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CHICAGO (Reuters Life!) - For some atheists in the United States it's a bright new day with the election of President Barack Obama and a move away from religion-shaped government policies of past years.
Others aren't so sure, and it remains to be seen whether a friendlier climate translates into more people publicly embracing an atheist or non-theist philosophy in an overwhelmingly Christian country.
"It's becoming OK to be an atheist," says Jane Everhart, communications director at New York City Atheists. It began, she says, with Obama's inaugural address in which he called the United States "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus ... and nonbelievers."
Since then Obama reversed restrictions on stem cell embryonic research and the White House has signaled more liberal attitudes toward gays. Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ but has said he was raised in a family where values counted for more than religious identity.
"It was history," Everhart said of the inaugural speech. "It translates into more people coming out. That one word legitimized us! It said we belong. It said we need to be included, and respected."
Kenneth Bronstein, president of the New York group, said there has been a dramatic shift in attitudes about atheism which he attributes to former President George Bush whose policies he said fed an appetite for change.
Ron Millar, acting director of the Secular Coalition for America, which lobbies the U.S. Congress on atheist and secular issues, said polls indicate a growing secular constituency.
A recent report from Connecticut's Trinity College found 12 percent of Americans were atheists, agnostics or doubters. It put the number of self-professed atheists at 2.3 percent, another 4.3 percent said there is no way to know if God exists. About 6 percent said they were not sure about a deity.
But Millar said it's too soon to say whether the Obama administration will be much different than its predecessor.
He said Obama's White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is, despite a name change, "the same program Bush started ... and it still ends up giving taxpayer dollars to religious institutions."
He also said Obama seem to be stalling on changing a Bush-era rule allowing healthcare providers to refuse to deliver services, such as abortion, that their religion deems immoral. He also said his group is disappointed that Obama's budget proposal leaves the door open for continued funding of "abstinence only" sex education programs.
Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba, who has studied U.S. nonbelievers, says he doesn't think atheism is gaining more adherents.
"There are very few atheists in America, and they are, in general, not admired," he said. "The shifting that is occurring, which both helped Obama win and which will be reinforced by the perception that stem cell research should go ahead, etc., is a movement away from institutionalized Christianity to less participatory and 'in name only' Christianity," he said.
"These people will still believe in God, but they won't go to church," he added. "The vast majority of Americans will continue to believe in God -- 'whatever God you got,'-- in Indiana Jones' words."
The United States is still far less secular than Europe, and atheists and others are often in court challenging what they see as violations of church-state separation.
Before Obama's inauguration the American Humanist Association failed to get a court order that would have prevented Obama from concluding his oath of office with the words "So help me God" or stricken prayers bracketing the event.
But they are still pressing their suit with future inaugurations in mind.
Editing by Andrew Stern and Patricia Reaney