I’ve considered myself an Atheist since the age of 19, but if I’m going to be honest, it goes back a lot further than that. I was the child who could never give serious consideration to ecclesiastical matters during church services or in religious education classes. Some of us just aren’t made like the others; I don’t know how else to explain it.
So when I declared myself an Atheist, I didn’t necessarily find a need for a group of other “like-minded” people. This is in part because I don’t think sharing one belief, such as a non-belief, is enough of a unifying factor most of the time. I also have friends that are Atheists and I maintain friendships with people from different religions too. And it’s not like all Atheists share the same political party, let alone the same preferences for topics of conversation. Honestly it bores me to tears to talk about Atheism because it is such a simple concept: an Atheist is a person who has no belief in any God whatsoever. How much more needs to be said? But after interviewing Red McCall, president of Oklahoma Atheists (AOK), for almost an hour, I discovered how AOK operates and why so many secular people in Oklahoma are drawn to each other. If adversity breeds community, then it should come as no surprise that Oklahoma has a growing, if not thriving, population of Atheists. Especially since Oklahoma openly prides itself on modeling good Christian values and makes no pretense that its legislators are not trying to pass laws based on their brand of theology. I mean, how else do you explain the Sally Kerns of Oklahoma holding public office or the 10 Commandments, while donated by a privately funded group, being erected in front of a courthouse in Haskell, Oklahoma?
And while I haven’t been alienated from my family because of the “religion issue”, it has been a tricky subject to navigate. I feel fortunate it’s never become an contentious topic in my family, but it is a bit sad to think of those people who do lose contact with members of not only their family, but a large part of their community too. Like it or not, our communities impact us in ways that are immeasurable and this sort of conflict truly has long-lasting consequences on an individual’s psyche.
But given how hardcore some religious groups demand their members behave, to have been raised that way would make it more difficult to declare oneself anything but the norm, I imagine. Even if an individual is not completely cast out, life altering events, such as a death in the family or of a close friend, are not helped much when the religious segment of one’s support system chooses to offer their sympathies within the context of a belief system. I think the key factor in not being hurt too much by this, is recognizing that these people mean well but are not able to fully express themselves without religion injected into their view point somewhere. With that in mind, sometimes Atheists need to connect with others of a similar enough mindset so they don’t only hear that a family or friend’s death is “God’s will,” that “they’ll be in a better place,” or even in “hell,” which might be said of the deceased if they happened to be gay or identified as some other kind of sinner who should be condemned.
To that end, McCall said the vast majority of people who join AOK are coming from a religious background of some kind, and whatever their former denomination, most are used to having a network of people to turn to for support. And that network may or may not disappear depending on each family, community, and individual. But whatever the situation, finding other non-believers helps to alleviate some of the stress by providing a safe place to vent frustrations, worries, and more.
“When someone new joins, of course we want to know where their coming from and we want to know their background.” said McCall, “Everybody has a different coming out story and so that’s always great to hear how they overcame that, and if they’re still having problems with family, coworkers, or friends. We try to share stories to deal with that so they don’t have to feel so mean and militant, which is how most people perceive Atheists to be. We give them different ways to cope. And after awhile people stop talking about the whole religion thing, and it becomes more like, ‘Hey, I’m meeting a group of friends here.'”
McCall said that many people have become friends, found romantic partners, or gain large groups of like-minded friends within AOK, in part because they don’t have to worry about arguing over topics like evolution, secular vs religious parenting, or what happens to you after you die. He also said that they do talk about tolerance. McCall and his partner, Michelle Ellis, host an AOK meeting that helps to empower Atheists when they come out to friends and family. They also caution people from adopting a militant mindset, while helping these new members find ways to keep their Christian friends. McCall said he views these meetings as chance to let other Atheists know that they don’t have to loose all their relationships or act standoffish about their non-belief. Although it is hard for some to let go of their anger.
McCall said those who are the angriest usually were very devout until something clicked within their minds one day and they realized they didn’t believe in a God nor any religious construct. Some of that anger comes from years of having felt lied-to or duped. He said that anger can also stem from an individual feeling bad about having hated people in the past, like gays and minorities, based on religious practices found in some churches. At any rate, AOK hopes to help other Atheists find a humanitarian way to deal with those feelings and, if possible, channel that anger into something more productive.
I think it’s important to note that both McCall and I do not share a love of Atheist literature. My own reasons are that I believe people who write some of the more popular books are espousing a brand, for lack of a better term, of Atheism, chiefly ‘Militant Atheism’, which seems to be geared at provoking Christians and people of other faiths without realizing the detriment this has on real relationships between groups of people. I also feel it is disingenuous to be told “How To Be Atheist” in that, again, it’s just a term. There isn’t just “one” right way to be a non-believer. It’s either you believe or you don’t. McCall’s reasons for not caring much for books on Atheism are that the literature tends to be long-winded given how simple the concept of Atheism is, and people would be better served by spending time with their communities or doing something productive rather than reading what essentially amounts to 300+ pages of Atheist propaganda.
I know, you’re thinking, “Uh, what? Did they just admit that there are other Atheists with their own agendas and propaganda?” Yup. Here’s the deal, unless you are socializing with psychopaths, no one is well-served by losing what were once meaningful and genuinely caring relationships. Life is already hard enough, why push away the ones you love if you don’t have to? That said, even the term “Militant Atheism” is kind of a misnomer. People who identify that way do not go hunting after Christians to beat up, they don’t run their cars into churches, nor do they blow up churches, or go on shooting sprees after services let out.
McCall said most of the time people who ascribe to that model of Atheism are just being rude about the way they think. But that’s the flip side of the coin, because for one extreme to exist, like Militant Christians or Muslims, means the opposition of that view point will inevitably be initiated by those people who believe they must mount an effort equally as extreme to push back what they see as an infringement on their rights. Which is funny, because I don’t see a lot of Atheist billboards as much as I see Christian ones calling for “religious freedom.” A demand that seems redundant for anyone who’s passed a 5th grade civics class which covers the structure of the American government, as well as a few lessons about the First Amendment. The latter not only protects free speech, but guarantees freedom from any one religion. Even so, most people are joining AOK because they want to get away from conflicts such as these in their day-to-day conversations.
But just because one of AOK’s goals is the promotion of tolerance and acceptance, doesn’t mean they don’t have other reasons for meeting up too. Besides volunteering in their communities, they organize other non-believers when religious-based legislation comes up for a vote. McCall said AOK has done a lot of lobbying as a group and in conjunction with other groups, like the ACLU or Americans United For Separation of Church and State, to fight against the passage of religiously-biased bills.
And people do have the ability to get political without attacking others, although there are many campaign ads out there that run contrary to this observation, nevertheless AOKs’ other goal is to promote their community by showing others that they do exist and in larger numbers than most would guess. By being out and about, like participating in parades and showing up to events, the organization would like to let Oklahoma’s religious population know that Atheists are also their neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family members too. It’s not unlike the outreach the LGBT community does in fostering diversity and community. McCall said AOK has taken a lot of cues about how to engage the public based on the struggles the LGBT community has encountered in the past.
Another interesting event AOK helps to sponsor is called FreeOK, which is an annual event hosted by AOK and the Atheist Community of Tulsa (ACT). The event is in its second year and is Oklahoma’s only Free Thought Convention. McCall said the speakers are well-known within the Atheist community on matters relating to science vs psuedo-science, psychology, constitutional law, along with a bevy of other topics. The event will take place on June 23rd in Tulsa. According to FreeOK’s website their goal is to promote free thought by providing a forum in which speakers have an open dialogue with the audience. The roster this year has a list that includes a former minister, former Christian radio host, Atheist activists, and Atheist scientists from a variety of disciplines including: psychology, mathematics, and biology.
“The thing about FreeOK, in how it’s similar to both the Oklahoma City and Tulsa groups, is that is like one big meet up.” said McCall, “You’re actually going to hang out with other people, listen to lectures, laugh, get emotional, and be entertained within a group of like-minded people.”
Religion may offer some people a sense of comfort, that something larger than themselves is watching out for their interests and that they are a part of its great design, but in being surrounded by a large group of Atheists from all walks of life, there is a sense of validation in meeting hundreds of people who assemble not to look for something larger than themselves, but to be a part of something that is large and progressive. And that alone does a lot to inspire confidence within the Atheist community.
For those who don’t want to travel to Tulsa, or want to start off meeting other Atheists in a large setting such as FreeOK, yet are interested in the AOK community, you can find out more about their meetings through their Meetup.com page.
As more and more of the population moves towards secularism, the need for Atheist meet ups may not even be necessary. McCall said Europe is a prime example. There are countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, where polls show a large percentage of their populations self-report as non-believers. McCall said that even Atheist groups in more secular areas of the United States tend to be found less frequently and in fewer numbers. Essentially the day that theology stops being an issue in public policy, is the day Atheists groups lose their momentum. Ironically, this is not a day Atheists fear as much as they anticipate with some measure of guarded hope. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all could get along with a healthy amount of respect for diversity, equality, and freedom? Cherish that thought, it’s worth working for.