God? Loud Denials and a Few Shrugs

God? Loud Denials and a Few Shrugs

By Erin Chan
New York Times, 8/10/03

Sitting in on a social meeting of the New York City Atheists can be like walking through Times Square for the very first time.

A flurry of philosophical ideas assaults your senses. Arguments and theories dart into your cerebrum, voices swirl through the inner ear. When it's over, you need to blink hard, breathe deep and tell yourself to go to bed. You'll relive it later.

Two things, though, become clear about this fusion of unbelievers: they may not need God, but they need each other. And they need each other to disagree.

With the New York City Atheists, "you have concerns, but you're not excluded," said Roger Foster, a professor of philosophy at the Borough of Manhattan Community College-CUNY. "You have a platform where people can share news and information and develop a community awareness."

Debate and discussion make up the crux of conversation when the group gathers for one of its "meet-ups," regular gatherings that revolve around guest speakers, coffee, food and jazz. Founded in March 2001 by Josh Karpf, a book editor who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the group began as a cadre of mostly retired people but in recent months has grown to encompass a younger set of financial planners and systems analysts.

At street fairs where the group advertises, yellow banners reading "Total Separation of Church and State" have generated shouting matches with strolling passers-by, but they have lured people, too. Each new meet-up brings a few more people, who need only dial 212-330-6794 to reach the group's recorded schedule, which begins: "You can join your fellow heretics at. . . ."

On a recent Tuesday at a corner table at the back of Mustang Harry's, 352 Seventh Avenue in the garment district, 4 women and 14 men gathered.

Under a framed excerpt from Joyce's "Ulysses" (which bore three references to God), Kevin Jones, a computer systems analyst from Long Island who looked more like an ex-football player, had drifted into a debate with Kirsten Sorteberg and Jack Schweitzer, a feisty retired couple from the Upper West Side who looked more like they had tumbled in from a New Hampshire farm. Ms. Sorteberg wore a red, white and blue patchwork skirt and a T-shirt reading "Democracy Not Theocracy."

"I'm sure I don't believe in God," Mr. Jones said. "I'm not sure I like the term 'atheists.' "

"We could battle over this," Ms. Sorteberg replied.

"It gives into the fact that it's natural to believe in God."

"That's deep. That doesn't make sense to me."

"I like my term."

"What's that?"


Ms. Sorteberg shrugged.

On the other end of the table, three separate discussions crisscrossed six people like a twisted telephone cord: How has religion devolved in Europe? Is Americans' belief in God increasing or decreasing? And, perhaps most important: What is the purpose of life for atheists?