Trapped inside an office building a couple of blocks from Ground Zero on the morning of Sept. 11, Ron Barrier watched in disbelief as a plane smashed into the second World Trade Center tower. He knew some of his friends and aquiantances were dying as he watched. He saw the towers come down. He went through the whole ordeal of trying to escape the area as the dust cloud settled and people ran for their lives. When he finally returned home that night, scared, sad and confused, he sat down and thought about what had happened. Like the rest of the world, he was trying to make some sense, maybe even understand the terror attacks. It's not as much his experience as it's the result of his soul-searching that may surprise some.
"First watching it, then going home and contemplating it, the whole experience only strengthened my reserve that no God exists, " says Barrier, who's the national spokesperson for American Atheists. "No being exists that cares about the earth like a God would - it just doesn't add up. "
Barrier was raised as a Christian but says he became skeptical of the Bible's teachings early in life. He was looking for proof, for an explanation of God and couldn't find it anywhere.
"I started asking questions about the whys and hows of Christianity and was left with very vague answers that didn't satisfy me, " he says. "If the people who promoted it couldn't figure it out, I came to the conclusion that religion was making too many claims that couldn't be verified. To me, the emotional investment religion requires wasn't worth it. "
He flirted briefly with several Asian religions - "I am, after all, a child of the '60s, you know, " he says with a chuckle - but ultimately became an atheist. Atheism means "without a religion. " There is no dogma, no set of guidelines - and there's no belief in God or Gods or deity of any kind. Barrier says atheism is best characterized by the desire to know, in the true scientific sense of the word, rather than simply to believe. "A good example of the atheist way of thinking is when I'm looking at a beautiful, majestic mountain range, and a religious person would ask, 'Don't you just marvel at God's ability to create?' " says Barrier. "And I'd say, 'No, I marvel at the power and the violence it took to push those mountains out of the earth.' " But any good Christian will say that proof of God's existence is not necessary.
"Well, all I can say to that is that the more incredible the claim, the more incredible proof there needs to be, " says Barrier. "That they say proof isn't required to believe in God simply doesn't wash with me. "
But atheists don't hate God, Barrier says, that's a misunderstanding. "We are not God-haters. Because how can you hate something that you don't think is true? " he says. "Some people also think you can't be moral without a belief in God. But to me, that makes no sense. Why do you need a non-human interest to show you how to be human and treat people with dignity? "
That being said, Barrier doesn't shy away from taking the atheist argument all the way. "We do believe that religion is harmful, " he says. "Because religion breeds complacency. Religion truncates the desire to know, and once you stop that desire, as far as I am concerned, you are in trouble. "
And although he may feel like a minority, it may be that Barrier speaks for more people than you'd expect. In the United States, studies show that the percentage of people who regularly attend church hovers around 44 percent of the population, better than places like Communist China (9 percent) and Spain (25 percent), but behind places like the Philippines (68 percent) and Puerto Rico (52 percent).
And the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 estimated that the number of secular Americans has as much as doubled over the past decade. A total of 14 percent of Americans say they don't have a religion or don't belong to a religion. Oregon (28 percent) and Washington (27 percent) register the highest percentage of people living without religion, and Idaho is not far behind, with 21 percent.It must have been difficult being an atheist in God's country right after Sept. 11. Not only was there a spike in patriotism, but the churches were filling at a pace rarely seen before. Barrier says he and some of his fellow free-thinkers, as he calls them, didn't feel comfortable going to many of the public memorials that were held in New York City.
"I felt excluded. The amount of rhetoric associated with the surge in patriotism and the religion that permeated everything alienated me, " says Barrier. "I questioned the motives behind all the religious talk. " At the same time, the fact that the terrorists believed they were following the bidding of their God, further solidified his belief that there is no God.
"The people who perpetrated these crimes also believed in their God - they thought they were doing the right thing as well, " says Barrier. "I mean, I didn't know the gods were in competition with each other like that. "
Barrier even tried to arrange a tour of Ground Zero for atheists, but says his efforts were ignored. As for relating to the terror attacks on a spiritual level, Barrier says he understands why many people flocked to the churches. "One of the reasons people ran to the churches is that this was a random act of violence, " he says. "In religion, in church, they do get some sort of motive and an answer to why this happened. It may be illusory, but it's an anchor in times like that. "
In the end, Barrier and fellow atheists turn to science for their explanations. "Atheism provides other answers, " he says. "The universe is a dangerous place, and random acts do happen. This was a random act. Theoretically, the sun could explode tomorrow. That would also be random - and that would be it. "
-- Pia K. Hansen is associate editor of The Inlander.
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