Center for Inquiry aims to educate and support

“Millions of Americans are living happily without religion.”

The U.S. 131 billboard in downtown Grand Rapids bearing these words seems out of the ordinary for the predominantly conservative and religious bubble of West Michigan.

The billboard is part of a nationwide campaign by the Center for Inquiry (CFI) Michigan, based in Grand Rapids. On Sept. 30, CFI launched an advertising campaign that involved placing billboards in Michigan, Indiana, New York and Washington D.C.

Established in 1997 by local freethinkers, the CFI Michigan has grown from a few dozen members to more than 400 atheists, secular humanists and agnostics.

CFI Michigan is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes inquiry into science, religion, ethics, secularism and society.

According to its mission statement, CFI Michigan strives “to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry and humanist values.”

CFI Michigan has chapters in West Michigan, Southeast Michigan and Southwest Michigan. A number of these chapters are located on college campuses, including Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College and Ferris State University.

In Michigan, these billboards can be found in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Detroit. The billboards are scheduled to remain in place until Oct. 27.

Jennifer Beahan, assistant director of CFI Michigan, reflected on the purpose of the billboard campaign.

“I have been asked if we are ‘evangelizing’ or trying to ‘convert’ people with our billboard,” Beahan said. “The answer to this is: no, absolutely not. Yes, we are advertising that we exist, but the purpose of the billboard is not to change anyone’s beliefs — each person has to decide what they believe by weighing the evidence for or against any particular religious belief themselves.”

According to Beahan, approximately 83 million Americans claim no religious affiliation. In addition, 18 million Americans identify as atheist or agnostic, and a third of college-age Americans identify as secular.

The response to the CFI billboard campaign has been both positive and negative, said Jason Pittman, chair of the CFI Michigan advisory board.

“We have received many messages from people who are amazed that a group like ours exists,” Pittman said.

Pittman went on to discuss the billboard campaign’s target audience.

“We are trying to reach those who aren’t religious and don’t realize that there is a community out there for them,” Pittman said. “Most people in West Michigan come from religious households, so it is very traumatic for them when they lose their religion…many assume that they are alone.”

Beahan reflected on why CFI believes its campaign benefits atheists, secular humanists and other nonreligious individuals.

“Even though we are a minority, we are entitled to representation and a voice in the public square,” Beahan said, “and we should not be dismissed simply because we do not believe in God.”

Although CFI Michigan promotes examining the world based on solid and scientific evidence, Pittman believes value exists in religious educational institutions and organizations.

“I think [religious institutions] have great value, historically and today,” Pittman said. “Some are more open to free inquiry than others, but I think they all serve a purpose.”

Beahan had a different view of religious institutions.

“I think that education should be based on reality,” Beahan said. “Educational views — particularly in science and history — can easily be skewed by the individual or group’s religious beliefs. Allowing this often causes individuals or institutions to reject good information solely because it disagrees with their personal beliefs, and not based on reality or evidence.”

Pittman went on to explain that participants of CFI Michigan come from a variety of backgrounds.

“Many of the regular attendees at our West Michigan CFI events are graduates from religious schools,” Pittman said. “Some even attended seminary!”

Pittman said throughout the past 15 years, CFI Michigan has gained popularity and exposure in Michigan. CFI’s goal for the future is to support nonreligious individuals as well as educate religious individuals about the existence of this growing population.

“I’m sure we will keep growing as more Americans leave their religions and search for alternative communities,” Pittman said. “I think our challenge will be to manage that growth and not lose that sense of community that so many people value.”