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.

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"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.

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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.

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