It’s the holiday season—what’s an atheist to do? According to John Dearing, president and founder of the Corvallis Secular Society, it’s perfectly normal for atheists to jump in and celebrate the holidays alongside everybody else, only without the religious aspect.
“Humans are social animals; they like to get together, they like to celebrate,” said Dearing. “We like to give gifts, have friends over, have a good time. We just don’t march off to church.”
The Corvallis Secular Society holds a potluck feast to celebrate the winter solstice. Aside from that, the group’s 30 members all celebrate the holidays in their own way. Whether or not they choose to celebrate Christmas is a decision often influenced by whether or not they have children.
“One couple had a Tree of Evolution,” Dearing said. “They would put little plastic figurines of animals on the tree, going from bacteria and then up to the most sophisticated animals.”
Dearing, who has two sons, still has a Christmas tree each year. “We do not have an angel on top,” he noted.
However, having an alternative way to celebrate the holidays isn’t the only purpose of the Corvallis Secular Society, although the social aspect is an important one. The group is a strong supporter of basic civil rights, particularly when it comes to protecting them from the influence of religious groups.
“Any religious group that gets enough power seems to want to impose its beliefs on others,” Dearing said. “We don’t want them to pass laws that enforce their beliefs on us. Equality as a law is essential. If we don’t have that, we don’t have the separation of government and religion.”
Although the group as a whole does not endorse candidates, its individual members are very political. As an example, the Secular Society supported Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD)’s efforts to protect children denied medical care in favor of faith healing. Their efforts paid off last year when a law was passed in Oregon removing legal protection from parents who depend on faith healing for their children’s medical needs.
Dearing believes it’s fine that religions practice what they wish—so long as that doesn’t give them exemptions from any law.
“Everybody has the privilege to believe and practice what they want,” said Dearing.
Overall, the Corvallis Secular Society is focused on keeping the United States true to its founding principles that separate government from religion and ensure basic civil rights for all.
“The United States Constitution was the first document in human history to separate government and religion,” Dearing said. “Before the United States existed I think every group in the world favored one group or another; in any society where one or more groups are favored, that means everybody else is disfavored.”
Surprisingly, Dearing began as a devout Christian.
“I was strongly considering going to seminary and becoming a priest,” he said. “I thought I should read more so I could point out the fallacies in their thinking; it didn’t actually work that way.”
After reading a wide range of literature, notably philosopher Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian,” Dearing embraced secularism, humanism, knowledge based on science rather than faith, and morality based on compassion rather than dogma.
“My personal approach to any knowledge is I want to know what is true
whether I like the results or not,” he said. “I’ll believe there’s a god, given sufficient evidence.”
Given the rise of atheism, and the fact that Corvallis is a particularly non-religious town (according to City-data.com, only 23 percent of its population is affiliated with a religious congregation, as opposed to the nation-wide average of 50 percent), it seemed like a good place to start a secular society. It also helps that atheism is becoming more and more popular.
“I think it’s a trend that will continue,” Dearing said.
Dearing’s beliefs aren’t always out of alignment with those of Christians; he jokes that most Christians are almost atheists anyway, as they, too, don’t believe in most religions.
“They believe in one out of those thousands of gods, and I believe in zero,” he said.
Dearing has another thing in common with Christians, too, given the contradictory nature of the Bible.
“One of the greatest sources of quotes for atheists is the Bible,” he said.
The Corvallis Secular Society publishes a monthly newsletter and meets every third Saturday of the month. For more information, visit http://corvallissecular.org.
By Jen Matteis
Bertrand Russell: “Why I Am Not a Christian”
Corvallis Secular Society