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.
BY: Shelby Oppel
"We don't need the spiritual communality and the constant infusion of preaching, so we all sit in our homes and the religious people get together and get religion in schools and all these horrible things. And we're thinking, why is this happening? There are more of us than them," said Jan Yarbrough, 53, a Portland telecommunications consultant and humanist.
Well, maybe not. When Gallup pollsters asked Americans in 2000 if they believe in God, 95 percent of those surveyed said yes, a consistent percentage for the past 50 years. Freethinkers point to other surveys that count nonbelievers as 8 percent to 13 percent of the U.S. population. Even in the Northwest, where surveys show church attendance is among the lowest in the nation, nonbelievers are not the norm, said Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology and comparative religions at the University of Washington.
"The West Coast is very low compared to the rest of the country in terms of church attendance, and therefore church membership...You've got a lot of believing nonbelongers."
But the region may provide more fertile ground for contrary viewpoints. "The public climate might be a little more loose," Stark said.
About 135 people showed up at the symposium, titled "Toward Rational Living." An intense group, they don't claim to represent the thousands of Americans who profess no religion. They said they usually feel outnumbered, even beleaguered, which helps to explain the giddy spirit that pervaded the room. A few days earlier, at humanists' urging, Portland Mayor Vera Katz had proclaimed the day, June 23, "A Day of Reason," concluding that "most people value reason and appreciate its presence in the community."
Katz's staff emphasized that it was not an endorsement of the groups involved in the symposium or their views. City policy says proclamations are available to nonprofit organizations that contribute to Portland.
Yet to local freethinkers--mostly men, middle-aged and politically liberal--this was progress. Noticing a visitor, a clutch of men seized the chance to write on a blank slate, quoting Isaac Asimov's critique of creationism and trying unsuccessfully not to cut each other off. They emphasized what they are not: devil-worshippers, and for the most part, not trying to change any minds.
Ticking off the unwanted religious messages they see and hear daily--from Christian fish on car bumpers to President Bush's remark that "faith crosses every border and touches every heart"--the nonbelievers sounded like conservative Christians who make the same argument in reverse against the secularization of American society.
Reed Byers, Oregon State University systems analyst: "It's almost better these days to admit you're gay than to admit you're an atheist."
John Dearing, retired union carpenter, president of the Corvallis Secular Society, on uniting the nonbelievers: "It's like trying to herd cats. They don't herd too well."
Cliff Walker, founder and sole member of Positive Atheism, about his Web site: "We're closing in on 100 megabytes of space, and I do it all myself."
They joked, sort of, about crossing out "In God We Trust" on dollar bills and about the difficulty of responding to those who insist on God blessing them after a sneeze. "I just don't answer," Dearing said.
The freethinkers also tackle more serious issues, such as blocking religious influences from public schools. And they criticize Bush's plan to shift more tax dollars to religious groups that administer social services.
Humanists in Portland run a low-cost counseling service, primarily for clients who couldn't otherwise afford it except through religious organizations. They also coordinate five Smart Recovery groups, an addiction treatment program that is an alternative to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which include acceptance of a power greater than oneself.
Humanists, many of whom also call themselves atheists, serve as celebrants at marriages, child-naming ceremonies and funerals, sought out by people who want the ritual without the religion.
"I think if you asked people on the street about atheists, they would think we're much fringier, flakier than we are," said Sanford. "We're nice people."