Area atheists come out of their closets

Billboards in Spokane feature testimonials, photos of local agnostics

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Area atheists come out of their closets

Sharon Mease's childhood was typical for a conservative Baptist family.

Her family attended church often, and most of her friends and acquaintances also were church members.

But when she was 14, a question became fixed in her mind: Was any of it real?

"There was no event in particular," the Spirit Lake woman said of what set off her spiritual doubts. "It just goes with how adolescents question everything. It was just a part of being a teenager, I suppose."

It didn't go away. In her 30s, Mease launched an intensive, "soul-searching journey" that would last 25 years. She read, watched science programs, did a lot of thinking.

Finally, she resolved that she couldn't believe in a supernatural being.

"More scientific evidence is coming out every day that explains all the things we don't understand," Mease said on Monday. "There's not one shred of scientific evidence that would show or prove there's a being that doesn't have to follow natural laws."

For the next several weeks, a whole lot of people are going to catch a glimpse of Mease's reasoning.

The 65-year-old is participating in a Freedom From Religion Foundation campaign, in which seven billboards in the Spokane area feature the photos and testimonials of local agnostics and atheists.

Mease is on one of those billboards, already positioned somewhere in the city across the state line. The ad includes her photo, a description of her as a retiree, atheist and Spirit Lake resident, and a quote conveying her opinion: "Truth is real; God is imaginary."

The aim is not to condescend but to enlighten, Mease said, to reveal there are ordinary, everyday folk in the area who are intentionally church-less and deserve equal treatment.

"'Atheist' has been a difficult term. It has a such a negative connotation," Mease said, adding that she hasn't personally experienced prejudice because of her lack of faith. "The point was to show that among local people and local citizens and neighbors of everyone around, there are non-theists, there are atheists, and we have a point of view and we're normal people."

All the campaign billboards feature North Idaho and Washington members of the Spokane chapter of the FFRF. The formats are the same, including non-believers' photos, descriptions and quotes they chose to depict their stance on religion.

The quotes include, "Freedom from religion lives," and "On bended knee? Not for me."

A billboard featuring former minister Ray Ideus of Nine Mile Falls states, "Now preaching reason, not religion."

Coeur d'Alene couple Harlan and Kay Hayes are also included in the campaign. Their billboard describes them as great grandparents and non-theists, their quote reading, "Evidence and science trump myth - reason wins."

The billboards will be up for a month.

Ministers from churches in Kootenai County could either not be reached for comment, or declined to comment without knowing more about the campaign.

FFRF, a national group that aims to raise awareness of non-theists and keep religion separate from government, has already done the billboard campaign in six other states, said co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

"Generally the response is very positive," Gaylor said, adding that the Spokane billboards are new and haven't garnered much reaction yet. "We usually hear from people who like them, who want more information, who agree."

The chief drive of the campaign is to reveal to citizens that there is a strong non-religious population in their midst, she said.

That will hopefully help alleviate the stigma attached to those who don't subscribe to traditional beliefs, Gaylor said.

"We've all experienced it. You're at a party or even at a public meeting, say 'I'm an atheist,' and there's a collective gasp," said Gaylor, whose own parents raised her without religion so she could choose for herself when she was older. "We are citizens and taxpayers, we are people who open the door for you at the grocery store. You don't know us, but we're nonbelievers. We're part of the fabric, and we're coming out of the closet."

She pointed to a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey that found 23 percent of the adult Idaho population is non-religious.

"Some of it is maybe beauty, going into the outdoors - who needs religion when you have all that natural beauty?" Gaylor said. "Maybe it's that frontier independence."

Hopefully other nonbelievers will join FFRF after spying the billboards, she said.

If the billboards also change some church goers' minds, Gaylor added, that's fine, too.

"Once your reason is turned on, it's pretty hard to turn it off," she said.

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