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Ranks of atheists grow, get organized

Long defined by what they are not, nonbelievers increasingly try to define what they are.

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Some say such initiatives are necessary to improve an image problem. Rebecca Grieve founded South Lake Atheists and Freethinkers in Groveland, Fla., last year because she felt the nearby atheist group in Orlando "wasn't doing enough in the community." Through an Adopt-A-Lake project, the new group monitors a section of Lake Minneola and promotes its efforts on a big sign at Clermont Waterfront Park.

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"A lot of atheist groups are really negative," says Ms. Grieve, who now lives in Derry, N.H., and describes herself as a secular humanist. "They're not standing for anything. They're not making a difference.... I want to be accepted just like everybody else. We need to be showing people through example that we're decent people."

For some, however, the status quo suits just fine. Of the monthly Atheists of Greater Lowell (Mass.) gatherings, where no one convenes or adjourns the group, Paul Ratner of Lowell says: "I like this group as it is now."

Rob Butler of Westford. Mass., agrees: "I love coming here because I can just say whatever's on my mind, and people won't be offended by it."

In some ways, the lack of structure or ritual has been a defining characteristic of atheist groups. McGowan notes that many atheists bristle at ritual because it feels too religious or superstitious. American Atheists' Mr. Silverman insists, "there are no rituals with us."

But America's 27 Ethical Societies, which attract many nontheist attendees to their humanist "platforms," or services, see growing interest in rituals, ranging from children's education to weddings, according to membership chairman Thomas Hoeppner.

Through ritual, "you build up not just common intellectual values, but the emotional and personal connection with people," says Mr. Hoeppner, a member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago. "That's what it's all about."

"So when one of my dear friends in his 80s lost his wife, he'd be over at our house every Sunday afternoon for dinner," he says. "That's a ritual for us."

In Florida, atheists are pioneering a new ritual: de-baptism. Since last year, American Atheists' Florida state director Greg McDowell has been donning a mock clerical robe and officiating at services where family and friends come to watch the baptized renounce their baptisms.

The events spoof baptisms by using blow-dryers in the place of baptismal waters. They culminate in certificates for the "de-baptized" and letters to churches requesting that the names of those de-baptized be removed from baptismal rolls.

Elsewhere, ties that bind the faithless continue to grow stronger, even without ritual per se. After one member of the North Alabama Freethought Association was robbed earlier this year, fellow members collected a few hundred dollars to see him through to payday. And when another was injured in a motorcycle accident, atheists brought meals every day for him and his caretakers.

"It makes me sit back and smile to know that this community has built itself up in a way that they're looking out for each other, watching each other's backs, and supporting each other," says Mr. Scott, who founded the Alabama group six years ago. "It almost makes me feel fatherly – like you raised your child right."

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