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Thursday, December 14, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Atheists coming out of the closet

Every soul in Christendom knows that sometimes, a supper is more than just a supper. “We are apostles,” Jim Hong, president of the Mid-Michigan Atheists and Humanists, exhorts at a Sunday, Dec. 3, meeting in East Lansing, Mich. “We need to go out and expand. We need to network.”

In recent months, biologist Richard Dawkins and several other high-profile philosophers and scientists fed up with religious fundamentalism have urged atheists to come out of the closet. Judging by the current membership boom in Hong’s group, a lot of local atheists are doing just that.

In less than two years, Hong, a structural engineering consultant who lives in Jackson, has seen attendance at monthly meetings spike from a single-digit trickle to an average of 20 and a high of 35, with 60 people on the group’s register. Most members are from the Lansing area, but others come from as far away as Lake Orion, Monroe and Flint.

This afternoon, Hong has invited a manageable fraction of the group to share thoughts and stories about coming out as atheists in a country overwhelmingly populated by the faithful. They’re also here to plan a Dec. 17 winter solstice celebration, an alternative to the religious festivals that dominate December. On the secular docket thus far is a silent auction and a talent show featuring songs, poems, dance and Hong’s dazzling demonstration on how to fold a shirt in 2.1 seconds.

Amid the laughs and short-term business, the word “apostle” rings a 2,000-year-old bell. As Hong suggests ways to go forth and spread the word about atheism, it’s hard not to notice that there are 12 other people at the table, sharing ideas while picking at lo mein remnants, fortune cookies and soft serve ice cream.

Could this be the start of something big?

Lights out, lightbulb on

Don’t expect an atheist millennium to descend upon the Earth anytime soon. Despite the accidental Last Supper head count, these potential apostles are not even the on the same page, let alone chapter and verse.

“Preach and it doesn’t work,” Therese Hercher, one of the group’s newer faces, says to Hong. “Put me in a corner, and I’m going to come out swinging. It’s better to be a role model.”

Some wear the group’s name proudly, but Hercher and others aren’t even sure they like the term “atheist.”

“Atheism is about what we aren’t,” Hercher says. “But there’s something we all are, too. We’re reasonable people. We rely on reason and not mysticism or superstition.”

“I don’t reveal much about being an atheist because of the conceptions some people have about us,” ventures Regina Fry, an almost painfully soft-spoken artist from Lansing. “I would rather that people see that I hold certain values about caring for each other and the earth and promoting justice.”

Tom McFarland, an enthusiastic member of the group who also drives to East Lansing from Jackson, is clearly more comfortable with the word “atheist” than Fry or Hercher. “We’re passionate about being atheists,” he says. “It’s not just, ‘I’m an atheist, get over it.’ There’s a lot of thinking, a lot of process involved.”

That, Hong says, is just why he wants the group to reach out. “Once people get a sense of who non-believers are, they might be more accepting,” he explains. “We’re moral people. We don’t have horns.”

While some people at this table have been atheists for decades, Hong speaks with the zeal of the recent convert. He says the turning point came when his brother-in-law told him the blackout that struck the northeast United States in August 2003 was a trial sent to Earth by God.

“That really got to me,” Hong says. “It didn’t make any sense at all. I got to thinking about how natural disasters, and how so many people in the world are hungry. Why am I so lucky? To say it was part of a plan didn’t make sense to me.”

Since then, the openly religious stance of the Bush administration, not to mention that of its terrorist foes, has provoked a slew of aggressively atheist literature [see box, “Unbibles for unbelievers”] and pushed Hong and others toward open avowal of atheism.

Against this backdrop of baroque-era-Bush backlash, Hong joined Steve Kwart of Lansing in May 2005 to overhaul a sputtering predecessor group of local atheists. In Kwart’s words, the original group was patterned on a business model, met in libraries and “wasn’t very much fun.”

When Hong and Kwart eliminated dues and by-laws, added humanists to the tent, and moved the monthly venue to a popular East Lansing restaurant, attendance went up.

Some members, like Ray Ziarno of Lansing, a retired state employee, value the group as a chance to network with like-minded people. “This is something that one could not experience, at least in the Lansing area, until recently,” he says.

But Hong has longer-range plans. He urges outreach with “measurable results,” suggesting the group distribute pamphlets, draft talking points, arrange lectures, even set up an atheist support hotline. “Otherwise, we’re just talking to each other,” he says.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

For some atheists, “just talking to each other” is comfort enough. Several recent polls put the number of self-described atheists in the United States somewhere between 1 and 3 percent, leaving few kindred spirits in the average atheist’s life.

Rose, an out-of-town journalist who has just moved to Lansing, requested her last name be withheld because she doesn’t want to jeopardize her employment prospects. “I’ve become ever less comfortable about discussing faith or religion with people I’ve just met or don’t know well,” she says.

This time of year, there are holidays to deal with, but most of the atheists at this table say they simply avoid the subject of religion at home.

“We have a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy at our house,” smiles Kwart, a bearded, mild-mannered investor in his 30s. “When we gather for the holidays we simply don’t discuss subjects that we know will only start an argument. We focus on what we do have in common. It makes life a lot easier.”

Kwart goes to his family’s religious ceremonies, and even served as his nephew’s godfather.

Ziarno, who is about 20 years older than Kwart, does the same. He goes to the religious weddings of friends and family, although he adds sadly that they are now outnumbered by funerals. “I generally participate out of politeness,” he says.

“I don’t hide my non-belief from anyone but my family,” explains Russ Rogers, a regular at the East Lansing meetings. Rogers says the subject of religion simply doesn’t come up in his family. “If any of them asked, I would honestly state my position.”

In recent years, the Internet has helped atheists reach beyond unsympathetic work and home environments to connect with others who feel the same way they do. Nevertheless, becoming an atheist is, overwhelmingly, a solitary journey that starts early in life and takes years, sometimes decades, to complete.

“I did well in school, had a lot of friends, but felt somewhat like an isolated island when it came to questioning religion,” Kwart, a former Catholic altar boy, says.

The sequence and timing may vary, but many atheists go through phases strikingly similar to the coming-out process described by gays and lesbians. Again and again, atheists talk of vague confusion, inner struggle, solitary resolve, one or more last-ditch attempts to put the godless toothpaste back in the tube, and a final, public break with the past.

Mike Foland, a soft-spoken retired Ford employee who has lived in Lansing all his life, can make the coming-out comparison with authority. He came out as both gay and atheist at the same time.

Foland found himself against the wall in 2003, when his parents e-mailed him, criticizing a female friend who was planning a commitment ceremony with a female partner.

“My parents told me how it was against God,” Foland says.

It wasn’t easy for Foland to answer that e-mail honestly. “I basically grew up in the church,” he says.

Foland struggled with his own sexuality since he was 13, and didn’t resolve it for himself until 1992. “I questioned my orientation before that, trying to work through Biblical verses that talked about homosexuality.”

When his parents sent him the 2003 e-mail, he steeled himself and wrote back: “What you’re writing about her, you’re writing about me, and that’s one reason I don’t believe anymore.”

“I had not come out to my parents until that writing,” he says. “So all in one e-mail, I came out to my parents as a gay man and an atheist.

“I think they were more upset about me being an atheist.”

Participation, not faith

Regina Fry loved going to church as a child. “There wasn’t anything about it I hated, or turned away from,” she says.” I found the sermons inspiring, but I never felt that I believed in God.”

She considered herself an agnostic for a few years, a phase described by several others at the table, but ultimately concluded she was an atheist — albeit a non-dogmatic one. “I don’t know if I can say I’m sure there’s no God, but I’m sure I don’t believe there’s a God,” she says.

Opposite the mild-mannered Fry sits Carolyn Dulai of Lansing, a former Green Party candidate for state senator who zeroes in on the sexual politics of religion with ferocious sarcasm.

“The Christians worship three males: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” she says, using the nasal drone of a standup comedian. “Where’s the vagina? Even at the Hindu temple, five miles from me in Haslett, they had a big ceremony installing the penis. No vagina in sight.”

With a sheaf of materials under his arm and quietly bookish air, Rogers looks like he could be the group’s theoretician.

“My metaphor is geological erosion,” Rogers says. “I was given a mountain and gradually watched it wear away as I became more factually aware of the universe.”

Like most atheists, Rogers grew up in a religious tradition (Lutheran, in his case), but describes his role as “participation, not faith.”

“Even a child, I could see that religion wasn’t solving people’s problems for them,” he says. “In my teens, I began to realize there is a wonderful natural world out there that doesn’t require a theistic interpretation.”

“It wasn’t rebellion,” he insists. “I simply investigated the matter, discovered it to be wanting terribly, and elect to live my life that way.”

Rogers’ opposite number is Aaron Stuttman, a Lansing masseur and Green Party member who ran unsuccessfully for governor this year. Where Rogers looks as if he’s been reading intently under a fluorescent lights for decades, Stuttman leans backward insouciantly, with a California tan and new age language to match.

“I think I was allergic to church,” he says. “The few times I went, it was boring and disturbing. The energy was bad. The best metaphor I can think of is that is made me feel sick, it wasn’t healthy.”

No pitchforks

Rogers’ erosion metaphor struck a common chord with many atheists at the table. When Ziarno left home to attend college at Michigan Tech in the Upper Peninsula, he met and lived with people “of other religions, and those with no religion at all.”

“And, they didn’t have horns and a tail, and didn’t carry a pitchfork,” he says with a grin. “Slowly but surely, I really gave up the formalities of religion, and, eventually, all beliefs in religion and a God as some sort of a being.”

Like most people at the table, John Kelly, a retired state worker who lives in Lansing, was raised Catholic. He grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, where he came to admire the Franciscan nuns who taught him. “They were dynamic,” he recalls. “They did wonderful things for people.”

While in high school, Kelly fell in love with science. “Science was exciting,” he says. “Science made sense, whereas the dogma was just, ‘Take this on faith.’”

A period of denial followed. “I tried to become a Catholic again, I really did, but I realized after a point that it was to no avail,” he says. “I just didn’t believe.”

“For years, I’ve never really been out front about my feelings. Here I have a chance to be among people who are of like mind.”

Like Kelly, Kwart went through a “one last try” phase after falling in love with science in high school. “For a time I thought my faith in God was just weak and I needed to try harder believing,” he says. “I decided to read the Holy Bible in its entirety with an open mind.”

Instead of giving Kwart a stronger faith in God, scripture study had the opposite effect. “It became more obvious to me that the whole thing was made up by uneducated, superstitious people thousands of years ago,” he says.

Ever the conciliator, Kwart qualifies his statement. “I don’t think they were bad people,” he says. “They simply didn’t have the luxury of 500 years of accumulated science, as we have today.”

Floppy doubts

Despite different backgrounds and personal stories, a common thread linked every story told at the table that afternoon:

Nobody could name a teacher, guru, mentor, friend or family member who showed the way to atheism.

On the contrary, most pulled against strong family and cultural currents, plagued by awkward, floppy doubts they couldn’t tuck back into their brains.

Here, they can wear those thoughts proudly untucked, but many still worry about public perception.

“The word atheist carries a lot of shock value,” Rose says. “Not only is it highly provocative and widely misunderstood, it doesn’t begin to express the values I do cherish and live by.”

“We don’t have morals — that’s the typical belief people have,” Hong says.

In response, Rose ticks off more than a dozen cherished principles she’s not averse to calling “beliefs.”

“I believe in the power of reason, the non-aggression-principle, freedom and free will, and a moral code by which to live,” she says. “I believe every individual is important, and that every individual can and should make a positive difference in this world.”

Hong puts it more succinctly. “We believe in helping our fellow man,” he says.

“We just don’t pray for them."