Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune. She is the 2005 recipient of the American Academy of Relgion's award for best religion reporting.

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Crosses, Stars, and New Symbols of a Movement

by Kimberly Winston 09-25-2012
RNS photo by Ronda Churchill

Amy Davis Roth's homemade ceramic line called "Surlyramics" is shown during The Amazing Meeting convention. RNS photo

Hester Prynne would be so proud.

The red letter “A” that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s heroine was forced to wear as a badge of shame in the classic novel The Scarlet Letter is now proudly chosen by atheists to wear on jewelry made from ceramic, silver, gold, and wood.

Christians have their crosses and crucifixes, Jews their Stars of David, Hindus their oms, and Buddhists their lotuses. Atheists ask, why shouldn’t they and other nonbelievers have their own symbols as well?

“It is the most recognized symbol in our community right now,” said Amy Roth, a Los Angeles atheist who makes ceramic "A" pendants for her “Surlyramics” jewelry line that she sells at atheist conventions and meetings, as well as online.

Texas Cheerleaders Clamor for G-O-D at Football Games

by Kimberly Winston 09-21-2012

Cheerleaders at an East Texas high school are fighting their school district’s orders to stop using Bible quotes on their signs at football games.

In August, cheerleaders at Kountze High School, a school with fewer than 500 students 30 miles north of Beaumont, Texas, began painting Bible verses on large paper signs football players burst through at the beginning of games.

But this week, Kountze Independent School District Superintendent Kevin Weldon called for an end to the banners after consulting with a legal adviser at the Texas Association of School Boards.

“It is not a personal opinion of mine,” Weldon told KHOU, a Houston television station. “My personal convictions are that I am a Christian as well. But I’m also a state employee and Kountze ISD representative. And I was advised that such a practice would be in direct violation of United States Supreme Court decisions.”

That prompted the cheerleaders and their supporters to launch a Facebook page, “Support Kountze Kids Faith,” which attracted 34,000 members in its first 24 hours — more than 10 times the population of Kountze.

Parents of at least three cheerleaders have hired an attorney and are considering suing the school district.

Professor to Atheists: 'Stop Whining'

by Kimberly Winston 09-17-2012
Professor Berlinerblau

Professor Berlinerblau

Jacques Berlinerblau wastes no ink in his new book trying to flatter his fellow nonbelievers.

"American atheist movements, though fancying themselves a lion, are more like the gimpy little zebra crossing the river full of crocs," he writes in How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.    

Ouch.    

"In terms of both political gains and popular appeal, nonbelievers in the United States have little to show. They are encircled by cunning, swarming [religious] Revivalist adversaries who know how to play the atheist card."    

Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University biblical scholar who teaches a course on secularism, wants to rescue that little zebra. But his plan may be a hard-sell with some atheists — he wants atheist groups to drop their black-and-white opposition to religion and its adherents in order to preserve the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion.    

"The gimpy zebra remark was a little goofing on this over-the-top chest-thumping that emerges from Movement Atheists," he said in an interview, referring to atheist organizations with political goals, like American Atheists. "They wildly overestimate their numbers. They tend to overestimate the efficacy of their activism. They underestimate how disciplined and organized their adversaries in the religious right are, too."  

Q&A with ‘Nonbeliever Nation’ Author David Niose

by Kimberly Winston 09-04-2012

[Editor's Note: David Niose is president of the American Humanist Association and vice president of the Secular Coalition for America, a group that lobbies on behalf of nontheist and secular Americans. In his new book, “Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans,” he charts the development and growth of the religious right and what he sees as the increasingly organized response from Americans who are committed to the separation of church and state. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.]

Q: You write about the 1912 presidential election as one in which all four candidates were sympathetic to evolution, science and religious skepticism. Today, a presidential candidate favors evolution at his or her peril. What’s changed?

A: What has changed is the environment of politics, particularly the level of political discourse. Thanks to the rise of the religious right, many candidates today actually emphasize their anti-intellectualism as a selling point to voters. Conservative Christians have always been part of the voter pool, of course, but only in recent decades have they been organizing and flexing their muscle as a voting bloc. Many candidates get mileage by pandering to conservative religion, by openly rejecting science and emphasizing their biblical literalist views.

Atheists Find a New Venue for the Godless: On Film

by Kimberly Winston 08-16-2012
RNS photo courtesy ingodweteach.com

“In God We Teach" documentary movie poster. RNS photo courtesy ingodweteach.com

There were no red carpets, no paparazzi, no celebrities, and definitely no God at the recent annual Atheist Film Festival.

Instead, there were more than a dozen films, long and short, about separation of church and state, freedom of religion (and no religion), the conflict between science and religion in public schools, and a couple hundred people eager to see them.

“If we don’t do this, who will?" said festival organizer Dave Fitzgerald, as people picked up atheist-themed books and T-shirts at the Aug. 10-11 festival. “Atheists are not well-represented by Hollywood, and a lot of people don’t get any exposure to real atheist thought except through things like this.”

Fitzgerald, who calls himself “a freelance heretic,” started the festival four years ago. His main criteria for including a film is that it shows at least one atheist figure in a positive light.

“My motto is: Are they heretic friendly?" Fitzgerald said. “We are in a position where we can actually turn away movies because their hearts might be in the right place, but they may be stilted and preachy.”

Poll Shows Atheism on the Rise in the U.S.

by Kimberly Winston 08-13-2012
Losing faith illustration, Stuart Miles / Shutterstock.com

Losing faith illustration, Stuart Miles / Shutterstock.com

Religiosity is on the decline in the U.S. and atheism is on the rise, according to a new worldwide poll.

The poll, called “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” found that the number of Americans who say they are "religious" dropped from 73 percent in 2005 (the last time the poll was conducted) to 60 percent.

At the same time, the number of Americans who say they are atheists rose, from 1 percent to 5 percent.

The poll was conducted by WIN-Gallup International and is based on interviews with 50,000 people from 57 countries and five continents. Participants were asked, “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?”

The seven years between the polls is notable because 2005 saw the publication of The End of Faith by Sam Harris, the first in a wave of best-selling books on atheism by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and other so-called “New Atheists.”

Poll: Most Americans Would Vote for an Atheist Presidential Candidate

by Kimberly Winston 07-30-2012

For the second time in less than a year, the Gallup poll reports that a majority of Americans would vote for an atheist for president.

The latest survey, from June, found that 54 percent of those asked said they would vote a “well- qualified” atheist into the Oval Office — the highest percentage since Gallup began asking the question in 1958, when only 18 percent said they would back a nonbeliever.

On the other hand, the survey showed that those who do not believe in God still come in behind every other group polled for, including gays and lesbians (68 percent) and Muslims (58 percent).

Still, an imaginary atheist candidate passed the 50 percent threshold for the first time when Gallup asked the question in August 2011, so the trend is upward.

“We have seen an enormous change over time in the willingness to vote for an atheist,” said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, which reports the numbers in its current newsletter.

“But I think the numbers also remind us that this is a deeply religious country. That doesn’t mean we are all going to church on Sunday, but that having religion in your life is valuable to most Americans and I think that explains the resistance.”

Atheists Rally for Persecuted Unbeliever in Indonesia

by Kimberly Winston 07-20-2012

The atheist community has embraced the cause of an Indonesian man, Alexander Aan, who was beaten and jailed after denying God’s existence on Facebook and posting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Center for Inquiry, a Washington-based humanist organization, launched a petition Tuesday (July 17) on behalf of Alexander Aan, a 30-year-old Indonesian civil servant currently serving a 30-month jail sentence for “deliberately spreading information inciting religious hatred and animosity,” according to the judge who sentenced him.

The petition asks the Obama administration to pressure the Indonesian government for Aan’s release and for better protection of religious freedom in that country, the most populous Muslim nation in the world.

St. Paul Saints Baseball Team to Become ‘Mr. Paul Aints’ on Atheist Night

by Kimberly Winston 07-17-2012
Baseball stadium photo, Margie Hurwich / Shutterstock.com

Baseball stadium photo, Margie Hurwich / Shutterstock.com

For one hot August night, the St. Paul Saints, a Minnesota minor league baseball team, will become the “Mr. Paul Aints” in a game sponsored by a local atheist group.

Dubbed “A Night of Unbelievable Fun,” the Aug. 10 game against the Amarillo Sox will include an auction of players’ special “Aints” jerseys, fireworks and a ceremonial first pitch by David Silverman, president of American Atheists.

The letter “S” in all Saints signs and logos around the stadium will be covered, and there are planned references to Big Foot, UFOs, and other targets of the skeptical community, team officials said.

Do Atheists Have a Sexual Harassment Problem?

by Kimberly Winston 07-13-2012
Sexual Harassment definition image, Todd Taulman / Shutterstock.com

Sexual Harassment definition image, Todd Taulman / Shutterstock.com

Nontheists — both male and female — have shared stories of unwanted sexual attention at nontheist gatherings, including propositions for sex and unwelcome touching. Chatter has ranged from calls for more women to attend nontheist events to personal attacks on prominent female skeptics for discussing harassment. Meanwhile, two more skeptic/feminist bloggers announced they will not attend TAM.

The debate has had two major impacts — a call for cooler tempers and the immediate implementation of sexual harassment policies by all of the major nontheist organizations, both national and regional.

No one is suggesting that all nontheist events are unsafe for women. But the controversy has members of the nontheist community, which prides itself on its embrace of rational thinking, asking whether they have a sexual harassment problem. And if so, what should be done? 

Q & A: 'Atheism for Dummies'

by Kimberly Winston 07-10-2012
Crash test dummy image, B-A-C-O / Shutterstock.com

Crash test dummy image, B-A-C-O / Shutterstock.com

Dale McGowan is an author and executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a nontheistic charitable organization. He was recently enlisted to write “Atheism for Dummies,” the first book about nontheists from the “Dummies” series of books.

He spoke recently with Religion News Service about religious doubt, what religious believers and atheists have in common, and what "dummies" need to know about atheism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Not Just Chess: Atheists Are Organizing High School Clubs, Too

by Kimberly Winston 07-02-2012
Robert-Cole Evans, 16, who founded an atheist club at his High School in Spring

Robert-Cole Evans, 16, who founded an atheist club at his High School in Spring Branch, Tex. RNS photo by Sitansh Rajput

In another sign of the emergence of nonbelievers in American society, the Secular Student Alliance, a national organization of more than 300 college-based clubs for atheists, humanists, agnostics and other “freethinkers,” is helping to establish clubs for high school students to hang out with other teens who share their skepticism about the supernatural.

“I am hoping that atheist students having their clubs and religious students having their clubs will promote dialogue,” said JT Eberhard, director of SSA’s high school program. “I also hope it will let the atheist students know that you can be an atheist and its okay. You are still a good person. We want to say: Here is a place where you can feel that.”

There were about a dozen such clubs at the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic school year, a figure that rose to 39 in 17 states by summer break. The clubs are student-led, with SSA providing information and guidance only upon a student’s request.

Some clubs are in states with high levels of “nones” -- people who claim no religious affiliation -- such as New York, Washington and California. But some are in the buckle of the Bible Belt: North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas all have at least one high school with a club for atheists.

And more are forming. Students at 73 different high schools have requested “starter kits” since January of this year, according to SSA.

Atheists Challenge the Tax Exemption for Religious Groups

by Kimberly Winston 06-15-2012
RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

Thousands of atheists and unbelievers gathered Saturday on the National Mall for the Reason Rally. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

How much money does the U.S. government forgo by not taxing religious institutions? According to a University of Tampa professor, perhaps as much as $71 billion a year.

Ryan Cragun, an assistant professor of sociology, and two students examined U.S. tax laws to estimate the total cost of tax exemptions for religious institutions — on property, donations, business enterprises, capital gains and “parsonage allowances,” which permit clergy to deduct housing costs.

Their article appears in the current issue of Free Inquiry magazine, published by the Council for Secular Humanism, an organization of nontheists. U.S. tax law grants religious groups and other nonprofits the exemptions because of their charitable nature.

And while the authors do not claim theirs is a comprehensive or unbiased appraisal, their findings have raised eyebrows in the nontheist community, which has long sought to eliminate the tax exemptions on the grounds that they unfairly favor religious institutions.

Atheists, Believers Both Do Good But for Different Reasons, Studies Say

by Kimberly Winston 05-29-2012
Giving money photo, Konstantinos Kokkinis / Shutterstock.com

Giving money photo, Konstantinos Kokkinis / Shutterstock.com

Atheists and others who don’t adhere to a religion often say they can be good without God. Now, three new studies appear to back them up.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley conducted three experiments that show less religious people perform acts of generosity more from feelings of compassion than do more religious people. The findings were published in the current issue of the online journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Their results challenge traditional thinking about what drives religious people to perform acts of kindness for others.

“The main take-away from the research is that there may be very different reasons why more and less religious people behave generously, when they do,” said Robb Willer, an assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley and a co-author of the studies.

Secularists Turn to GOP Lobbyist to Help Push Their Cause

by Kimberly Winston 05-04-2012
RNS photo courtesy Secular Coalition of America

The Secular Coalition for America's new leader Edwina Rogers. RNS photo courtesy Secular Coalition of America

Their issues are predominantly liberal and their constituency strongly leans Democratic, but a leading secularist group hopes a high-rolling Republican lobbyist is just who they need to open doors on Capitol Hill.

The Secular Coalition for America on Thursday (May 3) hired Edwina Rogers, who has worked for two Republican presidents and four Republican senators, as its new executive director. The SCA has 11 member groups -- many of them officially at odds with Republican politicians and policies -- including American Atheists and the American Humanist Association.

For Clergy, Lost Faith Can Lead to Lost Family, Jobs

by Kimberly Winston 04-30-2012
Priest Collar, AISPIX by Image Source / Shutterstock.com

Priest Collar, AISPIX by Image Source / Shutterstock.com

The Clergy Project is an online support network for pastors who have lost their faith and found atheism.

The goal of the project is not to pull pastors from the pulpit, but to provide those who have already lost their faith with a safe place to anonymously discuss what comes next. The hope is they will eventually feel strong enough to put their families, friends and careers on the line and announce their atheism.

“When you leave the ministry, you can lose all of that, “ said Dan Barker, a former minister, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a founder of The Clergy Project. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Who am I now?’ . . . . The Clergy Project is a place where their self-respect is restored.”

Secularists Counter National Day of Prayer with National Day of Reason

by Kimberly Winston 04-27-2012

As millions of Americans bow their heads next Thursday (May 3) for the annual National Day of Prayer, atheists, humanists and other nontheists will mark a day of their own.

The National Day of Reason - or "NDR" in the shorthand of the nontheist community - will also be held May 3, part protest, part celebration and totally godless.

Do Atheists Have Anything to Learn From Religion?

by Kimberly Winston 03-26-2012
Jack Star/PhotoLink

Jack Star/PhotoLink

Stripped of its supernatural elements, does religion have anything to offer atheists? What can nonbelievers borrow from the organizations, practices and rituals of believers -- without borrowing a belief in God?

According to Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton, a lot.

In his new book, Religion For Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion he outlines an array of things he contends religions get right and that atheists can adopt to create a better, richer secular society.

Nonbelievers to Rally for Unbelief in Washington

by Kimberly Winston 03-20-2012
National Mall photo, Songquan Deng, Shutterstock.com

National Mall photo, Songquan Deng, Shutterstock.com

Thousands of atheists and nonbelievers will gather this Saturday (March 24) on the National Mall in Washington for the "Reason Rally," a daylong event featuring speakers, music and comedy to promote secular values.

The goal of the event is to "unify, energize and embolden secular people nationwide," said Jesse Galef, a Reason Rally spokesman.

"For this many of us to come together is hopefully a sign of things to come," Galef said. "Greater organization, greater cooperation and greater awareness nationally of who we are."

Organization and participation within the secular movement is growing. Atheists held their first mass gathering on the National Mall in 2002, with "The Godless March on Washington," an event that attracted 2,000 participants, according to news reports at the time. As many as 30,000 people are expected to attend this year's event.

Military Atheists Get Ready to ‘Rock Beyond Belief’

by Kimberly Winston 03-14-2012

After more than a year of planning, atheists in the military will stage a public festival and rock concert celebrating their lack of religious beliefs at North Carolina's Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. military bases.

Dubbed "Rock Beyond Belief," the event is believed to be the first of its kind to highlight "freethought" -- atheism, humanism and skepticism -- on a U.S. military base.

Organizers hope the March 31 event will lead to broader recognition and support of nonbelievers in the armed forces, where they say they receive little support and often discrimination from an overly Christianized military.