On any given Sunday (or Tuesday for that matter), Clint Brown howls testimony to the megachurch masses at FaithWorld on Forest City Road, so musical and towering, so transcendent of mere denomination that it cannot be denied. A car zooms down I-4 at a divine clip, blaring the feel-good music "safe for little ears" promised by its Z88.3-FM bumper sticker. Your daughter ponders which toothy anthem will be her fave at Disney's "Night of Joy," while your son chooses to keep it real with the big man at Universal's "Rock the Universe."

Entrepreneurial Zionists charge their tithes for biblical theatrics and animatronics at the Scriptorium and the Wilderness Tabernacle at The Holy Land Experience. The new neighbor asks you what church you attend, and you wonder to yourself what church houses your voting precinct. The Orlando Sentinel runs religion stories in every section of the paper. Crime? The churches will save us. War? Pray for our troops.

That poor old man who survived in a swamp for four days by drinking putrid water? It's a miracle, says the smiling lady on the local news. Buddy Dyer bows his head in prayer.

No doubt about it; we live in Godtown. Orlando is so chockablock with piety that most of us don't even notice it anymore, let alone raise a voice of a dissent should we not happen to believe as the majority believes.

But, strange as it may seem, there are those among us who don't believe as the majority believes. In fact, they don't believe at all. Yes, Virginia, there are atheists in Orlando. And this may come as a surprise, but they don't drink goat's blood and dance naked around bonfires (at least they didn't in front of us). In fact, they're nice folks; kind of average, really. Let's meet a few, shall we?

But, strange as it may seem, there are those among us who don't believe as the majority believes. In fact, they don't believe at all. Yes, Virginia, there are atheists in Orlando. And this may come as a surprise, but they don't drink goat's blood and dance naked around bonfires (at least they didn't in front of us). In fact, they're nice folks; kind of average, really. Let's meet a few, shall we?

Jack Maurice does not have two heads. The one he does possess — covered in a whimsical lion's mane of newscaster-white hair — is full to bursting with knowledge of current events. Maurice is a likable guy, beaming with the self-deprecating confidence that allows one to provide reactions to one's own anecdotes: A dropped jaw here, a dramatic pause there. All the while, his glinting blue eyes stare directly into yours.

"Churches, they're like franchises," he says, enthusiastically. "They're businesses. If they're that giving, then why don't they just do it gratis? You see these megachurches, and this guy's got three Mercedes and houses. If it's only to help the people, then why are you living large?"

Jack Maurice is an atheist (and has been for as long as he can remember). He's also the organizer of the Orlando Atheists and Freethinkers Group, a web-based collective that's been around for almost four years. The Freethinkers have an active message board and a monthly Sunday meeting held in the Seminole County Public Library that typically draws 40 to 50 people. Maurice puts the group's total membership at 190, up from five at the beginning. He's immersed himself in the oft-unspeakable taboo of denouncing faith in favor of logic and reason.

At 59, he knows the score: People don't like atheists.

"One of the biggest issues with atheists is alienation," Maurice says from across the table at Gina's Restaurant in Altamonte, noting that his meet-ups are primarily a source of social comfort for those slapped around daily by the Bible Belt. "The war on Christmas? It was Fox News Channel bullshit. We just feel alienated; we can enjoy the Christmas thing, but we know what it's about."

"Anybody know a bunny that lays eggs?" he jokes incredulously.

It's not like they're Satanists or anything.

"The irony with Satanism is … Satanism in its purest form is basically just not having a lot of filters and hang-ups. They don't go out and sacrifice human beings, the Christians do that! It's more of a self-indulgence, they just do what they want to do as long as nobody gets hurt. The stuff a lot of people do in their homes."

Born in Miami, Maurice enlisted in the Air Force at 17, when he was fresh out of high school. In the Air Force he traveled the world — Europe, Southeast Asia, Latin America — eventually serving his country for a total of 21 years.

It was in Thailand that he picked up volleyball ("I didn't even know what a volleyball was before I went to Thailand," he says), an avocation he's enjoyed for 27 years. These days, although retired, he's a certified volleyball official for college and high school programs three nights a week.

Maurice also holds a master's degree in philosophy from Bellevue University in Nebraska, owns an online investing business and has four children and five grandchildren. He's divorced and happy.

"I have a lot of friends," he smiles. "And no intention of remarrying or anything like that."

One of his daughters, ironically, is a fundamentalist Christian living in North Florida, a noticeable source of tension for Maurice. Her concern for his lifestyle — if indeed atheism can be considered a lifestyle — makes him laugh awkwardly.

"My daughter did this," he says. "She called me up and said, ‘We just want to make sure you feel the same thing, the same peace as we do.' I said, ‘Dear, I'm fine.'"

He doesn't get to see his grandchildren as much as he'd like to.

The history of atheism reads like a history of skepticism itself, dating back to ancient India and the Hindu religious text, the Rig-Veda (1500 B.C.), which wondered, "The gods were born after this world's creation. Then, who can know from whence it has arisen?" That sentiment later inspired Buddhism and Jainism (an atheistic religion stressing self-control).

In Greece, the philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) took skepticism a step further by asking, "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. … Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" Defiantly, Epicureans insisted that any divine wrath was irrational.

During the Renaissance, humanists like da Vinci, Erasmus and Galileo reopened the spirit of inquiry that enlivened the Enlightenment and muted divinity. The French coined the term "athéisme" in the 16th century, threatening to torture those philosophers and scientists so accused. In England, Thomas Hobbes denied the atheism accusation levied on his philosophies, as did playwright Christopher Marlowe when a document questioning Christ's divinity was found in his home. By 1844, Karl Marx was calling religion "the opium of the people," while Nietszche opted for the more severe, "God is dead."

The Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925 threw the teaching of evolution in public schools into the equation. John T. Scopes, a teacher in Dayton, Tenn., voluntarily violated the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of evolution in schools (although Darwin's theory was part of the required biology textbook), and he was promised backing from the ACLU for the court battle that resulted. The courts ruled against Scopes, but the high-profile case opened the door to later legal battles for secularism.

The creationism/evolution battle created one of atheism's more colorful characters in Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who publicly denounced religion so brazenly that Life Magazine declared her "the most hated woman in America." O'Hair founded American Atheists, a group that eventually came apart amid a flurry of corruption allegations. She was later kidnapped, murdered and sawn into pieces; after being missing for five years, her remains, when found in 2001, were identifiable only by her prosthetic hip.

"The more that you challenge somebody else's belief, the more they hate you," Jo Bernard says to a small powwow of atheists gathered at Panera Bread after an Orlando Atheists and Freethinkers Group meeting.

Bernard is a 30-something office manager for a local nonprofit that specializes in education and economic development, a financial manager in charge of budgeting and compliance. She makes the nerve-wracking I-4 gridlock trek from downtown to Maitland and back again on a daily basis. In her spare time, she volunteers with an adult literacy organization. When I ask her for her name, she says "Oprah, if you're going to use it in print," half-jokingly. She looks a lot like Oprah Winfrey.

"I've been thinking a lot about this," she says. "Things actually happen to turn you off from the church. I told a friend, and she's known for two years, and all she's ever done is invite me to go to church. I never bothered to tell her why I didn't go. The only reason I didn't go was because my hobby doesn't involve going to church on Sundays. My hobbies involve other things.

"I said, ‘You know what? Why I don't go to church is because I'm an atheist.' And you know what she said to me? ‘What happened to you?'"

It's a common assumption about atheists, that they were somehow spurned from the church, or that they are misfits, unable to fit in.

"To be an atheist has to be a reaction to something?" asks Bernard. "It can't be that everything was fine, that no, I wasn't molested by a priest? I thought things through. Actually, I read the Bible, which you know only brings you to one position if you really pay attention."

Raised on Long Island, Bernard came to Florida while working in the hospitality industry. Her gig with a resort ended after the industry-deafening blow of the Sept. 11 attacks found the company in Chapter 11. A placement agency helped her locate her current position, one that falls perfectly in line with philanthropic passions. Florida, though, has its drawbacks.

"I would never bother to be an atheist in New York, in the sense that you didn't have to," she says. "People's beliefs had nothing to do with the public sector. You really didn't have to espouse anything or deny anything, and everybody was valued for what they contributed to society. I think that coming down here into the Bible Belt it was really a shock to me, a slap in the face to find that, one, the assumptions that were made about me, that I would of course be in the church; and then two, going to business functions and having it break into church and Bible."

Bernard, who started her work in adult literacy tutoring in New York, is buried in irony right now. Her current client, a man in his 70s, is learning to read so that he can better understand the Bible and ultimately become a deacon in his church.

"I'm not judgmental by nature, so I didn't feel that I needed to approve of his goal before I helped him. But I've been working with him for a year," she says. "Now I'm beginning to wonder, should I really be helping this person who doesn't read well, doesn't understand the Bible, and wants to be in a position of leadership to teach others? Although I think he's a great person, and he's as deserving of help as much as anyone else."

Does he know she's an atheist?

"He doesn't know that I'm an atheist," she says. "I don't pretend, but that's not why I'm there. I'm there to teach him how to read."

According to a recent study by the University of Minnesota department of sociology cited on the American Atheists website, "Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society,'" with 39 percent listing atheists as the furthest from their vision. "Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry," according to the study.

That study also found that "some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution — that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable communities from the lower end of the social hierarchy."

The professor who led the study, Dr. Penny Edgell, goes so far as to say that atheists "play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past," forming "a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society."

Conversely, a study by the American Religious Identification Survey conducted in 2001 by the City University of New York found that "the proportion of the `American` population that can be classified as Christian has declined from 86 percent in 1990 to 77 percent in 2001." The study also found that 14.1 percent followed no organized religion, up from 8 percent in 1990.

"They think we're horrible people, that we don't have morals or ethics. It's not the atheists and the humanists that are the ones in prison," says Steve Schwartz over the phone. "I keep saying that religious people do not have a monopoly on morality. But they think that they do."

Schwartz, 53, sports a long wash of blondish hair sometimes pulled back in a ponytail. He cuts the classic activist figure. His bumper is stickered; he's a pacifist and a feminist. Even as a Jewish kid in Miami, he didn't find much of what he was looking for at the temple.

"I used to skip out of Sunday school and go instead down to the Cuban fishing boats in Miami, and also the banana boats," he remembers. "Sunday school kind of bored me. They couldn't answer my questions."

His first foray into atheism came via a conversation he struck up with a stranger, a humanist, in a parking lot. Soon after, in 1980, he became a member of the American Humanist Association.

Schwartz spent a couple of years at the University of Florida, mostly as an activist in the burgeoning anti-war movement of the early '70s, a fact he's hesitant to mention lest it characterize atheists as all being "progressive liberals." "I guess we are," he jokes.

"I didn't make great grades because I was involved in living life," he says.

Schwartz eventually earned an associate's degree from Miami Dade Community College and settled into a lucrative collectibles business, an avocation of his since he was a child and his father brought home a set of United Nations stamps. In 1977 Schwartz opened a licensed business with Sears, Roebuck dealing stamps and coins, and later gold, silver and platinum bullion and solid gold jewelry. Sensing a trend in the late '90s, he hopped on the telephone card collectibles bandwagon.

These days Schwartz busies himself with a full plate of behind-the-scenes activism, designing websites for the National Organization for Women and keeping his presence felt in the ACLU, Amnesty International and the Sierra Club, among others.

"I have a genuine concern for social justice and civil liberties and human rights," he says. "I've been doing that for a lot of my life now, and my intent, I think, is to be a little less active, maybe spend more time on personal pursuits."

He's also still collecting coins, only now more substantially: He trades in futures. But Steve doesn't have everything.

"Actually, I'm interested in finding liberal, nonreligious women to date," he says. To that end, he's even set up a website ( as a calling card. Ladies, be warned: The word "Jazzercise" is included.

"I'm very secure and very satisfied in my nonbelief. I'm not searching; I think they're constantly searching," says Schwartz. "I'm thrilled with what is here now. I know that I've got a certain amount of time here on Earth and I'm going to make the best of it. I'm responsible for all of my choices. I don't have any higher power to bail me out!"

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, developed in 1978 and incorporated in Wisconsin, seeks to stop religion's oversteps with action. First among their listed purposes is "file lawsuits!", and so they have, effectively quashing government funding for faith-based agencies and removing Bible study from public schools. They're the activist end of the atheist minority. A national coalition of watchdogs with an eye on secularism and First Amendment rights, they're the ones working to remove the Ten Commandments and crucifixes from public spaces and blocking taxpayer subsidies for religious schools.

"The atheists are not interested in proselytizing, they're just interested in respect," says James Williamson, a retired cardiologist in Winter Park speaking over the phone as a member of the FFRF. One of their biggest obstacles, however, is their silence.

"I think freethought groups have to speak up a little more and explain themselves, come out of the closet and not be intimidated by people. It's an educational process; the public needs to be educated. We don't really care what people believe; we think everybody ought to believe what he or she wants in this country, but we think that we've arrived at most of our conclusions with logic and evidence. We don't think that faith, which is so venerated, is really a legitimate way to arrive at conclusions."

Considering the statistics, speaking up can be a hazardous option.

"A lot of that has to do with employment; people don't want to not get promotions or lose their jobs if word gets around that they're atheists. Atheists just want to be thought of as good citizens. Just because you don't believe in God doesn't mean that you have no ethics. That's a separate thing."

Williamson cites the gay movement of the 1970s as a model, although for gays, acceptance came with a price tag and the move to a higher tax bracket.

"There's not a strong economic stimulus to get people to respect atheism."

"I think it's inherent in atheism. What are you? You aren't something else," says Andrew Bernardin at the Panera meet-up. "There's no central core of beliefs that we rally around."

Forty-four year-old Bernardin leads an ideal life, balancing academics — he's an adjunct professor of psychology at Daytona Beach Community College — and a variety of leisurely pursuits including surfing, snorkeling, bird-watching, sports and reading. He's a quick-thinking man with the rugged good looks you'd associate with a professor.

He and his teacher wife of 18 years, Wendy, moved to Florida from New Mexico eight years ago, and now reside in Orange City. They came to atheism by default.

"It's an ongoing issue as to how you refer to yourself," he says at the Panera after-meeting. "I'm a freethinker who does not believe in God. If atheist fits me, then OK, but it's not a banner that I carry. It's a subset of who I am, a consequence."

"I think that freethinker sums it up very well. I don't think there's a person who would ever say, ‘Don't read that book,' or ‘Education is a dangerous thing,' or ‘Put limits on what you are to expose yourself to.' Personally, those limits do exist in religion. What's sacred is not to be messed with, let's rope it off. Then, to make sure it's even safer, we'll even discourage you from reading things that are dangerous, or could subvert your faith or fidelity to our worldview."

Growing up in Massachusetts, that worldview remained more private for Bernardin. It was only after moving to Florida, where even his polling site is in a church, that he felt compelled to stand up against it. He finds some solace in the Orlando Atheists and Freethinkers group, but isn't certain how collectively active he wants to be.

"I think some of us feel that we do want to become more involved, but we're kind of uncomfortable about it," he says. "I'd like the community to know that there are more smiling, well-scrubbed atheists, that we're not crawling out from under rocks. How do you do that?

"Sometimes it strikes me as proselytizing to bring it up. Normally it doesn't belong in a conversation. I don't think it belongs in business."

He also understands the tendency to hold onto to the unknown, to acknowledge what is commonly referred to as the "god space" in the human psyche, but prefers to live with logic.

"It's almost natural to kind of wish there was something more, that there's something beyond what we see, sort of this intuition that we don't know," he says. "I think that leaves even a lot of educated people to say, ‘Well, I'm going to hold on to this, I'm not going to let it go.'"

His wife Wendy chimes in, "If I could, I'd love to believe in heaven."

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