Jeremy Fejfar wrote a letter to the editor last fall that reminded Hank Zumach of one of his own.
In the letter, Fejfar of Holmen, Wis., critiques the position that the laws of the United States are based on the Ten Commandments.
After seeing the letter, Zumach called Fejfar to compliment him, and during that conversation began talking about a group he’d like to form.
Started this winter, the La Crosse Area Freethought Society now has a Web site (www.lcafs.org), about 30 members and a mission statement: “The La Crosse Area Freethought Society is organized to serve as a local forum in which nontheists can meet, socialize and exchange ideas. Our mission is to promote positive freethought, the separation of church and state, and the application of reason and science to human understanding.”
“This is not just a group of atheists,” Zumach said. “We’re nontheists. From there, we have different views.”
Like Fejfar’s letter, the group is in part a response to what some members perceive as religious-motivated intolerance.
Marybeth Clark, 67, said a big reason she comes to the group, which meets monthly, is she sees religions doing much damage.
“When we start children very young, teaching them to just believe an authority, whether that’s a man or woman at a pulpit or a book on the table, it’s a dangerous thing,” said Clark, who describes herself as an atheist Unitarian. “We should be teaching our children to question and demand evidence before you believe something.”
Betty Hammond, 76, became a born-again Christian at age 18 and used to be married to a minister. Now a member of the Freethought Society, Hammond said she felt a great loss of community when she left the church.
“But I began to look at the Bible using more reason than faith,” said Hammond, an agnostic and Zumach’s domestic partner. “I could no longer believe in a God who ordered so many atrocities.”
At the same time, Clark, like others in the group, said truths, especially concerning morality, can be found in scriptures from all religions.
As five society members sat in the La Crosse home of Clark and her husband, Larry Imhoff, last month discussing why they were in the group, they also discussed terminology.
Imhoff, 67, calls himself agnostic.
“I don’t believe it’s knowable as to whether there are deities floating around up there,” he said. “I fall on the agnostic side saying, Show me some proof and I’ll reconsider.’”
Zumach, 66, who has a bumper sticker at home reading “Militant agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t know either,” said in common usage “atheist” carries baggage that makes some feel uncomfortable.
Fejfar, 29, who grew up Lutheran, said he’s an atheist, and that while it’s not scientific to go so far as to make a claim of absolute knowledge, as an atheist he simply rejects the claims set forth by religion due to a lack of evidence.
“I feel everyone here is atheist,” he said. “They don’t necessarily like the label. Agnostic is perfectly fine. It’s more socially acceptable. My wife would prefer me to use the term.”
Fejfar also said the general public is atheist with regard to the “gods throughout the ages that have been created by man.”
He ends some e-mails with a quote from Stephen Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, you’ll understand why I dismiss yours.”
But contrary to what Fejfar said some believe, life is not meaningless for him. Rather, since become an atheist, life has become more meaningful.
“Now I understand that every day I am able to live and do things is the only chance I’ll have,” he said. “Every moment is made far more valuable than the Creationist who believes you get maybe 100 years on this planet followed by an eternity of happiness, which makes this place basically a place to wipe your feet before the grand finale. It dilutes the wonderfulness and greatness of life.”