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Group gathers in Wis., but not under God

Atheists in the US see fortunes rising

MADISON, Wis. - Americans may dislike atheists, but for one weekend those who don't believe in God will find sanctuary here.

Members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation's largest group of atheists and agnostics, will gather for a weekend of nonprayer breakfasts and raffles for God-free currency at the group's 30th annual convention.

Despite a new survey that shows most Americans still have negative views toward nonbelievers, it's been a pretty good year for atheism. The foundation has added thousands of members, is starting a national talk radio show, and claimed two legal victories in disputes with states in recent weeks. Meanwhile, a spate of books have been selling around the nation advancing the notion that religion is the root of many evils.

Against that backdrop, prominent atheists and agnostics will gather today through Sunday to hear speeches, give awards, and plot strategy in downtown Madison's Monona Terrace. Christopher Hitchens, author of the best-selling book, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," will be there.

"It's kind of a celebration, a celebration of free thought," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation's copresident. "It's also a chance to recharge your batteries for separation of church/state activism."

The foundation, based in Madison since its founding in the 1970s and now boasting 11,300 members, has helped give Wisconsin's capital a reputation as a city filled with heathens in some circles. In Madison, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly once said, "You expect those people to be communing with Satan."

But group copresident Dan Barker said he gets thumbs-up signs when he wears his "Godless" shirt to the grocery store.

The city is rolling out the welcome mat for the estimated 600 or more conventiongoers.

The foundation placed a 48-foot-wide billboard overlooking Madison's busiest freeway. Picturing a church's stained-glass window, the sign says "Beware of Dogma" and lists the group's name and website. A similar billboard is up on the other side of town to greet visitors from the airport.

The warm welcome is an aberration in America. Atheists are viewed far more negatively than any religious group, according to a recent survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Religious Americans are not comfortable with atheists' refusal to believe in God and think they must lack morality, said John Green, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan forum.

Green said the number of people who do not worship is slowly growing but the exact number of atheists in America is unknown because many people are reluctant to identify themselves that way. About 4 percent of people in Pew's latest survey said they were atheist or agnostic and an additional 10 percent said they followed no religion.

The foundation is a watchdog group that advocates for the separation of church and state and promotes free thought, which it calls science and reason as opposed to faith in the unknown.

In Indiana, the state eliminated a chaplain who had been hired to encourage state employees to show their faith after the foundation filed suit. In Wisconsin, the Department of Justice removed a prayer and a religious hymn from a planned ceremony to commemorate murder victims after Gaylor complained that the content was unconstitutional.

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