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Atheism makes headway with comments by Pope, Arizona lawmaker

Pope Francis leaves after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican on May 22, 2013.
Pope Francis leaves after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican on May 22, 2013.

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Atheists are having quite the week. Pope Francis rocked the religious world when he offered these welcoming words to Atheists

"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone. 'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone!"

Also this week during the opening prayer for the Arizona legislature, Democratic Rep. Juan Mendez of Tempe announced he was an atheist, and delivered a secular invocation. 

Then there's this viral video moment of CNN's Wolf Blitzer talking with a survivor of the deadly Oklahoma tornado:

Is atheism on the rise in America, and are more people willing to come out of the "godless closet"? 

Todd Stiefel, an atheist and founder of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, joins the show to explain. 

Interview Highlights:


On the difference between atheist and agnostic:
"An atheist has no belief in god or gods, and an agnostic doesn't know if there are gods. I am both. I am both an atheist and agnostic. I don't believe, but I believe it's unknowable to know if there is a deity or not." 

On what has changed for atheists in the past decades:
"There has been a whole lot of hard work and a lot activism going on. We've taken a page out of the LGBT page book and have really stressed 'coming out of the closet.' The reality is people have known atheists for generations, they just might not have known the person was an atheist because there were social consequences and there still are very powerful social consequences for coming out as an atheist."

On the difference between the LGBT struggle and the atheist struggle:
"It's definitely very different. I think they've had it vastly worse than we have during history and certainly during the last 20 to 30 years. I would say that there are some comparisons to be made, but they are certainly no equivalent."

On the discrimination against atheists:
"There's a statistic I'd like to talk about that Gallup has been gathering since the late 1950s where they ask a question, which to me is kind of a pure measure of someone's prejudice against another group. What they ask is, "If there was a well-qualified candidate from your political party running for office would you vote for them if they were black?" Certain groups have been lagging well behind. For example, African Americans have come a long way back in the '50s they were down in the 50 percent range, now they're up in the over 90 percent range. A group that is currently at the very bottom of that list, even if they are well-qualified and politically aligned, are atheists. That's actually lower than Muslim and lower than gay." 

On the perception that atheist do not have a moral center:
"I think there's been a dramatic misinformation campaign that atheists can't be ethical, which is of course silly. There are countries that are majority atheist and they actually are doing better on most crime statistics than the more religious countries. We certainly can be ethical these are just myths that were propagated against us and mis-truths and we're still seeing the effects today."

"Some of the biggest philanthropists in this country, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, they're both consider themselves agnostic, and yet they give away billions of dollars to help save the world. The reality is that most people know an atheist whether or not they realize that person is. We're just as kind loving and friendly as other people."