In Kansas and Missouri, it’s now common for a lot of to politicians to not just proclaim their faith, but to openly push a pro-religious agenda.
But for the past year, a Kansas City-based group has been trying to push back, although in a friendly way.
The Kansas City Atheist Coalition tries to shake off the stereotypes of bitter, angry atheism while they talk to the public about the value of a secular society and government. While they avoid confrontation and even do charity work, the Coalition still finds it’s hard to be a nonbeliever on the edge of the Bible Belt.
On a recent Saturday night at the Overland Park Sheraton, the Baltimore Ravens checked in while their fans crowded the lobby. A huge bat mitvah filled one of the big ballrooms. And the Kansas City Atheist Coalition was in the middle of its weekend-long regional convention. It was held exactly one month before the November elections, and, as Coalition board member Veronica Brown explains, that’s no accident.
“We’ve got the election coming up in about a month,” Brown says, “And there are a lot of issues that are kind of bringing us together. Especially a lot of feminist issues and kind of the intrusion of God into the government. It’s kind of like, no, we all want to get along. Remember we’re citizens too. We’re very important. And just kind of try and exercise our voice a little bit.”
The convention, which was called Atheist and Patriot, hosted speakers from around the country. Their topics included things like reproductive rights, sex in politics, and school vouchers supporting religious education. There were also workshops to teach lobbying and fundraising techniques. Most of convention addresses a trend that many attendees say has increased considerably in the past decade or so: religious fundamentalism in government.
“At least back to 2004 it’s been concerning me,” explained Jeanne Reilly. “And probably to 2000, there’s just an increasing blurring of the lines it seems to me that certainly has an impact on the political scene and government in general. “
Only one national-level politician, Representative Pete Stark of California, is openly atheist. But there’s a long list of politicians who atheists say are dangerously blurring the line between church and state. When asked about the most troublesome, one name comes up again and again.
“Well, you know, everybody loves to go back to Todd Akin,” says Anthony Accurso, “But he seems to be kind of a lightning rod for kind of an anti-fundamentalist sentiment because he expresses a lot of opinions that are about what a lot of us would refer to a dominionist policy. They say that their particular brand of Christianity is the one that should be running the government because they think they know what’s best for everybody. I think that’s particularly dangerous, so when Akin says something like his particular views about rape or what brand of Christianity should be making decisions in the White House or in foreign policy or things like that, then I’m like that’s really dangerous. Because I don’t think any one particular brand of religion has any monopoly on truth.”
The Atheist and Patriot convention is a regional one; almost all of the 250 or so attendees came from Kansas or Missouri. But the recent politics of these states gave the convention plenty of fuel for discussion. Conventioneer Willard Bollingar says he’s worried about schools not teaching science. He mentions the recently-passed Missouri “right to pray” amendment 2, which allows students to opt-out of school assignments that conflict with their faith.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen on the tests,” Bollingar says. “And I can imagine corporations looking askance kind of like when Kansas, a number of years ago, interfered in the science classes cause they wanted Creation taught in the science classes. They might look askance at whether they want to move here. I wonder about the kids whether they’re going to qualify to get in colleges.”
While the majority of the criticism at the convention was targeted toward conservative politicians and policies, Steven Olsen says politicians on both sides are ignoring separation of church and state.
“We’re actually seen with both Romney and Obama,” says Olsen, “They have neglected the separation of church and state with Obama’s expansion of the faith-based initiatives that George Bush started.”
Of course, in any place but an atheist convention, these people are in a small minority. While the number is gradually increasing, just about 5 percent of the population claims to be atheist. The organizers and participants of the convention say it gives them a chance to meet and express secular ideas that are usually vilified.
“I think what happens is you tend to sort of stifle yourself in society at large,” says Jeanne Reilly. “Because traditionally, there’s been a practice of, you know, the dominating religion –Christianity – people feel pretty much free to say whatever they want and they just sort of assume that everyone think the way they do. There’s a real disbelief and a sort of abhorrence by people I’ve met if they realize that you have atheistic views”
Kansas City Atheist Coalition
A few days before the convention, the Kansas City Atheist Coalition’s president Sarah Hargreaves came by KCUR to talk about the group. She and 6 others started the Coalition in June of last year. Hargreaves says there have been skeptical and freethought groups in Kansas City for decades, but she wanted something different.
“For those who may or may not be familiar with the skeptic or free thought community, it tends to be very male dominated,” says Hargreaves. “And the atheist community as well. And that becomes very apparent as soon as you attend any of these events. There’s just more men in the room than women. And I began to ask myself, ‘Why is this?’ You know ‘What’s the reason?’ I didn’t have necessarily an answer for that question, but I thought, my idea was, I bet there’s a lot more skeptically-minded women in Kansas City, and I bet they’re not coming to the events for one or another reason.”
It turns out she was right. The atheist coalition now has 50 official members, including many women. And 2 or 3 times that many non-members have joined in their activities. Part of the group’s mission is organizing social events to give members a chance to meet and talk. They hold get-togethers, picnics, and, as Sarah explains, they actually have a December holiday party.
“The winter holiday is a long-standing tradition. The winter solstice goes back to pagan tradition. So whenever we say ‘holiday party,’ it’s intentionally not specific. It’s held in December. We held it in December. The Christmas holiday is what the majority of Americans recognize, but there’s also the religious tradition of Hanukkah in the Jewish community. So really, the winter solstice is a common tradition with a lot of different communities – religious and nonreligious – and we’re part of the community, too. We like to have parties.”
The Coalition also works to give atheism a positive, public face. In places like Westport, they hand out brochures, carry signs, and try to offer an alternative to street corner evangelists. Sarah says they hear a lot of support, but also plenty of hostility to their slogans and signs.
“One of the more offensive ones that caused a reaction out of people was simply one that said, ‘Smile. There is no hell.’ And even though, I think, especially for a free thinker or a skeptic or an atheist, those messages are pretty tame, pretty non-confrontational, just to say something like ‘there is no hell’ really elicits a pretty emotional reaction from a lot of people. And a lot of people simply said things like ‘There is a hell’, ‘Hell is real.’ And a lot of people just said things like ‘Jesus loves you.’ One gentleman, though, drove by, and he shouts out his window, ‘Praise Jesus! And f you!’ A lot of people will cross themselves. Actually at one even, we had a woman covered her daughter’s eyes, cause apparently she didn’t want her daughter to see the word ‘atheist.’”
The group occasionally sets up a booth called “Ask an Atheist” on the Plaza and local college campuses. And Sarah says the question that’s most often asked is something like, “Where do atheists get their morals?” It’s something she’s glad to explain.
“For an atheist, this world is all we have. So I think a lot of atheists you’ll find are interested in social justice. We kind of have to believe in humanity’s ability to fix the world’s problems through cooperation, science and reason, because we’re all we have. We can’t appeal to any kind of a higher power. We have to appeal to each other and our ability to make things better as good as possible.”
Hargreaves says philanthropy is actually one of the major goals of the Kansas City Atheist Coalition. They’re a 501 c 3 non-profit organization and were founded in part to give people a way to perform charity work without going through a religious organization.
“As it is, if you want to do something, if you want to help out at a food pantry, you’re going to have to go to your local church, you know, down the street. That’s just kind of how it is right now, so we wanted to do something where people could, you know, have an outlet for their charitable desires through a secular, non-religious organization.”
Once a month, Coalition members get together to do charity work. They’ve volunteered for Harvesters and the Humane society and participated a blood drive and AIDS walk. But even when doing charity work, they’ve found that being an atheist can make you unwelcome.
“Anytime we go and volunteer anywhere, we make it clear that we make it known that we have to be able to wear our tee shirts. Obviously, we want to do good for goodness’ sake primarily, but it’s also really important to us to be able to do that as out, open atheists. And there’s been, not tons, but there’s definitely been some organization that we’re reached out to that were happy to have us a volunteers, but as soon as the issue of us wearing tee shirts that said the word ‘atheist,’ you know, it’s a deal breaker for some people. They feel like that’s upsetting or controversial or in some way in appropriate.”
Back at the Overland Park Sheraton, the afternoon’s workshops are over, and a handful of convention-goers are hanging out in the hotel lobby. In a few minutes, the banquet dinner will start, followed by keynote speaker Nate Phelps. Thinking about the activism work she’s done, convention-goer Jennifer explains the approach a lot of atheists now take when talking about their ideas.
“I feel like sometime it’s so contentious,” says Jennifer. “And it’s so wrapped up in so much emotion that it’s really difficult for some people to divorce themselves from the emotion of what the issue is. So sometimes those discussions, I just basically kind of end up being like ‘Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one and kind of move on and see where we do agree. Cause I would much rather live in a world where we can all get along rather than in a world where we divide ourselves from one another.”