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Des Moines organization breaks stereotypes with non-religious believers

Russ Fulton doesn’t necessarily hate God. He was raised in a Methodist household, after all. But Fulton realized this wasn’t where he belonged. Through this transition, he delved into other religions. It was only when Fulton became a Baptist deacon that he started to doubt God. He described how writers in the Bible wrote about the same events, but they all had different perceptions of those events, making him unsure of what to believe.

“I wanted to make sure what I was saying was true. I quickly became invested in deep research trying to find the truth,” Fulton explained. “I tried to put all the pieces together, and I couldn’t because there was nothing for proof to agree with my beliefs.”

Fulton quickly started to question everything he believed his entire life.

“When I started to pull on the threads, everything collapsed. It was then when I had to admit to myself that I didn’t believe anything I preached,” Fulton said.

Fulton, current president of the Iowa Atheist and Freethinkers association, knew his beliefs were true, especially when it came to a life changing event.


 He is not alone.


Iowa Atheist and Freethinkers Society (IAF) is a non-profit and education group within the Des Moines community. Their mission, according to their website, is to provide a community of support and friendship for atheists, freethinkers, secular humanists, agnostics, and other non-religious people. The group comes together for weekly meetings, has monthly book clubs, and arranges community events and projects to assist in the separation of Church and State. Specifically, within the Des Moines community, the IAF often assists with the Planned Parenthood book sale and hosts a booth at the Des Moines Farmer’s Market.

Jeremy Holmes, current librarian for IAF Des Moines chapter, says he always enjoys the booth at the Farmer’s Market.

“One of the biggest things we hear is, ‘Wow, you’re incredibly normal,’” Holmes said.

“Occasionally we get someone who wants to correct us, but for the most part it’s letting people know we’re normal, we have just have different beliefs.”

Holmes and others believe there’s many misconceptions about atheism and freethinkers. One of the biggest misconceptions is atheism is a form of religion.

“Society has this misconception that if someone is atheist, they automatically fall in the same category as Hitler and communists,” Holmes said. “This isn’t the case. We live the same moral life as everyone else.”

Dr. Hector Avalos, professor of religious studies at Iowa State University said atheism, is “Without God” or “godless”.

“It describes someone who does not believe in any sort of deity,” Avalos said. “They live their life without reference to a deity.”

Avalos explained how atheists can be conservative, liberal, and everything in between.

“Statistically, they tend toward what are usually termed liberal viewpoints, especially in regards to sexual orientation, ethnic inclusiveness, and separation of church and state,” Avalos said.


 Healing with an absence of religion.


Becoming an atheist was the best decision Fulton said he made, especially when it came to grieving over the loss of his daughter. She was around while Fulton made the switch to atheism and fully accepted his transition. He explained how he sat in different grief session with other families who were going through the same situation he was. Fulton noted how much harder it was for religious families go to through the grieving process.

“I didn’t see any evidence that religion was helping them at all,” Fulton described. “In every case they not only had to deal with the loss of a child like I did, but they also had to deal with the questions religion piled on top of them.”

He added how religious pressure on these families made it almost impossible for them to grieve in a natural way.

“It was the saddest thing I ever experienced,” Fulton said. “These families couldn’t relate to their loss directly, they had to go through religion.”

Fulton believed if he was still religious, his grieving process would have been a lot harder than it was.


 Getting the word out in a world that doesn’t want to hear it.


 It all started with an advertisement on a bus. The IAF chapter in Des Moines went under fire in August 2009 when they faced an issue with the Des Moines Area Regional Transit (DART) company. IAF asked to sponsor a campaign, placed on twenty buses, stating “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” Four quick days after the ad was released, it was removed from the DART busses due to numerous complaints from people who felt offended and uncomfortable with ads.

Mid-August, then Iowa Governor, Chet Culver made a statement about the ads saying he was personally disturbed by them. The governor’s statement sparked a plethora of controversy with the governor choosing sides of an issue. There were also remarks of him being disrespectful towards the non-theist community. In response, the IAF community composed a letter to the governor expressing their concerns about his comment. They ended their letter by inviting him to their organization’s meetings to learn more.

The same day, the American Civil Liberties Union requested a review of the DART’s advertisements policies in light of recent incidents. The same day DART received many media requests and countless calls in support of the ad. DART then asked IAF to re-design their logo and submit it for DART’s consideration.

The following day, August 7, 2009, DART officials had a meeting with representatives from IAF and other alike organizations. IAF refused to re-design an advertisement, stating the removal of the ad is a freedom of speech issue. Later that day, DART announced that the ads would be restored on the busses.

Today, the DART system has an “open” advertisement policy. Since then, several organizations have reached out to DART for advertisements. The membership of IAF has also doubled since the incident.

Doug Mencel, founding father of IAF, stated how we felt welcomed into the IAF community because of the bus ads.

“I got to ride of the busses with the advertisements,” Mencel said. “It was a welcoming experience to see the ad in public.”

 Besides the DART bus incident, atheists world wide continue to struggle with fitting in.

Dr. Avalos explained how they’re many struggles they face, especially with their personal families.

“I have seen fear of declaring oneself to be an atheist,” Avalos said. “Perhaps the most pervasive negative view of atheists is that they have no morals. However, morality usually is grounded in empathy, not in the wishes of invisible beings, for atheists.”


Slow, but steady numbers are rising


Despite the difficulties atheists face, they are becoming more accepted in society.  Dr. Avalos stated how numerous surveys and sociological studies have proved that people who have no religious affiliation (NONES) are on the rise.

“The number of declared atheists within that group is small, but growing,” Avalos said. “They go about their lives without any reference or need for a deity, even if they don’t declare themselves to be atheists.”

Fulton acknowledges the studies showing an increase in atheists in society. He believes there are atheists who are sitting in church rows every week, but haven’t been able to admit to themselves they don’t believe what they’re listening to.

“I believe a lot of people are leaving the church because they are, indeed, atheist,” Fulton said.

He encourages those battling that internal struggle, like he did, to do research and figure out what what is true to them.

With the increase in atheists, Fulton is glad the city of Des Moines is becoming more welcoming of the non-believing community. He thinks issues, like the DART incident of 2009, don’t exist anymore and his goal as president is continue normalizing atheism.

“My goal is to teach our members to be open about atheism and make a statement to their peers about it,” Fulton described. “The next time one of their peers encounters an atheist, they will hopefully think, ‘I know an atheist and he’s the greatest guy or the sweetest girl’. When they make those connections personally, it makes it then extremely difficult to be prejudice and bias.”