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Notion of atheists as bad people is misconception, non-believers say

Walking one city block from the capitol building in Madison, Wis., to his office, Patrick Elliott learned just how divisive religious beliefs -- or a lack thereof -- can be.

Wearing a T-shirt that said, "Atheist," Elliott, an attorney who represents the Freedom From Religion Foundation, encountered a man who took offense.

"I was just walking along and somebody started yelling things at me," Elliott recalled, saying he's fully aware that those who share his lack of faith are in the minority, misunderstood, and often easy targets.

Having grown up in St. Paul, Minn., before heading to University of Wisconsin and joining the foundation, Elliott said he has encountered resistance to atheism wherever he travels.

Raised Roman Catholic, Elliott said somewhere along the line he realized he didn't believe the things he was being taught -- that he had no faith in Jesus Christ as savior or in the very existence of God. He said he subscribes to no faith.

Elliott took an interest in the law and found that fighting for First Amendment rights suited his convictions. Plaintiffs in First Amendment cases often are those who feel disenfranchised because they share Elliott's beliefs, he said.

Noting the residents in New Kensington and Arnold who are passionate about keeping the Ten Commandments monument in front of Valley High School, Elliott said there are those who are equally as adamant it be removed, who feel the district is trying to force on them a belief system. That's why the foundation has requested the display be removed, he said.

Count 2001 Valley High School graduate Justin Francart, 29, as one of those who agrees with the foundation that keeping the monolith on public property is unconstitutional.

"It's a cut-and-dry case and a pretty reasonable request the monument be removed," said Francart, a New Kensington resident.

A self-described atheist, Francart said knowing the display exists at the school upsets him because it conflicts with the idea of separation of church and state.

"I have no problem with people believing in whatever they want to believe in," he said. "I recognize that religion is a big part of people's lives, especially around New Kensington. But it doesn't change the fact that this monument is sitting there illegally."

Francart said he doesn't want religion forced upon him in much the same way as those who subscribe to a particular faith don't want a foreign belief system forced upon them.

"I find pretty fascinating the certain aspects of theology people follow and why they subscribe to particular dogmas," he said.

Francart lamented there's a misconception that atheists are inherently bad people with no moral makeup.

The idea that atheists aren't moral or good people troubles?Nicole Currivan, who heads a Web-based atheist group called Pittsburgh Secular Freethinkers. The group hosts three monthly meetings -- one that is discussion-based, one purely social and one geared toward women.

"My experience with this group has shown me that these are some of the most considerate, compassionate and thoughtful people," she said. "They consistently blow me away with how caring and thoughtful they are."

Currivan?and other atheists said their belief system is based on reason and evidence, which they argue doesn't support the existence of a higher power. They promote what they describe as the ethical and universal principles and values that people be treated equally and with compassion.

"We support everyone's ability to think freely," said?Currivan, a Green Tree resident. "We just want the world to be a better place, where everyone is treated equally and without discrimination."

Stephen Hirtle, 57, of Wilkinsburg noted there's growing numbers of prominent atheists in the country. He mentioned Ron Reagan, the late president's son, and former Saturday Night Live actress Julia Sweeney as two examples. Both serve on the F.F.R.F. honorary board of directors, as does Richard Dawkins, probably the world's most famous contemporary atheist and a distinguished evolutionary biologist.

Hirtle, a professor in University of Pittsburgh's School of Information Sciences, said he enjoys reading Dawkins -- his best-known book is The God Delusion, and those of Sam Harris, a prominent atheist who wrote "The End of Faith."

Hirtle said he agrees with Dawkins that "there's no evidence of a higher power."

Aware that he's in the minority, Hirtle said he has involved himself with groups such as Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Center for Inquiry. He said he has found comfort in knowing there are others with similar beliefs.

"In a sense, there's no reason why we're not better off just living our life for the here and now, taking care of each other and being good people," Hirtle said. "We shouldn't be worried about questions we can't answer."

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