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Ranks of atheists grow, get organized

Long defined by what they are not, nonbelievers increasingly try to define what they are.

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Valerie Celeste Coffey is a woman on a mission. For six years, her small group of local atheists has gathered to exchange bemused stories about the things Christians do in worship and swap tips for raising confident skeptics.

But on a recent Wednesday evening here at the Java Room cafe, Ms. Coffey said the time had come to take the meetings in hand.

"I don't think this group has a vision," said Coffey, a freelance editor who lives in nearby Boxborough, Mass. "We need to figure out what our values are."

Ten days later, something unprecedented happened: The group met over Sunday brunch for a structured discussion with preplanned topics.

The ranks of nonbelievers are on the rise, research suggests, and as they seek out each other online and in small groups, they are increasingly looking to do more than just vent.

Some are adopting rituals themselves, from de-baptisms to wedding ceremonies, as a way to cement ties among members. Others are organizing science-related outings or enrolling in community-service programs. Nationwide, atheists' groups are now treading, sometimes gingerly, into unfamiliar territory.

"This is the transition moment right now," says Dale McGowan, author of "Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion." "Some groups are really diving in [to foster a robust sense of community], and some of them are holding their noses and standing on the diving board. They're not quite sure what to do."

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