Atheist discussion group branches out into the community

Fraser Valley Atheists Skeptics and Humanists gather each weekend for discussion

Aimee and Mark Cunningham

Aimee and Mark Cunningham

The conversation at an FVASH meeting flows easily from space exploration to environmental conservation to the Baha’i faith. It’s an eclectic mix – but that’s to be expected at a meeting of the Fraser Valley Atheists Skeptics and Humanists.

Jonathan, who asked that his last name not be used, has been with the group for three years, said it is “primarily a social group,” where the topic most often drifts away from religion and into current events, science, morality and philosophy.

“We try not to schedule any topic on purpose,” said Jonathan. “We don’t want anyone to feel pressured to come and talk about a certain thing.”

The group is an affiliate of the B.C. Humanists, but the composition is organic, with no fixed mandate – just a goal to provide a forum for atheists, skeptics and humanists to meet. Religion is most commonly discussed when new members show up and share their story of how they ended up attending an atheists’ group.

“A lot of people come from a religious background … and they happen to not be, so they want a place to come and talk to like-minded people.”

The group meets at Legal Grounds Coffeehouse on Essendene Avenue every Sunday at noon, drawing attendance of about 15 to 25 members, ranging in age from late teens to nearly 90. Attendees do not need to self-identify as atheists, skeptics or humanists to participate.

FVASH defines atheists as those who do not believe that a god exists in any form, and skepticism as a way of thinking about the world, which questions claims of knowledge by calling for evidence. Secular humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives which emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually or collectively, and generally prefers rationalism and empiricism over established doctrine.

FVASH was originally started by Aaron Bayes at the University of the Fraser Valley, but the group soon expanded into the community, reaching out to anyone interested in gathering.

Mark Cunningham, a group member, said it is important to note that atheists have different opinions about a variety of subjects – the only unifying factor is they don’t believe in any god. Jonathan said the word atheist doesn’t mean much to the group as it’s the absence of theism.

Mark said that people often question where atheists find their morality, which the group agrees is an innate part of humanity. They hope to become more involved in the community to help others and change what people think about atheists.

FVASH cleans a local park monthly and has assisted the 5 and 2 Ministries with providing meals to homeless residents in Jubilee Park. Nancy Gallagher, a member of the group, said it is very natural to work with a religious agency like 5 and 2, as the two groups “have more compatible goals than not.”

She added that despite some people’s negative perception of atheists, many community members have been very accepting of FVASH. Members are involved with Bridges of Faith, an Abbotsford Community Services’ event where they meet with members from different religions in order to build a more understanding community. Though representatives from FVASH may not have a religion, Nancy said Bridges of Faith fought for them to be there and represented among Abbotsford’s diverse religious community.

Mark added the meetings are a positive place that people can go to if they have left a church or religion and are looking for a new community in which to become involved.

“If anyone has left the church, it would be nice for them to have a place to come to – a support group.”

Nancy said they want to be seen as valuable members of the community, “and not people who are scary,” adding that as humanists, they strive to assist their fellow man.

“We don’t need divine intervention; we just need intelligent, compassionate people to get together and do what’s best.”

The group said they have no intention to change anyone’s faith, just offer a place where people can come to speak honestly about what they believe in and how they feel.

Anyone interested in  FVASH can attend their meetings at Legal Grounds Coffeehouse on Essendene Avenue, Sundays at noon, or visit FVASH.com.