Atheists in Arkansas 

The godless find a voice.

It's said there are no atheists in foxholes, and that's baloney, according to a military man we'll call "Brad." At an atheists' social gathering in Little Rock, Brad told a reporter that as an Air Force pilot, he'd been in situations where his life was in danger, and on those occasions, the farthest thing from his mind was seeking assistance from an omnipotent Santa Claus.

"In an emergency, you do what you've been trained to do," he said. "If you're praying, you're not doing the very thing you need to be doing, your job."

Brad recalled that when the airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger was asked if he'd prayed while facing great hazard during a memorable incident over New York in 2009, Sullenberger had replied that passengers were probably taking care of the praying; he personally had been too busy setting his airplane down safely in the Hudson River.

It may be another indication of keeping a cool head under fire that although Brad mixed freely with fellow freethinkers in a beer-and-pizza get-together at Vino's, and answered questions for a reporter, he didn't want his real name or photograph used in a newspaper article. "The military is a conservative culture," he said. "One ultra-religious commander could ruin your career." Don't ask, don't tell, applies to more than sexual preference in the military.

But a retired Air Force officer can step boldly from the religious closet and David Bentley has. He's now the president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, the largest group in a coalition of nontheists who've won a couple of legal battles for nonbelievers in Arkansas. First they gained the right, through federal court, to have a nonreligious, winter-solstice exhibit at the state Capitol at the same time a Nativity scene was on display. More recently, a federal judge ordered the public bus company Central Arkansas Transit Authority to sell advertising to the atheists if it sells advertising to Christian churches, as CATA does.

Until recently, atheists hadn't won many fights in Arkansas. The state Constitution still contains a prohibition against atheists holding public office. A flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution, the provision is unenforced, but the atheists haven't been able to gather the political strength needed to remove it, as other unlawful provisions have been. Admitted atheists don't run for office in Arkansas, anyway. Occasionally, a politician will leave blank the line that asks for "religious preference," but that's as far as they dare go.

Susan Kent, the vice president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers (ASF), is a nurse who grew up going to church, although she remembers that even as a child she'd asked doubting questions about biblical stories like the Tower of Babel. "People said 'Don't ask.' " As an adult, she'd sung in the choir and taught Sunday School. Then a younger sister lost a baby, two weeks before it was to be born. She asked, "How could God let that baby die when so many people were looking forward to it?" Soon afterward, she met a "significant other" who was an atheist, and explained the world to her in scientific, non-miraculous terms. She read books: "The Case Against God" and "The Demon-Haunted World." "Once my eyes were opened, I couldn't go back."

Before you can take up the question of whether the godless are gaining in numbers and acceptance, one must first identify them, and that's not as easy as it sounds. The word "atheist" is used most often in this article because it's common and comparatively well understood, but people in the no-god movement designate themselves in many different ways: freethinker, skeptic, agnostic, humanist, nontheist ... At Vino's, a reporter met a deist. He'd thought Thomas Jefferson was the last deist.


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