Athe­ists take a rea­soned ap­proach to bring to­gether like-minded peo­ple

Austin American-Statesman - - FAITH&BELIEFS - EILEEN FLYNN Eileen Flynn blogs at eileen­flynn.word­press.com.

Don Rhoades isn’t in­ter­ested in steal­ing any­one’s faith. His wife and many of his fam­ily mem­bers are Chris­tian. But as an athe­ist, Rhoades, a 58-year-old project man­ager for an Austin semi­con­duc­tor com­pany, en­joys shar­ing a meal or hear­ing a lec­ture with like-minded peo­ple.

As he fig­ured, doesn’t ev­ery­body? Which is why Rhoades and other Austin-area athe­ists, ag­nos­tics and sec­u­lar­ists are pro­mot­ing a bill­board that went up last month on In­ter­state 35 near Grand Av­enue Park­way. It reads: “Don’t be­lieve in God? Join the club.” At the bot­tom is the Web site for the newly formed Austin Coali­tion of Rea­son.

The bill­board isn’t meant to mock re­li­gion or even deny the ex­is­tence of God, says Rhoades, the co­or­di­na­tor of the coali­tion. It’s a mes­sage to folks out there who don’t be­lieve: There are other peo­ple who think like you. You, too, can find a com­mu­nity.

Mem­bers of the coali­tion — six lo­cal groups that in­clude staunch athe­ists as well as the Eth­i­cal So­ci­ety of Austin, which wel­comes be­liev­ers and skep­tics alike — gather reg­u­larly, do char­ity work, hold pot-luck din­ners and sup­port each other in times of need.

“This is some­thing the Athe­ist Com­mu­nity of Austin has in com­mon with the First Bap­tist Church,” says Rhoades, the coali­tion’s co­or­di­na­tor.

On one level, the bill­board ex­tends an in­nocu­ous in­vi­ta­tion. On an­other, it’s a threat­en­ing state­ment that will likely anger and threaten some peo­ple. (A bill­board in North Carolina that read “One Nation In­di­vis­i­ble” re­cently was de­faced when some­one spray­painted “Un­der God.”)

So far, the neg­a­tive re­ac­tions to the Austin bill­board have been limited to e-mails and com­ments in on­line fo­rums and on talk ra­dio shows. In a city that cel­e­brates di­ver­sity, I am al­ways star­tled by the stereo­types and sus­pi­cion that emerge when the con­ver­sa­tion turns to athe­ism.

I see this ev­ery se­mes­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas, where I teach the course “Jour­nal­ism and Re­li­gion.” We study ma­jor faiths and talk about how jour­nal­ists can fairly and ac­cu­rately rep­re­sent those be­liev­ers. At the end of the se­mes­ter, when we study athe­ism, I ask stu­dents what comes to mind when they hear the word athe­ist. Re­sponses of­ten in­clude: Self­ish. An­gry. Amoral. Narcissistic.

Their opin­ions usu­ally soften af­ter I bring in Matt Dil­lahunty, pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Com­mu­nity of Austin, to speak. He talks about moral­ity and sci­ence and ex­plains why he doesn’t be­lieve in su­per­nat­u­ral sto­ries, whether it’s God or Big­foot or the Tooth Fairy. Most stu­dents leave with the con­vic­tion that athe­ists — like any other group they cover — de­serve fair treat­ment by the press.

But many in this coun­try still hold a dim view of non­be­liev­ers, as ev­i­denced by polls in re­cent years. One sur­vey showed athe­ists as the least trusted mi­nor­ity group in the U.S.

There’s a cer­tain el­e­ment of ab­sur­dity in the no­tion that peo­ple are un­trust­wor­thy be­cause they choose to not be­lieve in a higher power. That if peo­ple are not mo­ti­vated by re­ward or pun­ish­ment in the next life that they will not be able to be­have well in this one.

But these at­ti­tudes are deeply in­grained. Rhoades spec­u­lates that as free thought be­gan to flour­ish at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, the emer­gence of so­cial­ism and com­mu­nism — of­ten in the form of god­less dic­ta­tor­ships — fright­ened peo­ple.

“Athe­ism,” he says, “be­came as­so­ci­ated with the en­emy.”

To­day, one could ar­gue that athe­ism is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an­other resur­gence with the wild suc­cess of au­thors such as Christo­pher Hitchens, Sam Har­ris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Den­nett. But re­li­gion has not lost its in­flu­ence on pub­lic pol­icy, elec­tions, ed­u­ca­tion and cul­ture.

And neg­a­tive views to­ward athe­ists per­sist, Rhoades says, which is why it’s im­por­tant for skep­tics to be­come more main­stream and help re­move some of the bag­gage as­so­ci­ated with athe­ism.

“There is a huge num­ber of peo­ple who are non-the­is­tic of one stripe or an­other,” he says.

And in a cli­mate that’s still frosty to non­be­liev­ers, it may be com­fort­ing for those folks to know they have friends in Austin.

For more in­for­ma­tion, go to austin.united cor.org.

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