As religion takes the national stage, a boon for the local faithless

By Sam Knight
New York Times, 1/9/05

At the latest meeting of the New York City Atheists, Ken Bronstein, the group's forthright president, shared good news.

"Let me just tell you," Mr. Bronstein said to a room of about 20 members who gathered on a recent Friday evening. "In the last three months, the acceptance of atheism and atheists has gone up dramatically in this country.

"George Bush has been our greatest ally," Mr. Bronstein went on, as his members ate salami and cheese sandwiches in a rented conference room in a Midtown office building. "I have just seen a sea change out there, especially since the election."

The New York City Atheists, an affiliate of American Atheists, a national group based in Cranford, N.J., had been bumbling along with 25 or so members for much of last year. But in recent weeks, the number has jumped to 125. Or, as Mr. Bronstein puts it, "We've really grown this thing."

He attributes part of the mini-surge in nonbelievers to the increased visibility of the group - it operates tables at street fairs and has a local cable television show filmed in Mr. Bronstein's Upper East Side apartment - and the rest to a faithless boomlet of sorts that has infused atheist groups across the country with new members and has spurred discussions about efforts to unite as a political force, especially as religious groups flex their muscles.

The Council for Secular Humanism, for instance, which describes itself as "North America's leading organization for nonreligious people," has experienced an "explosive" growth in membership since the election, according to its chairman, Paul Kurtz. And Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based religious watchdog group, described what was happening in New York as "a response from people who are frightened that the evangelical right is literally trying to take over the country."

Or, as Mr. Bronstein puts it, "People do not like to be told what is right and wrong."

The membership surge has given New York atheists the confidence to act on their convictions. Mr. Bronstein, for instance, spent much of autumn seeking permission to erect a stall in Bryant Park, to ensure the presence of a skeptical note amid the religious voices. When fully assembled, the atheists' stall is draped in yellow banners demanding the separation of church and state, and is attended by members wearing smart blue baseball caps.

"Here's our real position," he said. "We don't like any religious display in public places. But since I can't stop it, I join it." Mr. Bronstein's flock appreciates his efforts. "He has the leadership we need," said Edith Amster, one of the group's loyalists, "and he knows how to articulate the separation of church and state."

But that's not to say that managing an atheist society is straightforward. Even in a group of nonbelievers, there will always be room for a little doubt.

At the Friday meeting, for instance, Mr. Bronstein asked if there were any questions.

"Er, I'm pretty new to the group, but I have a question," Bob Grize said. "I was wondering about the name, New York City Atheists. 'Atheists' kind of has bad connotations. What about 'free thinkers'?"

Two days later, Mr. Bronstein was at work again, tending the group's stall on the sidewalk outside Bryant Park. As he took down the group's yellow signs, a slow-drifting crowd of tourists came by. As two Japanese women stopped to take a leaflet, Mr. Bronstein nodded approvingly.