The Nonbelievers

The Nonbelievers
Despite Strong Individualistic Tendencies, Atheists Seek Community for Comfort

By Keely Savoie
Special to New York Resident

[Published in the April 7, 2003 issue of the Upper West Side weekly newspaper the New York Resident. Minor corrections are in brackets.]

According to Josh Karpf, leader of the New York City Atheists (NYCA), his co-non-religionists are not "joiners." Getting them together, he says, "is like herding cats."

And yet he succeeds in scheduling monthly dinners and cafe nights to which many local atheists gravitate, if only to agree to disagree on a wide range of topics, from conspiracy theories to cults to evolutionary biology.

At a recent drinks-and-dinner meetup at Mustang Harry's, a Seventh Avenue bar, the group conversed under a Mark Twain quote on the wall that read, "It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."

The group happily rejected their God-given prudence and debated politics with gusto. There was little agreement but a congenial acceptance of differences. A gathering of atheists felt less like a group of like-minded individuals than a collection of committed iconoclasts.

Accord-ing to a City University of New York survey, atheists, agnostics, secularists, and others who claim no religion numbered 29.4 million in 2001, more than doubling the 14.1 million of 1990. Thirteen percent of New Yorkers are not religious, puffing the state just below the national average of 14.1 percent.

Most atheists describe coming to their belief that there is no God as a long process of serious thought and intellectual inquiry Stacy Irwin, a 25-year-old graphic designer, remembers a moment of epiphany that started her down the road to nonbelief after finding out that there was no Santa Claus.

"My mother told me to reason it out," she says. "Was there any evidence of Santa Claus? Did I ever see him? Then I took that logic and applied it to every area of my life."

Harvey Osgood, 62, also describes a theological impasse. "When I was 13, I had my bar mitzvah, and I realized I had three choices regarding God - to be a theist, a nontheist, or an agnostic. After a great deal of thought, I realized I just did not believe there was a God," he remembers.

Many atheists attest to a kind of unavoidability about their belief and a sense that religious people have access to a source of comfort and solace that atheists are simply unable to grasp.

"I tried to make that leap of faith, but I'm just not capable of it," says Osgood, whose wife died recently.

I'm sorry I can't bring that to bear on my emotions." It's a sentiment also expressed by Nick Sizow, who ark picnic has been in chemotherapy for more than a year. "I've envied people who can give themselves over to something like that," he says. "Religion relieves people of their mortality. To let go of that is not easy -- the light goes off and that's it."

Despite the strength of their person-al convictions, most atheists also profess a strict policy of laissez-faire. "To disabuse people of their belief in God is immoral," says Osgood. "It's a nasty, nasty thing to do."

And despite their individualistic natures, atheists in Manhattan do seek each other's company, finding comfort in community, as many others do through religion.

"We have nothing in common except this one thing," says Ileen Zovluck, an NYCA member. "But I've met a lot of great friends here -- friendships based largely on our differences."

That seems to be the point, because the very nature of atheism makes it difficult to define a unifying goal. "It would be nice to find something for atheists to gather around," muses Sizow. "The only thing that comes up is love - we have to project our love on humanity. That's where it's needed," he says. "Let's make that a kind of religion."

There are half a dozen [freethought] groups in New York City, which can be found on the NYCA Web site, [http://nyc-atheists.org] (212-330-6794). Karpf, who runs the 250-strong group entirely on voluntary contributions, schedules monthly meetups along with other special events that are also posted on the site.