Secularists, Freethinkers Meet, Poke Some Fun at Faith

Nonbelievers note progress as they try to carve a niche for themselves in a society awash in God.

c. 2001 Religion News Service

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- It could have been a Dale Carnegie seminar -- neat rows of mannerly, smiling people packed into a hotel conference room.

Then the keynote speaker lifted his water pitcher. "Let's say we want to take this water and turn it into wine," said Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Shermer, waving the pitcher at the hooting audience.

"Do you want a rose or a port?"

The fourth annual Oregon Secular Symposium at a Beaverton hotel brought atheists, humanists, skeptics and other self-described "freethinkers" together recently for their version of a revival meeting. Except faith was replaced by skepticism, and sarcasm was substituted for testimonials.

In khakis and sneakers, T-shirts and ties, the adamantly unfaithful came together for breakout sessions ("How to Write a Letter to the Editor") and camaraderie and to take a lot of notes.

There were jokes but also purpose: to unite a classic bunch of nonjoiners, all searching for breathing room in a society they say is awash in God. "That's all we want -- to be able to carve that space out without getting a lot of crap from everybody," said Robert Sanford, 59, of Portland, who is a technical writer, humanist and symposium organizer.


The gathering drew humanists and atheists from Portland, Salem, North Puget Sound and the Corvallis Secular Society. For years, they have met in pizzerias and libraries around Oregon and Washington. Increasingly, they seek to speak with a less shrill, more cohesive voice.

As atheists who see no proof of God, they want religion removed from public policy on abortion and the environment, erased from high school graduation ceremonies, out of presidential campaigns and health care choices.

As humanists, who think people possess all they need within themselves to improve their lives and the world, they want others to acknowledge that religion is not a prerequisite for ethical behavior. As skeptics, they value reason and science and wish more people would ask "the tough questions."

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