Bob Huey looked uncomfortable as he began speaking. He was nervous, and his speech seemed on the verge of falling apart before it could really get going. But then, shifting his weight and taking a deep breath, Huey spoke in a clear, forceful voice the words the small crowd had come to hear.
"I am a nonbeliever and proud of it."
When he tried to go on, he was interrupted by fervent applause.
Among the 75 people who showed up for sandwiches, potato salad and a keg of beer at Scottsdale's Eldorado Park on October 8, there were a few who felt apprehensive. Not everyone was thrilled that Arizona Secular Humanists was hosting the first Proclaim Nonbelief Day, a coming-out party for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.
"I've always thought we should lie low," said a 74-year-old nonbeliever who wanted to remain anonymous. "I was raised a fundamentalist Christian. I know what hate is."
Proclaiming their atheism in a Valley with so many churches made some of the attendees feel like, well, Christians facing the lions. But doing it as a group seemed to be empowering. And that's what ASH president Jim Speiser had in mind when he came up with the idea for what he calls "N-Day."
"We're trying to reach out to people who have a problem with religion, to admit it in public with a group of friends, to show them that there are others like themselves. And we want to show the community that the people next door might be atheists. We're good people, moral people. The only difference is that we believe in one less god than most people," says Speiser.
Most attendees of Proclaim Nonbelief Day were already members of ASH, but some, like David Aguado, were publicly affirming their nontheism for the first time.
Aguado, a 39-year-old Spanish teacher, recently moved to Phoenix after several years in Toronto. Originally from Cuba, Aguado says it was there that he first had doubts about the Pentecostal rituals that were a part of his upbringing.
He'd read a blurb about Proclaim Nonbelief Day in a newspaper and came mostly out of curiosity. After talking with ASH members for a couple of hours, Aguado says, he was impressed to find people "who weren't attached to a system of fear."
Founded in March 1994, Arizona Secular Humanists currently has more than 70 members; they pay $15 to $35 in yearly dues for a newsletter, monthly meetings and weekly get-togethers.
Attending one of these meetings makes it clear that, for a bunch of nonbelievers, ASH members actually do believe in many things. Mainly each other.
"We're not just people who don't believe in gods, but people who want to do humanistic work--people helping each other," says Jim Speiser.
"We are not antireligion or anti-God, we are pro-humanity," reads one of the group's brochures.
Unlike other secular groups which have traditionally focused on issues of church-state separation, the members of ASH are determined to become a positive force in the community. And they've settled on a way to make that happen. By taking out the trash.
They participate in highway and park cleanups, and they've been assigned a remote 4.5-mile stretch of Dynamite Road by the City of Scottsdale. They also wanted to start a graffiti-removal program, so they raised money and bought paint, rollers and other supplies.
Since ASH began the volunteer efforts, the members have noticed a change in how they're perceived.
Scottsdale Mayor Herb Drinkwater was surprised at the amount of opposition generated by his Bible Week proclamation last November. When atheists asked that a similar week be set aside for them, Drinkwater responded, "I don't see where atheists believe in anything."
A year later, Drinkwater admits to having more respect for ASH. "They've done a lot of good things," he says. "I understand they're a great part of the community."
Members like Randy Jones insist, however, that doing good works is not part of an effort to convert the religious to their cause. "I'm not really interested in converting people to nonbelief," he says. "That's something people arrive at on their own. I don't know if it's possible to proselytize someone to nonbelief. To me proselytizing has no value."
Rather than search for converts, ASH is on the lookout for the like-minded. So far, that has meant setting up tables at malls and outside libraries, and going out for java.
On Wednesday nights, Jim Speiser, Bob Huey and a few other freethinkers take over the Pink Room at Tempe's Coffee Plantation. ASH Wednesday, they call it.
Small signs on the tables identify them as Arizona Secular Humanists, but they're not what catches the eye of passers-by--it's the "Non-Believer and Proud of It" emblazoned on a tee shirt worn by Kay Mul, or the word "ATHEIST" in big block letters on the back of Randy Jones'.
When two college students wander over to ask about the group and walk away with their hands full of literature, the Secular Humanists eagerly point to them as an example. "That's the reaction we generally get. People are so surprised to find out that we exist, and they want to find out all about it," says Mul.
They're aware of polls that show 90 percent of Americans say they believe in a deity. But ASH members claim that many nonbelievers are afraid to speak out. If they don't show up in polls, it's just proof that coming out against gods and the supernatural is a calculated risk.
The Reverend John Hall, pastor of Scottsdale's First Southern Baptist Church, hasn't heard of the secular humanist group, and he's puzzled by its concerns. "In a time that I would consider a post-Christian culture, I'm surprised there would be a group that would feel it's a risk to express nonbelief. In fact, I feel the opposite is true," Hall says.
"I can understand that they would be concerned about the strength and outspokenness of the religious groups in the political sphere today, but I think a believer has as much right as a nonbeliever to participate in public affairs. I don't think, however, that the church should run the government," he adds.
"Tell them to come to my church and they won't be frightened. I promise," he says.
Atheists who have been "out" for a long time, such as UPS driver Randy Jones, say there's really nothing to worry about. He says his co-workers are aware of his beliefs, although he had to straighten them out when they assumed his teetotaling was a sign that he was Mormon.
In general, Jones avoids religious discussions with his customers. He figures his employers want it that way. "It's good business policy," he says.
Jones, who once appeared on Unsolved Mysteries for helping Phoenix police uncover a "psychic surgeon" as a swindler and a fake, admits that he's a "militant" atheist who's been involved in skeptics organizations for more than 20 years.
"Without question, Arizona Secular Humanists is the most active, community-oriented group I've ever been in," he says. And for someone who doesn't believe in an afterlife, the immediacy that activity brings is refreshing. "I can't afford to waste my time," says Jones.
Jim Speiser credits at least part of the group's momentum to the Bible Week confrontation with Herb Drinkwater last November.
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This year, ASH requested that Mayor Drinkwater make an official proclamation designating October 8 as Proclaim Nonbelief Day. Drinkwater's office responded that it would be willing to do so only if the language was changed to something more neutral, such as Freedom of Religion Day. ASH didn't pursue it.
"I do proclamations that are in the best interest of the community," Drinkwater says.
Will there be a Bible Week this year?
"Nobody's asked me yet, thank God," Drinkwater says.