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'Good without a god': Faces of atheism in Oklahoma

Oklahoma atheists discuss how they thrive living in a culture of religion.
by Carla Hinton Modified: July 6, 2013 at 12:00 pm •  Published: July 5, 2013

Ellis said she was 26 when she determined that she did not believe in God. She said initially she had a hard time expressing her nonbelief out loud or even writing it on paper. “The fear of hell was constant. It was really, really hard,” she said.

One day, however, she had an experience in which her life was in jeopardy. Ellis said she tried to pray — but couldn't.

“That's the moment when I knew that it was done, because even when faced with my own mortality, I wanted to believe that someone would hear me, that someone would care, and I absolutely couldn't do it,” she said.

She said she considers herself an agnostic atheist because she does not believe in a deity, but “I am not certain that it's not possible. It could be one day that we have proof of something.”

‘Seed of doubt'

McCall, a Norman native, said his journey to unbelief began as a child living in a Christian home with a devout father who had a deeply spiritual experience as a military serviceman in Vietnam. “I really was really a believer,” he said.

McCall said he was in sixth grade when he learned about the Egyptian god Horus and was struck by the similarities between the stories of Horus and Jesus, the Christian Messiah.

“We learned about some gods that basically directly paralleled Jesus — born of a virgin, died and was resurrected, was the son of God, came back to save people. That was my first seed of doubt,” he said.

McCall said he was in seventh grade when his older brother committed suicide. The cruelty that Christianity seemed to impose on people who take their own lives did not correspond to the God that McCall had believed in thus far. He said this reinforced the doubts he had begun having about the existence of the divine.

“It just didn't make sense that my all-loving God of Christianity would sentence my brother, who made a really quick mistake, to sit next to Hitler in hell. That didn't make sense at all. Likewise, heaven didn't make sense to me, either,” he said.

“A lot of people insert God whenever they don't understand something. Anytime there's a gap in scientific knowledge, people insert God. I'm not going to do that,” McCall said.

He said he was about 18 when he “lost all religion,” but he was 23 when he finally admitted to others that he was an atheist. He said his parents still believe that his atheism is a phase, and he doesn't take their spirituality lightly.

Free thinkers

Other members of Oklahoma Atheists who met with The Oklahoman were Sean Braddy, 41, of Norman; Melissa Walkup, 33, a Del City librarian, and Shelley Rees, 44, of Edmond, a professor at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.

Braddy, Rees and McCall said they are trying to protect their children from the religious culture around them so they can become free thinkers.

“It's like the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny — if you don't get that belief structure in early, it's not there,” McCall said.

Rees said living in Oklahoma, the mission to keep young people in the family away from religious indoctrination, is not easy.

She said one of her son's teachers once contacted her to tell her that her child had professed to be an atheist.

“It was told to us with gravity — as something we should be concerned about,” Rees said, shaking her head.

All said they feel fortunate to work in jobs where their atheism is not seen as a problem. Other atheists, they said, are not so lucky.

“That's why our community is private,” he said.

He said before the group's efforts to keep their gatherings confidential, one member was fired from a prominent company that promotes its Christian ideals. McCall said it's hard to prove that people are being terminated under such circumstances, and perhaps it would be difficult for a business to do so without drawing opposition. However, he said there is enough of a threat of harassment or termination at some workplaces that some unbelievers prefer keeping their atheism to themselves.

‘Oklahoma needs ... us'

Ellis said while atheists may be in the minority in Oklahoma, they are a valuable asset to the state.

“Oklahoma needs people like us. It needs people to say there are other world views. There are all these people out there who don't believe in any particular thing,” she said.

Walkup agreed. “Why not say ‘I'm different and it's OK?”

Ellis said she knows her mother and sisters love her dearly, but they don't like to talk about her atheism.

Rees, the adviser for the Secular Student Alliance on her college campus, said different generations see atheism through a different lens. She said older generations may be shocked when people identify themselves as atheists, but younger generations aren't as shocked.

Still, she said there is plenty of prejudice and superstition about atheists in Oklahoma, and this can be isolating to nonbelievers.

McCall said that is why he tries to build community through Oklahoma Atheists gatherings, which he considers a “safe haven” for nonbelievers. McCall said the group mans booths at various festivals and large gatherings like the recent SoonerCon in Midwest City and the Peace Festival where he met Ellis. He said his group also participates in community service projects like those at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and other nonprofit agencies. He said his group is different from many atheist groups that seem to exist mostly as online networks.

Ellis said the in-person gatherings help reduce the sense of isolation some nonbelievers may feel in the faith culture predominant in Oklahoma. “We accept you, which is not always the case here,” she said.