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Beyond Belief 

In an age of "moral-values" voters, do local atheists have a prayer?

"We are all outsiders, aren't we?" says David Campbell, sitting in his well-lit dining room in a prosperous housing development in Monroeville.

Campbell is a California University of Pennsylvania professor of policy studies, a Christian-born white man -- a charter member of the most privileged class in the most prosperous nation on earth.

But he's still the ultimate American outsider: an atheist. And he's speaking to fellow members of a new nonbelievers group in Pittsburgh, a Center for Inquiry "Community," or branch, of the international CFI headquartered in Amherst, N.Y.

Over pizza, salad and wine, the 11 board members debate what it means to be an atheist in an age when Election Day exit polls pegged "moral values" as the top national priority, and the phrase itself seems a symbol of religion's triumph in an already God-fraught land.

"When they say 'moral values' they're really talking about their own personal religious beliefs that are being rejected by society at large," says Victor Bernard, an electrical engineer from Murrysville. "They're being marginalized. Culturally, we are winning."

If surveys are correct, Bernard has a point: The same exit polls that made "moral values" a buzzword for evangelical Christian views showed 25 percent of all voters favoring gay marriage and an additional 35 percent fine with civil unions. A generation ago, no pollster would even have asked those questions.

But the table erupts: How could their own views have taken hold in a country where only a third of the people (reported Gallup on Nov. 19) "believe" in evolution?

Some board members are adamant: They neither feel, nor wish to sound, strident about their lack of belief. But with conservative evangelicals claiming imminent extinction each time the separation of church and state is defended too vigorously -- call them the Martyred Majority -- atheists fear discrimination. It's hard for nonbelievers to sound anything other than aggrieved. Christian Biblical literalists (one third of the country, according to the Nov. 19 Gallup poll) make no apologies for believing that atheists, and the majority of mankind, will spend eternity being tortured. Why should an atheist feel timorous about raising a hand to say, Hey, guys, that's not the most generous-sounding philosophy?

"Unless we start putting the equivalent of a yellow star on people, we can pass," says Chuck Bobich, the one board member unable to join the group for its November gathering. He lives in West Newton, Westmoreland County, where he owns a small manufacturing plant. Bobich says the atheist life can be vexing. "What you do get is the assumption that you believe like everyone else. It's worse than ever now; I call it forced prayer. Any time you're in a group and someone has a connection to ministry, you get, Let's start this meeting with a prayer. Let's start this dinner with a prayer."

Board members compare their need to hide their opinions to the discrimination that keeps some gays from outing themselves. "I'll be frank -- most of the people [in the group] are closeted," group founder David Campbell reports. The trepidation is especially acute during times of public religious observance, such as the month (or three) leading up to Christmas. "This is usually where we keep our mouths shut, during the holidays," Campbell says.

But this winter the group is determined to speak up and attract new members, especially in the wake of a presidential election in which the victors seem to be claiming a mandate for their own brand of morality.

"There is already a large volume of people for whom religion is meaningless," Victor Bernard tells the gathering -- 4 to 8 percent, he says. But that may be an underestimation.

In a 2001 American Religious Identification Survey by the Graduate Center at The City University of New York, more than 14 percent of adults called themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, secular or identified with no religion, nearly doubling the survey's 1990 tally. Except for Christians, nonbelievers outnumber every religion in the United States -- the country's 1.5 percent Jews, for instance, and its 0.5 percent Muslims. They also outnumber every individual Christian denomination, apart from Catholics (24.5 percent) and Baptists (18.3 percent).

Trouble is, as board member Andy Norman, a software company CEO from Point Breeze, points out: "There is a difference between a volume of people and a community. If we don't have a community we'll have no power."

The group formed in April and first met in September, staging a "Galileo Gala" at the Carnegie Science Center -- an evening that included a play about the 17th-century scientist placed under house arrest in Catholic Italy for supporting the observation that the Earth was not central to our solar system, in effect questioning centuries of dogma.

"We were amazed that we got so many people at the first meeting," from as far away as 150 miles, Campbell says. The group now has 80 on its mailing list. Clearly the non-religious are searching for fellowship too -- a word board members use to describe their own desire to find a community of like-minded souls (you should forgive the expression).

But when Chuck Bobich took photos at the Gala, he was approached by at least three people who asked him not to publish their pictures in the group's newsletter.

Few Center for Inquiry members say they lost their religions in some sort of reverse epiphany.

"I was raised Roman Catholic, but I'd always been [of] an independent bent of mind," says Victor Bernard, 52. He recalls a first-grade lesson from a nun: One must be Catholic to enter heaven. "That worried me, because our next-door neighbors were Baptist. I came home and said to my mother, 'Shouldn't we tell them?'" Their neighbors' minister, his mother answered, was probably making them their own path to heaven. From then on, Bernard realized he had a license to question the faith.

"So I studied it. I started peeling the onion. Somewhere in the process of trying to understand my religion, I lost it.

"It was such a slow, incremental, painless process there was no crisis of faith. Although I can remember the day I realized I was an atheist, and that was a surprise. It was a Sunday at Georgia Tech. I was a sophomore. I had just woken up and I was getting dressed for Mass. I heard this voice ask me, Why are you going to church? And I didn't have an answer." Because it's a mortal sin not to? Because it would make one a better person? Because the Catholic Church was the only church, the pope Jesus' visible head and Jesus God? He answered no to everything. There was only one question left: Do I believe in God?

"I looked in the corners and suddenly realized I don't believe. And I realized it was a question of [either] go along to get along or admit to myself that I don't believe and choose intellectual integrity." He got undressed, got back in bed and hasn't been back to church since. He helped found the now-defunct Pittsburgh Secular Humanists.

Board members Ken and Leota Jones, in their 70s, live in Hempfield Township. Ken is retired dean of fine arts at Seton Hill College. His transformation took decades.

"My mother was a good Lutheran, my wife a Methodist," he says. "I attended a Presbyterian college, where we had chapel twice a week. [After marrying], we began to attend church regularly." He was on the "Membership and Evangelism Board -- I used to go and make people feel guilty about not coming." But he wasn't happy.

"There seemed to be quite a margin between what people talked about and the way people behaved." The Virgin Birth became "a big story that wasn't very relevant to the world I knew. We tithed and tried to support, but it didn't ring true."

The couple later joined a Unitarian Fellowship. "It was as much a social group as a spiritual group. I learned tolerance in that group. I hadn't any sectarian beliefs left. We discussed how we all came to that point, and how we saw the end." They talked about morality, and the Ten Commandments. "We never thought they were ridiculous," he says. "We just never thought they were divinely inspired."

Ten years ago, the couple's daughter died. "There was no sense that we were going to see her later on, or that God was being unfair. It was just a sad, sad thing. Just grief and anger and sadness. Our youngest son is a very religious man. He worries about us, about not seeing us in paradise. Can you imagine seeing each other for eternity? What would you say?"

For board member Bill Kaszycki, joining the group was admitting his atheism for the first time. But his nonbelief has a long history.

"I was raised as a Baptist," he says. "What I found particularly galling were two things. We had a [church] youth discussion one day: If you had a black family move up from down South, should they be allowed to join our church? For me, that was pretty much a no-brainer" -- welcome the family, he said. "Unfortunately, I was the only one who took that position.

"A more fatal error in the teachings was the idea that if you have someone in Outer Mongolia who has never heard of Christianity, this person should be denied the benefits of a good Christian. That they should be denied to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? This is just bullshit."

By the time he joined the Navy (or the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club, as he puts it) for two tours of Vietnam, his dogtag read Agnostic. But it was only this April, when he discovered the local Center for Inquiry, that he began calling himself an atheist. "I never actually admitted it -- I guess because for me it always had much negative connotations," he says. Now, "I'm actually proud of it, because it shows that the mind is a little more open to thinking."

Chuck Bobich, raised Eastern Orthodox, says "the problem of evil" pushed him away from faith. "As a teen-ager I had a baby sister who died. That tore up my family. My parents then and now live in church, but ... that has not kept tragedy away from the family," including the deaths of two other infants.

"I probably had a 10-year period where I never missed a Sunday of church. I went into my 20s wanting to believe it all and came out believing none of it -- none of the superstition." Studying physics for a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University didn't help, he says: "There's a certain point where you take a leap of faith and say, Naw."

His wife is religious. "So far, so good," he says: They've been married for 33 years and have four kids.

At David Campbell's dining-room table, the talk of politics mixes inevitably with hand-wringing about morality.

"We're all kind of devastated by the election," Campbell says. "Of all the societies in the world, who would have thought we'd be where we are?"

"We have to prove in the Democratic Party that we have morality as well," says one board member -- the only one who asked later for anonymity. "We have to put God in the elections."

"Whose god?" says Bill Kaszycki. The West Elizabeth resident, a semi-retired automotive equipment dealer, has been a Republican for 30 years, though he voted for John Kerry.

"This election clearly showed how resistant human beings are to change," says Ken Jones.

"They were afraid --" says Kaszycki

"-- that they would have to change, that they would be asked to sacrifice one iota," says Jones.

"They like Bush because he's a selfish bully," Kaszycki adds.

"But does Bush really have Christian, or moral, values?" says board member Elise Parris, an English literature student at the University of Pittsburgh, who lives in Glenshaw. "How many men is he sending over there [to Iraq] to get killed?"

"He's sending young men over there to assert our dominance over the infidel," muses Kaszycki.

"There's a difference between morality and religion," says Bernard, "I believe that we can make a case that morality is universal and human-centered. A lot of the problem with us ... is we haven't thought out what we believe." He offers a book, Bible Stories Your Parents Never Taught You, by Michael Scott Earl. Earl is sometimes "too smug" while pointing out the bad parts of the Good Book, Bernard says, but at least the author has a secular theory of morality. "He answers the question, 'If you don't have God, how can you be moral?'"

"So many people are frightened like I am that the armies of faith want to knock down the wall between church and state," says Andy Norman. "We've got to think how to tap into this."

By now, it's well known that a vaguely worded exit poll question is to blame for elevating "moral values" as the issue that mattered most to voters, chosen over eight more specific options. "Imagine if 'patriotism' were on the list," mused Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News, in a Nov. 6 New York Times op-ed piece.

In fact, when left to name a top issue by themselves, most voters chose the war in Iraq or jobs.

But there's no denying that four-fifths of these "moral values" voters pulled the lever for George W. Bush -- or that a large chunk of the country is religious. The 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Project, done by the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, found that 60 percent of Americans said religion was important to them.

The same survey discovered that 54 percent of Americans held an "unfavorable" opinion of atheists. Like the Democrats, the atheists can't help but think proof of morals would equal proof of worthiness in the public's eye.

"If somebody says they are a theist, all I know is that they believe in a god," says board member John Radzilowicz, 41, who lives in Mount Lebanon and is the director of visitor experience at the Carnegie Science Center. "What you really want to know is how people view the world. Morals come from human experience. We can reason together to find the morals we're going to hold. Morals that haven't been talked through and reasoned -- what kind of morals are those? I think that people who are non-religious in many ways have more moral values because they stop to reason it through, examine what they believe and not just parrot a position. If there is a god and he's given us anything to make us different, it's our ability to reason. Why would that same god tell us to turn that part of ourselves off? It's not even accepting everything without evidence, it's accepting things in spite of evidence."

Victor Bernard says countering false beliefs about atheists is a first step. There are so many, he adds, "I don't know where to begin. That we hate God? We don't. I mean, what would be more silly than hating something you don't believe in?

"That we hate religion? I don't think we do. Some people get upset at religion and what it does. I see religion as a product of human creativity -- to fill human needs. These are my problems, my questions, my needs too."

And his own ethical values: "Morality grows out of human experience informed by human intellect tempered by human compassion. And religion, on the other hand, is concerned with the relation between an individual and their God. A religious commandment you obey not because it's morally correct but out of your submission to the will of God. Look at the fast of Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Muslim faith. If someone were to come out tomorrow and prove that fasting during Ramadan made you a more moral person, anyone could do it ... but it would cease to be a religious experience and become a secular one -- just like what has happened to Christmas."

Right now, these Center for Inquiry members aren't looking for political power so much as popularity, or at least respect for their perspective: viewing life on earth through the lens of science, and as an end in itself; avoiding the supernatural along the entire spectrum of belief, from New Age to New Testament.

"We're not going to be marching," says David Campbell. "But we're going to be very active when we see things in the newspapers ... things [the public] assume everybody believes in. We're organizing like the major religions."

Perhaps it will take some sort of atheist Stonewall -- the iconic gay rebellion at New York's Stonewall bar against police raids, which put the gay rights movement in high gear -- to jumpstart public recognition of atheism.

"I can't see a scenario," Chuck Bobich begins. But he points to recent court battles about school prayer, public displays of the Ten Commandments and the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance as possible defining moments. "Cases like that might be the Stonewall event. Probably an accumulation of court cases, decided on a fair basis -- then there might be more acceptance."

As of Nov. 3, there's a county in Texas with an openly lesbian sheriff. Could an atheist have been elected dogcatcher there? In 1960, America feared John F. Kennedy was too Catholic; in 2004, John F. Kerry had to prove he was Catholic enough. It seems the Deists who wrote our Constitution could more safely question God in 1787 than we can today.

The Enlightenment, says Campbell, "failed. They ignored that choice everybody has, to believe in something. To be consoled. People have said they would never vote for us. I understand why -- we are a real threat to how people run their lives.

"As far as I can see, all those gods are horrible, vengeful creatures. They have all the human traits that I despise. It's wonderful to be free. Not to say that you're going to be sinful, that you're going to go to hell, to be judged. It's wonderful."

As one of the atheists' First Suppers (if you will) finishes with dessert, they plan their next public meeting for Dec. 2. The group wants -- some feel it needs -- to get college students involved.

"We need to go in with four or five people who can testify," says Campbell. "You know how Christians testify. It's got to be personal. The world is not intellectual anymore."

"Can I play devil's advocate for a second?" Andy Norman asks. "What exactly is it that we want them to do? One event, unless it's brilliantly pulled off, is not going to change them. We need time."

"They're not going to want another lecture," says Elise Parris.

"This is a very personal generation," Campbell says. "All of us can say how we got here. We all went through religious backgrounds. We know we're going to die and there's nothing else. We're sure of that. But we're happy. They may never have met anyone like us."

"I can still remember when I was here in Pittsburgh, when I got my copy of the Free Inquirer, issue number one," says Victor Bernard. Free Inquirer is published by the Center for Inquiry. "I read the declarations of secular humanism. I said, 'That's me.' I think there are a lot of kids who are proto-secular humanists who don't know it, don't have a name for it."

He smiles as a visitor leaves the still-debating group.

"Lose the faith, baby," he calls.

Where Atheists Congregate

"Religion does have great selling points," admits D.J. Grothe, a director of regional and campus programs at the Center for Inquiry's international headquarters -- selling points such as entry to heaven and freedom from hell, plus a community of believers to help people celebrate the process of life, from birth to death.

Secular humanism, says Grothe, offers "the good life" but not "mere bacchanalian revels. It's living fully the best life you can have now," including creating good human relations and "making your own meanings. There may not be a lot of ultimate meaning, but there's a lot of proximate meaning" -- such things as seeking knowledge, working for social justice and becoming part of a different sort of community.

The privately funded think tank has four regional centers and shares programs and professors with the State University of New York. Pittsburgh hosts one of nine Center for Inquiry "Communities," or city-based branches, in the U.S. The group has many more local affiliates for its Council for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and its Council for Secular Humanism, which Grothe describes as "the largest organization for ethical non-religious people" in the U.S.

CFI's campus outreach, "a science-based alternative to Campus Crusade for Christ," claims 200 student groups, including a nascent organization encompassing the campuses of Chatham College, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Grothe admits having trouble keeping such groups going, thanks to CFI's small budget and the natural turnover at any college: "It's like organizing at a bus stop."

However, he adds on a positive note, "The rate of the un-churched is accelerating."

Grothe isn't sure what to make of the increase in "moral-values" voters. "Many Americans are fired up by brilliant political strategists over culture-war issues," he says. "And the culture war is on, like Pat Buchanan said in the early '90s. On the other hand, I think that the vast majority of Americans share my values, the values of the Center for Inquiry: respect for the individual, a commitment to the separation of church and state, freedom, democracy where everyone's voice is heard, and on and on. These are the values of the secular humanist, of the critical inquirer. We believe in moral education, just not religious indoctrination.

"If there's one message" of the Center for Inquiry, he says, "it's that this life is good, and it's really worth focusing on."

"The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles and Values":

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