Smith established the group with Shaun Sexton in September 2012 to provide a gathering place and support group for local atheists. Anniston is deep in the heart of Bible country, where publicly “out” atheists may be more likely to simply leave the state, according to Smith.
“I love Alabama, and I love this town,” said Smith. “If everyone leaves because they’re different, nothing ever changes.”
The seven members who make it to the meeting are an ordinary-looking group. There are some students, a few young parents. One has his toddler for the morning, and sets the boy up with crayons and something to eat before joining the conversation.
“I started the public group to raise awareness that atheists are everywhere,” said Smith. “When people realize their loved ones are atheists, it’s harder to hate those people.”
The normality of the group clashes with member Kendra Cheyne’s reports of accusations of witchcraft and devil worship. Many of the attendees asked specifically to remain anonymous for fear of mistreatment.
“I never understood that,” said Cheyne. “Why are we so undesirable?”
In a 2006 study by the University of Minnesota, respondents identified atheists as the group “least in line with my vision of America” — more so than Muslims, homosexuals or undocumented immigrants. Though it was not clear how atheists fall out of line with most people’s “vision of America,” there’s no mistaking the widespread distaste for atheism. Nearly half of respondents, 47.6 percent, said they would be opposed to their child marrying an atheist.
Some of the animosity toward atheists is dogmatic — to the faithful, a nonbeliever is willfully choosing damnation. The efforts of atheist groups to separate church and state — namely through litigation seeking to remove various religious conventions from government institutions — can also cause friction.
A prime example is the recent lawsuit against the City of Montgomery over the police department’s “Operation Good Shepherd,” a program that has trained Christian pastors to accompany police units to a crime scene to provide counseling.
“I think that fear is a result of a mischaracterization of the aims of atheists,” said Charles Miller, regional director of the Alabama chapter of American Atheists. Lawsuits like the one in Montgomery aren’t intended to stop religion from existing, he said, only from becoming a state-funded venture.
“The intent is to protect adherents of all religions and none,” Miller said, “so Christians are protected from, for example, Islamic law and vice versa.”
The Secular Society, however, doesn’t actively participate in either protests or litigation. Instead, its aim is to inform others about the secular mindset while encouraging atheists to be open about their convictions.
“The whole idea behind the group is that you’re not alone,” said Sexton.
Beyond its simple creed to provide support for fellow atheists, the Secular Society also offers support to the community. Last year the group donated 120 food and personal care items to Second Chance, an Anniston charity that supports victims of domestic abuse.
The Secular Society has the same sense of human decency as its Sunday morning counterparts, members point out. However, their generosity doesn’t stem from religious obligations, but an intrinsic sense of morality.
The important thing, they say, is that it’s there.
While the nonbelievers don’t believe in an afterlife, they say that’s all the more reason to make this life the best it can be.
Explained Smith, “Just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t mean it’s not precious.”
For more information about the Calhoun County Secular Society, visit online at facebook.com/calhouncountysecularsociety.