News

August 31, 2011

Atheists in Arkansas

The godless find a voice. 
by Doug Smith 
Arkansas Times

It's said there are no atheists in foxholes, and that's baloney, according to a military man we'll call "Brad." At an atheists' social gathering in Little Rock, Brad told a reporter that as an Air Force pilot, he'd been in situations where his life was in danger, and on those occasions, the farthest thing from his mind was seeking assistance from an omnipotent Santa Claus. 

"In an emergency, you do what you've been trained to do," he said. "If you're praying, you're not doing the very thing you need to be doing, your job."

Brad recalled that when the airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger was asked if he'd prayed while facing great hazard during a memorable incident over New York in 2009, Sullenberger had replied that passengers were probably taking care of the praying; he personally had been too busy setting his airplane down safely in the Hudson River.

It may be another indication of keeping a cool head under fire that although Brad mixed freely with fellow freethinkers in a beer-and-pizza get-together at Vino's, and answered questions for a reporter, he didn't want his real name or photograph used in a newspaper article. "The military is a conservative culture," he said. "One ultra-religious commander could ruin your career." Don't ask, don't tell, applies to more than sexual preference in the military.

But a retired Air Force officer can step boldly from the religious closet and David Bentley has. He's now the president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, the largest group in a coalition of nontheists who've won a couple of legal battles for nonbelievers in Arkansas. First they gained the right, through federal court, to have a nonreligious, winter-solstice exhibit at the state Capitol at the same time a Nativity scene was on display. More recently, a federal judge ordered the public bus company Central Arkansas Transit Authority to sell advertising to the atheists if it sells advertising to Christian churches, as CATA does.

Until recently, atheists hadn't won many fights in Arkansas. The state Constitution still contains a prohibition against atheists holding public office. A flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution, the provision is unenforced, but the atheists haven't been able to gather the political strength needed to remove it, as other unlawful provisions have been. Admitted atheists don't run for office in Arkansas, anyway. Occasionally, a politician will leave blank the line that asks for "religious preference," but that's as far as they dare go.

Susan Kent, the vice president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers (ASF), is a nurse who grew up going to church, although she remembers that even as a child she'd asked doubting questions about biblical stories like the Tower of Babel. "People said 'Don't ask.' " As an adult, she'd sung in the choir and taught Sunday School. Then a younger sister lost a baby, two weeks before it was to be born. She asked, "How could God let that baby die when so many people were looking forward to it?" Soon afterward, she met a "significant other" who was an atheist, and explained the world to her in scientific, non-miraculous terms. She read books: "The Case Against God" and "The Demon-Haunted World." "Once my eyes were opened, I couldn't go back."

Before you can take up the question of whether the godless are gaining in numbers and acceptance, one must first identify them, and that's not as easy as it sounds. The word "atheist" is used most often in this article because it's common and comparatively well understood, but people in the no-god movement designate themselves in many different ways: freethinker, skeptic, agnostic, humanist, nontheist ... At Vino's, a reporter met a deist. He'd thought Thomas Jefferson was the last deist.

Whatever name they use, the unfaithful generally don't believe in an afterlife, they don't believe in miracles of the biblical sort, they don't believe in an all-seeing, all-knowing power that runs everything and has its eye on you every minute.

Even Kirk Dixon, a retired banker and one of the more assertive of the local atheists, points out that "atheist" only says what he doesn't believe in, not what he does. The things he does believe are found in a paper he carries in his billfold, called "The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles."

"We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.

"We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.

"We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.

"We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state."

The well-prepared Dixon also carries a billfold-sized pamphlet "Ten Common Myths About Atheists." No. 8 is one that will be familiar to anyone old enough to remember the McCarthy era: "Atheists Are All Communists."

"Although red-baiting has thankfully died down since the end of the Cold War, this assumption was common throughout the 20th century," the pamphlet says. "It fueled theopolitics and was largely responsible for such troubling Congressional acts as the adoption of 'In God We Trust' as the United States national motto, and the insertion of 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance. Atheism existed long before capitalist or communist theory. It is a philosophical position about religion, not a political-economic belief. Karl Marx was not religious but neither was the great capitalist Adam Smith; the New Testament Jesus advocated a form of communistic living."

Congress required "In God We Trust" on the back side of American currency, but it didn't prohibit editing. On his bills, Dixon puts a big "X" in red ink through "God," and just below that he writes "separation of church and state."

One wondered if Dixon, in reality or pretense, was the classic Republican banker during his working days? No, he says. He worked for First Commercial Bank, run by Bill Bowen, the prominent banker/lawyer/Democrat, so Dixon was allowed to be openly Democratic. He was not open about his religious beliefs, however. That candor came with retirement.

Anne Orsi, the secretary of ASF, is a lawyer, a native Arkansan who'd left the state for a time and when she returned couldn't find the intelligent conversation she'd known elsewhere — about science, philosophy and such. She discovered ASF — while driving, she saw a sign about a portion of highway that ASF cleans up — got in touch with members, and found the stimulating conversation she'd missed. (At atheist meetings, as at church, some people are there mainly for the socializing.) Orsi had been forced to go to church as a child, but she rebelled. After she announced that the Bible was a horrible book and God a mean person, church attendance was seldom required.

"People ask us 'Why do you not believe?' We'd ask them the same thing: 'Why do you believe?' There's bewilderment on both sides. But nobody hates their god. Their belief is not a problem. It's what they do with it, the imposition of their beliefs on others."

Back to the question, briefly, of how many atheists are there? It's a hard one, in part because, as we noted, there are differing degrees of disbelief, and differing names for disbelievers. In the U.S., the Census Bureau doesn't ask about religion; federal law prohibits it. And if the Bureau did ask, it would receive many deceitful answers. Huge numbers of people who lack religion won't admit to it. Some sources describe a category called "practical atheists," people who don't call themselves atheists but live like atheists. Most of us know people who fit the description.

So a lot of different numbers float around on the Internet. The New York Daily News quoted a 2008 survey of religion conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That survey counted atheists ("don't believe"), agnostics ("don't know") and a third category of people who "don't affiliate" with any religion. Combined, those three groups account for 16 percent of the American population, the survey said.

Whatever the number, the prevailing opinion, even among those who hate the conclusion, seems to be that the number of nonreligious is increasing. Various explanations are offered. Fundamentalists cite the influence of godless movies and TV. Some say the priest-sex scandals have driven many Catholics from the church. Some mention immigration; while some immigrants seek out religious communities, others are fleeing countries that had too much religion. Some mention the "overreaching" of the religious right, suggesting that it pushed too hard on issues like abortion, gay marriage and creationism. Two college professors wrote in the New York Times recently that they've collected data showing the Tea Party is less popular than atheists.

(And speaking of those "godless" movies, most of which are really just "commercial"? At least one truly atheistic movie is around. It hasn't played Little Rock, nor a lot of other places, but many of those at an atheists' gathering had seen it and spoke highly of it. It's called "The Ledge," and the hero is an atheist. Most mainstream critics thought little of it.)

LeeWood Thomas is the media representative of the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason, which consists of 10 atheist and agnostic groups, including the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. "I don't hold anything against anybody who has some sort of religion. I just want separation of church and state — no Ten Commandments on public property." His parents divorced when he was small, and for a time his mother sent her two children to church while she worked. "I think of it more as babysitting." Then he developed an affinity for math and science in school, learned about logic, and applied logic to religion. "It didn't add up." The Internet has been wonderful for people who are beginning to have doubts about religion, Thomas said. Now they can have instantaneous communication with others in the same boat.

While some of the atheists at the Vino's gathering wanted to remain anonymous, those who were openly atheistic were virtually unanimous in saying they'd experienced little if any negative reaction. Since Thomas has been the face of the local group, he's heard from a number of people about his activities, he said. "By and large, it's all been positive. I've had people come up and thank me."

That's not what you'd expect, considering that Central Arkansas Transit Authority expressed great fear of vandalism if atheistic advertising was permitted on buses — and vandalism has in fact occurred in a few places, not most, where such advertising has appeared. The Fellowship of Christian Vandals, perhaps. But atheistic ads in Fayetteville didn't result in vandalism.

David Bentley retired from the Air Force in 2005 after 20 years of service. A navigator, he'd been stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base, among other places. Originally from Dallas, he grew up in a Church of Christ family, and later found it convenient to keep "Church of Christ" on his Air Force dog tags, though he'd left the faith.

"There was no big eruption," he said. "It [religion] just didn't make a lot of sense to me. I'd think 'Am I the only one?' In college, I decided I'd had enough of this. That's when I learned about evolution. In Texas public schools, you don't hear about that."

"You're indoctrinated [with religion] at an early age," he said. When he began to have doubts, he thought "Oh my gosh, I'm going to hell. Once I got over that, I got angry that people had screwed with my head for so long."

(The membership of active Air Force officers — there's another one besides Brad — and a retired officer in the Freethinkers group suggests only that there's an Air Force base nearby, not that the Air Force is particularly susceptible to atheists. The Air Force Academy, in fact, has been sued and harshly criticized for alleged domination by Christian fundamentalists.)

A couple of years back, Dixon said, Little Rock atheists debated members of a church at Russellville — "I don't remember which one, but it was a big one" — on the question "Is there a God?" His side was victorious, Dixon said. (Does anybody ever remember an argument they didn't win?) "The Bible is so nonsensical it's easy to refute."

Dixon wanted more competition, but hasn't gotten it. "I've called 15 or 20 churches trying to arrange a debate. But they want to debate Muslims, not atheists."

The Arkansas Times called Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, hoping to talk about atheists, but he didn't return our calls. Cox is sort of the top gunslinger for the religious right in Arkansas. According to Dixon, Cox was present and watching closely while the atheists installed their winter solstice exhibit at the Capitol. "He was almost stalking us."

Some of Cox's views on atheism and atheists can be found on the Family Council website. He says of the atheist display at the Capitol, "Far from being a harmless holiday exhibit, the group has devoted their entire display to an underhanded portrayal of Christmas as the pagan celebration of Winter Solstice, books that propagate atheism (such as God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens), human evolutionary theory, and famous past and current 'freethinkers.' "

Cox writes that freethinkers, including the Arkansas branch, "are not simply a social group of people who happen to believe there is no God. They actively work to convert others to their worldview. They are essentially evangelists for atheism, and they are convincing people that the ridiculous statements they preach about Christianity are true. When it comes to religion, freethinkers aren't just atheists; they are atheists with dogma. They hold the belief that religion should be actively rooted out from society. ... When taken to this extreme, atheism becomes a religion unto itself. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers hold regular meetings for fellowship and discourse; they openly discuss and advocate their worldview; and they elevate reason and knowledge to a virtually god-like level. In other words, the format is similar to many religious services, with the exception that the worship of God has been replaced with the worship of science and the human mind. ... The danger here is that Freethought ultimately censors religious thought. It seeks to convert religious people of all faiths to atheism, and it actively tries to shape public policy to reflect atheistic ideals ... This is more than college philosophy professors teaching that God is dead. This is organized, well-financed work that has been gaining ground across our nation for years, and has only recently become apparent to Arkansans."

The atheists' latest success began with the United Coalition of Reason, a national group headquartered in Washington, trying to buy $5,260 worth of bus ads in Little Rock. The Coalition has bought bus and billboard advertising in many cities. The proposed ad said "Are you good without God? Millions are." A blue sky with clouds was the background. The ad would have included the website address of the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason.

Central Arkansas Transit and its advertising agency, On the Move, said the Coalition would have to put up a $36,000 deposit to cover any vandalism that might occur, a restriction not placed on other advertisers, including churches. The Coalition sued, and hired J.G. "Gerry" Schulze of Little Rock as its lawyer. It happens that Schulze is a member of the Arkansas Freethinkers, but he doesn't believe that's why he was hired. More likely, the Coalition knew that he'd handled civil rights cases, he said. (Atheists pop up in all sorts of places. Bentley said a television cameraman who came to cover a Freethinkers meeting joined the group.)

Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright ruled that the First Amendment required the bus company to sell ads to the atheists under the same terms it used for other advertisers. Wright also ruled in favor of the atheists in the 2009 lawsuit over the winter-solstice display at the Capitol.

The Jerry Coxes are right to fear the atheists' ads. Advertising works; a familiar, friendly kind of atheism will almost certainly produce more atheists, when combined with all the other reasons that people lose faith. The Arkansas Razorbacks have lost their best running back before the season's even started. Would a merciful God let that happen?

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