Skeptics, atheists ask: What do you not believe?


John Peel

Current Columnist


Skeptics, atheists ask: What do you not believe?

If you’ve ever sat on the edge of an open airplane door, looking at the ground 8,000 feet below, then you know what it’s like to take a leap of faith.

Well, try this if you dare: Stand at the top of the stairs at The Irish Embassy Pub some third Wednesday of the month. Rid yourself of every unproven belief to which you cling.

Go on, now. Head downstairs and join the Durango Skeptics and Atheists.

You’re taking a leap of nonfaith.

Think of these meetings as an extreme sport for intellectuals. For the next two hours you will be forced to confront your deepest beliefs. Your meaning of life. You will need to defend, at least to yourself, the beliefs you hold dear. Or you will perhaps tearfully need to let them go.

If you’re fortunate, you will leave with your scrambled self-identity still salvageable.

With 73 percent of Americans still professing to be Christians, a number that has declined from 78 percent in the last five years, it’s not mainstream to be a practicing heathen. But it’s the only choice for those who can’t face the hypocrisy of worshiping a greater power in which they can’t honestly believe.

The Durango group is not alone in its nonbelief. The latest survey by the Pew Forum on Religion shows that 20 percent of the U.S. population is not affiliated with an organized religion. Atheists comprise 2.4 percent of the U.S. populace and agnostics 3.3 percent, numbers also on the rise.

So go ahead, walk down those stairs. Meet the group. First off, you’ll find that the skydiving analogy was perhaps a bit of an exaggeration.

Really, this is a bunch that is willing to listen, and its members attempt to be nonjudgmental. If there’s truly any fear in coming down those stairs, it’s in knowing that your beliefs will come under scrutiny from within.

“It is challenging, but it’s fun,” says Tom Hancock, a Durangoan for 36 years.

Hancock’s story is fairly common. His views on religion, his questioning the existence of God in the Christian sense, were shut down by his parents. The Durango group is helping him solidify those views.

“Lots of good ideas, coming from the heart,” is how he describes a typical meeting.

Kathleen O’Connor moved from Austin, Texas, to Durango with her husband two years ago. When she saw the group’s page on, she was excited beyond words.

She was one of the original members. Through word of mouth and the website, the group has grown to 77. The bond is a nonbelief in God, but “it’s more just about applying critical thinking skills to all areas of your life,” O’Connor says. “Not just with religion.”

If you believe that being a skeptic and atheist is arrogant, member Clayton Nash would claim just the opposite. The skeptic is humble.

“What I want to believe is true isn’t necessarily true,” Nash says. “If an argument is based on rational thought we’ll accept it. ... We’ll change our mind if you show us the truth. I’ll believe anything. Show me.”

Last month, 20 people – 16 men and four women – gathered downstairs at The Irish Embassy Pub. One brave attendee did profess a belief in God, and, although he didn’t convert anyone, he was treated with respect.

For many members the group’s primary goal is not to be offensive or to confront people about their beliefs. It’s to create a semblance of community for people without a religious affiliation. Church-goers have a built-in community the unaffiliated lack.

The first order of business is for new attendees to reveal themselves and answer a few questions, among them: How would you label yourself?

The question is most difficult to answer when you’re not even sure what being an atheist or agnostic or humanist or skeptic means. Warning: One can go crazy trying to come to an agreement on definitions. But try these:

An atheist sees no proof that there is a god, but does not necessarily deny that there could be a god.

An agnostic believes it’s impossible for a human to know whether or not there is a god.

A skeptic needs proof before believing in something, whether it’s a god or that, say, a certain herb can cure your body of cancer.

A humanist focuses on the positive aspects of humanity and how a god is not needed to be moral.

Bill Vana, noting the wide range of beliefs in the Durango-based group, calls himself a humanist.

“It’s more I care about all humans,” Vana says. “I’m not against God. I don’t say there’s no God. But I don’t plan on it. ... I do good for the sake of doing good, not for the reward.”

Fort Lewis College professor Dugald Owen, at the prodding of the local atheist group, will speak Feb. 18 at the college on “Living Deeper Without God.” His theme will be that we can recognize our human potential more fully if we don’t allow God to get in the way.

“We mostly don’t understand the universe and should be open to all possibilities,” Owen says.

One of the great tasks of being human is to figure out what we can and can’t understand of the universe. It’s to “meet a universe that’s complex and not necessarily designed for us.”

“The belief in God just obscures that task for humanity,” Owen says.

There’s a growing contingent in Durango that meets to view the universe through a lens unfiltered by a god. Think of it as a support group for people who insist on critical thinking, come what may.

Is this such a frightening proposition?

“It’s OK to not believe in a god,” O’Connor says. “It doesn’t make you a bad person to not believe in a god. You don’t need religion to be a good person.”

It’s not for everyone to take the leap of nonfaith. But the view is exhilarating, the feeling liberating. And, judging by last month, it appears that most people land just fine and walk away intact. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

If you go

Dugald Owen, associate professor of political science and philosophy at Fort Lewis College, will speak about “Living Deeper Without God” at 7 p.m. Feb. 18 at 130 Noble Hall at FLC.

For more information on upcoming meetings of the Durango Skeptics and Atheists group, visit and search for “Durango.” Or visit for a sample of the group’s discussion.

Skeptics, atheists ask: What do you not believe?

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