Louisville group, Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers, reflect the complexities presented in the Pew survey. Some meditate or practice Wiccan spiritual rituals, tied to the rhythms of nature. Several belong to Unitarian Universalist churches, which have no theological creed but proclaim values of love, justice and truth-seeking.
"We do believe in spirituality," said David Cooper, 59, who belongs to Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church in Louisville. "It may not necessarily be a type of theistic spirituality."
Religious affiliation matters in this election year because religious practice has been one of the leading indicators of voting patterns in recent years.
The more frequently people attend church services, the more likely they are to vote Republican.
Although Democrats are struggling to regain some of that voting share, they won the religiously unaffiliated vote 75 to 25 percent nationwide in the 2006 congressional elections, according to exit polls.
A high-profile part of the "new atheism" is attacks on religious dogma mounted by such best-selling authors as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Muslim terrorists "brought a lot of people here," said John Armstrong, one of the organizers of the Louisville atheist group.
"But you really don't even need to go to September 11 for an example of why religious certainty about things nobody can be certain about is dangerous."
Religious groups are responding to the attacks in different ways.
The Kentucky Baptist Convention, alarmed by a 2004 report showing that one-third of Kentucky adults had little or no church connection, has seen many churches work to be more culturally relevant, said Larry Baker, director of new work and associational missions.
"We have to meet people exactly where they are, respect them as individuals and then share boldly and with clarity about what we believe about our relationship with Jesus Christ," Baker said.
Other groups are finding common ground with atheists.
The Rev. David Emery, pastor of Middletown Christian Church in Louisville, recently led a sermon series on the best-selling atheist books. Although he criticized them for ignoring religious people's work to improve social justice, he applauded them for raising issues of religious violence and the problem of suffering.
"The questions that these atheists raise are questions people of faith have also, that they haven't been given permission to ask," Emery said.
Peter Smith has covered religion for the Courier-Journal since 2000. Reach him at [email protected]