One Hundred Atheists in South Carolina: Front-Page News?

As millions of Christians attend church every Sunday without attracting much attention in the New York Times, it's a little surprising to see it defined as front-page news when an "overflow audience of more than 100" showed up at an atheist event in South Carolina. "More Atheists Are Shouting It From the Rooftops" read the headline on Monday's front page from religion reporter Laurie Goodstein. Whenever the godless gather in a Southern state, it's apparently time to wake the neighbors:

More than ever, America's atheists are linking up and speaking out - even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words "I Believe" (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.

Goodstein explains that these groups are growing in reaction to the "religious right," but that doesn't mean the New York Times is going to place them on the ideological left, except by contrast:

Local and national atheist organizations have flourished in recent years, fed by outrage over the Bush administration's embrace of the religious right. A spate of best-selling books on atheism also popularized the notion that nonbelief is not just an argument but a cause, like environmentalism or muscular dystrophy.

The story actually presented President Obama as someone who's too religious for the secular fundamentalists:

The group has had mixed reactions to President Obama, who acknowledged nonbelievers in his inauguration speech. "I sent him a thank-you note," Ms. [Laura] Kasman said. But Sharon Fratepietro, who is married to Mr. [Herb] Silverman, said, "It seemed like one long religious ceremony, with a moment of lip service."

The other discordant note in Goodstein's piece is that as she portrays them as unpopular and even demonized, she doesn't really note that one reason they may be unpopular is that they're quite good at anti-religious trash talking and demonization:

At the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, 19 students showed up for a recent evening meeting of the "Pastafarians," named for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster - a popular spoof on religion dreamed up by an opponent of intelligent design, the idea that living organisms are so complex that the best explanation is that a higher intelligence designed them.

The story concluded that despite their stereotyping of religious people as ridiculous, they're aiming to change public stereotypes about snarky atheists:

In keeping with the new generation of atheist evangelists, the Pastafarian leaders say that their goal is not confrontation, or even winning converts, but changing the public's stereotype of atheists. A favorite Pastafarian activity is to gather at a busy crossroads on campus with a sign offering "Free Hugs" from "Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist."