The first time I saw it, I did a double-take. It was a storefront only a few blocks from my house, deep in the heart of the Portland Bible Belt: outer SE. The storefront was decorated in patriotic red, white, and blue, with "UNITED STATES ATHEISTS," and the declaration: "500,000 Oregonians Agree: 'Religion Is Bunk'--Thomas A. Edison" painted on the window. Another sign invited passersby to "Dial-An-Atheist" by callinsg "A-T-H-E-I-S-T."

The neighborhood is home to numerous Christian churches, including a Vietnamese Baptist, a deaf church, an evangelical "VICTORY" Center, and a Ukrainian Orthodox, to name just a few. When Billy Graham held a rally in Portland a few years back, suddenly outer SE was awash in "Praying For Greater Portland" bumper stickers. And last year, when local evangelist Luis Pulau held a revival shindig at Waterfront Park, signs advertising the event began sprouting all over neighborhood lawns like "for sale" signs in spring. A conspicuous monument to unbelief on Southeast Foster Road seemed, well, just a little out of place. Were the atheists hoping to convince the bible-thumpers of southeast to renounce their faith, much in the way Jehovah's Witnesses target Jewish neighborhoods and Christian Missionaries take up residence with heathens?

ATHEISM: HIP TO BE SQUARE?

Atheism isn't exactly a burning issue in these days of holy wars and suicide cults, though maybe it should be. Armed conflicts continue to rage between Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus, and Fundamentalists and non-Fundamentalists, with no end in sight. There may be plenty of non-believers in the United States, but for the most part, their interests are ignored by politicians and the national media alike. And for the most part, the non-believers keep quiet about it. Nor is atheism--as a cause--fashionable. Ever since Allen Ginsberg began singing the praises of Zen Buddhism in the '50s, countercultural misfits are more likely to practice some kind of elaborate hoodoo or invent their own, than renounce religion altogether. Compared to the flamboyant flourishes of faith, atheism seems colorless and hopelessly square. Those who publicly embrace atheism not only go against the grain of "the establishment," and the entire span of human history, but trendiness, as well. Such iconoclasm requires a rare combination of firm principles, courage, and perhaps a dash of naiveté.

Even among scholars and professed skeptics, focusing on the idiocies of established religion is taboo. While freethinkers like Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll may have quipped or railed against established religion a century or so ago, who's doing that now? Instead, skeptics today focus on the easier targets of astrology, flying saucers, fringe cults, and psychic communicator-with-the-dead John Edward. The overwhelming political power of established religion seems to have cowed even the intellectuals.

Outspoken atheism has been left to more common folk, like Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a feisty mom from Baltimore who brought atheism to national attention in the '50s and '60s. Rather than writing books or giving eloquent speeches as freethinkers of old, this newer breed took action. O'Hair fought against school prayer in a case that reached the US Supreme Court in 1963. Our nation's highest court sided with the infidel, ruling organized prayer in US public schools unconstitutional. Though most accounts of the case mention only O'Hair, last year Paul Duggan of the Washington Post pointed out, "Madalyn Murray wasn't the only plaintiff in that historic rulingshe was merely the litigant with the loudest mouth."

It was that loud mouth that brought atheism--as more than just a silent, theoretical cast of mind--to national attention, if only for a few decades. During her heyday (and the heyday of her organization, the American Atheists) O'Hair told Life Magazine, "We find the Bible to be nauseating, historically inaccurate, and replete with the ravings of madmen. We find God to be sadistic, brutal, and a representation of hatred." Such candor won O'Hair the title "the most hated woman in America." Not even William Murray, the son she had been seeking to protect from school prayer, appreciated O'Hair's efforts. Murray joined a 12-Step program--higher power and all--to help him quit alcohol and drugs, and found God. After all she'd done for him, on Mother's Day, 1980, the famous atheist's son declared himself a Christian.

By the late '80s, the American Atheists--along with godlessness in general--was in decline. Then, in 1995, the ailing 77-year-old O'Hair disappeared from her San Antonio, Texas headquarters, along with her son Jonathan, her granddaughter, and $500,000 in gold coins. The evidence points to murder and so far, one man, Gary P. Karr, has been convicted of conspiracy with others to kidnap and extort money from O'Hair. But the bodies of O'Hair's family were never found, and no murder charges have yet been filed.

GOD BLESS THE USA

Though it has been in partial eclipse, atheist activism didn't disappear with O'Hair. After talking with Nancy Powell, current president of the affable group of freethinkers who meet each week in the southeast Portland storefront, I was almost convinced that atheism is on the rise. And, one can't help comparing Powell with O'Hair. While O'Hair fought to remove prayer from her son's public school, Powell is currently fighting a similar battle against the Portland Public Schools.

There is nary a trace of doubt or negativity in the voice of the blonde, bubbly, godless-and-proud-of-it mom when she speaks about atheism. Powell's manner is friendly and warm, but also blunt and outspoken. She says just what she thinks--that people who have religious visions are mentally ill, for instance--without a trace of diplomacy. But Powell's personality is a living refutation of the cold, cynical image of the unbeliever. She seems to be a full-time cheerleader for atheism, and her optimism is, frankly, refreshing. Powell seems sowellspirited, that when I first met her I thought she must be rebelling against some kind of religious indoctrination in her youth.

The group's moniker, "United States Atheists" or U.S.A., suggests a national organization, but in fact, the U.S.A. exists only in Portland. (Members like to point out that Ms. Powell is the first female President of the U.S.A.) About a year and a half ago they moved from their quarters downtown in the "Louie, Louie" building on 13th Avenue and W Burnside (where the Kingsmen recorded "Louie, Louie" in 1963) to the new, nearly rent-free office--which was donated to them--on SE Foster Road.

The U.S.A., Powell tells me, is 150 strong. Only 18 members, many of them white-haired, showed up for the meeting I attended. It could be pointed out that more ailing faithful get "healed" on stage at any given moment on the Trinity Broadcasting Network than the number of atheists in that room. But Powell and the cheerful group are undeterred by their low numbers: a couple years ago they picketed a rally of 25,000 Promise Keepers in Eugene.

At times the meeting felt like an atheist pep rally, and at others, a forum for jokes about all those stupid believers. ("What were Jesus' last words at the Last Supper? 'OK, everybody who wants to get into the picture come down to this end of the table.'") I don't share Powell's faith that atheism will triumph in the end. But when I consider 18 or even 150 atheists picketing 25,000 Promise Keepers, I have to admire their pluck.

Members of the U.S.A. are ever vigilant for opportunities to write letters to elected officials, organizations, and periodicals. Member John Dearing wrote to the Library of Congress complaining of the "virtual absence of Freethought classifications in the LOC's cataloging scheme," and got results: the Director of Cataloging responded that they are working to improve the situation. Former U.S.A. president Lanny Swerdlow wrote to Newsweek responding to conservative columnist George Will's denunciation of the ACLU "and similar militant secularists" while demanding special rights for religion. Swerdlow concludes his missive, "Contrary to all the protestations of rising religiosity, the desperate defense offered by Will only shows religious thought to be as tenuous as a sinking boat in a storm at sea. If Will and other 'militant theists' don't keep bailing water, they will sink under the constant onslaught of science, reason and truth."

OREGON: THE ANTI-BIBLE BELT

Though most don't write letters to Newsweek or join atheist organizations, according to adherents.com, a website which compiles religious statistics, as of 1990, 17.2 percent of Oregonians surveyed identified themselves as non-religious. Oregon, in fact, is the least believing state in the union. And Nancy Powell thinks the numbers are growing. In fact, she expects her vision of a world without religion to be realized "in the foreseeable future." She's confident that scientific breakthroughs such as the mapping of the human genome will once and for all convince people that religion is bunk, that some day soon reason will triumph over stupidity. (But then, what would people like me do for entertainment?) She doesn't take the current high level of religious participation--despite hundreds of similar breakthroughs over the past century--as any indication that the masses, for better or worse, will always pray to someone or something. And when, in history, has reason ever EVER triumphed over ignorance? (Okay, I'll admit it may have happened once or twice)

Because "religion is harmful to people," as Powell tells me, she cannot just sit by while religious morons like Jerry Falwell or the O.C.A.'s Lon Mabon, for instance, ruin it all for the rest of us. Powell's mission, and the mission of the U.S.A., she clarifies, is not to criticize the beliefs of others or seek to convert them, but to defend the civil rights of atheists and the separation of church and state. It was Powell's father, Jerry Billings, who created Dial-an-Atheist (a recorded message of atheist news and issues) 20 years ago and the United States Atheists 12 years ago for that purpose.

As it turns out, Powell isn't reacting against her upbringing; like her father, she's merely rebelling against the rest of the world.

BOY SCOUT REJECT

When her son came home from school one October day in 1996 wearing a Boy Scout recruiting wrist bracelet--similar to those used in hospitals and removable only with scissors--Nancy Powell moved quickly. Aware that the Boy Scouts bar membership to atheists (as well as agnostics and homosexuals), she asked the school's principal not to let the Boy Scouts recruit on campus during school hours. She was ignored. When pressed, school officials denied knowing that atheists aren't allowed in the Boy Scouts. But should it be any surprise that the Portland Public Schools are not over-anxious to lay down the law to an institution as entrenched in our national mythology as the Boy Scouts on the whims of one possibly loopy, godless mom? Public schools have always been more comfortable enforcing conformity than in defending non-conformity, constitutional or not.

But Powell is unintimidated by the faux-traditionalists. The infidel mom took her request a level higher in August of 1997, filing a complaint with Norma Paulus, then Oregon Superintendent of Public Instruction. Powell stated in her complaint that ORS 327.109 (which prohibits public schools from sponsoring, financially supporting or being actively involved with religious activity) had been violated, and included extensive documentation of the Boy Scouts' believers-only policy. Months later, Paulus' office, another defender of the status quo, stated there was no basis for Powell's complaint, and dismissed it.

In the meantime, Jack Bierwirth, Portland's District Superintendent--and Senior Vice President of Outreach for the Boy Scouts--told a television reporter that Scout leaders had told Powell that her son would be welcome in the Boy Scouts, no matter what his belief. Larry Otto, a Scout executive, later testified under oath that if a Scout leader had invited Powell's atheist son to join a troop, he would have been in violation of Boy Scout policy, stating, "Remington Powell, first-grade student, as an atheist, cannot grow up to be the best type of citizen."

The ACLU took up Powell's fight in May of 1998, filing a complaint for Powell and her son against the Portland Public School District for actions that violate the Oregon Constitution. In August of 1999 Judge Ceniceros ruled that, despite their "disturbing" policy of discriminating on the basis of religion, the Boy Scouts' recruitment activities do not violate Oregon's constitution. The ACLU is appealing the ruling. And Powell fights on.

WHO YA GONNA CALL?

Despite the setbacks in her fight against the Portland school district, despite the overwhelming pro-religion bias just about everywhere, despite the worldwide "carnival of belief," Powell is undeterred. She and her father appear regularly on public access cable TV, to "spread the good news" so to speak. Each week, on Bunkbusters--which they boast is the most watched cable access show in Portland--the father-daughter duo broadcast a good-natured godlessness to Portland.

The theme from the movie Ghostbusters opens the show. Then, for the next half-hour, Powell and Billings, who tape the shows from the Foster Road office, talk. That's the entire show: banter--sometimes witty, sometimes not--about the virtues of atheism and the errors of religion. Minimalist, when compared to the bleatings of TV evangelists, but educational and often entertaining.

Powell and Billings focus on the foibles of Christians, but don't bust Christian bunk exclusively. I was pleased to see non-Christian religions skewered as well: the elder atheist noted with bemusement that grown men have been known to bob up and down for hours before a brick wall. (Orthodox Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.) And Powell points out that while members of the Native American Church can legally ingest Peyote, those caught eating the plant who don't happen to believe in the Great Spirit can be thrown in jail. Another clear case of religious discrimination. An excellent point.

But Christians--especially fundamentalists and evangelists--bear the brunt of the duo's criticisms and witticisms. They summarize Jerry Falwell's checkered past, especially his efforts to violate the US constitution by merging his church with our state; they deem a small local revival fraudulent, its preachers taking money from the infirm and the elderly on false pretenses; and Billings states repeatedly, "Every Preacher in these independent churches is in business for himself!"

In a recent show, Billings, who ran Dial-an-Atheist for 20 years, asked guest Chris Lindstrom (who now runs Dial-An-Atheist) whether she's received any messages from "the whisperer." I laugh out loud when Billings does an impression of the caller--deadpan--whispering, "You're gonna burn in hell, you're gonna roast, you're gonna wish you never said these things." The calls never disturbed Billings. Instead, he just went out and lost some more souls.

The ever-cheery Nancy Powell began a recent Bunkbusters show with the words, "This is gonna be the biggest year ever!" And if the U.S.A. continues to make it just a little harder for pious cretins like Jerry Falwell to bully the rest of us, I would have to agree.