Steve Vallee has never been afraid to jump into something to understand it. During his senior year of high school, he took all but six weeks of classes to be ordained as a Catholic priest. When he moved to Colorado, he joined the Emissaries of Divine Light in Loveland. And when he had a young daughter, he became a deacon in the United Church of Christ in New Hampshire.
"I tried a lot of different systems. Every time there was something ... but not enough," Vallee said.
Today, he is a member of the Northern Colorado Freethinkers, a group of atheists, agnostics and other religiously unaffiliated people who explore their disbelief in a higher power each month.
The freethinkers are a minority in this country, where only 3 percent of people say they don't believe in God, according to a University of Minnesota study.
Atheists are often viewed as untrustworthy people who Americans associate with moral indiscretions from criminal behavior to cultural elitism, the study concluded.
But the freethinkers say that's an unfair stereotype, not a true characterization of the atheists they know or the lives they themselves lead. They say atheists are moral, thoughtful people who contribute to society, not because God wants them to, but because it's the right thing to do.
Vallee, 62, is an administrator for Qwest satellite television. He's not a political junky, but he spends his free time reading philosophy books and surfing the Internet for answers to his innumerable questions. On his end table this week is a copy of "Freedom Evolves" by Daniel Dennett.
He grew up in a strictly religious Roman Catholic family, attending religious schools through college. Vallee always had questions about his faith, but he explored them by delving deeper instead of running away. That is how he ended up in the seminary.
He spent an entire year learning from priests teaching the word of God. But what he heard differed from what he saw. While instructors spoke badly of women, they turned their head from homosexuality going on at the seminary. He also heard that God loved him, but he saw others practicing self-flagellation in the name of faith. "My teenage mind said 'no bloody way.' I didn't accept that," he said.
Although Vallee ran from the priesthood, he continued to explore Christianity. He joined the liberal United Church of Christ so that his daughter would have a religious foundation.
"I would say it was a long metamorphosis," Vallee said of becoming a nontheist. "I had sort of nagging doubts. I got to the point where it doesn't really make sense, and there isn't sufficient evidence. I wouldn't say I would completely reject the idea (of God), just that there's no good evidence to support it."
But simply because in his 62 years Vallee hasn't found an answer, doesn't mean he's giving up. Vallee continues to explore the question of existence. He's driven by the same curiosity as a scientist. "I want an answer ... I can't sit still and say 'gee, I don't know tough. I'll ignore it.' I have to keep looking. I have to keep trying."
Growing up with a Quaker mother and an Episcopalian father, Mark Rogers' family was also religious. In his 20s, he stopped attending church because he felt he had better things to do with his time.
"There wasn't one day that I woke up and said, 'Hey, you know what? I don't think there's a God," he said of becoming an atheist.
But there was a moment when he decided to be proactive in his disbelief. When Rogers moved to northern Colorado, he was inspired by the faith community. "Because of the overwhelming presence of warehouse churches ... it just kind of seemed necessary when I moved here to say 'Hey, wait a second, there are other people here, too.' " Rogers said.
As a computational biologist, Rogers fits the mold of atheist as Darwinist. But he believes his scientific interests enhance his ability to appreciate the world and have spiritual experiences.
When Rogers lived in southeastern Pennsylvania, he visited the same botanical garden every week. He became familiar with every plant and path, and the more he knew about the way the ecosystem worked, the more spiritual the experience became. "The more you learn about the universe, the more fascinating and awe inspiring it becomes. The speed with which our bodies replicate DNA is just amazing," Rogers said.
Rogers admits there are lazy atheists out there who have dismissed the idea of religion without giving it much thought. But there are also active atheists. "They reinvigorate their interest in the idea of religions and study it a bit more and have an understanding of why they believe the way they do," he said.
Rogers reads a lot. And he recently read a study that found there was no correlation between a faithful nation and morality. Social scientist Gregory Paul compared social indicators for several nations and found that those with higher rates of belief also had higher homicide, teen pregnancy and abortion rates. "The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator," Paul said.
Bob Michael, 60, joined the freethinkers two years ago, after moving to Fort Collins from Santa Barbara, Calif. There, he was a member of the humanist society, an even larger, more organized group of atheists and agnostics.
In his membership in both society's, he's found atheists to be well-meaning, thoughtful people. Sure, he's met the arrogant, angry atheist, but he finds the notion ridiculous that atheists are inherently bad people .
"We're not a bunch of people who go off by themselves and hate everybody else, and have contempt for people who might be religious," he said. "We do good works, not because Jesus wants us to -- but because we want to."
The freethinkers, in fact, have a charity arm. They're developing a program to adopt a school, providing supplies and donations to support disadvantaged children. Michael said the freethinkers developed the program to show that churches aren't the only groups that do good for society.
But the stereotype that the unfaithful give less isn't wholly untrue, according to a recent study. Researcher Arthur Brooks found that the faithful give four times more money annually than the secular population. However, most of that money is going to the church and stays there to pay for things such as music and technology, according to the Christian research organization Empty Tomb, Inc.
Either way, Michael said atheists appreciate the contributions religious groups make to society, as well as their right to believe.
"I don't preach to know everything, maybe there is a supreme being. But I'm not going to pound the table and say 'Damn it. There is no God!'" Michael said. "We don't know why the universe exists or why we're here."
In their words
"I think people expect ... an atheist to look like a communist or child molester not just a normal average guy. They expect that normal average people believe in God and worship Jesus."
-- Bob Michael, Freethinkers of Northern Colorado
"Imagine for a moment that there is no God. Just consider what would happen, what would it mean, if there wasn't a God ... What would they do about problems of poverty and hunger? How would they deal with it, if they couldn't pray for changes?"
-- Mark Rogers, Freethinkers of Northern Colorado
"They found something that will get them through a cold dark night, and I do not begrudge them that at all. Whatever will get you through a hard time, if that works for you, then have at it. But it's not a one-size-fits-everybody kind of thing."
-- Steve Vallee, Freethinkers of Northern Colorado
An Atheist's Reading list
Here are some of the books the sources in this article recommended for more insight:
» "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins.
» "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris.
» "Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist" by Dan Barker.
» "The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan.
» "Women Without Superstition: No Gods - No Masters" by Annie L. Gaylot.
» "Freethinkers" by Susan Jacoby.