Atheists push for visibility and preach for acceptance

There's nothing unusual about churches advertising Sunday services, but South Florida atheists are turning that idea on its head: Why not promote the belief that there is no God?

"Most people are under the impression that atheists lack morals and ethics. We are trying to dispel that myth," said Ken Loukinen, founder of the 400-member Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists, which is sponsoring a controversial billboard in Broward County.

"Being a good person doesn't require God," the sign declares. "Don't believe in God? You're not alone!"

Put up for $2,200 a month ago at Sunrise Boulevard and Northwest 27th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, where it quickly drew protests from residents, the message will have a new home Monday on a billboard alongside Commercial Boulevard in Oakland Park.

The first of its kind in the state, the sign directs passersby to, where they can donate toward putting up similar signs throughout Florida. Over the past six months, atheists in a dozen other states also have launched advertising campaigns.

In a bid for greater acceptance and visibility, atheists are also undertaking community service projects, organizing children's camps and engaging in other activities often associated with religious groups.

Best-selling books like Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and Christopher Hitchens' "God is Not Great" have popularized the idea of atheism as a cause rather than simply a stance. And polls show that fewer Americans are embracing religion.

According the American Religious Identification Survey, a major study released this year, 15 percent of Americans claim no religion, making them the only group to grow in every state since 1990, when the "nones" made up 8 percent of the U.S. population. Atheists make up a smaller portion — 2 percent — but they've almost doubled their numbers in the past two decades.

"Many people would admit to not knowing the answers, but fewer would say they're atheist," says Lesley Northup, a professor at Florida International University who studies religious trends. "People often say 'I'm spiritual, but not religious.' There is a growth of people who say 'I don't need to be religious to be a good person.'"

Those are the people Loukinen wants to reach.