'PLEASE, JESUS, PROTECT ME FROM YOUR FOLLOWERS! ' is more than a simple bumper sticker slogan for Colorado Springs couple Becky Hale and Gary Betchan.
The phrase also adorns T-shirts, caps, buttons and jewelry and is among the 4,500 products sold by EvolveFISH.com, their online emporium that ships 16,000 orders each year to godless Americans who can't live without Isaac Newton bobble head dolls, T-shirts supporting gay rights or Coexist bumper stickers promoting religious dialogue. The company, next to Hope Chapel on North Academy Boulevard, is named after the EvolveFISH emblem, which ridicules a popular Christian fish symbol.
Betchan and Hale say they never would have met if it weren't for locals seeking to impose conservative Christian values on the city.
'The religious crazies brought us together, ' said Betchan, who in 1988 wanted to see the controversial movie 'The Last Temptation of Christ ' at Poor Richard's Bookstore. But the local church that rented the space to the bookstore prohibited the screening of the film, so Betchan watched it at All Souls Unitarian Church, which volunteered to screen it.
'I thought it was brave for people to stand their ground, so I went to check it out, ' said Betchan, who would later meet Hale at All Souls. The two were a couple by 1991 and were married in 1992. They say they've been fending off the crazies ever since.
Betchan and Hale are part of a rapidly growing movement known as the 'nones. ' We're not talking about Catholic sisters in black robes, but Americans who claim no religious affiliation, be they atheists such as Betchan and Hale, agnostics or those who describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious. '
Recent surveys by Gallup and Pew say that nearly 20 percent of Americans are nones. In the Springs, closer to 40 percent of residents are 'nones, ' and Betchan and Hale's story provides a personal illustration of the rise of the nones.
As Betchan and Hale sit in their comfortable, north-side home talking about the past quarter century, a picture emerges of two reluctant radicals who only enlisted in their hometown culture wars after being forced to defend their deeply held values.
'Yes, we do have those, ' said Hale, who was elected president of the 23,000-member American Humanist Association in January.
'We are not fighters by nature, but nor are we the kind of people who sit around and watch as religious zealots change our community. Humanism teaches that people need to take responsibility for their own lives and our society, and that's what we have tried to do. '
They say their values came under assault at home, at work and at school.
Hale said she was fired without cause after being 'outed ' as an atheist at a mandatory employee sensitivity training session. Betchan said that employees who attended one manager's 'voluntary ' Bible study meetings at his former job got the best assignments.
One day, they say, a neighbor knocked and asked to meet the couple after other neighbors had showed her a petition seeking to oust 'freethinkers ' and 'blacks ' from the neighborhood.
And a member of Betchan's former Unitarian youth group said she was pressured to participate in a prayer meeting before her swim team's meet at her District 20 high school. When she begged out of attending, she was benched.
'At that moment, we knew we knew we needed to do something, ' Betchan said.
Here's how they described their journey toward activism in a recent edition of the EvolveFISH catalog:
'Colorado Springs was beginning to turn into an abyss of prejudice, and reason seemed to be in short supply. One couple stood in the midst and watched their hometown change. There was little support for anyone outside of the very vocal Christian, right-wing minority that had descended upon the Springs like a plague. '
The couple married in 1992, just as the campaign was heating up over Amendment 2, a statewide anti-gay rights measure promoted by Focus on the Family, the most politically active and - at that time - the largest of the Springs' dozens of national and international evangelical nonprofit 501(c)3 parachurch organizations.
'When everyone started kicking the gays, I thought, 'Gee, I was never aware that the purpose of religion was to kick people around,'? ' Betchan said. 'That's when I said, 'Wait a minute!' And that's why the first bumper sticker EvolveFISH created said: 'Focus on Your Own Damn Family!!!'? '
In 1993, Betchan and Hale founded The Freethinkers of Colorado Springs, a group that says people's beliefs should be formed on the basis of science and logic instead of emotion, authority, tradition or dogma.
Religion and politics
In its October report, '?'Nones' on the Rise, ' the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life offered five theories to explain the rapid growth of America's nones.
Theory No. 1 is that a 'political backlash ' against faith-based political activism has fueled the flight from religious affiliation. The report states:
'Several leading scholars contend that young adults, in particular, have turned away from organized religion because they perceive it as deeply entangled with conservative politics and do not want to have any association with it. '
Hale has seen plenty of political backlash in the Springs but said things are better now than the days when nones fearfully spoke 'in whispered conversations. '
After all, local Freethinkers sponsored a float in the St. Patrick's Day Parade this year. 'It was great seeing people waving and applauding, ' she said.
So what's next for local nones? Is this when they will force their godless agenda on local believers?
'It has never been the atheists who have burned Christians at the stake, ' Hale said. 'We would like to live in a place where my daughter is not afraid to have people find out she does not believe in God. We would like to work in workplaces where promotions are based on performance, not attending the right church. We would like atheists to be able to run for political office without persecution or being treated like second-class citizens. '
Or as Betchan said: 'It's about freedom of religion, including freedom from religion. ' He added, 'That's how Tom (Jefferson) and the boys set this whole thing up! '