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Non-religious feeling ignored, group laments

| Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, 7:45 p.m.

Up to one-quarter of Americans identify with an interest group that goes relatively ignored along the national campaign trail: the non-religious.

“Nobody is wooing the secular vote, and it is significant. It at least matches, or is even more than, the religious-right group, but nobody's pandering to us,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president and founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based group she dubs the “nonprophet nonprofit” that seeks to keep government separate from religion.

Meanwhile, in a recent self-survey, 8,000 of the secular organization's 23,000 members across North America responded and 97 percent said they were registered to vote.

“So we're really politically engaged, and yet we're being ignored by politicians,” Gaylor said. “We have to pinch ourselves in an election year to know that atheists and agnostics even exist as citizens.”

More than 500 nonbelievers and advocates for the separation of church and state convened in downtown Pittsburgh this weekend for the 39th annual Freedom From Religion Foundation national convention. The Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown hotel agreed to remove all Bibles from its guest rooms for the three-day conference.

“It's hard to get people together, and having this national convention in our area helps to do that,” said Jeff Prebeg, 32, of Crafton. “We are Americans, we are here, we vote, we are important and there are a lot of us.”

Twenty-three percent of American adults make up the growing ranks of the so-called “nones” — those who do not identify with a religious denomination, including atheists, agnostics and those who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” 2014 Pew Research Center data show. That's 56 million American adults, up from 36.6 million in 2007.

But inherent with non-believing comes lacking formal structures and lobbying power akin to the nation's churches and religious groups.

“We need to organize better and to learn how to speak as one voice on certain issues,” said Bill Kaszycki, 68, of West Elizabeth, a retired automotive business owner and president of the Pittsburgh branch of the Center for Inquiry, a New York-based secular humanist organization. “We need to become more vocal and more visible and political.”

During breaks between keynote talks Saturday morning, people snapped up buttons and stickers stacked on a table with the slogans, “I'm secular and I vote,” or “I'm atheist and I vote.”

“We would like (politicians) to come to us like they do to the churches and to religious organizations and say, ‘What can we do for you? What are your issues?' ” Gaylor said.

Among issues prioritized by the foundation and its members, mostly in their 40s, 50s and 60s: abortion rights, gay rights, prison reform and climate change. A majority identify as Democrat or liberal, but Gaylor said the national group also has some libertarians and conservatives — and a growing number of independents.

Liz Vaughn, 37, of Cranberry said that as an atheist, she can relate to the feelings of Muslim-Americans who feel alienated and ostracized – and sometimes intimidated and threatened – among the U.S. electorate.

“You see people on Facebook saying things about, ‘Muslims, leave the country.' Well, they also say things about atheists, like, ‘You don't like it, this is a God-Christian nation, so leave,” Vaughn said.

Kaszycki said he thinks politicians don't campaign to nonbelievers because they're “less likely to be manipulated by fear and other emotional issues than religious zealots.” On Saturday morning, he was inspired by featured speakers such as humanist activist Rafida Bonya Ahmed, who received foundation's Forward award.

Ahmed shared her story of being attacked with a machete by Bangladeshi Islamic extremists in February 2015 for being an atheist.

She lost her left thumb and suffered deep head wounds, and her husband, Avijit Roy — an outspoken secularist and Bangladeshi-American — died in the attack. She's since become known for responding to the tragedy with compassion and spirited passion for secularism. She aims to get influential global and local leaders to make decisions based on logic, science and practical needs.

“Religion is more than a belief system, more than a cognitive social and anthropological phenomenon, but a tool which humanity has sharpened into a political weapon again and again all over history,” Ahmed said. “We should be able to navigate these complex dynamics with proper knowledge and reason.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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