August 16, 2008

Modesto-area atheists speak up, seek tolerance

It's difficult at times being a person of faith, but it can be even harder to be an atheist, someone who believes there is no God.

Some local atheists who replied to an invitation in The Bee were afraid of adverse reactions at their places of work. Others worried about being flooded "with unwanted attention from zealots," and two were protective of neighbors and spouses. One hesitated to talk on the record, but then said, "If I don't speak up, who will?"

According to a recent, large-scale Pew Forum report, 92 percent of U.S. residents believe in God or a universal spirit. The Pew report and 50 years of Gallup surveys found that atheism in the United States has remained stable over the years, coming in at about 4 percent of the population when lumped with agnostics, who believe it is impossible to know if God exists.

International studies, according to Gerald McDermott, professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College and author of "The Baker Pocket Guide to World Religions," show that atheists make up 2 percent of the world's population. He said that number is shrinking.

Whether stable or shrinking, it's clear that atheists are an overwhelming minority, and area atheists say there are several misconceptions about their beliefs. Several strongly make the point that they are not satanists, immoral or dumb. Those who spoke with The Bee range in age from 20s to 60s and from business owners to blue-collar workers. They'd like faith groups, especially Christians, to be more tolerant of their views.

Here are excerpts of what they had to say:

'Nuns frightened me'

Mary Brush, a Modesto resident and teacher, 53, traces her atheist roots to her childhood in a Catholic home. "I went to catechism classes, but I gave my mother so much grief, I didn't take confirmation in eighth grade. The nuns frightened me. They really made me afraid of dying. I thought I'd go to hell."

Biblical accounts added to her doubts. "The stories sounded a little too fantastical to me," she said. "It didn't seem to go with reality. Over the many years, I've had (religious) friends and have gone to church and tried to pray. It just didn't work for me. I'm more of a scientist at heart; science works for me."

She said, though, that she's "mellowed over the years. I used to be more militant. I believe if (religion) helps people get by in life, that's OK. I can see how prayer can be important in other people's lives. I think it's helped a lot of alcoholics and people on drugs, people in hard circumstances."

Brush wants people of faith to know: "I'm a good person. Just because you don't have a belief in God doesn't mean you're not a good person. I'd like a little more tolerance."

'I can't believe in a higher power'

Shawna Amaral, a 22-year-old Modesto caregiver, said her parents and grandparents were Christians who never went to church or read the Bible when she was growing up.

"They were too busy," she said. "Since nobody was there to teach me basic religion, I just came to believe that I can't believe in a god or a higher power or anything.

"When I was 16 or 17, I discovered paganism, an earth-based religion. You don't have to believe in in a god or goddess, so I still consider myself an atheist in that way."

Amaral said she lived in Alabama for a couple of years. When she told people she was an atheist, "they'd call me a devil worshipper and said I'd go to hell. I'd laugh at them and ask how I could go to hell if I didn't believe in it to begin with."

She'd like to tell religious folks, "Your religion is not the religion. I believe whatever someone believes will come true for them. If you're a Christian and you believe if you're good that you'll go to heaven, you will. If you believe you'll be reincarnated, you will. I believe willpower is extremely strong."

Do good works; don't wage war

Jason Gale, a 57-year-old business manager, said, "As a child, my mom was religious, so I kind of came along for the ride." But when he was 25, someone told him his religion "was a belief in magic. That caused me to start thinking about removing magical things from my thinking."

Gale fell into agnosticism for a while -- "someone who says God can neither be proved or disproved" -- but didn't like being a "fence-sitter." So he turned to atheism. "It is a belief; not something you can prove, but it seems to be better supported by empirical observations around you than religion," he said. "In religion, you need to have a leap of faith."

Gale said his wife is a Christian and returned to church about three years ago after a 20-year hiatus. He supports her, but admitted, "I knew she believed in God, but I never thought she'd become active."

Religion, he believes, is "a crutch. They don't have the fortitude to stand up to reality. That sounds cruel, but I recognize the necessity of (religion). You can't yank it away from them, or they'd be disoriented and unhappy. My wife is much happier going to church, so I encourage her in that."

He said he "backs way off" when others talk emotionally about their faith or his. But he wants people to know, "I'm not an evil person because I'm a nonbeliever. I don't torture dogs and cats just because I don't believe in God."

And he gives this advice to believers: "No matter what they believe, it's not worth injuring other people -- from flying planes into buildings to starting wars. If you gave me the chance to do one thing about religion, I would say, 'Keep it on the positive side.' Help people, like the Peace Corps. Do what Jesus said, visit the sick and the people in prison. Do all the good works and stay away from weapons."

Couldn't find a moral god

Susan Robinson, 50, said, "I always had the feeling from childhood that (religious) things I was told were not right."

As she matured, Robinson said she "kept looking for something to believe in. I explored other churches -- Presbyterian, Mormon. I even started reading the Koran. I could never find a god I considered to be moral.

"Very often, there are different rules for God than for people. Like the flood -- I'm sorry; I made a mistake. Let's wipe everyone out except for one family and start all over again. Or when Jesus was born, every child up to two years old was killed. That's a huge price for a savior."

For many years, she said, "I was afraid to tell people I was an atheist because of their reaction. I've read of a poll that says people view atheists less good than Muslims, including terrorists out there, and homosexuals. I read about things happening to people -- losing friends, losing family members, losing marriages."

She's still cautious, but not as fearful. And she'd like to tell believers "not to be afraid of atheists. They're usually striving to make the world a better place. And please, please keep religion out of government. Any time God is put into government or someone wants to be treated like a god, it's really bad news for all the people."

Politics and atheists

Peggy Gardiner, 62 and a business owner, said her only childhood religious experience was when her grandparents took her to a small church in south Modesto.

"The Sunday school teacher told a Bible story and asked if there were any questions. I raised my hand and said, 'How did God get here?' I was about 5 or 6 years old. She said, 'God has always been here.' That pretty well settled it for me."

Gardiner said in the late 1980s, while in her first marriage (she was then Peggy Fields) and active in Friends of the Library, she decided to run for the City Council.

"At that time, First Baptist Church had 18,000 members and 20 full-time ministers. They would send out a questionnaire to anyone running for office. I knew the minute (my atheism) was made public, I wouldn't find myself getting elected." She dropped out of the race and threw her support behind another candidate.

Though society has changed, Gardiner said, "I think an atheist would have a hard time getting elected today. I think they'd vote for a minority or a woman before they'd vote for an atheist."

Despite her views, Gardiner doesn't make a scene around believers, she said. "I have a sister and a brother-in-law, and when we go out, they like to say a prayer before a meal. I have no problem with bowing my head with them. To be agnostic or atheist, you have to be pretty open-minded."

She'd like to tell people of faith "that while they all think they have the answer, it's not the only answer. ... If people would spend as much time trying to improve the world as they do proselytizing, we'd probably have a better world."

'Atheists can be dogmatic'

Martin Baker, 44, is a criminal defense attorney in Modesto and a native of England. He moved to the United States when he was 27.

"In England, although they have mandatory Christian education in public schools, it seems to be much more tolerant or open to other religions than America," he said. "It isn't that I rebelled against Christianity, but I began to question the personal level of it."

That started about age 8, he said, "when I stopped going to church. My dad and I would go fishing on Sunday mornings when my mom went to church. Fishing was the guys' religion on Sunday mornings.

He shifted to atheism, but has changed over the years. "I used to have a lot of hard-core atheist friends. I like to describe it as devout atheists. I learned atheists can be as dogmatic as Christians. The two (opposing) views of the world are 'we've always been here' or 'intelligent design.' It's an argument that will always be there. I realized it was futile to debate it."

So Baker said he prefers apatheism, "a term which literally would mean that I don't care if there is a god. More accurately, I believe that it shouldn't matter whether there is a god, and that an ethical life should not be directed or encumbered by thoughts of an afterlife or godly oversight."

He said he believes humans "all have the potential or power to live ethically, to strive for an unselfish life without regard to the consequences, whether we'll be rewarded or punished. If I burn in hell, too bad. It shouldn't matter. If I live unselfishly, the rewards are there in this life."

He does see some benefits in religion. "I see a societal necessity for it. I think now, just as thousands of years ago when it came about, people need some help in living morally, living ethically. Your neighbors benefit from you being nice to them."

But he said religion can be offensive, too. "I'm offended by a lot of things in Muslims and evangelical Christians," he said. "Something we all like to deny, Islamic fundamentalists are very violent and bigoted in their thinking. One of the things I don't understand about Christianity is ... there's a God who's so arrogant and selfish who says, 'You don't get into heaven because you don't believe in me, no matter how many babies you've saved.' It's not so much offensive as puzzling. I don't believe a truly unselfish god would care."

Ex-Mormon happy without tithes

Chris Muir is a 51-year-old Modestan who works as a part-time secretary.

"I grew up in a religious, Mormon household in a little farm town in southeast Idaho. It was pretty much an all-Mormon town."

When he was 8 years old, "I started having doubts. One of the things they said is that when you were baptized, you'd be receiving the gifts of the Holy Ghost. I believed it, but when I was baptized, I didn't feel any different. Then I started finding discrepancies that didn't fit. By the time I was 14, I'd pretty much decided this was baloney."

Over the years, he said, he's studied "the tenants of other religions. Being a skeptic, I find the flaws in those religions, too. Basically, religion appears to be what people want to believe. If it comforts them and helps them cope in life, I'm not going to try to dissuade them. It might be cruel to take (religion) away from them. It may be a false hope, but it's still hope."

He said he remains on good terms with his devout family but is "quite happy without having to give donations and tithes to maintain the church anymore."

And he does have his own beliefs. "I get asked a lot, 'Is there anything you do believe in?' I have to say yeah. I believe the world does exist as we see it. Some people think the world is just a vast computer program. I can't prove it, but I think it's real."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

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