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."

"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."

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