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God, no

With so much focus on faith and religion, it's not an easy time to be an atheist

Boston and its academic ambience are a long way from the callous streets of Paterson, N.J., where Zachary Bos grew up with no athletic skills and few friends. He was a gawky, skinny kid who decided the way to survive was to study hard in school, strive as a Boy Scout, and sit up straight during Sunday school at St. Gerard Church.

He caroled at Christmas. He spent time with a nun, Sister Susan. He joined youth groups at St. Gerard, and to please his mother, he agreed to be confirmed and to receive Holy Communion.

He was an ideal Roman Catholic boy except for one thing.

He had no faith in God.

He went to confession but thought of it as an artificial exercise.

"If I were truly contrite, I would have just gone out and changed my life," he recalled the other day. "I just didn't see any benefit in talking to someone I didn't know so that, somehow, all of a sudden, everything would be forgiven."

The Boy Scouts wanted him to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, and clean.

Fine.

But reverent, too?

Why reverent?

"If you were everything else," he says, "why would you need to be reverent?"

Questions in his head and doubts in his heart gave way to distrust of religion and then to atheism.

Having moved to Boston in 1999 to study physics at Boston University, today Bos, 23, leads one of the city's more arcane organizations, the Atheist Meetup Group, which gathers monthly at a restaurant for food and drink and for conversation not about the New England Patriots, but about moral relativism, objective and subjective probability, and Pascal's Wager on the existence of God.

The debate over the existence of God that has been raging for millennia is heating up again, and as religion creeps deeper into the political, cultural, and social psyche of America, these are not the easiest of times for atheists.

At least 13 states have challenges to the teaching of evolution in school. Atheists bristle at the use of the word "God" on US currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance. In Washington, a judge has rejected an atheist's appeal that President Bush be barred from saying a Christian prayer at today's inauguration.

At atheist meetings there's no shortage of topics, from strategies for survival in a Christian culture to discussions about the role of the Christian Right in politics to debates in the press as to whether God played a role in the tsunami disaster.

Although atheists are neither as well organized nor as disciplined as many Christian groups, they have managed to intensify the debate about separation of church and state, sharpened the differences between Darwinism and Creationism, and even made some people uncomfortable to say "Merry Christmas" or, at the sound of a sneeze, "God bless you."

"We are among the most hated groups in America," says David Silverman, national spokesman for American Atheists. "Jews are OK, but if you're an atheist, you're at the bottom of the barrel, and it's politically acceptable to hate us.

"USA Today put the number of nonreligious Americans at 30 million," he says. "There are 5 million Americans who are Jewish, but everybody knows a lot more Jews than they know atheists, and why? Because atheists are afraid to come out of the proverbial closet. All of us know more atheists than we think, because they're in every family and they're in every church."

An island of skepticism
The notion of "poor atheists living in a Christian culture" is rejected as paranoia by Dr. John Morris, who has led expeditions to Mount Ararat in search of Noah's Ark and is now president of the Institute for Creation Research, a self-proclaimed Christ-focused creation ministry in Santee, Calif. "Atheists have an inordinate amount of influence," he says. "Polls show 50 percent of people believe in strict creationism, another 30 to 40 percent in some form of creationism, and then a small slice, 5 to 8 percent, who are atheists. But they absolutely, 100 percent, control education and the media."

The Boston atheists meet under the aegis of an organization called Meetup Groups, a worldwide assemblage of cliques that meet to discuss topics of common interest, from knitting to politics to Pekingese dogs. Founded in 2002, the Boston Atheists Meetup Group is one of 405 similar cells around the world that claim 7,500 members. Although 95 are enrolled in the Boston group, the meetings attract no more than 12 people.

"What brings us together is that we take a particular interest in defining ourselves as atheists, which is a negative definition," says Bos, "but there's nothing else that draws us together. We are from very different walks of life -- a college student, a teacher, a security guard. We promote rationality, skepticism, scientific knowledgeability, secular humanism, and a positive atheistic agenda."

For atheists, the monthly meetings are an island of skepticism in a sea of religious conformity.

"They're socially gratifying," says Bos. "It's an exhaust valve just to be associated with like-minded people. I try not to be anti religious, but irritants pile up -- little reminders that we live in a culture that's not rational and, indeed, anti-rational. Walk through Wal-Mart, and they've got entire aisles devoted to religious iconography and pop cultural Jesus novels."

At the December meeting, held on the solstice at Cambridge Brewing Company in Kendall Square, the agenda included, in addition to beer and pizza, (1) a report on a scholarship the group is offering to a Boston Public School student and (2) a discussion about surviving Christmas, a challenge, according to Scott Gray, 29, a software engineer from Andover, that is not so much awkward for an atheist, but something to endure.

But it's Easter, not Christmas, that's the more difficult, said a guest, Jason McCoy, 32, a teacher of psychology at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, N.C.

"I don't believe in a god who answers prayers for the same reason I don't believe in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus," he says. "Christmas is festive, fine, but [the] Easter [season] is when these ridiculous antique rituals are paraded about, and you've got dirt on your forehead. If everyone felt as strongly about things that matter, the world would be a better place."

'Walking on eggshells'
What is it like to be atheist in America?

"It's like being gay in the South," says McCoy. "No matter who you're around, if you say something that gives the impression their religion isn't better than every other religion, well, you're walking on eggshells."

In the way that many gays camouflage their sexuality, many atheists are reluctant to confide their ideology to family and friends, and when they do, they refer to it as "coming out."

Bos kept his atheism secret, and when he returned home for Christmas four years ago, he was startled to hear his grandfather express delight that the atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair had been murdered.

His pose ended three weeks ago.

It was two days after the atheist meeting at Cambridge Brewing Company. Bos attended a Christmas party at BU, and afterward, he decided to telephone his mother.

"I wasn't intoxicated," he recalls, "but I was disinhibited, and giving a synopsis of what was going on in my life, I mentioned the scholarship."

"Oh," he recalls his mother saying, "who is sponsoring it?

"A group I run."

"What kind of group?"

"A group of skeptics."

"What's the name of it?"

Emboldened by the wine, Bos decided to end the subterfuge and acknowledge to his mother what he'd never been able to admit.

"It's called Boston Atheists."

There was a pause.

"Zachary," she said in somber voice, "you don't want to be labeled an activist."

That, he says, was her way of neither approving nor condemning.

"She interposed nameless activists to say she's willing to accept that I have personal beliefs, but that I should be careful about making them public."

Complicity is compromise
Like many minority groups, atheists have their own lexicon and often use humor to make their points in chat rooms and on T-shirts and coffee mugs. Instead of Christmas shopping, it's solstice shopping, and God is referred to as the big guy in the sky. "If you don't pray in my school, I won't think in your church," says one bumper sticker. "Be sure to check the weather report before you pray for rain," says another. "I wish we had holidays," wrote Amy Edmonds of Alexandria, Va., in a chat room, "but it's a small price to pay for not worrying about going to hell."

Rather than be confrontational, atheists often employ strategies to avoid deism without offending.

Gray, the software engineer who grew up in a Christian family with a mother who, he says, has evolved into a hyper-Christian, found himself obliged to attend a Christmas service with his family at a Protestant church in Lexington, the denomination of which he cannot recall. "They're all pretty much the same to me." Gray brought along his portable CD player so that, during the service, he could listen to Jon Stewart's "America (The Book)."

Others, like McCoy, say that any complicity is compromise.

As a boy in Abbeville, S.C., McCoy enjoyed dressing up to attend Friendship Baptist Church with his mother. "But I had doubts as long as I can remember that there was a man in the sky watching everything I do, and the doubts escalated when I was 7 and my father told me there was no Santa Claus."

At 14, he asked his mother if two of every creature were aboard Noah's Ark.

"Absolutely," she said.

"Then why would fish have to be aboard the ark?" he demanded to know. "Why does a fish need protection from a flood?"

Yesterday's doubt is today's atheism.

"People may say I'm a hedonist, but I'm not. I just think there is no God, that it all resides with me, with my own code of ethics, which is not formed by a categorical imperative. I believe in the golden rule. I believe we should do the most good for the most people. My code is informed, not just relative.

"When I sneeze and someone says, 'God bless you,' I don't feel comfortable, because when I pass gas, they don't say, 'Bless you.' When I cough, they don't say, 'Bless you.' But when I sneeze, they say, 'Bless you.' For the most part, I let it go. I'll say thank you and bite my tongue. When someone else sneezes, I say 'Good health.' "

Gays may feel comfortable running for office, says McCoy, but do not look for a candidate to declare himself atheist.

"There's such a religious force in America that political figures would not say they're atheist. First, it would be political suicide, and second, the name itself is a horrible label that creates negative stereotypes. What do you think when you hear 'atheist?' You think horns, devil worshiper, moral relativism, and someone who hates the church. But it's not true. I tell people I don't believe in Satan any more than I believe in God, and I don't believe in hurting anybody any more than you do."

'I ask too many questions'
Some atheists say their ideology intrudes on their romantic life. Bos recalls dating a woman who made it clear he was not to mention his atheism to her Roman Catholic family.

Gray says he thinks the woman he's dating is Catholic, and that it deadens her appeal.

When McCoy discussed marriage with a woman who insisted on a church wedding to ratify the marriage in the eyes of God, he asked: "Is this the same god that doesn't want gay people to marry? And if we get married in a legal setting, couldn't God see into the building? "But I ask too many questions," he says. "I'm too analytical."

Even after marriage, there's a challenge for atheists in raising children.

"By age 5," says McCoy, "my child is going to get plenty of exposure to Judeo-Christian teachings. The problem comes when my child wants to say grace to a god I don't believe in. What do I do? I could get my child to start thinking skeptically, but people might say, hey, this guy's telling his child there's no God. That borders on abuse, doesn't it? See, when an atheist tries to inform a child, it's abuse, but when someone tries to indoctrinate a child about a big man in the sky, then it's OK."

Having attended parochial school and having served as an altar boy at St. Joseph's in Salem, N.H., Stephen Farrell, 39, of Framingham is an atheist who talks at monthly meetings about raising his children, 8 and 5.

"I assume a believer would tell his child you can't do this or that, because of what it says in the Bible or because you'd be insulting the god of your ancestors or whatever. I can't use that, but I try to make my children understand they're responsible for what they do and they don't want to be a person who lies, cheats, and steals, because how would they like someone to do that to them?

"I hope I'm a good role model, and I hope they won't think, automatically, that because I don't go to church I'm a bad person. Obviously I hope they grow up to be atheists, because I think that's the way to go, but who knows?"

Jack Thomas can be reached at thomas@globe.com. 

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