WASHINGTON – On a bustling day in a downtown D.C. neighbourhood, a street vendor named Samuel is doing a brisk business selling President Barack Obama T-shirts.
He’s talking incessantly about Jesus as he makes his sales, until one customer politely tells him she doesn’t believe in God.
Emblazoned with the smiling face of the first president to make mention of America’s “non-believers” in his inauguration address two weeks ago, the T-shirt is nonetheless snatched away. The money is shoved back into her hand.
“Get away from me, go away from here,” Samuel hisses. “I will pray for your soul but you need to get away from me right now.”
Three years after a high-profile University of Minnesota study found that atheists outranked Muslims and new immigrants as the most distrusted and despised minority in America, it seems little has changed in a country where 92 per cent say they believe in God.
Other U.S. studies suggest as many as 10 to 16 per cent of Americans are atheists – the numbers are hard to pin down, some say, because there is such a stigma attached to being a non-believer in the United States that respondents often don’t come clean to pollsters.
Those figures stand in contrast to the secular situation in Canada, where a survey conducted by The Canadian Press and Decima Research last spring found that 72 per cent of Canadians believed in God, while 23 per cent said precisely the opposite.
Some American atheists were delighted to hear Obama make reference to “non-believers” both in his inauguration address and during his first televised presidential interview to an Arab news network.
“We should be able to take for granted that we will be considered as full and honourable citizens of this nation, but we usually have not been so recognized,” Dr. Ed Buckner, president of American Atheists, said in a statement hours after the unprecedented inaugural shout-out.
“Congratulations and best wishes on your presidency, Mr. Obama. And thanks for including us all, right from the start.”
Other non-believers are skeptical that Obama’s remarks signal the beginning of a growing acceptance in the U.S. of those who don’t believe in God.
“Like a lot of atheists, I was very happy that Obama’s inaugural address acknowledged non-believers as part of the strong patchwork of our country,” Greta Christina, a San Francisco author and atheist, said in a recent interview.
“But I don’t think atheists are currently becoming more accepted in the U.S. If anything, because atheists have become more visible and vocal, there’s been a backlash: people who didn’t have to think about atheists now have to, and many of them are very hostile.”
A recent campaign by atheists in the U.K., Spain and Canada has targeted commuters, putting atheist messages on public transit buses. In Toronto, the ad reads: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Religious groups have expressed outrage about the ads, with one group in Spain branding the campaign a hate crime.
The campaign has had no luck getting off the ground in any widespread fashion the U.S., where a Pew Research Center study found last year that most Americans believe that angels and demons are active in the world, and nearly 80 per cent think miracles occur.
In Washington, the American Humanist Association introduced a US$40,000 ad campaign before Christmas. Ads featured on Metro buses proclaimed: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”
There’s been no word of the campaign spreading elsewhere in the U.S., something that’s disappointing to people like Christina.
“Obama’s comments may help us some but having a popular president say one nice thing about us isn’t going to turn the tide,” she said.
“The main thing that’s going to help atheists gain more acceptance is for us to keep coming out, keep speaking out, and keep organizing. That’s what it takes. That’s what it always takes.”
Nonetheless, beyond Obama’s comments, there are signs that Americans are becoming more open to the idea of atheism.
Bill Maher’s controversial documentary, “Religulous,” has grossed over US$13 million to date, and was the highest-grossing documentary of 2008. The film explores and satirizes organized religion and religious belief.
And word that Ted Kaufman, Vice-President Joe Biden’s replacement as Delaware senator, might be an atheist caused some excitement among non-believers in recent days – although it stirred next to no outrage among American believers.
In a New York Times profile of Kaufman, a longtime friend of Biden’s and his former chief of staff, the new senator’s “humanistic” beliefs are mentioned.
Some observers say “humanist” is code for “atheist,” and are titillated at the notion that America might now have its first openly atheist senator.
“If, indeed, Kaufman doesn’t believe in God, he would be doing the millions of Americans who agree with him a huge favour by saying as much during the short time he’ll be a senator,” wrote Hemant Mehta, chairman of the group the Secular Student Alliance, on his blog The Friendly Atheist.
That’s not likely to happen, Christina predicts.
“If he is a non-believer, he’s being sort of coy and semi-closeted about it. To me, that says more about U.S. attitudes towards atheism than anything else. If a U.S. senator who was appointed to his position and isn’t even planning to run for re-election can’t freely come out as an atheist, what does that tell you about how Americans see atheists?”