Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

February 22, 2011

The atheists of Ashland

ASHLAND — Hostility is nothing new to members of the Tristate Atheists Meetup Group, although they hope to use their mutual interest to forge a better understanding of people like themselves in an area where individuals are defined by their religious views and practices.

The 18-member group began as an online effort by Holly Pickett of Ashland, who was interested in talking to others who share her views about atheism, while welcoming agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and others whose beliefs are not easily aligned with church doctrines.

Roughly a half-dozen members of the informal group gathered late Sunday afternoon to share a meal at their adopted meeting place, and discuss everything from homeland security issues and tax money used to fund religious-based artworks to denial of a secular alliance group at an Oklahoma high school and a proposal for Fairview High School students to use the Bible as an official historical source.

Between themselves, members of the group agree they don’t agree about many of the things they discuss, which leads to interesting debate and conversation.

“We only have one thing in common,” said Ashley Decker of Ashland, leading the small group to explain a few of the many titles and classifications that are applied to the subtle and major differences between their personal beliefs and philosophies. Each agree they are not “militant atheists,’ although some consider themselves “diests,” while others prefer atheist, agnostic or another adjective to best describe their outlook.

“I am an atheist. I am not an anti-theist,” Pickett said, explaining an anti-theist is a person opposed to belief in any god while an atheist doesn’t believe in the Christian God. Pickett said one of her main goals as a parent is to raise her child free of anyone’s religious teachings, an objective that is nearly impossible because of the deep religious roots of a majority of people in this area, including her own mother who often teaches her child about the 10 Commandments and sings hymns with the young boy.

“My grandmother told me my husband had a sick and twisted mind for making me an atheist ... even though I was an atheist before I even met him,” Pickett said, explaining the difficulty she had telling her family that she is an atheist. On a national level, she said atheists are being encouraged to participate in a “Come out” campaign to let people know more about their point of view.

Brian Sperger of Paintsville, who travels to Ashland each Sunday to enjoy a meal and discuss plans with others associated with  the Tristate Atheists Group, said atheists often feel excluded as a group.

Claiming that despite the fact that there are more atheists in America than members of particular recognized religions, Sperger said people like himself have no official voice in politics.

Mark Bundy of Ashland said he was searching the Internet for “like minded people,” and was surprised to find the atheist organization already in place. Aaron Conn said he believes the meetup group is the only gathering of atheists to be found within 100 miles of Ashland.

The group currently meets at 4 p.m. each Sunday at Super China Buffet in Ashland, although Pickett said they would like to establish a more traditional base for their gatherings, possibly at a local library or even at a school or church. Another point of agreement within Tristate Atheists Meetup is the desire to give back to the community and do good things for others in the area, she said, and to make the group a non-profit organization.

“We have all talked about wanting to do charitable work to help our community ... and our image,” she said, noting the group has talked about establishing a feeding center for the hungry, making themselves available as volunteers for existing community organizations, providing books to schools or organizations, or adopting a section of highway to keep free of litter.

“I would like for people to have a positive image of atheists,” said Conn. “This is the first step.”

Pickett said many of the projects the group has discussed would require sponsorship, which is something the atheist group expects to have difficulty securing. Sperger said it would be ideal to find support from a science-based organization or company to help with their community-based objectives.

Speaking on behalf of everyone in the group, Pickett said they are well aware that others do not always respect their views.

“Hostility ... we’re all already used to that,” she said with a soft smile. “We’ve all seen people fired for being atheist, or just not get the job in the first place. They (employers) aren’t supposed to ask about that, but they will bring it up casually and ask ‘Where do you go to church?’ When the person tells them they are an atheist, they don’t get the job.

”When we’re asked what church we go to, we all get a little nervous,” she said, laughing as she explained she was even a bit uncomfortable seated alone at a table reserved for the group. When people learn you are an athiest, Pickett said they tend to draw unrealistic conclusions about you.

“There is this idea that morality comes from religion. Many people think if you are an atheist, you can’t tell right from wrong. Or it’s like, “Oh, you’re an atheist. You must not have any morals,’” she said.

With a grin, Decker joked that members of the group have to be careful about how loudly they talk when they get together at the restaurant or “we might get hit in the back of the head with a roll.”

Even though they don’t expect everyone to understand or agree with them, the group keeps its meetings open to everyone, regardless of their beliefs, as long as they aren’t disruptive or abusive.

“You have to be respectful and polite. Christians and all other people are invited to join us,” Pickett said. “We don’t want anybody that is rude ... I don’t care what you believe in. We don’t even want rude atheists.”

For more information about Tristate Atheists Meetup visit meetup.com/tristate-atheists/ on the Internet.

TIM PRESTON can be reached at tpreston@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2651.

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