Atheist Radio Show Goes National on Air America, With Ron Reagan as Guest

A week into the cross-country launch of a radio talk show for "Godless infidels," the son of the late former President Ronald Reagan will be a guest.

Ron Reagan will speak this weekend on Freethought Radio, which Air America Radio is now broadcasting nationally, about his own atheism.

"He became an atheist as a kid, and argued with his parents about it," said Dan Barker, a former evangelical Christian minister who co-hosts the Wisconsin-based program. "And he's still an atheist."

But is the country ready for atheist radio? Air America hopes so. The struggling left-wing broadcaster last Saturday aired its first Freethought show, hosted by Barker and his wife, Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-chair an atheist activist group called the Freedom of Religion Foundation.

The hour-long program for non-believers currently can be heard in about 25 cities and on satellite radio.

"We think it's a good show," Barker said. "There's a gap, there's a place for it. With all this religious broadcasting, there's nothing specific for atheists and agnostics."

But some are skeptical that atheist talk radio will be a hit with listeners across the country.

"This one-hour weekly show from Wisconsin I don't think is going to have much of an impact, thank God," said Joseph Zwilling, communications director for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

The program, which has until now only been running on a local station in Madison, Wis., has had guests including comedian Janeane Garofalo and abortion-clinic bombing victim Emily Lyons.

The inaugural national broadcast opened with a welcome to "Godless infidels, out-of-the-closet atheists and happy heathens."

Click here to listen to a podcast of the Oct. 6 show.

During the show, Barker challenged listeners to find him a passage in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence decreeing the United States as Christian, and spoke of the "concerted attempt by the religious right to promote this really pernicious myth that America is a Christian nation."

Barker then scolded Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain for saying recently:

"I would probably have to say that, yes, the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation, but I say that again in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn't say, 'I only welcome Christians.' We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here, they know they are in a nation founded on Christian principles."

The kickoff national talk show featured a discussion with British writer Christopher Hitchens, who authored the recently released "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."

There was also an interview with an advocate for a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq (a "very brave atheist in a foxhole," the hosts called him) who is suing the Pentagon and his Army major for allegedly stopping an atheists meeting he tried to hold on base.

Music by self-proclaimed non-believers including John Lennon (the premiere opened with his song "Imagine"), Scott Joplin and Verde broke up the talk.

"To know [the Bible] in most cases is to doubt it, although any of it can be taken literally," Hitchens said, when recounting tales of his book tour. "This doubt is actually quite widespread. And after all, I didn't expect that by the end of the tour, we'd have a book by Mother Teresa saying she didn't believe a word of it."

(The book to which Hitchens referred, "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light," is a compilation of letters written by the Nobel Peace Prize winner over 66 years. In some of those letters, Mother Teresa wrote that she was tormented by her faith and occasionally doubted the existence of God.)

Hitchens described as "immoral" the Christian tenet that Jesus Christ died for the sins of others.

"It is an attempt to evade responsibility and re-adopt the ancient ritual of scapegoating," he said.

Freethought Radio also features a "Theocracy Alert" segment that discusses recent religion and church-and-state themed news from an atheist perspective, and the "Pagan Pulpit," when Barker, who became an atheist after years of being a believing minister and missionary, reads and deconstructs a passage from the Bible.

"If they want to come on an hour a week to say what they want to say, God bless them," Zwilling said. "That's their right in this country, as long as they're not seeking to prohibit us from seeking our religion."

The number of avowed atheists and agnostics — people who don't believe in God or organized religion and people who say they don't know whether there's a God — is relatively small in the U.S., with those labeling themselves that way comprising between 3 and 9 percent of the population, according to Barker.

The American Religious Identification Survey, put out by the City University of New York (CUNY), found some evidence that the numbers could be rising — with 7 percent of respondents marking "non-religion" as their affiliation in 1990 and 14.5 percent checking that box in 2001.

Those identifying themselves as Christian still form the vast majority, according to the poll, but experienced a dip from 86 percent to 77 percent during the same time period.

A 2002 USA Today/Gallup poll found that 50 percent of adults consider themselves religious, 33 percent say they're "spiritual but not religious" and 10 percent say they are neither spiritual nor religious.

Barker said the bent of the radio show — which is in cities as diverse as Chicago; Baton Rouge, La.; New York; Charlottesville, Va.; and Taos, N.M. — runs parallel to the stated mission of the Freedom of Religion Foundation: keeping God out of politics.

"Our main focus of our group is keeping state and church separate," he said, adding that the activist group has "dozens" of projects challenging faith-based initiatives, which are government-funded social programs incorporating religious beliefs into their framework.

Atheism becomes problematic, according to Zwilling, when it is "interfering with our rights as believers."

He thinks that separation of church and state has become a "meaningless phrase" that sometimes gets in the way of others' beliefs. The First Amendment to the Constitution says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Faith-based initiatives, said Zwilling, should fall under the latter portion of that declaration.

"I certainly believe we should not have an official state-sponsored religion. People are free to practice their religion," he said. "But the second half of that First Amendment is never mentioned."

Christian shows and stations dominate the religious segment of radio and television programming in the United States. Many are based on an evangelical ideology, but there are other branches of Christianity represented — including Roman Catholicism in the form of the 24-hour Catholic Channel on Sirius satellite radio, which is run by the Archdiocese, and non-literalist Christianity, in the form of a show called "State of Belief" on Air America.

Air America, a politically liberal talk radio station that launched in March 2004 to compete with conservative talk radio, didn't return a request for comment from about taking on the atheism-themed program.

Barker is confident the hour-long segment will lead a lot of non-believers to believe in the show.

"There seems to be a real hunger among the non-religious to hear and to connect to that point of view more," he said. "Even believers agree with it ... It's not like we're anti-religion, but we do want to be a voice."

Zwilling doesn't think atheist radio will become a major force to reckon with, and he said it won't be able to compete with Christian programming.

"Many more people are going to listen and respond positively to the Catholic Channel than they will to this particular program," he said. "We're reaching people who are Catholic and non-Catholic alike. ... We are a nation made up predominantly of Christians — of believers."