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Archive for Thursday, October 11, 2001

Atheists search for role as nation asked to pray

October 11, 2001

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— As America mourns the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gail Pepin can't help but feel left out when everyone else goes to worship.

An atheist, Pepin covered for her co-workers as they attended a prayer vigil. She tuned in when President Bush spoke to the nation about the attacks, but shrunk back each time he mentioned God.

"I'm feeling very excluded from this. There's this big unity, but it's all under God," said Pepin, a nurse from the Chicago suburb of Rosemont. "I feel just as strongly about this as everybody else."

Like Pepin, other Americans who don't believe in a deity are struggling to find their place at a time when "God Bless America" is being sung everywhere. Some worry that the line between church and state is becoming blurred, while others hope to show patriotism doesn't have to equal prayer.

"We are essentially being left out formally of the grieving process simply because we will not let ourselves get emotionally involved with a supernatural cause and effect," said Ron Barrier, national spokesman for American Atheists Inc.

Atheists are dealing with the tragedy by donating blood, money or services to the relief efforts, Barrier said. But many aren't comfortable participating in public gatherings that revolve around prayer, such as the national day of prayer and remembrance Bush declared three days after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Catharine Lamm, who works at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, has avoided remembrance services held at campus churches but respects those who find strength in their faith.

"What I object to is the feeling of exclusion for me, particularly when the president addresses the nation and doesn't leave any room for people who find their strength in other places," Lamm said.

Some atheists also fear that U.S. politicians who talk about God are fueling those who want to portray the conflict as a war between Christianity and Islam. Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the attacks, has called on Muslims to wage a holy war against the United States.

"I kind of cringe every time Bush and everybody else is saying, 'God bless America,"' Pepin said. "They're saying it's not a holy war, but they're invoking God, their deity, all the time. I find that very confusing."

Adam Walker, president of the Secular Humanist Society of Chicago, hopes one day politicians will include his group alongside the religious organizations they call on to help the country deal with crisis. Secular humanists believe people can solve their own problems without "supernatural" intervention.

"We're not here to cast aspersions on religious groups," Walker said. "Our purpose is to enhance our responsible role, being citizens with a different and valid point of view. We have much more to offer than to point an accusatory finger and say, 'Don't sing 'God Bless America."'

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