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Atheists go to church, too

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Ken Novak leads a book group discussion at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago. (Photograph courtesy of Ken Novak)

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The book group Ken Novak leads is just one way he is involved with the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago. (Photograph courtesy of Ken Novak)

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Devera Witkin (center) meets with secular Jewish friends from her synagogue, including Nikki Greenberg (left) and Peter Mones (right), at a Turkish restaurant on a Friday night. (Photograph by Alexandra Horowitz)

Ken Novak, a marketing analyst from Evanston, Ill., is an atheist. But that doesn't stop him from going to services on Sundays. While there, he leads a discussion group and a book club, listens to the Sunday school children sing and finds fellowship with others.

Novak, 54, is a member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, a religious group that focuses on respecting others and does not worship a deity. He found it 16 years ago when looking for a nontheistic moral education for his children, and knew right away that he wanted to get involved.

“It’s a place where atheists and agnostics can get what a lot of people get out of church and temple,” Novak said of the Society.

Novak is part of the growing group of American atheists who have left traditional religions, but still feel a desire to be part of a religious group. Many had a positive experience with religion before losing their faith and they miss the community, the tradition and the chance to talk about values with likeminded people. So they join religious organizations that are accepting of atheists, form churches just for atheists, or even attend traditional theistic churches.

A survey released in February by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 44 percent of Americans had changed religion in their lifetime. Sixteen percent of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion, and some of them are atheist or agnostic. Among 18- to 25-year-olds, 20 percent now describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated, up from 11 percent in 1986, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Among Jews, the number of secular Jews is closer to 50 percent. But walking away from the synagogue can feel like rejecting centuries of family history. For some, the Humanistic Judaism movement, made up of nontheistic synagogues, can be a way to participate in Jewish life while being honest about disbelief in God.

“We provide a way, liturgically and literally, for secular and cultural Jews to embrace our traditions, but in a way that’s consistent with our thinking,” said Rabbi Peter Schweitzer of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York.

Devera Witkin and her husband, Michael, moved to New York from San Francisco in 2001. A few years later, Michael was misdiagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Witkin, 65, had always known she was an atheist and she drifted from the Orthodox and Conservative Judaism she was raised with after she moved away from home.

Now, she was searching for a place to spend Yom Kippur, but also for “a rabbi that would help me bury my husband.”

They chose to observe Yom Kippur at City Congregation and Witkin cried throughout the service.

“I was thinking it was the last one I’d ever have with my husband,” she said, “but I was also crying because I was reading these words and they were so meaningful to me. I never had that experience in a synagogue.”

By the time they decided to join City Congregation, Witkin knew her husband didn’t have cancer. But they had found other reasons to attend. “We had a sense of being part of that community when we first walked in,” said Witkin.

For many people, being an atheist is sometimes an alienating and lonely experience. Although a sizeable chunk of the population eschews belief in a god, a 2006 survey found that atheists are America’s most mistrusted minority group. “To be outright and openly atheist is to run the risk of social rejection,” said Tim Gorski of Dallas.

That’s one reason Gorski, an obstetrician and gynecologist, opened The North Texas Church of Freethought in 1994. Today, about 80 to 100 people meet on the first Sunday morning of each month for services. The church is in the Freethought tradition, which favors science and reason over the supernatural. It’s like most other churches, said executive director Zachary Moore. “What we are is a church with the superstition removed. We do charitable work, blood drives, Sunday school, take care of each other’s kids,” he said. “You go to any church in the country, you’re going to find people doing the same things.”

For the most part, anyway. A typical service at the Church of Freethought includes a “moment of science,” during which the way some part of science applies to daily life is discussed. Each Christmas, two men dressed as Santa Claus debate the true meaning of the holiday. But unconventional as it may be, it fosters community in an area that can sometimes be unwelcoming to atheists.

“The idea of tolerance for another's belief system, in many ways, only runs in one direction in this area of the country,” said Georgene Harkness, 58, who is active in the Church of Freethought and serves as its treasurer. “I have found a community of people who I like and who I know I can trust to ‘allow’ me my own thoughts on life's important topics.”

Not everybody understands why atheists would want a church. Sometimes, Gorski said, he hears from atheists who recoil from the idea of religion. Years ago, the Church of Freethought wanted to put its name on a list of supporters in an advertisement to be run by the American Atheists, but the donation was turned down.

“We’re not crazy about the idea” of an atheist church, said Ellen Johnson of the American Atheists, a group that opposes organized religion. She said it’s against the American Atheists’ policy to criticize another atheist group. “But that doesn’t mean we have to list them in our ad,” she said.

Still, many atheists embrace some aspects of traditional religion. Novak attends the Russian Orthodox Easter services he grew up with--he loves the ceremony and the music. “I can appreciate it the same way people would go to a temple in Thailand,” he said.

E-mail: alh2146@columbia.edu