"Atheist is a word that scares people. It just means that I don't believe in God."
Meet Jennifer Ross.
She's 35, a graduate of Notre Dame High School, has blond hair and a quick and easy laugh. A lover of all creatures great and small, she spends uncountable hours as an animal rescue volunteer. Monday through Friday, she works in the real estate business.
And she doesn't believe God -- yours, mine, anyone's -- exists.
"I've had this belief since high school, and I remember questioning things since I was a little kid. I was brought up around Christianity. My grandmother was a Methodist. My other grandmother was a Presbyterian.
"I'd go to one church with one grandmother. They were so focused on helping the community and positive things. I'd go to the other church with my other grandmother and heard about hellfire and brimstone and I was a sinner going to hell.
"I was hearing two different things. How could both be right?"
Ross and I sat together for lunch on Thursday at a picnic table overlooking Grace Episcopal Church's community garden. As the high-noon church chimes rang, and the hot sun fell on zinnias, dill and basil plants, Ross ate a sandwich, drank a can of Pepsi and patiently answered my questions about her beliefs.
"When you die, you're dead. I don't believe in a soul. Although I do joke that my cat tries to steal mine at night.
"People have a need for religion. It can be helpful. It's a scary thing when a person dies ... [religion] eases the pain.
"But [growing up] I'd see or hear about all these horrible things and wonder: How can there be a god out there who made mankind, cares about them, gives them free will but then punishes them when they do what he doesn't want them to do?
"I wanted to believe all of this stuff, but it didn't make any sense. Something didn't feel right."
Ross said the most common misperception is that atheists have no morals or ethics.
"People assume I'm a Satanist. People think you have to have religion to have morals. If I found a bag of money here, I'd go to the church and ask if they knew whose it was. Then I'd call the police. I wouldn't do this out of fear of jail or hell, but because I know somebody out there is looking for this."
I didn't meet with Ross to convert or convince her. I just wanted to listen and learn. We have so much of the rest, so much of the you're-wrong shouting and closed-ear philosophies that distort belief in God into something that seems more like superstition, country club membership or political grandstanding.
Just look at the Hamilton County Commission.
Without grace or graciousness, the commission has turned a possible moment of reconciliation and understanding into a mini-religious war. Since being sued for its insistence on opening each meeting with a prayer -- in the name of Jesus -- the commission has insisted on its own way, thus making it quite obvious -- and sadly ironic -- that the side enacting a higher love-thy-neighbor-as-thyself standard are the people proposing the inclusive, everybody-belongs-here moment of silence.
"People for prayer feel their rights are getting trampled on," said Ross. "Those of us against prayer feel our rights are getting trampled on because we have to listen to it."
I wish the County Commission would invite Ross to speak -- instead of the moment of prayer -- to start their next meeting. It would send such a good message, an open hand of peacemaking and willingness that says the point of this is not to win, but to understand, reconcile and befriend.
Ross, the atheist, gets that. Why can't the County Commission?
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...