No God at the cen­ter of this Hub of ac­tiv­ity

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Gra­ham Am­brose The Den­ver Post

By 10:30 a.m., the assem­bly room has filled with peo­ple. They’re four dozen strong, swirling about the long rec­tan­gu­lar hall like in a hive, stand­ing and laugh­ing in small clus­ters, shak­ing hands and hug­ging late­com­ers, fin­ish­ing cof­fee and dough­nuts in the kitchen, lean­ing in close to hear a week’s worth of gos­sip whis­pered too low for lurk­ing passers-by.

The con­gre­ga­tion’s Sun­day morning gath­er­ing is a cher­ished com­mu­nal rit­ual that brings to­gether newly joined 20some­things, still groggy from a night on the town, with chatty re­tirees who have been mem­bers since the in­sti­tu­tion’s found­ing. They come from across metro Den­ver to hang out and talk about what­ever’s on their mind: Don­ald Trump, Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio, last night’s Rock­ies game, the hik­ing trail du jour.

In­evitably, though, their con­ver­sa­tion re­turns to the su­per­nat­u­ral power that unites them: God.

But this isn’t church.

“It’s athe­ist church,” jokes Ruth Mcleod, who moved to Den­ver from Louisiana in 2012. “Church doesn’t have a monopoly on com­mu­nity.”

Like most mem­bers of the Sec­u­lar Hub, a non­the­is­tic com­mu­nity cen­ter in Den­ver’s Whit­tier neigh­bor­hood, Mcleod doesn’t be­lieve in God. Af­ter aban­don­ing her strict Chris­tian up­bring­ing in col­lege, she turned to athe­ism, a so­lu­tion to the si­lence of the cos­mos that al­lowed her to jet­ti­son what she con­sid­ers the con­tra­dic­tions of the Bi­ble and the con­ser­va­tive so­cial pro­gram of the church.

Her con­ver­sion has in­creas­ing res­o­nance in the United States, where one in 13 adults iden­tify as athe­ist or ag­nos­tic. Amer­i­can sec­u­lar­ists, though, are not an or­ga­nized tribe. Non­the­ists lack the elab­o­rate in­sti­tu­tional where­withal en­joyed by the 160 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who reg­u­larly at­tend re­li­gious ser­vices. In a coun­try where faith is worth $1.2 tril­lion — equiv­a­lent to the en­tire econ­omy of Mex­ico — God dis­be­liev­ers have no

col­leagues in Congress, face per­va­sive con­tempt and con­trol few in­sti­tu­tions of their own.

The Sec­u­lar Hub aims to curb those re­al­i­ties by pro­vid­ing a cen­tral meet­ing space where the the­o­log­i­cally ma­rooned can stake out a home.

“We think we’re the first sec­u­lar com­mu­nity cen­ter in the United States,” says Barb San­nwald, a pro­fes­sional com­puter pro­gram­mer and found­ing mem­ber. “It’s much eas­ier to be an athe­ist in Colorado than else­where.”

The sec­u­lar cen­ter hosts an as­sort­ment of com­pat­i­ble yet dis­tinct de­ity doubters — athe­ists, ag­nos­tics, hu­man­ists and free­thinkers — held to­gether by skep­ti­cism, faith in sci­ence and a com­mit­ment to free-rang­ing dia­logue. Nu­mer­ous af­fil­i­ate groups also rent out the build­ing for weekly meetings, in­clud­ing the lo­cal chap­ters of Free­dom from Re­li­gion Foun­da­tion, United Coali­tion of Rea­son and Free­thinkers in AA, a non­re­li­gious arm of Al­co­holics Anony­mous.

Two hun­dred twenty-five core mem­bers pledge $5 a month each for of­fi­cial sta­tus. Hun­dreds more float among groups, drop­ping in and out of meetings and get-to­geth­ers as wanted. Lead­ers strive to bring to­gether the en­tire con­gre­ga­tion through reg­u­lar pro­gram­ming, which in­cludes book clubs, movie screen­ings, mee­tand-greets, meal dis­cus­sions and pub­lic lec­tures by renowned sci­en­tists and skep­tics. On Sun­days, ev­ery­one comes to­gether for Sec­u­lar Hub’s flag­ship af­fair, Cof­fee & Com­mu­nity, which sim­u­lates the de­pend­abil­ity of weekly church ser­vice with­out cer­e­mony or ser­mons.

For a few years, San­nwald and other founders at­tended First Univer­sal­ist Church of Den­ver, a lib­eral Chris­tian group that em­braces a wide ar­ray of be­liefs from Eastern and Western re­li­gious tra­di­tions. Around 2007, a com­mu­nity news­let­ter alerted San­nwald to Hu­man­ists of Colorado, which held monthly meetings at the church. She be­gan fre­quent­ing meetings, where she met a num­ber of like-minded lo­cals who val­ued the ca­ma­raderie of First Univer­sal­ist Church but de­murred on its doc­trine, namely the em­pha­sis on God.

“There was a small group of us look­ing for the type of com­mu­nity that a church pro­vides,” San­nwald said. “Churches are great places to find friends, to find com­fort dur­ing dif­fi­cult times and to meet oth­ers. But none of us were re­li­gious, so we didn’t want to go to a church.”

So in late 2012, she and a co­hort of 20 Coloradans be­gan rais­ing money to open a space for ag­nos­tics, athe­ists, sec­u­lar­ists and hu­man­ists in metro Den­ver. They ini­tially con­sid­ered ask­ing a deep­pock­eted donor to un­der­write the startup.

“But we de­cided we wanted this to be a group ef­fort,” San­nwald said. “So we had 23 founders put up the found­ing money to en­sure broad-based sup­port from the sec­u­lar com­mu­nity.”

In Oc­to­ber 2012, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Den­ver Athe­ist Meetup and Hu­man­ists of Colorado of­fi­cially formed a non­profit, which they called Sec­u­lar Hub. A month later, the founders signed a lease at East 31st Av­enue and Down­ing Street, where the or­ga­ni­za­tion still ex­ists to­day.

The Hub’s ori­gin story speaks to a spate of non­the­is­tic or­ga­ni­za­tions pop­ping up across the coun­try. More than a dozen sim­i­lar sec­u­lar ven­tures have opened over the past decade, es­ti­mates Nick Fish, na­tional pro­gram di­rec­tor of Amer­i­can Athe­ists.

“It’s cer­tainly a grow­ing fea­ture of the hu­man­ist and athe­ist com­mu­nity,” he said. “The great thing about be­ing an athe­ist is that no one tells you how to do it. But that can also be a strug­gle, as there’s not al­ways com­mu­nity sup­port groups out there. Groups like the Sec­u­lar Hub pro­vide that for peo­ple who want and need that. What they’re do­ing is re­ally im­por­tant and worth­while.”

In the 4½ years since the grand open­ing of Den­ver’s first out­post for non­be­lief — on Feb. 12, which is Dar­win Day, of 2013 — the or­ga­ni­za­tion has grown from a core of com­mit­ted non­the­ists to an emerg­ing com­mu­nity of en­gi­neers, artists, im­mi­grants, fam­i­lies, life­long non­be­liev­ers and re­cent re­li­gious de­fec­tors.

An­drew For­lines is one such re­li­gious turn­coat. The 32-year-old grew up out­side Cincin­nati, home-schooled by arch­con­ser­va­tive par­ents who in­stilled Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ism in their chil­dren. For­lines re­belled early. De­spite never re­ceiv­ing for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, he pos­sessed an in­nate cu­rios­ity and habit for self-teach­ing that grad­u­ally led him astray from his anti-sci­ence par­ents and their faith founded in bi­b­li­cal in­errancy.

When he moved to Den­ver two years ago, he wanted a com­mu­nity where he could make sense of his un­ortho­dox up­bring­ing. Through a Google search last July, he found Re­cov­er­ing from Re­li­gion, an af­fil­i­ated group that of­fers guid­ance for spir­i­tual rene­gades who have walked away from what For­lines calls “in­doc­tri­na­tion.”

“I was look­ing for a sup­port group for peo­ple like me who strug­gle with a dog­matic re­li­gious up­bring­ing,” he said. “I felt wel­comed and em­braced. Ev­ery­one was very nice. I felt a tremen­dous amount of re­lief to have found like-minded peo­ple.”

For­lines im­me­di­ately took to the com­mu­nity, where his val­ues and back­ground weren’t iso­lated — or iso­lat­ing — but shared. In March, he launched two reg­u­lar events of his own: a book club on so­cial is­sues, and Din­ner & Doc­u­men­tary, which hosts monthly film screen­ings and open dis­cus­sions over food.

“The Hub is what any­one makes of it,” he said, em­pha­siz­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s dif­fer­ences from a church. “It’s in be­tween a stand­alone or­ga­ni­za­tion in your tra­di­tional sense and a phys­i­cal meet­ing space for sub­groups to uti­lize. I’ve found that it of­ten brings to­gether peo­ple who make de­ci­sions based on sci­ence and em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence.”

As with sec­u­lar­ism it­self, the Hub’s ide­o­log­i­cal flex­i­bil­ity and lack of firm hi­er­ar­chy al­low mem­bers such as For­lines to en­gage as fre­quently, widely and deeply as de­sired. Lead­ers want to meet non­be­liev­ers where they are, wel­com­ing po­ten­tial mem­bers who might be skep­ti­cal about join­ing an in­sti­tu­tion de­voted to skep­ti­cism. New mem­bers must pledge to fol­low only three rules for ad­mis­sion: hon­or­ing the sepa­ra­tion of church and state; main­tain­ing good­will among mem­bers and avoid­ing hos­til­ity; and not pro­mot­ing any be­liefs in gods or other su­per­nat­u­ral en­ti­ties.

San­nwald and other lead­ers have been en­cour­aged by a gust of in­ter­est, par­tic­u­larly among par­ents with young chil­dren. Yet the current fa­cil­ity — with only 1,500 square feet of meet­ing space — has lit­tle ca­pac­ity for kids and no prop­erty out­side.

“We’re grow­ing to a point where we might want to move,” San­nwald said. “It’s one of our goals. But we have no con­crete plans yet.”

A move, though, will re­quire suf­fi­cient funds. The Hub cur­rently sub­sists on mem­ber­ship dues, which help pay rent, util­i­ties and lit­tle more. The all-volunteer board and staff take no com­mis­sion for their work.

Growth will also test the bonds that hold to­gether a piece­meal com­mu­nity with many pe­riph­eral groups and mem­bers. Re­li­gions have core texts that serve as a cen­tral spoke around which the com­mu­nity can co­a­lesce. The Sec­u­lar Hub, which lacks such a com­mon code, lets the bur­den of com­mu­nion fall on mem­bers them­selves. It’s a tall task that both chal­lenges and lib­er­ates.

“In a church, there’s this feel­ing of need­ing to con­form to dogma that’s a lie,” said Kim­berly Sa­viano, a Hub founder who lives in Den­ver. “Sec­u­lar­ism and athe­ism do not have any par­tic­u­lar eth­i­cal code. We are re­spon­si­ble to come up with our own.”

To sec­u­lar­ists such as Sa­viano, that re­spon­si­bil­ity poses a uniquely hu­man task, one that re­flects the prob­lem — and of­fers hope — for all so­cial net­works.

“Most of us have a deep need for com­mu­nity, some­where we be­long and have peo­ple who un­der­stand you,” she said. “We’re try­ing to be there for each other if some­one’s in the hos­pi­tal or mov­ing or go­ing through a tough time. That’s the or­ga­niz­ing force of com­mu­nity, mak­ing sure we’re tak­ing care of each other. And there’s noth­ing re­li­gious about that. You don’t need God for that.”

“There was a small group of us look­ing for the type of com­mu­nity that a church pro­vides. Churches are great places to find friends, to find com­fort dur­ing dif­fi­cult times and to meet oth­ers. But none of us were re­li­gious, so we didn’t want to go to a church.” Barb San­nwald, found­ing mem­ber

Daniel Bren­ner, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Sec­u­lar Hub at­ten­dees, from right, Darin Moore, Mike Faff, Lynn Kutsch and Jen­nifer Saksa and other con­gre­gants visit dur­ing their weekly gath­er­ing last Sun­day.

Daniel Bren­ner, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Barb San­nwald makes some an­nounce­ments dur­ing a weekly gath­er­ing at Sec­u­lar Hub.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.