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Originally published March 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 29, 2009 at 4:39 PM

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Local atheists lift their voices in Metro bus ads

Seattle Atheists are starting a bus-ad campaign intended to give atheists a voice, provide a way for them to connect, and to put a "positive face on atheism." It's the latest example of the increased visibility of atheists and agnostics locally, nationally and internationally.

Seattle Times staff reporter

For so many years, they said, they hid the fact that they were atheists.

It was the looks of horror or incomprehension they would get, or the people asking them how they could live that way.

Plus, said some of the 50 atheists who gathered at a Seattle public library recently, they had gone for years without meeting others who did not believe in God.

And that, said Seattle Atheists president Paul Case, is why his group is running a bus ad campaign for eight weeks starting Wednesday.

It's the latest example of the increased visibility of atheists and agnostics locally, nationally and internationally.

The Seattle ads are intended to give atheists a voice, provide a way for them to connect and to put a "positive face on atheism," Case said.

They will be placed on the inside of at least 20 Metro buses primarily serving downtown Seattle routes. Along with the group's name and Web address, the ads will feature quotes from luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein and Susan B. Anthony.

Those quoted aren't necessarily atheists, but their words are included to educate people about "the rich American legacy of skepticism and critical thought," according to Seattle Atheists.

"You see Christian messages everywhere. You see churches everywhere," Case said. "As an atheist, it will be nice to see in a public setting a message that aligns with how I feel about the existence of God."

A growing chorus

Atheists do not believe in a god or gods. But there is a range in how they express that. Some say outright: "There is no God." Others are only willing to say that there is no evidence for God.

Regardless, public expressions of atheism have become more frequent, especially since the success of best-sellers such as "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris and "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins.

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In recent months, atheist groups have taken out ads on buses in London, Barcelona, and Genoa, Italy; Toronto, Montreal and Calgary; Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wis.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has put up numerous billboards, including in Seattle and Olympia. And last December, the foundation stirred a furor after it put up in the Capitol building in Olympia next to a Nativity scene a sign that read, in part, "religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Certainly, the number of people who say they're atheists and agnostics is still tiny: about 3.6 million — or 1.6 percent — of American adults, according to a large, respected national survey released earlier this month.

But that's a substantial growth from 0.7 percent in 1990, said Ariela Keysar, an associate research professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and one of the key researchers for the American Religious Identification Survey 2008.

Even more telling, she says, is that based on stated beliefs — people saying there's no God or that they're unsure — that figure goes up to 12 percent.

Finding fellowship

in atheism

Case, the Seattle Atheists president, became a "hard-core Christian" after college when most of his best friends began attending a Pentecostal church.

Shortly after, he began questioning the claims church leaders made: that they were visited by prophets and that they had cured a man with AIDS.

His friends held interventions "because they were so afraid of me going to hell." He, too, held that fear, and for five years he considered himself agnostic before "I finally accepted the fact that there was no evidence for the existence of God."

Case, 40, a project manager for a security firm, sought Seattle Atheists because he wanted to be part of a supportive group that did positive things for the community.

When he attended his first meetings some five years ago, only about eight people would show up. Now, every other month, 40 to 80 people gather to discuss topics such as how to raise children in a secular, moral way. The group has 160 members altogether.

Jim Corbett, a 57-year-old member who works in legal research, grew up Catholic. He felt disloyal, he said, when in college he started considering the idea that there was no God.

Now, he identifies himself as an atheist, but more important, he says, as a humanist — someone who believes people are capable of ethical conduct and of reaching their highest potential without relying on religious beliefs.

"My philosophy of life is: If I can make the world a better place for you, then it automatically becomes a better place for me," he said.

He approves of the outreach Seattle Atheists have done in recent years — volunteering at public radio stations' pledge drives, handing out water at charity races — saying it helps break the stigma attached to atheism.

Pastor Richard Dahlstrom of Bethany Community Church in the Green Lake neighborhood said he's "not afraid of people touting atheism. ... I think anything that opens up the conversation about the existence or nonexistence of God is OK."

But, Dahlstrom said, some of the more-militant atheists disregard both the good things that religious people have done throughout history — such as caring for the aged and the sick — and the atrocities committed by the nonreligious.

Members of Seattle Atheists say their bus ads are not militant or anti-religious.

"It just needs to be out there that not everyone believes in God," said Jenny Lees, 38, an office manager. "It should be just as acceptable to say 'I'm an atheist' as to say 'I'm a Christian' or 'I'm Jewish.' "

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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