published Saturday, February 8th, 2014

Everything but the Bible: Nonbelievers to hold first humanist assembly in Chattanooga

IF YOU GO

What: Chattanooga Humanist Assembly

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: 3224 Navajo Drive

There will be no God and no Bible, but it may feel a little like a Sunday service. People will gather in a church, hear a message, listen to some music and enjoy fellowship over a potluck supper.

Jumping on a national trend, Chattanooga will hold its first formal gathering of atheists, humanists and agnostics on Sunday afternoon. As Americans increasingly call themselves nonreligious, many are looking for a way to replicate the community of a church while leaving behind the dogma.

In this part of the country, "Where do you go to church?" is often one of the first questions asked among the newly acquainted. Local humanists say there's a pronounced need for this kind of organized disbelief in the Bible Belt, where church membership often feels central to identity.

It's an attempt to put a kind face on atheists, who often are typecast as angry nonbelievers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The local group doesn't want to convince churchgoers they are wrong, but does want to push for acceptance.

"If you can associate this friendly face with somebody who's an atheist, they're not always that scary 'them' that's out there to take stuff away or do harm to others," said Tad Beaty, one of the organizers.

Beaty says the event is nonreligious, not anti-religion. Atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims -- all are welcome.

"We share 95 percent of the values with believers," said fellow organizer Tom Kunesh. "We disagree on what's out there. That's it."

Americans increasingly are turning away from churches. According to 2012 data, one-fifth of the adult population and one-third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation -- the highest percentages ever recorded by the Pew Center Forum on Religion and Public Life. So it's intuitive that many, especially those who grew up in religious communities, would want something to replace the churchgoing experience.

"They're not missing the promise of an afterlife. They're not missing a benevolent god. What they are missing is that sense of community," said Phil Zuckerman, sociology professor at Pitzer College.

Zuckerman, who studies atheism and secularity, said the ranks of nonbelievers have been swelling for the last quarter-century. But only recently has a small group started looking for a churchlike experience.

"Most people that reject religion don't want anything more to do with it," he said. "They're not interested in it."

And that's actually creating a schism among atheists, humanists and agnostics. Some say it's counterintuitive to replicate religion -- the very thing nonbelievers reject.

Deborah Mitchell, a Texan who writes the popular blog "Kids Without Religion," said it's one thing to host informal meetups or skeptics clubs.

"But the last thing we want to do is emulate the very thing that we reject," she wrote. "We should put as much distance between atheism and religion as possible."

Sunday's family friendly Chattanooga Humanist Assembly will feature two lectures, including one by Chris Silver, a UTC instructor and graduate researcher who will discuss his research on atheism. His study found that the world of nonbelief is just as diverse as the religious world, and that the beliefs of nonbelievers are so complex and surprising that some are even sitting in church pews on Sundays.

He said nonbelief is growing not only in numbers, but in acceptance. As more people declare themselves atheists or agnostics, it becomes less of a fringe demographic. So it's no wonder that they're starting to assemble.

"You literally drive five blocks in any direction in Chattanooga and you find a church. It's part of the culture here. It makes sense that if you're an emerging social group like the humanists that you want to connect with people of similar ideas and values," he said.

And for the first time that connection is moving beyond blogs and social media. It's becoming a tangible movement.

"It's one thing if you're Joe Schmo sitting in your house talking online to an atheist in California. That's not a social movement," Silver said. "But if there's 50, 100, 500 of you in the same community, that at least shows you and it shows the larger community that you, in fact, have enough of a following and shared interest that your voice should be heard."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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