SEEKING OUT A COMMUNITY OF NONBELIEVERS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Teresa Cherry was out running errands when she saw the question floating over Interstate 95.

"Are you good without God?" the electronic billboard asked. "Millions are."

The Baltimore woman does not believe in the existence of a supreme being. And in that moment, she did not feel so alone.

"My friend and I were just discussing a few days ago whether or not there was a community of others like us in Baltimore," said the 28-year-old Cherry, a student at the Community College of Baltimore County. Checking out the Web site advertised on the billboard, she said, "we found out that there are some local groups, and it's exciting to me."

Which is just what the Baltimore Coalition of Reason wants. The new organization, a collection of atheists, agnostics and others, is introducing itself to the area this week with a billboard campaign aimed at reaching out to nonbelievers while telling the rest of the community that goodness is possible without godliness.

"Sometimes people have negative stereotypes or impressions about people who are atheist or agnostic," local coordinator Emil Volcheck said. "They think that just because they don't believe in God that somehow they're not good people."

Baltimore becomes the latest target of a national campaign, funded by an anonymous businessman from Philadelphia, intended to join atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and other nonbelievers - a diverse lot, not universally inclined toward organization - into something resembling a community, and one that ultimately could wield the sort of social, cultural and political power now enjoyed by the larger religious denominations.

"A lot of people who don't believe in traditional religion or don't believe in a god, they tend to think they're the only ones," said Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason. "And thinking they're the only ones, they tend not to communicate their feelings to others, others don't communicate similar feelings they may have to them, so they don't realize there are groups out there."

Edwords says the organization, which drew worldwide notice last spring with a bus advertising campaign in New York, will have 20 chapters nationwide by the end of the year, in small communities as well as large, in red states as well as blue. More launches are planned for the new year.

The effort comes as atheism enjoys a new vogue. Emboldened by the success of best-selling books by Christopher Hitchens ("God Is Not Great") and Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion"), and wary of attempts to require instruction in "intelligent design" in public schools, efforts to promote religious messages on government property and other challenges to the separation of church and state, nonbelievers have grown vocal as never before.

"We are now reaching critical mass," said Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of "Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe."

"We are reaching numbers and levels of awareness that suggest that we are owed a place at the table of discussion about issues of religion and ethics around the world. And we now need to step up to that table."

Given the nature of the community, Epstein says, it won't be easy.

"Humanists are never going to have a pope that will tell us what to do," he said. "And no one, including myself, would want that. But if you have no organization, if you have no critical mass, no ability to come together in strength, then you have no voice."

In Baltimore, Volcheck described the number of nonbelievers locally as "small, but growing." The billboards, deployed to grab the attention of commuters on I-95, I-895 and Russell Street near the sports stadiums through Sunday, direct viewers to the Web site of the Baltimore Coalition of Reason. The site included links to three area groups and a notice promoting an appearance by Epstein at 3 p.m. Sunday at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore.

Edwords describes the interests of nonbelievers as varied.

"Some people might like something that sort of resembles traditional religion," he said. "They might want to go to Sunday meetings or, if they're Jewish, Friday night meetings, and we let them know that there are humanistic Jewish groups out there, there are Ethical Culture Societies, very liberal Unitarian churches, there are even atheist churches.

"Now, other people, they want nothing to do with that sort of thing, but they wouldn't mind a good philosophical lecture or discussion group. Some people want to do charitable work. Other people want to do social activism. One size isn't going to fit all."

Area religious leaders do not sound threatened.

"Of course we know that someone can be good without believing in God," said the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the Episcopal bshop of Maryland. "We don't believe in God in order to be good. We believe in God in order to connect with the holy within us, which helps us to love everyone in the world, even those who don't believe in God, even those who don't see the point of religion, even those who would harm us. As is it says in our Scriptures, 'God is love.' "

The Rev. Danny O'Brien, senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, said the local campaign "underscores the notion that we have all been created with a yearning to be part of something bigger, something noble.

"As a follower of Christ, I would love for everyone to not only experience this yearning but to also know the creator who imbued us with it," O'Brien said. "But, being part of a free, pluralistic society is living in community with people who have different faith commitments or no faith commitment at all and to work together to find common ground in working toward the common good."

Cherry learned of Epstein's appearance Sunday through the Web site; she's now planning to attend.

"I deeply care about humanity and our planet and have wanted to be a part of a community," she said. "I don't need to believe in God to be good. I'm just good for goodness' sake."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°