Hundreds of nonbelievers are descending on the campus of Washington University this weekend for a conference meant to raise the profile of atheists in the region.
Thomas True, local organizer of the Gateway to Reason conference, says although there are plenty of atheists in the area, it’s easy to feel alone or fearful that society is judging those who lack faith in a greater power.
The three-day conference is an opportunity to bring like-minded activists together, much like Roman Catholics or Mormons might gather for an event.
“When we stand together at events like this, it gives a voice to people like us to the public and encourages others to stand up for who they are,” True said.
Atheists, he said, “don’t have a dogma to guide us but our own logic and reason.”
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religion Landscape Study, religious “nones” — atheists, agnostics and others who don’t identify with a religion — make up roughly 23 percent of the U.S. adult population.
While the Christian share of the population has fallen, the unaffiliated experienced the most growth between 2007 and 2014, according to the survey.
Yet many nonbelievers continue to feel stigmatized, both here in the U.S. and around the world.
The program, which began Friday, is stacked with atheists from around the country, some of whom are well-known even in religious circles.
Take, for example, Vyckie Garrison of Norfolk, Neb.
Garrison, 49, is recognized for her years of involvement in a conservative Christian movement known as Quiverfull, which places an emphasis on procreation and eschewing all forms of birth control. The Duggar family, with 19 children and who had their own hit reality TV show, are perhaps the most famous example of the Quiverfull movement.
That kind of lifestyle can be abusive to women, Garrison says now. The former Quiverfull wife continued to have children even when doctors warned against it.
It’s “Biblical family values on steroids,” said Garrison. It’s about “trying to stuff 21st century people into a B.C. society.”
Garrison had seven children before obtaining a divorce in 2008. Her blog “No Longer Quivering” serves as a landing page for wives looking to escape the lifestyle.
Garrison said after the divorce she tried to find something in Christianity she could hold on to, but that her faith crumbled like a house of cards.
“It took me years to get that deep into it, but it just didn’t take that long to get out of it,” Garrison said of her faith. This year, American Atheists recognized her with the 2014 Atheist of the Year award.
Steve Hill, an African-American comedian who grew up in poverty in St. Louis and now lives in Southern California, will speak at the conference about the specific challenges black atheists face.
Hill, 53, a former Marine and a former California Department of Corrections employee, said he first joined the atheist movement in about 2007 after he offered to help a black church running a program aimed at curtailing violence between African-Americans and Hispanics. Hill said because he’s an atheist, the church rebuffed his offer of assistance.
“When you’re discriminated against by your own people, it kinda rings a different bell in you,” Hill said.
That rejection inspired him to become active in godless circles, though he said that even as a child he questioned the existence of a higher power.
“It was growing up poor that cemented my belief in nonbelief,” Hill said. “I’ve always asked myself those questions: Why, if there is a god, why did we go to bed hungry last night?”
Hill said he was particularly dismayed when, during the turmoil in Ferguson, religious black leaders seemed to receive all the attention.
“They have a voice and everyone else’s voice kinda gets pushed aside,” Hill said.
Society, Hill said, assumes any African-American active in the community is religious. In reality, black atheists are “just normal people trying to do good things,” he said.
At the conference, Hill will be introducing a film by Jeremiah Camara named “Contradiction”, which explores “the paradox of black neighborhoods saturated with churches in the midst of poverty, deprivation and despondency.”
Aron Ra, 52, another presenter at the conference, is an atheist from Dallas who has a large YouTube following and a podcast. He travels around the world speaking at secular events, often about creationism.
“Creationism relies on ignorance,” Ra proclaims on a YouTube video with more than 700,000 views. Christians often mistakenly believe evolution and faith are incompatible, Ra said, but faith is an assertion not based on evidence.
Theists, Ra said, all “feign knowledge they can’t really possess.”
“A lot of religious believers don’t really believe what they pretend to believe,” Ra said. “Some people don’t mind lies and endure that, but there’s some people who actually care.”