Thousands expected at atheists rally on Mall


Don't tell Hans Kasten that there are no atheists in foxholes.

As an Army infantryman during World War II, Kasten fought his way across France during the summer of 1944. Captured at the Battle of the Bulge, he was taken to Stalag 9B, where he was elected leader of the prisoners, responsible for thousands.

At no point during his ordeal, he says, did he turn to God.

"I was thinking of getting the hell out of there," says Kasten, an atheist since age 15. "I don't know how many foxholes I've been in all across France and then Luxembourg, and the farthest thing from my mind was thinking of anybody to help me."

Kasten, who is retired and living in the Philippines, was planning to join fellow atheists, freethinkers, humanists and other nonbelievers on the National Mall today for a Veteran's Day march to challenge the expression, revived during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that many take as a slight to their service.

Organizers were expecting thousands, including current and former service members, for "Atheists in Foxholes," a Veterans Day rally to remind fellow citizens of their contributions and sacrifices to the nation, and to protest what many see as the encroachment of religion in American public life.

"People are pushing harder and harder to have the Ten Commandments displayed in public places," says Kathryn Brooks, who served more than three years in the Navy during the 1980s. "It is frightening for me when I read that the president has had religious leaders advising him on major decisions and also that he feels that `intelligent design' should be taught in schools."

The atheist activist Ellen Johnson organized the event after hearing a Navy chaplain utter the oft-repeated assertion that there are no atheists in foxholes. A search of the phrase in the LexisNexis database reveals more than 300 citations in major U.S. media since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I just kind of passed it off at the time as `Here we go again,' but I couldn't forget it. It just ate away at me," says Johnson, the president of American Atheists Inc. "Their service to the country is being diminished, denied, ignored. ... I just felt terrible about that."

Founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the Maryland woman whose 1960 lawsuit against the Baltimore school district led the Supreme Court to ban coercive prayer in public schools, American Atheists advocates for the separation of church and state and for the civil rights of nonbelievers.

The movement was buoyed in September, when a federal appeals court judge in San Francisco ruled that including the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the constitutional rights of children in public schools.

Still, some are concerned about the influence of religious groups in politics, the push to teach "intelligent design" in public schools and government support for faith-based organizations.

Former Navy pilot Phil Butler calls religion "a huge problem" in the United States.

"It's gotten worse in recent years," says Butler, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 and held captive for eight years.

"When our Founding Fathers were around, they were deists of some sort, most of them, but they were very intellectual and philosophical and fully understood the separation of church and state.

"If you took a vote now, a popular vote among Americans, they'd throw away their freedom of religion and make this a religious government."

Surveys place the number of nonbelievers in the country from 9 million to 27 million, Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman says.

"Even at the lowest estimate, that still means there are more atheists in the U.S.A. than there are Jews. Or Mormons. Or Muslims. Or Buddhists. Or Hindus. Indeed, it means that after Protestants and Catholics, atheists are easily the next largest belief group in the U.S.A."

Zuckerman sees the group growing more outspoken.

"In the past two decades, conservative fundamentalist Christians have gained an enormous amount of political power," he says.

"I think this is serving as somewhat of a wake-up call to atheists all over America."

A rally organized by American Atheists in 2002 attracted 2,000 nonbelievers to the National Mall. The group has created a political action committee to lobby Washington.

Johnson expresses confidence that secularism is overcoming religion in the United States.

"It's not like we're in the 1950s when people went to church," she says. "They have to go to the public square with their symbols, because people aren't going to go to the churches to read the Ten Commandments or see the crosses or the creches.

"We eat meat on Fridays. You can get an abortion. You can get the morning-after pill. Homosexuals are getting married. Stem cell research will be a fact of life. They haven't been able to abolish the Department of Education. You really can't teach creationism in the public schools now."

Brooks, who will be speaking at the rally today, wants it known that atheists can be "good people."

"You can be a patriot; you can be a strong supporter of our nation, our troops, without believing that there's a God," she says. "We do good things. We volunteer in our communities. We believe in many of the same things.

"I don't see any difference regarding all of the family values and wanting peace and doing to others as we would have them do unto us. To me, those are not Christian values. Those are human values."

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