Rarely does a news release headline jump off the screen like this one that landed last week in my inbox: “Maine atheists to organize state lobbying group this month.”

Good heavens. As if Maine doesn’t have enough to argue about these days.

Later this week, the Secular Coalition for America will open its phone lines to anyone and everyone in Maine who a) doesn’t believe in God, b) can’t be sure there is a God or c) believes, regardless of his or her spiritual underpinnings, that government at any level should not be doing anything in the name of the man (or woman) upstairs.

“This is a cry that is not somewhere on the fringes,” said Sean Faircloth, who directed the coalition until last year and still supports its effort to establish a chapter in each of the 50 states by year’s end.

“This is a mainstream cry from America,” Faircloth continued. “There is a cry in America saying, ‘What is going on that we are constantly having religion imposed on us in American life?’“

Faircloth, you might remember, represented Bangor for four terms in the Maine House and one in the state Senate between 1992 and 2008. He now lives in Virginia and directs strategy and policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation, which supports “scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.”


In other words, Faircloth is not just an atheist. He’s an atheist who’s built a new career on pushing back against a religious right that, in his opinion, has far more influence than it should over what goes on both in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses from Maine to California.

“I think the religious right is a minority that, to their credit, punches beyond their weight class,” Faircloth said in an interview Friday. “But they’re still a minority.”

The state-level organizing — in addition to Maine, the coalition will conduct “organizing calls” this week in nine other states and the District of Columbia — comes at a noteworthy time in American politics.

Just a few days ago in Charlotte, N.C., the Democratic Party first removed any reference to God from its 2012 platform, only to hastily reinsert it over audible boos and catcalls from the convention floor.

Lauren Anderson Youngblood, communications manager for the Secular Coalition for America, saw that as a sign of the times.

“We outnumber many religions,” Youngblood noted from the organization’s headquarters in Alexandria, Va. “We outnumber Jews, Episcopalians, Mormons yet we’re not represented at all. And part of the reason is we are not organized.”


By “we,” Youngblood means atheists (who don’t believe there is a God), agnostics (who maintain the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved), humanists (who promote human values sans religious doctrine) and other “free thinkers” whose bedrock beliefs spring from scientifically based evidence, not undying faith in the supernatural.

Here in Maine, at least, Youngblood appears to have a point: In May, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies found that Maine has fewer citizens who claim religious affiliations (under 30 percent) than any other state in the nation.

On the same nontheistic note, a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life put Maine at or near the bottom nationally when it comes to absolute belief in God (59 percent), daily prayer (40 percent) and attendance at a weekly worship service (23 percent).

Yet flip open Maine’s Constitution and you’ll find, right there in the preamble, that we are a people who acknowledge “with grateful hearts the goodness of the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe.”

What’s more, our forefathers saw nothing wrong with “imploring God’s aid and direction” as they went about becoming “a free and independent state” almost two centuries ago.

Faircloth, for one, chooses to focus on now rather than then.


In his 2009 book, “Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All — and What We Can Do About It,” Faircloth argues that fundamentalist religion has infiltrated virtually every level of government over the last 30 years, from state bans on same-sex marriage (invariably per order of the Almighty) to property-tax exemptions for religious parsonages (which, for the record, Maine law provides).

Back in the 1970s, noted Faircloth, the now-powerful religious right “was nowhere politically in either the Republican or Democratic parties. It didn’t exist. And, to their credit, they organized and built an infrastructure.”

That, he added, is why non-believers — along with believers who agree that all things religion should be checked at the State House door — now need to reclaim what Faircloth sees as a democracy awash in an ever-advancing religious tide.

“I am 100 percent adamant that people should enjoy their religious freedom,” Faircloth noted. “But I’m also with Warren Buffett. There’s a radical guy — he’s a gentleman who doesn’t happen to believe in God, a rationalist who believes in capitalism, who believes in an evidence-based approach to policy-making.”

Fair enough. Still, you’ve got to wonder if our next crop of lawmakers in Augusta — conservative, liberal and anywhere in between — are truly ready for a registered lobbyist to walk up, stick out his or her hand and say, “Hi, Senator/Representative, I’m here on behalf of Maine’s atheists, agnostics and other non-believers.”

“Lobbying is the tip of the iceberg,” Faircloth agreed. Like the gay rights movement has done over the last three or four decades, he said, “the key is building a grassroots organization that has credibility.”


Which is where Mainers like Michael Hawkins come in.

Hawkins, 27, grew up attending the Roman Catholic St. Mary’s School in Augusta.

His road to atheism began when he was in his teens and heard a group of God-fearing adults asserting, with utmost certainty, that the Earth is a mere 7,000 years old.

“I knew that wasn’t true — but I didn’t know why it wasn’t true or by how much they were wrong,” recalled Hawkins, who’s now one course away from a bachelor’s degree in biology and helped found a loosely knit group on Facebook called Atheists of Maine.

Hawkins, upon hearing about the Secular Coalition for America’s conference call at 1 p.m. Thursday, said he’ll definitely be on the line. (To join in, call 530-881-1400 and punch in the access code 978895.)

But where it all goes from there, Hawkins said, is still up in the air.


He’s well aware that “there’s a lot of stigma around the word” atheist.

And he harbors no illusions that in Maine’s current political climate, wary politicians on either side of the aisle might embrace what undoubtedly would be branded the “atheist agenda.”

“With the Republicans in control of everything, it’s not going to be well received,” Hawkins predicted. “It’ll take a little while.”

If not an eternity.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]


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