Humanists of Linn County want to make a difference in the community they value

'We want people to know you can do good without God'

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By Molly Rossiter, correspondent

A large group gathers for coffee and breakfast once a week — usually on Saturdays at the Blue Strawberry in downtown Cedar Rapids, but at alternate times and in different locations during Farmer’s Market season when the area is too busy. Its members discuss politics, national and global issues, current events and how they can come together to help. Their membership is roughly 190, though only about a dozen or two turn out for the weekly coffees.

Their discussion always — without fail — turns to giving and serving their community.

They’ve stood alongside religious groups to protest Donald Trump’s call for banning Muslims from entering the United States. They’ve worked with veterans’ organizations to raise awareness for PTSD and rising numbers of suicide and suicide attempts among veterans. In just two meetings, the members raised more than $650 to purchase science equipment for a Cedar Rapids middle school.

Organizers say they serve for two reasons: First, and most important, because these members are civic-minded and invested in their community and their state. They care, and they want to make a difference.

But secondly, they want to show others that they’re good people, that they — like those who sit in churches, synagogues and mosques — value their community and want to make a difference.

“We all have religious people ask us, ‘If you don’t get your values or your morals from the Bible, how do you know not to steal and murder?’” said Roxanne “Rocky” Gissler, organizer of Humanists of Linn County. “We want people to know you can do good without God.”

The Humanists of Linn County is “a progressive secular group without any religious or new age underpinnings,” according to the group’s MeetUp website, The group is made up mostly of secular Humanists and non-theists, but is otherwise diverse.

“The common element here is ‘atheist,’ or lack of organized religion or God,” said Niles Ross, 73, of Cedar Rapids. “If you look around the table, we’re all very diverse in so many other things. We don’t all agree on the same things.”

What they do agree on, though, is their struggle against the “atheist” stereotype.

“The word ‘atheist’ has a very bad reputation, because people look at that word and assume it means, ‘anti-theist,’” said Joe Stutler, 52, of Marion. “I’m not anti-theist, I’m just not theist.”

The group is indicative of the growing number of non-theists across the country. In its 2014 Religious Landscape Study, the Pew Research Center reported that 3.1 percent of Americans said they were atheist, almost double the 1.6 percent who claimed atheism in a similar study in 2007. Another 4 percent said they were agnostic in 2014, up from 2.4 percent in 2007.

The numbers may seem small, but they represent nearly a third — 31 percent — of all adults who say they are not affiliated with religion, up from 25 percent in 2007.

What’s more, according to the study, the trend is likely to continue. The majority — 68 percent — of those who claimed to be atheist or agnostic were men with a median age of 34.

Though Gissler and her colleagues are working to remove the stereotype, they know they’re fighting an uphill battle. According to another Pew Research Center survey in 2014, Americans like atheists less than they like members of most major religious groups. Those surveyed were asked to use a “feeling thermometer” to describe different groups, with scores ranging from zero to 100 — with zero being cold and negative and 100 being warm and welcoming. Atheists received an average rating of 41 — compared to 40 for Muslims, 63 for Jews, 62 for Catholics and 61 for evangelical Christians.

Gissler, Stutler and four others — Adam Blyth, Alan Diehl, Paul Pompi and Richard Feek — formed the Humanists of Linn County in March 2015 in an effort to beat those stereotypes.

“Ironically, as a group we’re all pro-freedom of religion,” said Pompi, 47, of Marion. “As a group we stood alongside religious groups to protest (Donald) Trump’s anti-Muslim stance.”

The Humanists of Linn County came from another group of which most members also belong — the Corridor A-Team, a group formed in 2009 to meet the social needs of the atheist and agnostic community.

In the A-Team Gissler and the others found common ground: People who didn’t question their values or mock them for not being religious. But they wanted more.

“There were a few of us who just started thinking, ‘Shouldn’t we be doing little more?’” Gissler said.

The “more” she and others were looking for was in the form of community service. Gissler said a handful of A-Team members from Linn County started talking about a service organization. The more they talked about it, she said, the more people became interested.

They started researching secular, atheist and free-thinking groups, trying to determine with which they would align. Last year, they officially became a chapter of the American Humanist Association.

Now they get together regularly and discuss what’s happening in the world around them, and how they can make a difference. It’s an important conversation, members said.

“I want to give to the community, I want people to know I care,” Blyth said.

“Really, as a group, this is about raising the profile of the Humanist group in the community,” Gissler said. “As people see what we’re doing, and as we get more attention, it makes it possible for people see non-theist groups as doing good.”

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