Atheists and agnostics group battles misconceptions

Challenging worldviews

Got God?

Members of the Kansas University Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics don’t.

The 20 to 30 students who belong to the group don’t believe in God or think there’s any way human beings can know whether God exists or not.

Those aren’t exactly popular positions to maintain on a college campus that’s home to dozens of student-run religious groups, or in American society.

Laney Allbritten, a Kansas University junior from Cunningham, says it helps to have a sense of humor about yourself.

Like the gays and lesbians who refer to themselves as “queer,” some atheists and agnostics lightheartedly co-opt the epithets that critics hurl their way.

“As far as slurs would go, a lot of people call us ‘heathen,’ ‘heretic,’ ‘blasphemer,'” says Allbritten, 22. “We think of it as a funny way to embrace what we are. It’s something that we kind of take pride in and have fun with.”

An atheist, according to the KU group’s Web site, is someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God, or any of the gods that have been conceived by mankind.

An agnostic, the Web site says, is someone who believes humans do not know whether God exists. Some agnostics believe this can never be known.

Allbritten and her boyfriend, Rob Richardson, who’s also active in the group, define themselves as hybrids.

“Rob and I often refer to ourselves as agnostic atheists,” says Allbritten, the group’s secretary. “We don’t see whether there is a way to prove there is a God or not, but we don’t have an active belief in a higher being.”

It isn’t easy to be an atheist or agnostic — or “secular humanists” as some in the group refer to themselves — and people who stake out these positions are often put on the spot.

“It takes a lot of defending,” says Richardson, 27. “You have to be pithy, sharp and fast on your feet. You have to have a quick answer for them.”

‘Represent a minority’

There’s a rightful place at KU for atheists and agnostics, say students who are active in the group.

The society’s Web site identifies it as “the only student group at KU that is devoted to advancing a nonreligious worldview and to challenging religious dogma and the groups that advocate it.”

That certainly expresses the view of Stephanie Kirmer, 19, a junior from Topeka who is the group’s Web master and past president.

“It’s important because we represent a minority,” Kirmer says. “There’s a group on campus for practically every religion under the sun, so it would seem totally amiss not to have people (like those in her group) who say, ‘You know what? All of this is ridiculous.'”

A couple of physics students founded the society at KU in the fall of 1999, but their group lost momentum when they graduated in spring of 2000, according to Kirmer.

She reformed the group when she arrived at KU in the fall of 2000.

Kirmer has served on the board of Secular Student Alliance, a national group based in Columbus, Ohio, since 2000.

The KU society has ties to the Secular Student Alliance, as well as the Campus Freethought Alliance, a similarly minded national group.

It is also friendly with two groups in the area, Individuals for Freethought at Kansas State University and Heartland Humanists of Kansas City.

Kirmer identifies herself as an “atheist activist.”

“I actually went to Washington, D.C., over our spring break in order to be at the Supreme Court when they were hearing arguments by Michael Newdow,” she says.

Newdow, an atheist from California, has a case before the court contending the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional and should be removed.

“I got to meet him and get his autograph. There was a great protest going on, with Christians kneeling on one side, and on the other side there were secular people and atheists giving speeches about how this is a civil rights issue that affects everyone,” Kirmer says.

The society’s members struggle to educate others on campus about their beliefs — or, rather, their unbeliefs.

“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions that atheists hate people who believe in God, or that we’re totally immoral and have no ethics, because without God you don’t have any reason to do what’s right,” Kirmer says.

“If the only reason you’re doing what’s right is because you’re afraid of a lightning bolt coming down to strike you, then that’s a really poor reason.”

Freedom to worship — or not

One of the ways the KU society stimulates conversation on campus is to sponsor special events at which students can openly explore religious and secular thought.

The society sponsored its second annual “Religiously Incorrect” forum Tuesday at the Kansas Union. A panel of five people representing the perspectives of Wicca, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and secular humanism took questions from the audience on topics such as the status of women, homosexuality and the separation of church and state.

“We get people together who have different ideas, throw out some social questions and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ It’s a frank discussion of issues that are important to life in the United States,” Kirmer says.

Paul Mirecki, professor of religious studies at KU, says he is happy to serve as faculty sponsor for the group so it can have meetings and events such as “Religiously Incorrect.”

“I have been their faculty sponsor for three or four years, and I haven’t received anything negative about it. Part of it is because the group hasn’t gotten much attention,” Mirecki says.

“As soon as they start getting media attention, opposition will come from those people who like to oppose people who are not like them.”

Being an atheist or agnostic is challenging because their views are often misunderstood, Allbritten says.

“People think that atheists are out to take religion away from people. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We want everyone to have the freedom to believe what they wish, but don’t tell me I have to believe in your God.”

Not surprisingly, many religious people question the thinking of atheists and agnostics.

“It seems to me that any thinking person who will do the research would have to acknowledge that the odds of the universe happening by chance are infinitesimal. It should be obvious that there’s a creator,” says the Rev. Paul Gray, senior pastor of Heartland Community Church, 619 Vt.

“My opinion is that any rational person realizes that there is a creator and anyone who would claim otherwise just doesn’t want to be held accountable to that creator.”

Having faith imparts hope, meaning and a sense of transcendence that people who don’t believe in God or an afterlife might not fully experience, according to Gray.

“A person who chooses not to believe in God misses out big time on the spiritual aspects of life,” he says.

“While you can be a nice person and you can have what we would call good morals, you have that underlying mindset that any moment could be the last — ‘That’s it, my life goes out’ — what we would call utter hopelessness.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Journal-World, USA
May 1, 2004
Jim Baker

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday May 1, 2004.
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