The march of the atheist movement

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First it was a bus, now a student body has been formed to spread the secular word

In the rush-hour traffic on High Holborn, commuters were getting off one of many London buses that carry an advert proclaiming the beginning of Psalm 53: "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God."

But, in a theatre down the road, hundreds had gathered to proclaim exactly that – that there is indeed no God and those who think there is one are, in fact, the real fools.

Greeted by a cardboard cutout of Darwin, they gathered in Conway Hall, the headquarters of the Ethical Society, for the creation of the first national student body to represent and lobby for the rights of young British atheists.

The launch of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies – which the founders have agreed to shorten to the abbreviated AHS – is the latest in a series of pro-secular movements that have sprung up to oppose what they believe is a growing pandering towards religious groups.

With scientists and rationalists celebrating the bicentenary of Darwin's birth this year, the timing is more than apt. But the creation of this latest manifestation of atheism reveals a renaissance over the past three years for secular and humanist ideals that began with Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion and only recently manifested itself in the popular atheist bus campaign, in which double deckers carried the message: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

There was once a time when those ideals were, of course, commonplace. Two centuries ago, progressive intellectuals of the post-Enlightenment age were all too happy to predict the end of religion, that the triumph of science and reason would win out and that man would turn away from God. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, student atheist groups were a vibrant and influential part of university life. Thinking the battle had been won, they largely died out two decades ago .

But, as religious conflict spreads once again throughout the world, throwing the Western world into a so-called clash of civilisations with radical Islam, the time is ripe, according to secularists, for a new religion – a live-and-let-live brand of soft atheism.

Dressed in a sharp suit and sporting a carefully trimmed goatie, 24-year-old Norman Ralph, the newly anointed president of AHS, explained why he feels it is time for Britain's atheists to unite. "I firmly believe that the secular traditions of this country are being openly challenged on all sides," he said. "But I also think there is a growing wave of British atheism sweeping the country and we need to ride that wave. Ever since 9/11 people are being challenged to pick a side. There is such a push at the moment to be politically accepting of religious views that those who don't have a religion are, in fact, missing out. That is a message that I think will be popular to many people."

If the recent atheist bus campaign is any indication, he may be right. When Ariane Sherine, the young comedian behind the adverts, somewhat jokingly suggested that atheists should all donate £5 to sponsor a bus campaign that would spread a secular message rather than the usual Biblical extracts, she was flooded with donations and letters of support.

Her original aim was to raise £5,500 to run 30 bus ads across London for four weeks. Within weeks, the campaign had managed to raise more than £150,000 thanks to a huge response from the public and the financial clout of Dawkins who agreed to match any donations. Over the past month, more than 800 buses across the country have been driving around with the "There's Probably No God" slogan and plans are afoot to place 1,000 more adverts on the Tube system. The idea has also spread abroad, with secular groups in America and Spain being prompted to take out their own bus adverts.

Considering his prominent involvement in the atheist bus campaign it was perhaps no surprise that Professor Dawkins attended the launch of AHS and announced that his charitable foundation would be willing to give support to students who wished to set up an atheist society at university.

"University is a place where people think, a place where people evaluate evidence," the former Oxford don said. "Public statements of non-belief are treated as threatening, an affront to the religious, while the reverse is not true. More concerning is the enduring assumption that religious belief does not have to earn respect like any other view, an approach that has caused politicians and public figures across the UK to withdraw from asking the vital question: why is religion given such special status in government, culture and the media? Why is belief in a higher power an indication of greater moral fortitude, character and acumen? No opinion should be protected from criticism simply by virtue of being religiously held."

Chris Worfolk, a 22-year-old Leeds University graduate, was one of many students who travelled to London for the launch. He said atheists in Leeds initially found it difficult to form their own society because of opposition from students' groups like the Islamic Society and the Christian Union. "It took us a long time to get our society up and running. There was a lot of opposition," he said. "One of the issues we are trying to lobby the university on is the serving of halal meat in the canteens."

Chloë Clifford-Frith, who recently graduated from St Hilda's in Oxford, said students today had a duty to promote atheist ideas: "We live in a world where religious governments execute adulterers and homosexuals, deny women and minority groups basic freedoms, circulate fraudulent claims about contraception and scientific research and create laws that protect them from criticism," she said. "We are privileged, in such a world, to live in a country where we can even have this debate. As such, we have a duty to bring it into our universities and beyond."

Taking a stand: Notable non-believers

Diagoras of Melos

Often referred to as the "first atheist", Diagoras was a poet and sophist who openly spoke out against religion in ancient Greece and was forced to flee Athens for doing so. Unfortunately, little record of what he thought survives although we know that he publicly questioned the Eleusinian Mysteries, an elaborate series of ceremonies.

Albert Einstein

Einstein was regularly asked if he thought there was a god. In developing the theory of relativity, he realised there must have been a beginning to the universe. The question he struggled with was what came before the beginning? He concluded: "I do not believe in a personal God. If something is in me which can be called religion, then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

Mark Twain

A fearsome critic of organised religion, Twain wrote many of the soundbites atheists repeat today, such as: "If Christ were here, there is one thing he would not be: a Christian." Born in 1835, a year Halley's comet was seen, he ironically predicted "the Almighty" would take him next time the comet passed near Earth. He died in 1910, two weeks after the comet was spotted once more.

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