Smart reporting on the no-God beat

Foxholememorial clrHave you ever considered the plight of the atheist activist? New York Times reporter Samuel Freedman has, and he's done a fine job of describing the peculiar challenges of bringing secularist voters together as a constituency.

In the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey from earlier this year, around 16 percent of those polled self-identify as "unaffiliated." Of these, 1.6 percent said they were atheist, and 2.4 percent agnostic (12.1 percent were "nothing in particular.")

So while we aren't talking a potential revolution fomented by the nonreligious this year, the numbers of nonbelievers is significant, and offer fertile grounds for stories.

Freedman's piece began in Colorado, where atheist Jeannette Norman tried to organize a rally against Amendment 48, anti-abortion legislation heavily supported by Christian conservatives.

Here's what happened, as Freedman described it:

Over two months, Ms. Norman made all the necessary arrangements -- getting a parade permit, delineating the schedule for state officials, even buying a megaphone. She put out word about the rally not only through a variety of local atheist groups but also on the heavily trafficked Web site of Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who has become a best-selling author for his broadside against religion.

When the appointed day of Sept. 28 arrived, no more than three dozen supporters joined Ms. Norman on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver. No newspaper covered the event. The speechmaking and picketing concluded a half-hour before the rally's designated closing time.

"I was very disappointed because I put so much work into it," Ms. Norman, 42, a model for art classes, said this week in a telephone interview. "And so did some other people. But we were the only ones there. The secular community as a whole seemed so indifferent. It wasn't like nobody knew. It was like nobody cared."

Freedman goes on to link Norman's problem getting secularists to show up at a meeting with national trends.

He's got a nicely provocative quote from the director of a national secularist lobbying group -- guaranteed to get your attention, whatever of you think of her analogy.

"We are where gays were at the time of Stonewall," said Lori Lipman Brown, the director of the Secular Coalition, referring to the 1969 riot in Greenwich Village that was the birth of the gay rights movement. "And the thing we have in common with gays back then is that day to day you're hidden. If you make the decision to come out, you're treated very badly."

"We should have a base of at least 30 million Americans to work with," Ms. Brown continued. "And yet those who are active are a much smaller percentage. We're probably looking at just a few hundred thousand active participants. It's hard to even quantify."

Freedman then circles back to Colorado and the condundrums and ironies atheists face in fighting Amendment 48.

One problem with turning out the atheist vote is finding it. Atheists do not reside visibly in certain neighborhoods like blacks or Hispanics or gay men and lesbians. They do not turn up on the databases of professional associations like doctors or lawyers. And as nonbelievers, they axiomatically do not come together for worship.

"It's harder for them to organize," said Brian Graves, 27, an organizer for No On 48, "because they don't have something to congregate around."

With their trust in the power of reason, atheists might also be ill-equipped for the gritty work of retail politics -- the phone banks, the door-knocking, the car pools to the polls. If nothing else, they are coming late to the craft.

Moving smoothly between a tight focus on Colorado and broader examination of national issues facing secularists, Freedman's article is informative, well-sourced, and just slightly droll -- an appropriate balance for a challenging subject.

N.B. -- I also like this article about the lonely work of the atheist organizer because it features quotes from field workers rather than from non-believing rock star writers like Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris (although it does allude to them). If this is the start of a trend, it's a welcome one.

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