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Freethinkers lead lives without religion
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Members of the Lake Superior Freethinkers met on a recent December day in the home of Bill Van Druten. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
The Christmas season has a decidedly non-Christian theme for some people in the Duluth area. The Lake Superior Freethinkers gather each month to talk about society, morality, and life without religion. Most are decidedly atheist, or, at best, agnostic.

Duluth, Minn. — Three retired gentlemen share fresh coffee and light conversation at Bill Van Druten's kitchen table. A lush houseplant stretches in the kitchen sunshine. It sparkles with a handful of holiday trinkets and small decorations. That's as "Chistmassy" as Van Druten gets, since he's decidedly non-Christian -- and non any other religion as well.

Van Druten is an atheist. To him, Noah's Ark, Jesus and miracles are as much myth as Zeus and Thor.

"Most people in this area, as I think all over America, are surprised a little to find that people would openly say that they don't believe in the God stories and all of the mythology," he says.

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Image Bill Van Druten, co-founder of the Lake Superior Freethinkers

Van Druten says it's "a little shocking" that some people assume eveyone is religious. Good Christians, Muslims, or Hindus might be inclined to hide their children when Van Druten's around, but he says the Freethinkers aren't much of a danger. They're not trying to convert anyone.

"It isn't a question of converting anybody," Van Druten says. "But we're interested in anybody that recognizes the superstitious nature and problems that religion bring to us now. We're interested in getting that word out, but it isn't a proselytizing sort of thing."

Van Druten was a psychiatrist at the Duluth Clinic when it merged with the Catholic-based St. Mary's Medical Center across the street. He retired rather than abide by the organization's Catholic-based principles. The Freethinkers were launched soon afterward.

Each of the three men has struggled with religion. Each had a try at church, but lost faith somewhere along the way. Retired child psychologist Ron Kyllonen says his views are generally accepted, except by some devout Baptist neighbors.

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Image Ron Kyllonen

"They were talking about God this and God that," Kyllonen recalls. "And my then five-year-old daughter looked up inquiringly and said, 'who's God?' In the following week, we had 11 phone calls from neighbors, offering to drop our children off at Sunday school -- of their choice, of course."

Kyllonen describes the Lake Superior Freethinkers as more a social group than anything political or religious.

"It's a friendship group, in support of morality without superstition; freedom from religion; and church and state separation, and rational thought," says Kyllonen.

Many Freethinkers hold membership in activist organizations of atheists, humanists, or rationalists. Retired art teacher Dale Hagen belongs to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which fights religious intrusion into government.

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Image Dale Hagen is co-founder of the Lake Superior Freethinkers

There's a hot debate whether our government was created on Christian principles. Not likely, according to Hagen. He says the nation's founding fathers were non-religious.

"Many of them were Deists, and a Deist is not a Christian," says Hagen. "A Deist is one who believes in some kind of a higher power. A Deist, in a nutshell, would say God created the world and then split."

Some claim atheists have no moral base. Bill Van Druten says you don't need religion to be moral.

"I point out to people that you don't get your morality from Sunday school," says Van Druten. "You get it from the rough and tumble in the neighborhood, your family experiences, and just the experience of rubbing up against other people."

It's simple to Van Druten. He says we're all born atheists, but get "brainwashed" by well-meaning parents.

"To me, that is really wrong -- to tell children that these are true stories," says Van Druten. "They have to warp their thinking to accept it that way, and it damages the critical thought of children."

The Lake Superior Freethinkers has grown from a few dozen to several hundred members today. About 60 to 80 meet each month for breakfast, a program, and conversation with like-minded folks. Some members come from as far as Ely, 90 miles away.

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