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Non-believers hold coming out party in Charlotte

By Gavin Off
goff@charlotteobserver.com

Atheists across the Carlolinas held a coming out party at a weekend conference meant to show support for non-believers living in the Bible belt.

About 80 people attended the third annual Carolinas Secular Conference held at the Hilton Hotel in Charlotte near Interstate 77.

The reason: “It’s the one time of the year they get to be surrounded by people who think like them,” said Jennifer Lovejoy, an Asheville resident and president of the Carolinas Secular Association. “They shouldn’t have to move to New York to find a community.”

The mix of speakers and discussion sessions touched on discrimination against non-believers and how group members felt that religious fundamentalists were taking over public education.

Workshops gave group leaders, who came from across the Carolinas, tips on how to build local support for atheists in their communities. And individuals shared their own “coming out” stories.

Lovejoy’s story began about 15 years ago, when she was talking with her husband about finding a church.

Why find a church, her husband asked. You don’t believe in God, anyway.

That’s when it clicked for the mother of two who was raised Christian but never thought the religion made sense. She simply wasn’t a believer.

“Coming out is the No. 1 thing we can do to change social discrimination,” said Joseph Stewart, association co-founder.

Stewart said many people are still afraid of coming out – afraid they could lose their job or be ostracized from friends and family.

But acceptance is growing, he said.

Stewart made waves in 2010 when he helped erect billboards across North Carolina reading: “One nation indivisible.” Vandals later painted “under God” on one of the billboards on the Billy Graham Parkway.

Despite the backlash, the attention worked.

Charlotte alone now has eight groups for non-believers, the largest being Charlotte Atheists and Agnostics, said Steve Bivens, coordinator for the Charlotte Coalition of Reason.

Bivens runs Charlotte’s Exploring Humanism Group. The group rejects beliefs in supernatural or superstitious and lives with the saying “good without God.”

Bivens said he wasn’t sure how many people in the area consider themselves non-believers, but he thinks the number is increasing and the weekend’s conference will teach leaders to reach out to more of them.

“It’s growing. It’s becoming more lively,” Bivens said of the atheist community. “People are afraid to say what they believe. We’re showing people it’s okay.”

Off: 704-358-6038
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