SECULARISTS UNDER SEIGE
The heading above and the article below are all by Spokesman Review writer Shawn Vestal who did a bang-up job of putting together a nice survey of some of our local atheist humanist agnostic freethinking skeptical troubadours. It’s a long one (2500 words), but I wanted to put it in here in its entirety. Your truly is included.
[Open quote] More people in washington and idaho said they had no religion than any other single category, according to an American Religious Identification survey in 2001:
They gather on Sundays. They discuss social issues and moral responsibility. They break bread, sip wine and plan the next potluck. But you wouldn't call the members of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society a congregation. They don't believe in God – or they entertain serious doubts. Where others might pray for guidance, they say they turn to their inner resources. Where others might turn to a belief in heaven for comfort in times of strife or heartbreak, they seek consolation in each other, in family and friends.
"I don't curse religion," says Ross Woodward, a leader in the regional humanist community. "I just don't find it very useful anymore."
Including atheists, agnostics and other nonreligious people, the group's members are part of a population that's feeling embattled lately – the "seculars," as one religious survey calls them. A lot of them are unhappy about what they see as an expansion of religious influence in government and public life, and they feel the country has wandered from what they see as its essentially secular roots.
"I think things are as bad as they've been in a long time," said Susan Harrington, a 40-year-old Boise-area woman who was among the founding members of Idaho Atheists. "In my lifetime, this is the worst it's ever been."
About one in 10 Americans is an atheist, and that figure may be higher in the Inland Northwest, where church affiliation is among the lowest in the nation. Still, vast majorities of Americans say they believe in God and identify themselves as Christian. And the political activity of evangelical Christians has boomed – USA Today recently called them "the most powerful emerging force in American politics today."
Seculars say they object only when religious belief is inserted into government, when government endorses religion through funding, or when religious beliefs are used to influence scientific fact.
Groups such as the Boise-based Idaho Atheists, Spokane's Humanist Focus Group of the Inland Northwest and the Inland Northwest Freethought Society – an organization of about 30 that meets one Sunday a month – provide a forum for discussion and socialization for people who say they sometimes feel alone in a religious society.
"You have freedom of religion in this country," says Sherrie Nash-Bryant, a 57-year-old Spokane atheist, "and I would argue you should also have freedom not to be religious."
Of course, many others – particularly religious others – see things in a dramatically different light. Many Christians are unhappy about what they see as an expansion of secular influence in government and public life, and they feel the country has wandered from what they see as its essentially religious roots.
"People were trying for freedom of religion" when the country was founded, said Brad Benson, a Spokane senator. "They try to say it's freedom from religion." Benson describes himself as a "basic Christian."
Evangelicals argue that God is being forced out of public life. Seculars argue he's being forced in.
"In short, what I think is going on is a battle for cultural dominance of two different sets of values," said Dale Soden, a Whitworth history professor.
EVOLUTION OF BELIEFS
If there's a typical atheist, it's not Ray Ideus.
A Lutheran pastor and minister for about 30 years, Ideus found his beliefs gradually shifting over his career as a rather freethinking member of the clergy. His doubts had grown substantial by his retirement, but it took a while to acknowledge the change.
"I think it was 10 years before I really admitted I was an atheist," said Ideus, 73, a jovial man who retired to north Spokane with his wife, Lorraine.
Growing up, Ideus said, "I believed God created the world in six 24-hour days. In college, the professor started talking about the Stone Age."
He slaps his forehead theatrically.
"Holy cow! The Stone Age doesn't fit in."
Ideus has a hard time pinning down a single moment when his beliefs changed. He began to doubt the primacy of the Lutheran faith and took steps – such as performing interracial marriages – that more traditionalist clergy would not.
After a divorce, he was guided into the chaplaincy, he said, because his church wasn't comfortable with divorced pastors. As he worked at a drop-in center with Native American students in Lawrence, Kan., he began to develop more respect for other faiths and less certainty about his own. He began to identify strains of cultural chauvinism in religion and to worry that people were basing ideas he considered bigoted or unwarranted on religious faith.
"One day I just sat in my office and said, 'Why am I here? Why do I choose to sit here on the edge?' "
But Ideus felt trapped – not by ideology, but by worldly needs.
"Can you imagine being a professional and jumping out of that to where you're almost unemployable?"
Other atheists in the Inland Northwest describe different journeys.
Woodward, who grew up in a Canadian Mormon family, had a high school science teacher who exposed him to the ideas of Thomas Malthus – that human populations would always outpace natural resources. That led Woodward to Darwin, and he began reading widely among prominent thinkers.
"So many of them had no use for religion," said Woodward, 78. "They just had no need for it."
His split from religion was gradual; when he and his family moved to Spokane in 1959, he just stopped identifying himself as a Mormon or religious in any way.
He started a group now known as the Humanist Focus Group of the Inland Northwest in 1995. "The purpose of our group is to give an intellectual and social milieu for like-minded people," he said.
Dennis Bower, vice president of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, recalls performing in the Christmas pageant at his Presbyterian church when he was a child. "It occurred to me that this is not a lot different than the Santa Claus myth," said Bower, 50.
Others in Bower's group also talk about making their conversion as children. But for George Thomas, a 67-year-old retired Spokane man and frequent critic of religion on The Spokesman-Review's letters page, the journey to atheism was both long and strange.
He grew up in an irreligious family, was baptized into the Southern Baptist church by his grandparents, declared himself an atheist at 20, attended the Lutheran church with his first wife and checked out the Church of the Nazarene on his own.
In the last several years, Thomas has reverted to atheism. That change was prompted by an increased interest in science, particularly evolutionary science and research into consciousness. He talks about a history of knowledge being squelched by religious fundamentalists ranging back to the early astronomers. And he essentially boils his belief down to an existential statement: If God does not exist in the real, observable world, then for human purposes God does not exist.
Like many local humanists, Thomas is interested in discussing evolution, intelligent design and other scientific issues. Also like other members of the group, he is passionate about his beliefs, referring people to books and articles and holding his own in any debate.
"My preaching," he said after coughing during a recent interview, "is going to cost me my voice."
There is perhaps an unbridgeable gulf between atheists and Christians – at least between the most ardent and outspoken in each camp. Even when the two sides engage in civil discussion, each has a world view that precisely opposes the other's – night and day, black and white.
Thomas is troubled by the rise of what he calls the "political Christian," versus what he calls the "dying Christian" – the kind who "prayed in the closet and served others." To him, the Constitution clearly establishes America as a secular state in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law establishing a religion or restricting the free exercise thereof."
In a diverse society, say those who argue for the separation of church and state, any apparent support of a religion will naturally exclude people of other faiths – or of no faith. So the First Amendment calls, in their view, for a secular state.
To Lynn Schindler, however, the Constitution says something very different about religion – that the government should not establish a religion or a state-sanctioned church. Nonreligious people have used the idea of a separation of church and state to restrict the free speech of Christians, she said.
"We used to be able to have Christmas called Christmas," said Schindler, a state representative from Otis Orchards. "Now it's winter holiday – which in my mind is going out of the way to suppress the freedom that we have always enjoyed."
Where atheists see a growing trend against science and Enlightenment principles, believers see a growing effort to recapture the society for a heretofore silent majority. Where atheists see Christians asserting improper influence, Christians see themselves as finally speaking up. They don't feel they ought to be expected to pray only in a closet.
"Christians now feel like it's OK for them to vote their beliefs," said Benson, the Spokane senator.
Benson sees Christianity as a foundation for morality, and one that is important for public servants to have.
"I'd be worried about what moral compass does this guy have if he's a devout atheist?" he said.
That's the kind of comment that drives many atheists crazy – equating religion with morality. Harrington, the Boise woman, said she hates to see people cringe when she tells them she's an atheist.
Sometimes they say: "Oh, but you're so nice."
Seculars say their morality derives from an interest in humanity and helping others, and they tend to see religions as corrupt or corruptible – the kind of comment that might drive believers crazy.
For Lorraine Ideus – the wife of the retired Lutheran minister – one of the first steps away from the Lutheranism of her youth was meeting nonreligious people whom she considered moral.
"I met a lot of non-Lutherans who were just as good as I was," she said. "I was taught that people who didn't go to church were not good people, and I began to see that's just not so."
When Doranne Miller's daughter was 5 or 6 years old, she asked her mother whether there was really a God.
"The first thing out of my mouth was, 'A lot of people think so,' " Miller said. " 'I don't, but a lot of people believe very, very strongly.' "
Miller said her daughter – who now shares her beliefs – attended church with friends and came to her own conclusion.
"My values require that my children see all points of view and hear the whole story from everybody and make up their own minds in the long term," Miller said. "That's what freethinking is about."
Atheists say they understand the appeal of religion to many people – though they tend to view religious belief as something they've grown out of. At the meeting of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society on a recent Sunday at Arbor Crest, members discussed the ways their world view affects their daily lives.
For instance, though the members do not believe in God, some of them described prayer-like activities. One said she had prayed to an invented deity at a moment of strife – a process of thinking through the situation that she found very comforting. Others said that in circumstances when a believer might pray, an atheist might do something meditative – looking inward, to their knowledge and strength, to get through rough times.
"I turn to my inner resources," Ray Ideus said.
For comfort and community, they turn to friends and family – and to groups like the Inland Northwest Freethought Society.
"I'm sure in many religious groups, that's really what people are deriving comfort from," Miller said.
Humanists also say they gain comfort – and moral authority – from the idea of helping others in concrete ways. For some, that means working to promote social programs that help the less fortunate. For Nash-Bryant, it means playing the fiddle and mandolin at nursing homes.
"It's comforting for them," she said, "and you brought that to them."
PRAYING FOR RAIN
America is a stubbornly religious country. While other Westernized democracies around the world tend to show a decline in religious faith the longer they're around, Americans' belief in God remains high.
A lot of seculars think that's changing more than the numbers reflect. For one thing, they note that the number of people who are "spiritual but not religious" keeps increasing, and say that – for some people – expressions of faith in God and Christianity may sometimes be nothing more than the expected norm that people carry from years of socialization.
They also say that many non-religious people – those who may not actively define themselves as agnostic or atheist, but who lack belief – may keep it to themselves, to protect family or friends or out of a desire to avoid confrontation.
"I really deep down think that more and more people are falling away from religion," said Lorraine Ideus. "But right now it's not a popular time to admit that."
The National Study of Youth and Religion, conducted in 2002-03, shows that religious faith remains strong among American teens – 80 percent say they believe in God, and 3 percent don't.
But for many kids, faith takes the form of "moralistic therapeutic deism," according to researcher Christian Smith – a belief that was described in a Salon.com story as believing that "God is an undemanding, all-fulfilling entity existing only to help us feel better about ourselves."
Smith, in the Salon interview, said that many teens had little actual knowledge of religious teachings. The idea of making a personal commitment to Christ "can turn into thinking that Jesus is your buddy. … it can easily slide into thinking like 'I prayed for a parking spot, and God gave it to me.' "
Ray Ideus, the former Lutheran pastor, argues that religious belief along those lines is actually damaging – prompting already comfortable Americans to pray for their own comfort and diverting them from helping the truly needy.
He remembers that he was once at a clown convention – even before his conversion to atheism, Ideus was unorthodox – when another conventioneer told him why she never prayed for rain.
The way she figured it, he said, if God heard her prayer for rain but doesn't hear the prayers of millions starving to death around the world, "he's got his priorities mixed up."
"After that," Ideus said, "I never prayed for rain."
AT A GLANCE WHO IS SECULAR?
"Seculars" are non-religious people, including atheists – those who don't believe in God or phenomena beyond the observable world – and agnostics, those who believe it is impossible to know whether God exists.
But the category includes a wide range of beliefs and does not preclude spirituality. Among other terms used are naturalist, skeptic or freethinker.
The American Humanist Association defines humanism as "a progressive life stance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity."
The Council for Secular Humanism defines the term as a world view that might include: a commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods; a conviction that ideologies must be tested rather than accepted on faith; a search for the principles of ethical conduct, principles judged by their ability to improve human well-being. Specific beliefs, of course, vary by individual. According to a 2003 Harris Poll, 10 percent of Americans don't believe in God; 16 percent don't believe in miracles or heaven; 32 percent don't believe in the devil; and 49 percent don't believe in ghosts. [Close quote]
by Shawn Vestal of the Spokesman Review (July 10, 2005)
"It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers." —James Thurber