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Wichita atheists part of a growing religious trend

Marta Pena, 32, (end of table) is one of an increasing number of millenials who don’t identify with a religion. She attends a local atheist club because she said it reminds her of Germany, her home country, where religion is less important.
Marta Pena, 32, (end of table) is one of an increasing number of millenials who don’t identify with a religion. She attends a local atheist club because she said it reminds her of Germany, her home country, where religion is less important. The Wichita Eagle

David Pena, 38, arrived late to dinner, so he and his wife Marta, 32, had to squeeze in at the end of the table.

“This is a big turnout,” Marta said to her husband, an active member of the Air Force.

“We rarely talk religion at these meetings,” said Doug Kulp, at the Hill Bar and Grill that evening in May.

“Church groups don’t necessarily talk about God at a meal,” explained James Classen, 33, one of about 20 attendees. “It’s mostly just going to be talking about life.”

But the reservation sign on the table made clear that this was no ordinary church meeting: “Wichita Atheists.”

Although the Wichita Atheists have been meeting for a little over a decade, this was its first meeting since a new Pew study on American religion was released, which put it at the vanguard of America’s current religious trend: no religious affiliation at all, especially among millennials.

People of all faiths are welcome to attend atheist events, several members said, including those who are wavering in their faith.

“For some people who do de-convert this can be a very traumatic time,” said Kulp, who turned away from the Catholic church because of its views on gay marriage and the ban on the ordination of female priests. He doesn’t consider himself a full-on atheist though. “Suicides are not uncommon actually. You get ostracized and demonized and think you’re going to burn in hell.”

They’re mostly in their late ‘20s to mid ‘40s: Like many churches in town, the atheist group struggles to attract millennials, according to Matthew Hair, 34, the group organizer.

“A lot of atheists are perfectly OK going about their lives without worrying about it at all,” Hair said. “We’re just here for the people who want a little more.”

People sign up for the group on Meetup.com and get together to watch movies such as “Going Clear,” a documentary critical of Scientology, to discuss Islamophobia or sometimes just to have dinner.

The Sunday bike rides were David Holmes’, 48, favorite event. His daughters Veronica, 8, and Tara, 5, were coloring at a separate booth, behind the atheist social. Although David and his wife started off as Catholics, eventually he began a de-conversion that included reading the scientist Richard Dawkins.

David didn’t advertise that he was an atheist in Andover because he lived on a block with several evangelical Christians and said he wanted his daughters to have friends.

“At my school, they always ask me why I dont believe, but I have no answer,” Veronica said. “It’s just that I don’t believe.”

“God isn’t real even, her younger sister chimed in, looking up from her colored pencils, as if she was sharing a huge but obvious secret. “Jesus isn’t even real.”

David was packing up and moving to Texas the day after the atheist social where he thought he wouldn’t have to be so secretive about his religious views.

“I’m raising my kids to be Pearl Jam and Boston Red Sox fans,” he said.

Reach Oliver Morrison at 316-268-6499 or omorrison@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ORMorrison.

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