Atheism Rising

Those folks across Texas who don't believe in God are getting organized and going public.

The subject comes up during a Fellowship of Freethought board meeting, held in a tiny room at a community center. The windowless space is crammed with eight board members, about 15 people in the audience and two roaming, very bored toddlers, the children of board members.

"We all get isolated," says a guy named Chad. "My brother runs the soundboard at his church. My mother cleans hers. It's church in, church out."

This group also holds regular Sunday gatherings, ones that can feel, ironically, pretty churchy: music, speakers, rows of chairs in a straight line.

Aron Ra poses for photos with Houston street preacher David Stokes.
Photo by Anna Merlan
Aron Ra poses for photos with Houston street preacher David Stokes.
Houston street preacher David Stokes believes "hell awaits" atheists and an assortment of other people whose lifestyles and beliefs he opposes.
Photo by Anna Merlan
Houston street preacher David Stokes believes "hell awaits" atheists and an assortment of other people whose lifestyles and beliefs he opposes.

That shouldn't turn people off, says Tim Brewer, a former youth pastor and preacher's son. He leads the local chapter of Recovering From Religion, a nationwide nonprofit that tries to help once-religious people ease their transition into nonbelief. "Fellowship, music, getting to know people, becoming a better person — these are things we all need," he says. "Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on live music." After leaving the church, he says, he "fell into nihilism and loneliness" for a time. "Until I discovered Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on happiness either."

But not all atheists have come to terms with that. During the FOF meeting, they agree to immediately stop using the "pew/row formation" of chairs, to help de-church the vibe.

They also don't want to put out a huge banner that screams ATHEIST, something that makes some members uncomfortable. Alix Jules, FOF's executive director, has a solution: He hands out buttons, each emblazoned with FOF's logo, a clover-shaped sort of emblem. They're for members to wear to identify themselves at public meetings.

"This is it," he tells the group. "This is as nondescript as it gets. There's no scarlet A here. Most people have no idea what it is. So wear your badges, please."

Then there's the matter of paying for those badges. Atheists seem to give less to charitable causes, and especially to atheist ones, than the religious do. That's according to Jules, who's struggling with how to increase active membership and donations among the group; of their 2,000-plus members, only a fraction show up in person. And if they all did happen to show up, FOF would have no place to put them. They don't own their own building, instead meeting in borrowed spaces all over town.

To become a more powerful force, Jules says, FOF members might have to be willing to put some money behind the cause.

"We give less to our freethought causes than what churches give," he tells the FOF board and its audience. "And we give less to freethought than to things like the SPCA."

Moore agrees. "Church members give ten times more to churches and ten times more to organizations like the Red Cross," he says. FOF is also trying, so far unsuccessfully, to put together a modest scholarship fund for four college students.

It's about messaging as much as it's about money. The point — to the giving, to the billboards, to the blogging and to the church visits — is to show the world that atheists, agnostics and skeptics have their own moral compass, and that it works fine without any deity guiding it.

The Rockwall Presbyterians are interested in Moore's non-God-centered view of morality, to be sure. During his visit, one elderly gentleman gets into a long, rather stubborn hypothetical back-and-forth with him about, of all things, Hitler.

"How do you justify telling him what he's doing is wrong?" he asks, several times.

"You're right, I can't threaten him with hellfire," Moore says. "But I can say that what he's doing is causing suffering."

The rest of the group is more interested in what it might take to change Moore's mind about the whole atheism thing. Moore takes the question seriously. "I don't know what it would take," he says. "Not to be flippant, but I would like what Thomas [the Apostle] got. He got to see the risen Christ." He pauses for a moment.

"If there is a God," he says finally, "surely he knows what it would take to change my heart."

"What about personal relationships with Christ?" asks an older lady in the front row. "What do you think about prayer?"

"I'm a scientist," Moore replies. He talks about a study he's read about the efficacy of prayer on healing people after serious operations. "It appeared to make people worse," he tells the group apologetically: more side effects, longer healing times and the like. A woman in a pink sweater puts a hand to her cheek, horrified.

The older lady has a point to make, though: "Your parents still pray for you and have not given up on you, right?" she asks. Moore nods.

"Well," the older lady responds, very firmly. "The Holy Spirit won't give up on you either."

Moore smiles. He seems genuinely touched.
_____________________

"Are you hostile or friendly?" Richard Dawkins drawls. The famous British atheist is sipping an IPA and looking up at my reporter's notebook and pen. Dawkins has wedged himself into the booth alongside three women in their 20s. They look thrilled and a little nervous. He looks impatient, and submits to being interviewed roughly the way a standoffish cat allows itself to be petted.

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105 comments
captainmike81
captainmike81

I really can't understand why atheists are so proud and have to form groups to celebrate their non-belief. Taking God out of schools was the start the rise in  non-believers. Next it was the parents of children that either did not attend church or kept God from their lives. Most homosexuals don't believe because they refuse to accept that Gods disapproval of their lifestyle. All I can say is we will all meet God and good luck to the people that deny His existence. When man loses faith and believes he knows it all, your eternity will be lost from grace.

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

These guys are entertaining.  In Houston a group of them meets on Sunday mornings and have music, meditations and readings.  Proving of course that the soul seeks liturgy no matter what they call it.  As many of the below comments attest, if they thought a little harder they would realize they don't disbelieve so much as they dislike the actions of those who practice many of the world's religions.  You can believe and not be David Stokes or Osama bin laden.  That's the Good News.

mmwolfthal
mmwolfthal

Superb article!  Congratulations!  It's wonderful to see atheists and agnostics coming out of the closet, after millennia of intimidation at the hands of believers in the name of an invisible "God." 

The damage that has been done by countless religious expulsions, ethnic cleansings, Crusades, Inquisitions, and mass murders in the name of "God" is incalculable.  Even today Buddhists and Muslims in Burma, Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, etc. continue to invoke "God" as they wage war against each other.   For a light read on religion, see "Acts of God: A  Primer for Atheists, Agnostics, and Those Who Have Lapsed."

Carolyn Rose
Carolyn Rose

I really appreciated this article! As an atheist who's lived in the south all my life, I know it's usually a topic best left out of discussion, and seeing it in your publication was very uplifting.

Jacob Bocanegra
Jacob Bocanegra

They weren't atheists on 9/11...stfu. have a kid then you'll know God is real..

geezabrek67
geezabrek67

I get tickled when people say that atheists should have to work on any religious holidays. I could have sworn that most of the "religious" holiday's, dates and traditions were directly taken from the Pagans weren't they or from Greek mythology??? We should get Spiderman Day because a written account in comicbook form says he exists... so therefore he does!!! I mean I haven't actually seen him but it is written so it must be true eh???

golyadkin
golyadkin

I've met that Stokes guy before. He stands on the corner at Post Oak and Westheimer every once in a while. He brings his kids out their too, and makes them stand in the sun for hours without water holding signs saying "ask me why you're going to hell." When I asked the kid, he got scared and backed away and Stokes walked over and started telling me how he used to be a drug user and an alcoholic and how somehow that influenced him to preach on the street against atheists and homosexuals. He also called me "bro" WAY too much. Like at least once every other sentence. The really sad thing is he genuinely believes that he's doing a good thing by telling everyone they are horrible and going to burn.

mediabeing
mediabeing

I'm very pleased to learn of more and more people getting free of the terrible mental poison of religion. 

Religion comforts and cripples, folks. 

Seek the Truth, not the comfortable lie.

texasmovieshd
texasmovieshd

LOOKS LIKE OUR HOLY ROLLING GOVERNOR PERRY IS AT IT AGAIN! LET'S DO THIS: THERE ARE SOME MORONS - MOSTLY FROM WEST TEXAS, TO BE MORE SPECIFIC, FROM MIDLAND, HOME OF THE  VILLAGE IDIOT KNOWN AS G.W.BUSH - WHO WANT TO SUCCEED FROM THE UNION - THAT'S FINE WITH ME AS LONG THEY LEAVE THE HELL ALONE THE REST OF TEXAS. - AND CONVERT EVERYONE ELSE AS BONA FIDE ATHEISTS.

Mike18706
Mike18706

Here's my opinion.  I do believe in a God.  But I also acknowledge that I could be wrong.  That applies to every person on this page.  We could all be wrong.  I don't think there is anything wrong with accepting that.  Doubt is humble.  But these people who are absolutely certain that Jesus is waiting to rapture all of his people up to heaven right before World War 3 are scary because they WANT World War 3 to happen!  I agree with Aron Ran about them being the problem.  They resist life saving medical research, leaving people in torment when they don't have to be.  They try to force their morality on others.  They spew hatred at their fellow man, all the while saying, "Hate the sin, not the sinner!"  Look, the fire and brimstone preaching is the downfall of your churches.  People are getting tired of it.  It's the main reason why I do not go to church.  I don't want to surround myself with people like that and I suspect millions of others in America feel the same way.  They're toxic.  Life is terrible enough without people contributing to the misery.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

What an incredible waste of time.  If you honestly want to believe that the entire universe, borne out of an infinitesimally small object, was just "because 'merica" more power to ya.  Just don't think that you're the brainiac you think you are...

Anse
Anse

"Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever." 1 John 2:15-17

Does this sound like American Christianity, circa 2012? No? Skeptics are good to speak up, but if religion is in decline, it's not because atheists and skeptics have become more vocal. It's because the American church is rotting from the inside out.

lloyd_dbl1589
lloyd_dbl1589

@Jalapeno Or you can NOT believe. Pretty much like Buddhists. Btw they don't have a god either.

Anse
Anse

I think there is some truth to that. The question, though, is whether or not a deity is really all that relevant. Is it really about a need for a higher authority, or is it really more about social engagement? The Protestant Reformation, for the Calvinists at least, was about rejecting the theater of liturgy as a false charade that was ultimately idolatrous. But even the Calvinists could not eliminate ritual from religious practice completely, and the various denominations that they spawned developed their own routine expressions of faith. Perhaps the real need, then, is not a supernatural god, but action; not just in charity, but in a process of actualization that brings what we perceive to be supernatural into the natural world...which is actually a pagan idea...but one thing is for certain: "god" has very little to do with any of it.

Sporkfighter
Sporkfighter

@Jacob Bocanegra I'm an atheist, and so are both my daughters. My dad's a retired Vietnam vet, a Navy corpsman - you know, the guy who slog through the mud with the Marines to care for their wounded, the group with the greatest number of Medals of Honor. How's that for an atheist in a fox hole for you?

SgtStedenko
SgtStedenko

@geezabrek67  Hey, whatever excuse works for you...I'll expect you to be at work bright and early the 24th and the 25th or be labeled a hypocrite.

Jared56
Jared56

@geezabrek67 Spiderman lives in New York City which is A REAL CITY, therefore he must be a real person.

Anse
Anse

The Buddha taught his subjects not to accept his precepts blindly, but to explore other religions and philosophies and decide for themselves which ones, if any, are the best. I would not call that "crippling".

People have many ways of deluding themselves. There is not one bit of solid scientific evidence to support the assertion that genetically modified foods are dangerous, but try telling that to some people. There are those who still insist that vaccines cause autism, even though that has long been debunked. Neither of these is a symptom of religious faith.

The only real danger is fundamentalism. When you refuse to acknowledge the truth because your holy book tells you something different, that's bad.

SgtStedenko
SgtStedenko

Hundreds of thousands of Houstonians with faith have meetups every week. :)

Merry Christmas!

Anse
Anse

I'm a religious skeptic, but I disagree with Dawkins and others; there is something uniquely human about religion, and I'm not eager for it to disappear. It's an art, a kind of theater, and as ridiculous as religion can be, it's a key component in many people's idea of community. Having said that, I don't think the hellfire and brimstone is the problem, exactly; in fact I think maybe it's the opposite. American Christianity is so watered-down, so brazenly hypocritical, so totally superficial. How can you spread an ideology of humility and love for your fellow man while embracing an economic/political ideology that prizes an every-man-for-himself worldview and rewards greed above all other motivations? These rightwing Christians claim they're only concerned about government coercian; you can't force people to be charitable, they say. But they turn around and argue that you can force people to be moral in other ways--mostly ways that require nothing of themselves, of course. I'm not opposed to the existence of religion, but I am tired of people who think being a Christian gives them some kind of special credibility on matters of morality and whatnot.

SgtStedenko
SgtStedenko

Yes, churches are ROTTING FROM THE INSIDE I TELL YOU!!! ROTTING!!!

Ludicrous.

mediabeing
mediabeing

@Anse The Buddha taught a lot of stuff. Evidently, he didn't understand the damage religion can do. Such is life. Make no mistake, Anse, religion comforts (like a drug)...and cripples (the believer with delusion brought on with parasitic memes. Parasitic memes? Dan Dennett speaks well about it.Familiar with 'Bad Buddhist Radio'? I recommend the free podcasts. The site deals with the essential lessons.Because I have witnessed it myself, I say again, 

'Religion comforts...and cripples.'

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/dan_dennett_on_dangerous_memes.html

Jared56
Jared56

@SgtStedenko THERE'S that Appeal to Popularity! Thanks for putting your logical fallacies back into the discussion. 

mediabeing
mediabeing

@SgtStedenko  Eww. The deluded, meeting to boost each others' delusion. Sad, methinks. Oh well.

Sporkfighter
Sporkfighter

@Anse "...there is something uniquely human about religion..."

Torture, the intentional infliction of pain on another is also uniquely human. That doesn't make it good.

SgtStedenko
SgtStedenko

@Anse Religion isn't going anywhere so you might as well forget that ridiculous notion.

Anse
Anse

Nothing shines the Light and Love of Jesus like an internet troll.

Anse
Anse

You have a woefully simplistic understanding of human nature. You assess the problem as being this one thing that, if simply eliminated, will cause humanity to become suddenly enlightened and rational. Must we really waste our time pointing out the list of atheists that are responsible for atrocities?

I have never made any claim about religion being a "shining thing" or whatever. Fundamentalism is the bane of reason, for sure; believing the Bible is literal history is a serious delusion. But while compassion surely predates the Bible, I do believe spirituality and ethics are two aspects of human nature that likely evolved together and follow a parallel course in human development.

The truth is that humans are a loving, compassionate, empathetic, and justice-seeking species. We are also a brutish, cruel, selfish, and violent species. Those two halves of our psyche cannot be easily resolved by the presence or absence of religion. Evil people will seek and always find some justification for their evil deeds, with or without religion.

mediabeing
mediabeing

@Anse I too am sorry...that you don't understand the very real danger of people believing in things that don't exist; placing trust in lies and fairy tales. It appears you've distorted/adjusted your sense of correctness to the point where you think it perfectly okay to worship an invisible, unproven being said to have murdered every one of the first born of an entire nation (Egypt). That would make him/her/it the leading mass murderer. Please tell me how many basic human rights have to be ignored by church leaders/rabbi/imam/priests/nuns/ministers/laity before you wake up and realize that religion is not the shining thing you seem to think it is. The concepts of Compassion, Honor and Responsibility were around long before the bible showed up, probably even before written word.How very sad and silly, to link religion with order, good behavior, etc. You've read too much of the church's public relations hype. History makes it quite clear that religion is the sad poison that cripples minds, hearts, etc. May you too get fully free of it. Religion comforts...and cripples. Simple as that.

Anse
Anse

Sorry. I'm just not one of those that relishes the elimination of religion in its entirety. Does it need to be excluded from public policy discussions? Yes. Does it have any relevance when considering scientific matters? Absolutely not. But it's got a place in the world, as much as any other art has a place.

Besides that, there are, unfortunately, some people who simply cannot find within their reason justifications for ethical behavior. The problem with these people is that they don't understand the difference between being an obedient person and being an ethical one. I wouldn't dream of taking their religion away from them; on the contrary, they need it, very badly, and the rest of us are probably the better for it.

Jefs_Old_Boss
Jefs_Old_Boss

@SgtStedenko Like I said, bumper sticker slogans aren't substitutes for real debate. I could hit you back with a swipe about the making sure you take your "opiate of the masses" but I'm sure you'd label me and pass judgment. You're a true Christian warrior my friend. 

Jefs_Old_Boss
Jefs_Old_Boss

@SgtStedenko He's "babbling" about the fact that you couldn't make a working argument with an Ikea-tool-less-home-argument-design-kit. Being a reactionary jerk, I'm sure you're less familiar with argument tropes and much better at pithy bumper sticker slogans to sub for real thoughts. Let the adults talk now, you're better seen and not heard.

SgtStedenko
SgtStedenko

That's exactly what came to mind when I saw the heathen meetup ad.

SgtStedenko
SgtStedenko

Dumbest comparison ever. Congratulations!

 
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