In some circles, Detroit is sometimes referred to as "god's city" because of the strong influence of various religions and denominations on life in the area. Ironic if you keep up with daily headlines, I know, but it's still quite true.
But now, a new coalition of atheist organizations is rolling out an introductory campaign this week designed to show that there are probably more non-believers in and around "god's city" than you might think. And this new umbrella group, the Detroit Area Coalition of Reason, is working diligently to bring together as many of them as possible.
I heard from Ruthe Milan, a coalition organizer, a few weeks ago about the campaign (which features signs like the one pictured above) and was intrigued. I grew even more interested as I watched big-name Detroit ministers try, yet again, to turn city politics into their personal sanctuaries during the debate over Detroit's strip club ordinances a week or so back. So I reached out to Milan to find out more about the campaign and what the leaders of Detroit CoR hope to bring to public conversations currently dominated by believers.
Among the first things they want to bring, explained Milan, is a broader variety of atheist voices, reaching across lines of race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation. "A group like this is necessary because the reason-based, non-believeing community in the Detroit area doesn't know they have resources to network with," she said. "So we're trying to get word out to let them know there are groups to work with, for civil-rights, separation-of-church-and-state issues, as well as to socialize with."
Jason Pitmann, the chairperson of the advisory board for the Center For Inquiry/Michigan, one of the groups in the coalition, suggested that metro Detroit is likely teeming with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers. "Recent surveys have shown that over 13 percent of the US population is non-theist," Pitmann said. "Statistically, this would translate into about 650,000 people in metro Detroit."
However, many of them are "in the closet, so to speak," Pitmann continued. "In cities where the majority of people are Christian or Muslim, there is social pressure to conform, or at least to keep your opinions about religion quiet. Another reason is that non-theists are more likely to believe strongly in the separation of church and state, so they are less likely to make a political issue out of their non-belief. Because they believe religion is a private matter, they are less likely to speak of it in public."
Pitmann's definitely on to something with this. Even though I've never been quiet about my disdain for religion, I know numerous people throughout this city, particularly from the traditionally Christian black community, who long ago abandoned the idea of "god" as an irrational, improbable and unproven concept -- but who keep their mouths shut tight about it. I think, for instance, about one of my good friends from childhood, an up-and-coming businessman who has been atheist for years now. Despite this, though, he adamantly refuses to publicly discuss his non-belief for fear of losing customers, many of whom are devout African-American church goers who think their "blessed" money should only be exchanged with other Christians. (Ahh, if they only knew...)
Milan said that when metro Detroit atheists do run across others with like minds, they're shocked. She recalled working outdoors in Royal Oak last year on behalf of the Detroit Grassroots Atheism Project, another CoR member: "So many people stopped and said, 'I had no idea there were so many atheists around here.' They thought they were alone. People just don't know."
But the CoR doesn't just want to cultivate more conversation among atheists. In keeping with a more vocal strain of non-belief, sometimes termed "new atheism," that has been emerging in recent years, the group is also looking to heighten "secular activism," coalition members explained. Arlene-Marie, the director of Michigan Atheists, an affiliate of the national American Atheists organization, said there have been numerous local incidents, many of them centered around the issue of the separation of church and state, that highlight the need for vociferous secular groups in the Detroit area.
"We have watched for many, many months elected officials such as Kwame Kilpatrick and Monica Conyers hold the hand of their God in an effort to excuse their illegal activities," she pointed out. "Dozens of metro Detroit school boards and city councils use public property to begin their meetings with prayer seeking divine guidance in performing their public duties. Most of our local courts are not a Bible/religion free zone. All too often defendants, plaintiffs and even jurors are confronted with the pressure of taking an oath proclaiming 'so help me God.' The official oath of office in Michigan concludes with, 'so help me God.'"
Milan said the coalition is hoping to work with a wide variety of organizations, regardless of whether they are atheist groups or not. "There is cross over in theistic community when it comes to separation of church and state issues," she contended.
She says the group isn't expecting backlash to its new campaign or its outreach efforts, but she says she wouldn't be surprised if it comes. She told the Detroit News:
"So far so good: one person called and was very hostile, saying that we were telling people not to believe in God," Milan said.
"He said that wasn't something children should see, to which I agreed. I told him to go back and read the message again; that's when he realized it was a question, not a statement. He calmed down and we had a nice talk for about 20 minutes."
Milan insists that CoR isn't looking to "de-convert" anyone with its work, but the group isn't ducking the oft-touchy subject of religion either. "People have to make their own decisions," she told me. "But I welcome the conversation with believers."
Yes, I think that groups like CoR are vital, but what do you think of the coalition, about the CoR campaign? Should the coalition encourage more non-believers to speak out? How well do you think the campaign will do in the heavily religious metro Detroit area? And how do you feel about the member groups pooling their resources to work around issues such as separation of church and state in our region? Discussion is welcome.