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One Nation Without A God
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Indiana is home to a number of historical "firsts" that lifelong Hoosiers like to trumpet as proof of the state's significance in national terms — when you drive to Wabash, for instance, you'll see signs commemorating the city's status as the first electrically lighted municipality in the world. Southeast of Wabash, on Highway 31, you'll discover "The City of Firsts," Kokomo, Indiana, which is responsible for the first push-button car radio and the first canned tomato juice. Back home, the Summit City can claim a number of notable firsts — the world's first practical gasoline pump was developed here, and the first professional baseball game was played in Fort Wayne on May 4, 1871.
I've never been to Petersburg, Indiana (45 miles north of Evansville), but I'm going to go out on a limb here and bet that that town's leaders have yet to erect a sign celebrating Petersburg's most noteworthy "first" — namely, the late 70's debut of America's first Atheist museum. With encouragement from the founder of the American Atheist organization, Madalyn O'Hair (a/k/a "The Most Hated Woman in America"), local businessman Lloyd Thoren opened the museum on his property in 1978, the year before Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority. It should be noted that Petersburg is a small town, population around 3000, and that it is 99% white. It's geographically located right in the heart of revivalist, reactionary, Baptist Indiana, and, in terms of culture, the town's greatest coup has been in hosting the "Indiana State Picking and Fiddling Contest." Not exactly the most likely landing spot for a museum celebrating Darwin and the triumphs of science.
Predictably, the American Atheist Museum wasn't exactly a big hit with the Petersburg laity, and after a few years of cross burnings, shotgun blasts, and daily threats and intimidations, Thoren decided the time was right to get the hell out of Southern Indiana. In an interview on NPR that aired in the mid 80's, Thoren declared that he'd had enough of the locals, and that the museum was moving to California. At one point, the interviewer asked Thoren if he held any negative or resentful opinions of Christians in general, after all that had happened, and Thoren replied that No, he didn't. He just considered Christians to be victims of a disability, like mental retardation or blindness, and that no rational person should ever disparage someone with a disability.
A great writer once said that satire can often be created by simply writing down the facts. The fact of the Atheist Museum in Southern Indiana and its pugnacious leader goes well beyond satire and into the realm of black comedy. You want to ask Thoren, retroactively, Did you really think that was gonna fly? I’m a believer, but it's hard not to admire the brazenness of his act, especially at that time and place, and it's obvious that Thoren must have been a pretty thick-skinned individual. Still, it seems like such a fantastically bad idea that I'm a little envious I didn't get to live in the town at the time and view the gruesome consequences.
Three decades later, thought, it's obvious that the landscape has changed for Atheists in America (if not Petersburg.) Since 1990, the percentage of Americans who report no religious affiliation has virtually doubled, to roughly 15% of the population. Of that number, a large percentage of non-believers were born after 1977, which signifies a young demographic for Atheists that will probably show continued growth. Highly visible writers and commentators with strong free-thinking and atheist beliefs — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher — have been sought out as prized speakers on the lecture circuit. Campus Atheist and Agnostic groups have experienced exponential growth in the past twenty years, and "FreeThought" organizations have become ubiquitous in cities across the nation, establishing themselves in areas previously dominated by conservative or orthodox Christian groups. In the year 2010 it appears that Atheists can finally shake off their "only for the damned" status and come out of the closet, presenting their beliefs to people who might actually be willing to listen.
It's worth noting that while Christianity has remained the dominant religion for Americans (reports vary, but somewhere between 77-82%), the numbers have dropped sharply in the past twenty years. I asked Chad Butterbaugh, the President of Campus Atheists and Agnostics of IPFW, to theorize why Atheism has become more accepted in the current landscape. He agree with my contention that Richard Dawkins has emerged as the "face" of Atheism, and that that British writer's intellectual rigor and gravitas has helped reinforce the credibility of non-believers everywhere. Additionally, Butterbaugh cited the growth of the Internet as a primary factor, for the anonymous nature of message boards and similar fora have allowed free-thinkers the opportunity to express their views without being stigmatized. I mentioned that I believed there was a reactionary force as well, as many Americans have become wary of religious fanaticism — 9/11, yes, but closer to home, the negative/oppressive weight of evangelical intolerance. It is a perverse argument, but I'll posit that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have probably done more for modern Atheism than Darwin, Bertrand Russell, and Richard Dawkins combined.
What is inarguable, though, is that Atheism has established a degree of visibility unprecedented in the nation's history. Anecdotally, I've discovered that most of my close friends (and many family members) have become more aligned with non-believers that with Deists. I'm somewhere in the middle — raised Catholic but progressive-minded, I resolved my religious doubts in the 80's, when I discovered that Prince claimed to be a Christian. That seemed impossibly cool to me — the promise of a glorious afterlife, but with guitars, eye-liner, and the potential to sleep with Sheena Easton in the current one.