Religious skeptics gather at Kentucky Freethought Convention

jcheves@herald-leader.comOctober 6, 2012 

At least one group wasn't praying Saturday for a University of Kentucky football win.

The first Kentucky Freethought Convention, held at UK, drew more than 250 atheists, agnostics, humanists and other religious skeptics from around the state. They heard lectures on the value of teaching evolution in schools, the perils of religious proselytizing in the military, why ex-pastors should promote atheism and other topics guaranteed to bring many Thanksgiving dinners to a screeching halt.

They also came for companionship. Several attendees said that simply identifying oneself as atheist can infuriate Christians.

"Some terribly angry and threatening emails" resulted from a billboard erected last month at New Circle and Nicholasville roads that read "Don't believe in God? Join the club," said Clay Maney, spokesman for the Humanist Forum of Central Kentucky, which helped organize Saturday's event.

"We are in some quarters hated," Maney said. "I'm not sure I understand that. We're not out there knocking on your doors, we're not handing our literature to your children, we're not trying to pass laws promoting our views, we're not trying to convert you. But people seem to feel terribly threatened by us."

Kentucky is one of the most religious states, with 83 percent of its people expressing an absolute belief in God, according to a 2007 survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Most Kentuckians say they're Christian.

"In God We Trust" is posted at the state Capitol, where legislative business opens with a daily prayer, sometimes followed by lawmakers quoting the Bible to advocate bills with faith-based focus, such as requiring the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security to acknowledge the protection of God. Children pledge allegiance to "one nation under God."

"Typically, if you're Christian, you don't even notice this because you're so immersed in the culture and you agree with it," Maney said. "You can't see why this would bother anyone."

Nolan Gray, a UK junior, is president of the UK Secular Student Alliance, another group that organized Saturday's event. Gray said he grew up Baptist in Lexington. He lost his faith during adolescence when he realized that, according to what he was taught, many of his friends would burn in Hell for not sharing his religion.

Lexington is fairly tolerant because of the universities, Gray said. But he said the Fayette County public schools, which he attended, mostly skipped the theory of evolution, a subject that offends some Christians who believe in the Biblical account of creation.

"The only time it was presented to us was once in high school, and it was vague and awkward," Gray said. "They said, 'This is just a theory. You don't have to learn it.' And then we moved on."

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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