By Peter Madsen • The Bulletin

Terms: atheist vs. agnostic

Atheist: A person who believes there is no God and rejects all religious beliefs.

Agnostic: A person who questions the existence of God and heaven in the absence of material proof.

Kay Dickey decided she was atheist at age 12. Her parents were not religious and accepted her epiphany, despite living in a predominantly Mormon section of Utah.

“It felt like a cloud went off my shoulders,” Dickey said.

Her story of acceptance contrasts with those of other Central Oregon Atheists members, a group the now 64-year-old woman is organizing.

The Meetup group started in 2008 and has 409 members, ranging from teenagers to octogenarians. Less than 10 members attended the April 17 meeting in a Bend motel conference room. While Dickey is the primary organizer, there is no board or bylaws; there are weekly breakfast meetups that other Central Oregon Atheists members arrange.

While 3.1 percent of Americans identify themselves as atheists, more than 20 percent say they do not affiliate with a religion, according to a Pew Research Center study. More than 35,000 Americans over age 18 were polled for the 2014 Religious Landscape Study.

The Central Oregon Atheists come together regularly to feel a sense of community in a predominately religious country.

Atheism has different shades. The root, however, is a lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings, according to American Atheists. Politics, environmental issues and a need for community are additional commonalities that bind the nonreligious group.

It’s been decades since Dickey told her parents she was an atheist, and she said nothing in her life since then has made her conviction shift “one iota.” She is fine with publicizing her atheism because she’s retired from a California county human resources position and doesn’t have to worry whether colleagues would trust her any less.

Dickey’s atheist convictions led her to become organizer of the Central Oregon group.

While the group sat around pulled-together tables in the motel conference room, the discussion turned to Guy R. McPherson’s “Going Dark,” a 2013 book about climate change recommended by a 61-year-old member who goes by Odysseus. They’d previously discussed books by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, and the late Christopher Hitchens, a renowned writer and outspoken critic of religion. Speaking to the group, Odysseus explained the concept of the exponential function as it relates to McPherson’s premise that climate change is an irreversible disaster that will render Earth uninhabitable for humans, perhaps within coming decades.

As evinced by his increasingly audible sighs, 81-year-old George Lanning, a retired computer programmer, was restless. He wore a T-shirt that read “Science doesn’t care what you believe in.” It’s one of several atheist-themed tees his daughter, also atheist, has gifted him. Lanning interrupted Odysseus, saying McPherson’s book isn’t practical because it doesn’t offer any solutions. Lanning’s beef goes against the preconception that atheists are nihilists, he pointed out. Lanning led the group in a discussion on the latest research and how Bernie Sanders’ proposed carbon tax struck him as the most aggressive climate change policy among presidential candidates. A Sanders rally was scheduled later that afternoon in Drake Park, and several atheists planned to attend.

Helping others

Once a month, the Central Oregon Atheists serve at the Family Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides meals for the hungry. The group is among more than 30 organizations — including churches, nonprofits and businesses — that help Family Kitchen serve around 4,500 meals each month. Though the free meals organization is sponsored by Trinity Episcopal Church and is housed on its downtown campus, Family Kitchen is a nonreligious organization that does not allow proselytizing.

Donna Burklo, the Family Kitchen’s part-time development director, said the goal is to feed people; any religious agenda may make some diners feel unwelcome.

“Nothing of what the (Central Oregon Atheists) stand for has anything to do with refusing people because of race or religious affiliation,” Burklo said, making the point that all volunteer groups must be all-inclusive by nature.

A sizable minority

Much how the LGBT community utilizes an inclusive, acronymic umbrella term, the nonreligious are being increasingly referred to as “nones,” the plural of the “non” prefix that is easily confused with “nun.”

Pew Research Center’s study found the number of “nones” is going up fast and that these are the highest percentages ever recorded in the organization’s polling.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that during an election year, however, she has to pinch herself to make sure she exists.

No candidate is courting the non-theist, secular vote the way they court the religious right, she said. “We don’t think God exists, but we know we exist,” Gaylor quipped.

The religiously unaffiliated are a growing and an increasingly important segment of American voters. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center report, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” the nonreligious voted as heavily for Barack Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. More than 6 in 10 nonreligious registered voters are Democrats (39 percent) or lean toward the Democratic Party (24 percent), according to the report.

Proud, if quietly so

Despite the rise of nonreligious Americans, several members of the Central Oregon Atheists club declined to be photographed or have their names printed in this story. One woman asked to remain anonymous because she doesn’t want to ruffle relations with her politically active and openly religious neighbors.

Her wariness is not unwarranted. According to a 2015 Gallup study, 58 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist; 47 percent said they would vote for a socialist. A Muslim presidential candidate, for whom 60 percent said they would vote for, is more electable than either camp.

A voice

After the Central Oregon Atheists meeting, Dickey, Lanning and another member ambled into the sunshine. As conversation returned to Sanders’ proposed carbon tax, they made plans to drive to the Democratic Socialist rally downtown.

—Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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