Atheists, Believers and Everyone In Between
By Robert Bernstein
"Atheists, Believers and Everyone In Between" was the title of the October meeting of the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara.
This meeting was a bit unusual. Instead of a presentation and discussion, the participants were the focus of the event. The idea was to understand the spectrum of belief from non-believer to believer and everything in between.
The event was moderated by Reverend Eileen Epperson who was joining us via Zoom from her home in northwestern Connecticut.
She grew up in an evangelical household where her grandmother would take her to Billy Graham events.
Over the years she became more mainline, eventually becoming a Presbyterian minister. She says her beliefs include "Buddhist undertones". In her work she participates in interfaith meetings.
Reverend Epperson was assisted in moderating the event by Humanist Society president Judy Flattery and her husband David Flattery. Both Judy and David are chemists and are at the non-believer end of the spectrum.
Judy grew up in a big Polish-American Catholic family. As a child everyone in their Buffalo neighborhood was Catholic. The family moved to the outer suburbs where she met a more diverse group of people who were Jewish, Hindu, atheist and more. Judy realized that if she had been raised in one of those other households she might have held those family beliefs.
Judy and Eileen were in a Zoom course a year ago and the course leader suggested Eileen should meet atheists. Judy offered herself.
As usual, Judy began the event by relating it to Humanist Principles:
After this introduction we moved on to the first exercise. Eileen read words connected to religious language and people gave their reaction: Thumbs up, thumbs down, thumbs sideways.
Here are the words:
- Higher Power
- Islam (the religion)
- Muslim (the person who follows Islam)
Overall it seemed that there was a mix of reactions to each word. Few got a solid response one way. Perhaps the most universally thumbs down words were "Evangelical" and "Fundamentalist".
The next exercise had us raise our hands if we put ourselves in the categories that were named. It was OK to be in more than one. Again, a mixed response. I will tally these based on what I saw from the top Zoom page which showed about half of the participants.
- Spiritual – 3
- Wiccan – 0
- Devout – 1
- Religious – Maybe 1
- Pagan – 0
- Seeker – 8
- Atheist – 16
- Earth Centered – 7
- Agnostic – 3
- Humanist – 21
- Free Thinker – 20
Again, a mix of responses.
The next step in the event was to put ourselves into one of three groups. Dave Flattery put the groups up for us to see:
We were advised not to worry too much if we are in the "correct" group. Few will fit perfectly in any.
I noted that I don't fully fit in any group. I think science is important and mostly fit in Group 1 for that reason. But I think the universe may be very different from what it appears through our observation and current understanding. I ended up picking Group 1.
We each put a 1, 2 or 3 in front of our Zoom name. When each Group was "on stage" we were supposed to turn our video on; otherwise off.
At this point there were 51 participants.
Eileen then proceeded to ask questions for Group 1. People were invited to speak briefly for up to a minute in reply.
Eileen: "What is the most satisfying aspect of having your world view?"
Philip: Understanding what is real to the best of mankind's ability to do so. We all would love to be able to look to the future and get better answers. But all we have is what we can know for now.
Richard: The most satisfying thing for me is that it is not too satisfying! It keeps me constantly asking questions and not taking things for granted.
Kevin: I recently discovered that I don't believe in the supernatural. I was watching a program on the cosmos and I realized that truth is stranger than fiction.
Robert (me): I picked this group for the ethics rather than for the science. The universe may be very different from how it seems. But ethics should be determined by what helps and harms others. Not what is in some book.
Judy Fontana: I don't have to fear the unknown as much. People used to see spirits in trees or in the sun. Some were bad spirits. It left people in fear.
Eileen: What is the most challenging aspect of your world view?
Bill Cook: It is a lot of work. You don't have constant certainty. I feel jealous of those who feel they have a chum up there!
Maureen: We are heading into a theocracy. Especially with this Supreme Court appointee.
Michael: Feeling in the minority. Few atheists here in the US compared with Europe. It is hard to get elected here as an atheist. Everyone is trying to convert you to save your soul.
Richard: It is hard to stay open minded and not give in to bias. I also feel that others fear and hate me for my atheism. It is hard not to return that.
Judy Fontana: Being a minority. Believers get a pass. They can avoid the draft.
Eileen: What is most comforting in difficult times?
Marian: Talking with atheist friends who share my values.
Next it was time for Group 2 to answer the same questions. Dave Flattery did this round.
Dave: What is the most satisfying aspect of having your world view?
Jeanne: I don't believe in a higher being. But I do believe in a form of universal life and I enjoy feeling a connection to that.
Susan: I belong to the Episcopal Church. There is no strict orthodoxy. God is love and that is all you need to know.
David: What is the most challenging aspect of your world view?
Chris Hana: Some in Group 1 felt they were the minority. I disagree. Most people I know are Group 1 types. My friends laugh at me for believing in an old book and say he is "brainwashed". (Chris is a young person and in his age group his view is a minority, in his experience.)
Susan: Literalness and orthodoxy. She is a seeker. Any interpretation of the bible that is literal she can't deal with.
Lisa E: There is an energy and a consciousness. But no personal god who answers prayers. There are powers all around me beyond my control. And that is fine. I don't want control over that. I am happy to be taken care of.
Next it was time for Group 3 to answer the same questions. Judy Flattery did this round.
Judy: What is the most satisfying aspect of having your world view?
Debbie: Live and let live. It is OK if someone has their faith. As long as it doesn't hurt the planet.
Gari: It is up to me to make a world that works. I don't believe any god will do that.
Dave R: The more I know, the more I know I don't know. It is hard to stay open as an atheist. There is no evidence for supernatural beings. (He converted from being an evangelist to Humanism. He now feels "Congruity". Everything fits.)
Judy: What is the most challenging aspect of your world view?
Maxi: I feel alone and outside the box. Church friends have social actions. She finds it uncomfortable to work around religious people.
Gari: It is hard to blame others. My own consciousness is giving me my thoughts.
Judy: What is your automatic reaction to the other two Groups?
Debbie: If people get comfort from their faith and it doesn't hurt anyone or the planet, it is OK. I believe in science. I also believe in spirituality. People have different ways. It is OK to be in a community if one stays tolerant of others.
Jeremy: We spend too much time giving out answers when we should be asking questions. Science doesn't tell what is true. Just a spectrum of probabilities of what is true.
Eileen: Did you discover anything today about someone else? About another world view?
Kevin: I was a church organist for many years. I can't fit in a box. I am not an atheist and not really a Christian. Maybe a Unitarian. My wife is Catholic. Our relationship to the Universe is spirituality for me.
Richard: One can feel one is a minority in any Group. He was moved by Chris feeling he was a minority who was mistreated. You have allies in the other Groups.
Eileen B: A support group is important for everyone. I am an alcoholic. I rely on belief in a higher power. But I am not religious. AA helps me.
Jocelyn: I was moved by what Chris said. I know I am opinionated and express my views. I had seen religious people as telling people they will go to hell. I now see the other side of it. Religion is their truth. They can see criticism of their view as a personal attack.
Eileen Epperson: That is a good way to end!
For many years I enjoyed watching BookTV (until our evil Cox Cable got rid of it). BookTV is a forum for book authors to talk about their books for about an hour. I made a point of listening to those with opposing views on politics and religion. Unlike Fox, these events were honest and unfiltered and without rude interruptions.
Since the speaker was usually speaking to a sympathetic crowd you could really understand how they and their audience saw the world. What always made an impression on me? How the very people my side saw as powerful and dominating the country and culture saw themselves as an oppressed minority that no one was hearing from.
And in a way they are correct. If you watch the corporate news, you are just as unlikely to hear an extensive interview with a fundamentalist as you are to hear an extensive interview with an atheist. The corporate media decides what is "the middle" and rarely strays from that viewpoint. The result is that huge portions of our population feel as if their voice is never heard.
Events like this Humanist Society event are a rare chance for people to feel they are being heard.