This article belongs to Great American Dumb Ideas column.

It's time for me to come out of a dark closet. I am a proud non-believer, a better-than-thou, evangelical atheist, if you will. And that's not a comfortable position to take in the United States today where one is expected to pay polite attention to public displays of religion. In recent years, such displays have become common as conservative Christian religious groups, under the leadership of charismatic gurus grown wealthy on the donations of the faithful, attempt to assert their authority in public affairs.

Evangelical Christians have been working for decades to get themselves elected to school boards and political offices. Concentrating on certain wedge issues such as school prayer, abortion, and marriage laws, they have organized into a powerful voter group.

The first Bush president, G. H. W. Bush, summed it up pretty well when he said in August of 1987, while campaigning for president, "No, I don't know that Atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God." This foolishness is as bad as the ranting of his spoiled son who, if you believe him, has the special ability to talk with God.

During my life in the United States I have seen great progress in breaking down the social and economic barriers created by irrational discrimination. There were times when we said to each other:

  "A woman could never be president."
"A black could never be president."
"A Catholic could never be president."
"A Jew could never be president."

Any of these possibilities are widely accepted today. Why, we are almost on the verge of thinking that a gay person could become president. They are certainly well represented in our congress, state governments, and in business where they seem to perform as well as any others in responsible positions.

By now, even the Irish, Italians, Blacks and, yes, a Hispanic here and there, move into high offices and lucrative jobs. Of course, we are still not quite sure about those Muslim guys. All of these groups now have better opportunities than ever before in our society. We're learning that hate doesn't pay, but the lessons never seem to end.

An agnostic or atheist elected president? Here we hit the bottom of the believability barrel. But it could happen again as it did happen in the past:
The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma. -- Abraham Lincoln, American President (1861-1865).

Lincoln did not deny the existence of a god and, although religion was not a part of Lincoln's personal life, he went on to noble tasks such as freeing the slaves and saving the nation. Today we need to put respect for non-belief back in the main stream of American life. Speaking of dead presidents, George Washington was not a Christian; he ignored the whole religion question in his public life. Most of our founding fathers were either agnostics or theists who did not believe in a personal god, and almost all of them believed absolutely in the separation of church and state. Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Grant . . . the list goes on. Eminent scientists like Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan, poets and authors such as P.B. Shelly and Earnest Hemmingway, tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie, the list of prominent agnostics is a very long list.
While breaking down discrimination in many areas, we seem to have moved backward when it comes to accepting the fact that many Americans just ignore religion and want to keep it out of public affairs. But, freedom from religion is just as important as freedom of religion.

I can't remember at time in my own life when I took any religious mythology seriously. Oh, I heard all the Bible stories, was forced to attend church for brief time, and pretended to pray in public when ceremony demanded it. I even got married in a church. But, I was never and am not now a believer. I suspect that many churchgoers, even many church officials, are not real believers in the literal gospel, but I learned early in life that it is not polite to raise questions or express doubts when the righteous bring up their mission in life. I think differently now.

Atheists and agnostics prefer to avoid arguments about religion. But, not any more.

If I tell others that I am an atheist, it should not be taken as an insult to their beliefs or their church. I don't think they have any reason to be uncomfortable with me. They have no reason to be angry with me. I don't subvert their belief systems or try to take faith away from people. I am an atheist, and there is nothing wrong with me! I am not dangerous! My ideas deserve as much respect and air time as theirs.

And when others inject religion into a conversation, I will challenge them just the way, as a non-smoker, I refuse to breathe second hand smoke. Keep your religion at home or in church.

Help is on the way, and the pendulum is swinging away from allowing great political power for religionists. In the past several years, important books have appeared:

  • The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris
  • How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, and Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstitions, and Other Confusions of Our Time, by Michael Shermer
  • Darwin's Dangerous Idea, and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett
  • The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
  • God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

    It's nice not to feel so alone, to hear friendly voices. It's nice to be out of that damn closet.

    I prefer to think of myself as a rational or secular humanist since words like atheist and agnostic define what a person is not. But if you are a non-believer, let it show. Get the T-shirt, apply a bumper sticker, and speak out whenever the religionists try to push God, prayer or liturgy into a public event. We're not out to convert anyone or rob people of their religious faith. We believe that a spiritual life is personal property, that moral behavior does not require religion, and we want to be left alone. We're just another minority that wants respect and equal opportunity.