Craig Bauman has been open about his beliefs as an atheist since he was in the fifth grade at Sharon Elementary in Medina County.
“My older sister even became known as ‘Craig the atheist’s sister,’ ” said Bauman, 24. “I had a little religious upbringing. But, like other people, I had doubts. I think people need to know that it’s OK to have questions and doubts and I believe they need to have a place to discuss those doubts without judgment.”
For the past two years, Bauman, a fourth-year student at the University of Akron, has served as president of an organization — the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Akron — that provides a community for atheists, agnostics, humanists and others who are questioning their faith.
Now, Bauman is lending his face to a billboard campaign in Northeast Ohio that showcases local nonbelievers. The 11 billboards, including two in Akron, went up recently and are part of a national campaign sponsored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org).
The foundation, a church-state watchdog organization based in Madison, Wis., is the nation’s largest association of atheists and agnostics. It claims more than 20,000 members, including about 550 in Ohio. The organization debuted its “Out of the Closet” campaign in Madison in 2010 and has taken the campaign to Columbus, Tulsa, Raleigh, Phoenix, Nashville, Portland, Spokane and Sacramento.
The goal of the advertisements is to inspire other nonbelievers to “come out of the closet,” said Mark Tiborsky, a spokesman for the Cleveland-based Northern Ohio Freethought Society (www.meetup.com/NOhioFreethought).
Tiborsky and his wife, Marni Huebner-Tiborsky, are also featured on one of the billboards. Huebner-Tiborsky is director of the freethinkers group, which is a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Distrust for atheists
“We just want to let other nonbelievers, or those on the fence about their religious belief, know they’re not alone and that the local nontheist community is both welcoming and growing,” said Tiborsky, 52. “Research shows that there is distrust for atheists and other nonbelievers. Hopefully, when people see our faces on the billboards, they will see that we are just regular people.”
Tiborsky said that the freethinkers group is the largest secular humanist group in the area, with nearly 900 members. The group was established in 2007.
The first such group in the region, called Humanists of Cleveland East, was formed in the mid- to late-1950s. The group was affiliated with the American Humanist Association.
Tiborsky said that one of the first atheist groups in the region — the Free Inquirers of Northeast Ohio — was established in 1994 in the Akron area. The inquirers officially affiliated with the Center for Inquiry in 2002 and was renamed the Center for Inquiry Northeast Ohio (www.centerforinquiry.net/neohio). The organization has two chapters, one in Akron and one in Cleveland.
Members of the local secular humanists groups are part of a growing number of Americans called the “nones” — people who don’t identify with any religion. Demographers call them this because when asked to identify their religion, their answer is “none.”
Polls and research
A study released by the Pew Research Center in October 2012, called “Nones on the Rise,” takes a closer look at 46 million people who say they have no religious affiliation. The data show that a fifth of American adults and a third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation.
Although the Pew research indicated that the nones are a growing trend, a more recent Gallup Poll (January 2013) showed that the rise in religious nones slowed a bit from 2011 to 2012. That research showed that the percentage of American adults with no religious identification averaged 17.8 percent in 2012 — up from 14.6 percent in 2008; but only slightly higher than the 17.5 percent in 2011.
Gallup tracking of religion in America indicates that the 2011 to 2012 increase in religious nones is the smallest year-to-year increase over the past five years.
The group of nones includes atheists, agnostics and people who aligned themselves with “nothing in particular.” Many in the group say that they are spiritual in some way and pray every day and that they are not looking to find an organized religion. Many are also socially liberal, with three-quarters supporting same-sex marriage and legal abortion.
Claudia Allen, a member of the Student Secular Alliance at the University of Akron, counts herself among the nones. The 20-year-old Solon resident is an atheist and describes her childhood, growing up in Los Angeles, as secular.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there about who we are. We are people who care about the world. I believe in love. I believe in peace. I believe in understanding,” Allen said. “I try to help people understand that just because we don’t believe in God, it doesn’t mean we don’t have morals. I am very compassionate. As human beings, we don’t want to hurt each other. We don’t need to believe in God to be motivated to care for humanity and the world that we live in.”
Allen said she welcomes the billboard campaign because the signs put human faces on nonbelievers. She said that she hopes the billboards will generate conversations to help people better understand people who are not religiously affiliated.
Allen and Robert Frase, another alliance member, said they advise people to ask questions and be open-minded. Frase, 22, said he tries to raise awareness and help build bridges of understanding by participating in activities sponsored by the student alliance, including forums and “hug an atheist” and “ask an atheist” events.
“A lot of people will tell me they never met an atheist. They probably have, but just never knew it. We don’t persecute Christians or bash people who are religious. We aren’t angry and we’re not immoral,” said Frase, a Cuyahoga Falls resident. “We are interconnected to everybody. Believing in God is not the criteria for being a good person. We are good people, trying to make the world we live in a better place.”
Frase, Allen, Bauman and Tiborsky all share a common hope that the billboard campaign will help erase the stigma attached to being an atheist or nonbeliever.
“Hopefully, the billboards will inform people that Northeast Ohio already has a community of nonbelievers and religious doubters and skeptics. Some believe in a creator source. Some prefer to be called atheists. Some are agnostics. Others use secular humanist or freethinker. Probably the best way to describe us is people with nontheistic worldviews,” Tiborsky said. “We believe the billboards are a positive way to present ourselves. We want people to understand that we believe moral integrity comes from within.”
The billboard with the image of Tiborsky and his wife is at Harvard and East 176th in Cleveland. It reads: “We are awed by nature, not by the supernatural.”
The billboard that pictures Bauman and two other members of the Secular Student Alliance — Austin Morgan and Anderson Friess — is at East Exchange and Goodkirk streets. The sign reads: “Question Everything? You’re not alone.”
The other Akron billboard at Case and Kent streets features images of Tammy Panek, Shamari Fields and Austin Meredith, who are also affiliated with the student alliance. That billboard reads: “We don’t believe in any gods.”
The other eight billboards are in Parma, Lakewood and Cleveland.