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Cleveland Atheists 

A Christmas story

The buzz broke just before Thanksgiving: The nation's largest atheist organizations would be recruiting for the holidays this year. Most notably, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the most visible of American atheist groups, planned a nationwide billboard and bus ad campaign featuring catchy quips like "Beware of Dogma," and "Imagine No Religion."

It's their gesture to counteract the year-round, pro-religion signage that is so prolific that hardly anybody even notices it anymore. "We call it deconversion," says Freedom From Religion Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

But no such propaganda appeared here. Gaylor would have loved to spread the good news in Cleveland. But her group relies on local atheists to step forward, and this year nobody did.

But the atheists are out there, and they've emerged before: Last November, a giant billboard loomed over I-480 in Parma emblazoned with the festive message "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." When a Plain Dealer column heralded this year's recruitment campaign, the blogs lit up with the customary string of heathen-bashing and religion-ridiculing. And atheists were well represented.

But who are they? Just like religious folk, atheists exist on a continuum, albeit one of disbelief. Full-blown atheists don't believe in God or any other form of supernatural governance. Agnostics, humanists, and freethinkers often fall under the atheist umbrella, though somewhat wrongly. Agnostics, for instance, believe it's impossible for anyone to know whether God exists, leaving room for doubt.

The simplest path to atheism, not surprisingly, is to be raised that way. Mark Tiborsky of Richmond Heights was reared by an outspoken atheist mother and agnostic father. To him, it was strange to waste time praising or worshiping something that he knew just wasn't out there. "I was in Cub Scouts, and I remember feeling a little funny a few times a year when there was an organized prayer," he says. "It creeped me out."

Others come to atheism more as an epiphany: They simply wake up one day no longer buying into the religiosity taking place all around them. Atheists who experience this say it happens most often during the teen years, and sometimes as early as age 7 or 8. Like other personal discoveries made in adolescence, atheist realizations can make keeping up appearances difficult. Some never share their belief with family; those who do often weather years of tense relationships as a result.

A third route to atheism is often the most drawn-out and treacherous: those who are religious, but with a dissatisfaction that sends them searching. Richard Scott blazed this trail like few others.

"My father believed that psychological problems were demons caused by the fall of man. I had psychological problems," Richard says matter-of-factly. Growing up in an authoritarian fundamentalist Christian family in rural central Ohio, he had no other philosophy to consider.

From a young age, Richard couldn't learn. He was anxious, jittery, and always causing trouble — problems that persisted into his teen years. Despite it all, he remained certain that God would see him through it if he prayed enough.

"I didn't know that science was working to solve these problems," he says. "I was taught there was no way to achieve knowledge outside of God. So I got serious." He was taught that the more religious he became, the faster his difficulties would dissipate. He sometimes listened to the Bible for up to 16 hours a day. He read Genesis and Revelations more times than he could count. But he wasn't getting any better.

As Richard's desperation grew, his father came to realize that the young man's devotion to God was too feeble to cast the demons out. So he introduced Richard, then 21, to a pastor who specialized in troubled souls.

Richard, meanwhile, started expanding his horizons beyond the Bible. He had a lust for knowledge, but a problem absorbing it properly. Nevertheless, he started researching and was learning more than his pastor cared to know.

With his learning disabilities and mental anguish still unimproved, Richard left the pastor's group after a few years and struck out on his own. Like many who struggle with their faith, he sought answers by studying other religions and philosophies. He started reading Christian apologetic works, which attempt to provide historic and rational evidence for a belief in God, and he continued reading for 15 years.

In 2007, he declared himself agnostic, and last year he became an atheist. His route was not unlike that of other atheists whose upbringing was grounded in religion. "The irony is that the more I researched in order to be a better Christian, the more I was led away," says Richard, now 38.

He started talking with members of the Cleveland Freethinkers on meetup.com during the pivotal period between his agnosticism and atheism. He was living in rural Middlefield — not exactly a hotbed of humanism or freethinking individuals. One night in 2008, he made his first trip to a gathering of Cleveland Freethinkers for dinner and drinks.

"The group was a mixture of people like me: atheists, some spiritual, some still Christian, and I needed people to bounce things off of," he says. "We know that community is an essential human need. That's actually a good thing about religion: community."

With nearly 500 members, Cleveland Freethinkers is the largest atheist group in Ohio. Mark Tiborsky's wife, Marni, started it on a whim in 2007, simply aiming to find herself some friends. "Boy, did it broaden our social circle!" she says. "Without it we would never have known these people existed, and that's scary."

Already, the Cleveland Freethinkers have hosted some 170 picnics, hikes, movie outings, dinners, happy hours, and just about every other conceivable type of social gathering short of prayer groups. Families and children are welcome, though the subject matter occasionally treads into deeper water than kids might be up for.

At the December roundtable at a Panera in Rocky River, the group Skyped with Rafiq, a virtual Freethinkers member who lives in Indonesia and found them online. Islam there is quickly on the rise, he explains, and the Indonesian government requires citizens to register an official religion. Those who do not register surrender various rights, including marriage. How Rafiq's Cleveland brethren can be of help is unclear from one coffee talk, but it's great fuel for conversation.

"The two most taboo subjects — religion and politics — is mostly what we talk about," Marni says. And disagreement between members abounds. Dinner discussions easily erupt into spirited debate over anything from the extent of John Adams' involvement in the Federalist Papers to the usefulness of Platonic discourse.

Suzy Wernet of Rocky River credits the Freethinkers for giving her hope. She discovered the group with guidance from that I-480 billboard last year. "I'm 59 years old, and my whole life there's never been a group I definitely wanted to be around where I can laugh about religion," she says.

Suzy knew she was an atheist from an early age, despite her family's regular attendance at a Protestant church. She just assumed everyone came into the world agnostic, and she never found a reason to sign up for a religion.

"In a group of friends, I always wanted to bring up the big life questions, and I learned very quickly that other people do not want to hear anything different than what they believe," she says. "I don't know how my belief took power away from their God."

Content developer Joanna Polisena hasn't found time to socialize with the Cleveland Freethinkers, but the new mom from southeast Cleveland has put a call out on the group's message board. She's seeking other parents interested in starting a play group — an atheist play group — with her 10-month-old son.

"He's going to be exposed to religion very easily just because we live in the United States," she says. "But I want to show him there are other people who want to live in the here and now, and who want to love and support each other without belief in a supernatural being."

Joanna already participates in a racially diverse play group that she loves, but she isn't comfortable announcing her atheism. She didn't tell her own family she was an atheist until she was well into her 20s. "I faced some not-so-pleasant comments from people who said they loved me," she says with a touch of lingering hurt.

Joanna finds herself spooked by internet tales of atheist children being ridiculed or being told they will wind up in hell. She hopes communication with other atheist parents might better equip her to help her son through the potential land mines he may experience growing up with an atheist mother. (Joanna's husband, she says, falls somewhere between an agnostic and a deist — one who believes that a supernatural being created the universe but does not interfere in it.)

Joanna's motivation for establishing a play group also runs a bit deeper. "If he thinks I'm the only atheist, he may be driven to religion because of the community aspect to it," she says of her son. "And religion is a far different aspect from which to live life. If he comes to religion by that kind of default, it would make me sad. If he should come to it after a well-thought-out, reasoned process, then I will respect that."

Roni and Elliott Berenson of Chesterland occasionally attend Cleveland Freethinkers events. "It's wonderful to see so many younger people in the group," Roni says. She is 80, and Elliott is 83. They are also active in the Jewish Secular Community of Cleveland, a group for Jewish atheists that helps them retain their cultural heritage and tradition without clinging to a belief in God.

Roni was raised in a conservative Jewish household, but she abandoned the idea of God as a teenager. "I had studied science and evolution. Is it easier to believe that we don't know where everything came from or how everything started but through science we are learning more every day? Or is it easier to believe that some supernatural being put us here? For me, it's the former."

Cleveland Freethinkers polls indicate that two-thirds of all members are in some way closeted. Roni understands how difficult it is for some to tell the world they are atheist. It was presumably harder in the 1950s and '60s. "When I met someone new, I'd wait until they seemed to like me pretty well, and I'd tell them I'm Jewish. If we got past that, I'd tell them I was in the peace movement. And if that went well, I would tell them I'm an atheist," she laughs.

The Berensons raised four children and joined the synagogue to be part of the culture. "We sent our kids to Sunday school and Hebrew school, and when they got home we deprogrammed them," Roni says. Her mother thought she should send the children to temple. "I asked if she thought my kids were good and moral, and she would say they were. It ended with her saying I was doing everything right, but that I should still believe."

Northeast Ohio atheists tend toward social liberalism. They include both fiscal conservatives and liberals. They're mostly pro-environment, pro-animal rights, pro-human rights, pro-gay rights, and they vary on pro-choice. They staunchly support separation of church and state. They include a higher than average percentage of vegetarians. And according to Marni's very unofficial statistics, they prefer cats to dogs. Cats, she adds, are freethinkers too.

But for all their unifying causes, there are only infrequent incidents of atheist activism. The Kent State University Freethinkers are the lone local group that sought signs from the Freedom From Religion Foundation this year. They installed them on Portage County buses last month; newspapers snapped photos, but otherwise nobody much noticed.

"We try not to be too political, and usually when we do activism it is to support science education," says Aaron Rockhold, president of the KSU group. The students organized on Facebook about two years ago in order to secure a presence among the 20 other religious groups registered on campus, including what Aaron says is the "big money Campus Crusade for Christ who have paid, full-time employees."

With their nonexistent budget, the Kent State Freethinkers claim 170 members, who focus on outreach and worthy causes. They have raised money for Doctors Without Borders, hosted an "Ask an Atheist" panel, and work to eradicate the notion of blasphemy, which most atheists see as the last remaining impediment to truly free speech.

Last year, the Cleveland Freethinkers banded together with Kent's atheists, the Cleveland State University Non-prophets, and the Center for Inquiry of Northeast Ohio to sponsor the "Don't Believe in God?" billboard.

"In this day and age, just having an atheist group, or a group comprised mainly of atheists and agnostics, is, in a sense, activism," Marni says. The group will remain mainly a social one, but she hopes to ramp up their volunteer efforts. Recently, several Freethinkers worked the phone banks for the annual WVIZ/PBS Ideastream fundraiser.

Cynthia spent nine years in the convent and two more as a somewhat devout practitioner of Catholicism before beginning her fall from grace. (Cynthia is not her real name; she asked that a pseudonym be used for this story. As she puts it: "There are nasty, nasty people out there.")

She joined the convent just to do something different, she says. After a year and a half, she knew she didn't like it: didn't like the ritual, the schedule, and the lack of free time. "They brainwash you, and it does work. They made it very difficult to leave." But eventually, that's exactly what she did.

A few years later, Cynthia was devastated by news that her 23-year-old brother was getting divorced. Most troubling to her was the Catholic rule that he would never be able to marry in the religion again. "What the heck kind of a law is that?" she remembers thinking.

Agnosticism set in a year or so later, when the church reversed its prohibition of eating meat on Fridays. "I had been taught as a kid that if I did that, I would go to hell. And now I was learning that it was only people who were making these things up."

Having never been encouraged to read the Bible, she bought a paraphrased version. "When I read it, I wondered who believes this stuff? That's when I started to apply common sense."

Cynthia turned to archeology — her favorite science and one she trusted — anxious to validate biblical events she found dubious. The archeological record contradicted them. She continued with Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, a popular account of how humans evolved to develop science. By the time she worked up to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, she had pushed agnosticism aside and become a full-blown atheist.

In general, atheists become strikingly well-read as they cycle through forms of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and new-age thought. They often spend time actually practicing one or more different religions. "When you've grown up with any religion, going without God can be scary," says Mark Orel, a Freethinker from Euclid. For him, the foundational Hindu texts were instrumental. "The Bhagavad Gita made a huge difference in my life, teaching me that you have to like people the way they are — you can't change their nature."

In a seemingly incongruous move, members of Cleveland Freethinkers recently formed a monthly Bible study group that meets at the Maple Heights Library. For many who were raised with religion — particularly former Catholics — it's their first time to crack open the Good Book in earnest.

Their protocol is not unlike any Christian Bible study: Everyone reads a passage, followed by a roundtable discussion to summarize and posit meaning. "When we finish Genesis, we want to have a scholar in to answer questions," Mark Orel says. "We've been taking notes, and we have a lot of questions!"

Most atheists have plenty of faith — in science.

Richard Scott's research took him on a tangent into medical literature, where he learned that religion was not the most tenable solution for his crippled prose and limited attention span. He eventually saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed not a surfeit of demons, but attention-deficit disorder and anxiety. "I'm still deprogramming," he says. "I'm making new neuropathways through my brain."

For the more casual seeker, the Center for Inquiry of Northeast Ohio offers programs aimed at advancing humanism and applying scientific methods and critical thinking to public policy issues. "We concentrate on areas where science and social issues intersect," says Randy Pelton, the group's president. Events feature speakers on topics ranging from the death penalty to politics to theoretical physics.

Ginger, a Cleveland Freethinker from University Heights, heads an offshoot group called the Cleveland Skeptics and hopes to coordinate programs with the Center for Inquiry. With about 200 members, the Cleveland Skeptics aim to promote science and critical thinking about extraordinary claims. Among their specialties: astrology, ghosts and hauntings, Bigfoot and other monsters, too-good-to-be-true health claims, psychics, and conspiracies.

Their motive is not necessarily to debunk such phenomena. The skeptics recently went to a new age and psychic fair. "We try to learn about what these people believe and why," says Ginger, who agreed to be identified in this story by first name only. "Our main principle is evidence first, conclusion later — not starting with an answer and working backward."

For Christians and most other believers, the idea of an afterlife or reward for a lifetime of good deeds brings solace. Atheists prefer to invoke quantum theory to explain what happens when you die, if they invoke anything at all.

"We are just matter and energy. When we die, matter will turn into other matter and energy to other energy. There is just nothing," says Cynthia. Asked whether she is afraid to die, she answers, "What am I going to do about it?"

Suzy applies the same principle, but with a slightly different conclusion. "It's not nothing," she says. "Matter cannot be created or destroyed, so it will continue to exist."

As for morality and the need for religion and an afterlife in order to motivate goodness, she and most other atheists balk. "Morality only has to do with religion if you believe that you were born bad. I believe everything is born good."

"Everyone fears death, whether they are religious or not. All you can do is reflect back and hope you added more than you subtracted," says Jay, a Cleveland Freethinker from Lakewood. "If you believe in heaven and hell, it becomes demonstrably easier to justify slaughtering other living beings. Hitler, after all, thought he was doing God's work." For Jay, dying marks a return to the conscious state one had before conception and birth — which is to say, no conscious state at all.

An afterlife is not a prominent feature of Judaism. To Jewish Freethinker Roni, we are alive only while our brains are working. In her words: "Dying is like turning the computer off."

"None of that helps me any," says Marni Tiborsky, who has had a tremendous fear of "no longer being here," as she puts it, ever since she was a child — a fear that still wakes her, shaking and hyperventilating at night. "I know there is no shame in fearing death. I'm getting better as I get older."

Atheists' Christmas celebrations span the extremes. Some acknowledge only the winter solstice. Lucky for them, Cleveland Freethinkers and Cleveland Skeptics threw a joint solstice party Saturday night at Hiroshi's Pub in Beachwood. Some go all out, doing all the stereotypically Christmas things, but without the godly trappings. Others treat the holiday like any other day off. Most reject the excessive consumerism that drowns Christmas in the United States.

Some even pretend to believe, in order to avoid uneasy family situations. As for former nun Cynthia? She plans to take her aunt to the casino on Christmas. "If my family were coming, I would have dinner," she says. "But I wouldn't go to Mass."

Young mother Joanna has a non-believing Christmas, complete with gift exchanges and greeting cards ("You're the reason for my season," she writes inside). For her son, she is still debating Santa Claus. "I don't want to be dishonest," she says with a little angst.

Mark Orel isn't wrestling with that particular dilemma. "I love Christmas! I love Santa Claus!" he says with a giant grin, almost jumping up and down with an exuberance uncommon in a man of 49.

There was a lively round of Christmas carols at the Freethinkers' December meeting. Their Skype friend Rafiq even shared his version of "First Noel," rechristened "No Hell":

There is no hell, whatever they say,

Though it's certain poor fools

will continue to pray

The priests still beguile them and

treat them like sheep,

With fear and false hopes in

slavery keep

No hell, no hell, no heaven too,

Nothing to fool or to terrify you.

These days, Richard Scott is missing out on the companionship of the Cleveland Freethinkers community that once brought him out of his own religion-mired darkness. Last year he moved from Middlefield to a tiny town northeast of Pittsburgh. For Christmas, he plans to meet with friends — only one of whom is a fellow non-believer — at a favorite restaurant and maybe hit the bars.

Richard's fundamentalist family considers Christmas a pagan festival that has nothing to do with Christianity. While he has a relationship with them, he describes a lingering schism — and if they gathered for Christmas, he wouldn't join in.

"My father still believes my demons are because of the failure of man," he says.

On the other hand, some of Richard's siblings have softened, and they even give Christmas gifts. They try to help others during the holidays, he says. "Why not help people every day?"

Send feedback to mcampbell@clevescene.com.

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