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Atheists see lake retreat as refuge from religion

  • Article by: ERIN EDGEMON
  • Associated Press
  • November 12, 2013 - 9:25 AM

MUNFORD, Ala. — Roger and Pat Cleveland, of Talladega County, first had the idea in the 1980s to create an oasis where atheists in Alabama and the South could gather.

They wanted to have a place in the heart of the Bible Belt where atheists could feel free to congregate with those with similar beliefs and feel safe, Pat Cleveland said.

The Alabama Freethought Association, formed by the Clevelands in 1989, is now the Freedom From Religion Foundation's longest-running chapter in the country and is the only one that the national organization teamed up with to build a meeting hall, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said.

For years, Alabama was one of the organization's largest and most active chapters with its own retreat on Lake Joan in rural Munford, which they call Lake Hypatia.

Membership in the state organization has dwindled to about 170 due to the aging of core activists. The national organization boasts about 20,000 members. However, the actual number of atheists both nationally and statewide are much larger, as many non-religious - especially in the South, do not publicly disclose their beliefs.

Atheism is defined as not having a belief in gods, according to American Atheists Inc., a national atheist organization.

A 2012 Pew Research Center study shows 19 percent of the country - 60 million people -- consider themselves non-religious, up 15 percent from 2008. About 2 percent are atheists.

According to information from American Atheists Inc., there are at least a dozen atheist or freethinker groups located across the state of Alabama. Membership ranges from teenagers to senior citizens. Not all members of groups are members of national organizations.

Alabama atheists are more active than most in the country due to the inclination for religion and government to mix in the South, Gaylor said.

The Clevelands and other chapter members have been a part of several lawsuits, including a successful suit against the state of Alabama to remove crosses from state parks and to open up a building used as a chapel in Mount Cheaha State Park to nonreligious groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama on behalf of the Alabama Freethought Association filed the first lawsuit against Roy Moore, who at the time was an Etowah County Circuit Court judge, asking for the removal of a Ten Commandments plaque and cessation of prayers in his courtroom in the mid-1990s. The ACLU originally won the circuit court case, but it was later thrown out on a technicality.

"We have been struck by the steadfastness, courage and commitment of many of our Alabama members and activists, who, far from being discouraged by its religiosity of Alabama, feel all the more need to speak out," Gaylor said.

Pat Cleveland said when she and her husband, who died this year, realized there were other people like them in Alabama, who believed in the separation of church and state, but couldn't come out of the closet, they wanted to provide a retreat for them.

"People are worried about their reputation, but they are getting braver," Pat said. "They feel it is a safe place to come now."

The Clevelands donated property on Lake Joan, in Munford, a small town in Talladega County, to the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the early 1990s. FFRF raised money to build meeting space and an auditorium on the peaceful lake in rural Alabama.

Freethinkers renamed the body of water, Lake Hypatia, after one of the first women to study math, astronomy and philosophy.

Usually, the organization attracts around 200 people to the lakefront retreat over the July 4th weekend where members congregate; listen to lectures on civil rights, science and religion; camp; and fish and swim in the lake.

Besides its picturesque setting, Lake Hypatia is unique in that it is the home to the Freedom from Religion Foundation's "Atheists in Foxholes" monument erected in 1999.

The monument is dedicated to the many members of the military who were "atheists in foxholes," as well as to all freethinkers -- atheists, agnostics, and skeptics of any persuasion -- who serve in the U.S. military.

Other freethinker associations across the state are more social in nature, but some do participate in local activism.

Brian Wibecan, of the Montgomery Area Freethought Association, said it is "very difficult" to be an atheist in Alabama because of the "pervasive emphasis on religion and widespread misconceptions about nonreligious people."

"Groups like MAFA exist in part to provide an oasis where people can talk about life without religion being part of the conversation, and where people can vent their complaints about the religious pressures around them," he said.

The Montgomery group has begun to make a more public presence, speaking out about separation of church and state, the misconceptions of atheists and engaging in charitable works. The groups recently held a successful food drive for the Montgomery Area Food Bank.

Wibecan, a software engineer, said there are more atheist groups in Alabama than in Massachusetts where he previously lived, because of the "extreme religious influence in this area, and the difficulties faced by many atheists here."

Wibecan and Chuck Miller, regional director for American Atheists in Alabama, said atheist groups are becoming more aware that the core activists are growing old, and is it working to bring more diversity to its programs and conventions.

"You can pay a social price," Miller, of Huntsville, said of being atheist in the state. "You can be denied employment even though it is not illegal to express your First Amendment rights."

Wibecan said more high school and college-age atheists are joining groups because they are facing bullying and intimidation.

Delos McKown, a retired philosophy professor at Auburn University and ex-clergy, said he no longer receives negative remarks about his non-belief because he has been very vocal about it over the years.

"I am seldom crossed," he said, because of his religious knowledge he wins most arguments. "(Christians) have these myths about what atheists are supposed to be like."

McKown said he is known as the village atheist in Auburn, and acknowledges he gets into conversations from time-to-time if "attacked."

Decades ago he spoke often at Lake Hypatia and even provided testimony in the case of Ishmael Jaffree, a Mobile attorney and father, who sued the state of Alabama when his children were being forced to attend prayer services in Mobile public schools.

That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court where the court ruled that the state's statute that permitted religious or quasi-religious activity in the Alabama public schools was meant to advance religion and was in violation of the First Amendment.

Cleveland said she thinks the group she and her husband formed 24 years ago, has made a difference.

"It is very rewarding every time there is a new face (at the meeting hall), and children can come in and talk about what is going on in their school," she said. "They feel safe enough to talk about it."

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