(NO) RELIGION: Onward Atheist Soldiers!
What do members of the Society of Edmonton Atheists do at their meetings? Sit around and talk about how they don’t believe in God, while saying “Jesus, it’s cold outside!”?
Not exactly. Many of them have lost something – and it’s more important than the Higher Power they don’t recognize. It’s the companionship of like-minded believers.
“We find that for a lot of people who have left religion, one of the hardest things to let go of is the community that you would have if you went to church,” says SEA vice president Karen Lumley Kerr (above, holding sign). “Finding another group you can come to be with is important to some people.”
With the slogan “Don’t believe in God? Join the club,” the SEA was incorporated as a not-for-profit society in 2008, and currently has about 50 paid members – for $20 a year, you can literally be a “card-carrying atheist” – with at least 10 times the members on the group’s Facebook page. They have monthly roundtable meetings at the library (free for anyone to attend). They had a good crowd for a physicist who came in January to talk about the origins of the universe. A representative from a right-to-die group will be visiting in May. There are atheist book club meetings where Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are popular, atheist brunches and even atheist summer picnics.
Bucking the notion that you need organized religion to be charitable, area atheists regularly volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, the Edmonton Food Bank, Adopt-a-Highway and last summer for flood relief efforts in Calgary. Kerr, a mother of three, once cut off all her hair and donated it to Cancer Wigs.
She says she personally wants to explode the stereotype that atheists aren’t very nice people, “I think there’s a negative connotation attached to the word atheist. I think it’s ridiculous, which is probably why I use the word, because if people get to know me and I don’t fit what they think an atheist should be: Some angry person who swears all the time, and I’m not like that, it makes them challenge what that means.”
SEA events attract a wide variety of atheist and atheist-curious people – from the recently “de-converted” to life-long non-believers. Half the area United Church congregation is effectively atheist anyway, says Kerr. They’ve had ex-Catholics, ex-Christians, ex-Mormons, ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. There was even an ex-Muslim who came to one meeting and didn’t return. In some countries you can be put to death for renouncing your faith. Even in the relative Judeo-Christian safety of North America, where it remains legal to not believe in God, some atheists are reluctant to come out in the open, to “come out of the other closet,” as they say at Pride rallies they do outreach programs with. Some fear being shunned by their communities. Businessmen are wary of losing customers. Teenagers don’t want to lose their friends.
So far, the most controversial incident concerning the SEA was a dispute over the Lord’s Prayer at the Sturgeon Heights School that erupted in 2011. Some of the parents who complained wound up moving away from the St. Albert-Morinville area because of alleged threats against themselves and their children, according to Kerr.
“I don’t agree with attacks on religion,” she says. “But I would prefer that we lived in a more secular society and religion was left up the church, rather than in public schools.”
This question almost always comes up when talking about atheists who happen to be parents: What do you tell your kids? Most are parents first, atheists second. Kerr’s parents, who converted to Christianity only after she grew up, allowed their daughter to develop her own critical thinking skills and believe whatever she wanted.
“I really appreciated that I was able to do that,” she says. “And that’s the road my husband and I will let our kids take. They can figure it out for themselves.” Her oldest, she adds, was asking pointed questions long before mom became a card-carrying atheist, and in fact at one point rejected God while maintaining belief in Santa Claus.
“The presents at Christmas were evidence for Santa,” says Kerr. “No evidence for the Other.”
PHOTOS by Rodrigo de la Jara