In 2006, atheism advocate and Los Angeles-based constitutional attorney Edward Tabash came to Grand Rapids to speak at Itasca Community College and the Grand Rapids Area Library about how the Bible is not a fit guide for morality in the modern world. According to an article published in the Herald-Review in April of that year, both talks generated a fair amount of controversy, with a number of people calling the college and the library to voice their complaints that the college is “promoting atheism” and wondering if the library used any public funds to bring in such a speaker.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversial subject matter, there were more than 100 people in attendance at each of his talks.
Last week, Tabash returned to give a talk on the reasons that refute the very existence of God or gods. A featured speaker brought in by the ICC Secular Student Alliance (SSA) and the Grand Rapids Atheists and Freethinkers (GRAF), Tabash gave his lecture twice at Davies Theater last Wednesday about why the idea that God exists holds no water. But this time, almost exactly seven years later, life was fairly quiet surrounding the controversial speaker’s presence. Following the presentations, Q and A periods were set up, and Tabash answered questions from the audience that were politely phrased regarding who Jesus was if not the son of God, to why are we even here without the effort of a deity, to a rephrasing of Pascal’s Wager. In each case, Tabash answered, and a dialogue was had with the audience.
In a 2006 study conducted at the University of Minnesota, it was found that atheists were the least-trusted minority group in the county, with more people picking out those who proclaim no faith in a god as sharing the least amount in common with their vision of an American society than any other group. In another study conducted at the University of British Columbia, amongst those polled, the only other group of people found to be as mistrusted as atheists were rapists.
But locally, at least, perhaps things have been changing.
GRAF recently celebrated its one year anniversary, and over that time established a book club, a women’s group, regular casual meet-ups, as well as monthly meetings. GRAF President and founder Ken Eck said that they’ve never directly received any negative messages from the community.
“I have heard, in one very informal, over-heard context, someone grumbling about ‘that atheist group in town,’” said Eck. “But I didn’t hear what they were saying.”
Though hesitant about making any manner of proclamation of change, ICC Provost Dr. Mike Johnson said that surrounding Tabash’s visit last week, he didn’t receive any complaints. But in his memory of 2006, Johnson added that there were only a small number of people who were particularly loud about their displeasure of having an atheist speaker on campus.
“I wouldn’t say there were a lot of issues. There was a couple of vocal people who were very vocally opposed to the presentation. In fact I talked to one of them,” said Johnson. “The college is not in any shape, manner, or form promoting one side or the other. We’re giving students the opportunity to hear different, in this case, religious beliefs or non-beliefs.”
Solid evidence regarding a local culture of tolerance isn’t available, and the lack of direct confrontation with non-believers by the faithful, and vice-versa, does not necessarily constitute a turning of the tides. Using the public, yet more personally detached, forum of the Herald-Review’s letters to the editor, there are still those who hold a certain animosity against those who don’t believe in God. One such letter, published on March 13, was written in direct response to a member of GRAF regarding belief in God and the U.S. Constitution.
On campus, Patrick Mathias, faculty advisor for the ICC chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, said that the members of his group were mostly ambivalent about their fellow student group’s visiting speaker. Throughout his time at ICC, Mathias said that he has seen a large turn in the amount of tolerance and free inquiry in the local school culture.
In terms of any supposed threat to faith that speakers such as Tabash posed, Mathias said, “I believe that the less you believe in your own point of view, the stronger you argue against those who have an opposition.”