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Ask an atheist: Organization aims to start community discussion about atheism

FARGO - Jeff Eide and Caitlin O'Connell question the presence of a higher power. Eide, 29, says he was an "early doubter," and O'Connell, 26, has identified as an atheist since she was a teenager. The two Fargo residents are founding members of G...

Caitlin O'Connell and Jeff Eide
Caitlin O'Connell and Jeff Eide of Fargo are members of the Great Plains Atheists. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO – Jeff Eide and Caitlin O’Connell question the presence of a higher power.

Eide, 29, says he was an “early doubter,” and O’Connell, 26, has identified as an atheist since she was a teenager.

The two Fargo residents are founding members of Great Plains Atheists, an organization created a year ago to promote nonbelief as a positive force in the Fargo-Moorhead community.

The group hosted an event last summer called “Meet an Atheist,” and they’ll do it again this year. Standing on Fargo streets holding signs that read “Meet an atheist,” they invite people to ask questions, share their thoughts and start a conversation.

The reaction to last summer’s event was positive, O’Connell says.


“People are still finding out about us and are curious. I think curiosity is an excellent response to our debut in the community,” she says. “That means people are interested in what we’re doing, and they might want to come and talk with us and interact with us and gauge who we are and what we stand for and the things that we want to do. That can be a really powerful way of getting ourselves into the community and getting the visibility in the community.”

The organization, which is seeking 501(c)(3) status (tax-exempt), will support food banks, domestic violence shelters, women’s rights, minority rights and LGBT rights, O’Connell says.

Great Plains Atheists is hosting its first convention, ZetetiCon, Sept. 12-14 at the Best Western Doublewood Inn here.

The three-day event will feature speakers and discussions of critical thought, education, science and reason.

For more information, visit GreatPlainsAtheists.org/zeteticon .

What does it mean to identify as an atheist?

O’Connell: An atheist is someone who has a lack of any belief in a higher power or divinity or a god at all.

Eide: It’s an approach to life. It’s an approach which is guided by empirical evidence, skepticism and critical thinking. It means not accepting things at face value.


Atheism is a position that the burden of proof has not been met for the claims being made.

Does that mean you could believe in a higher power someday?

O’Connell: If the evidence is there, perhaps. In my experiences, I’m pretty sure that there is no god, but I don’t know that. I could absolutely be wrong, and I’m open to the possibility of being wrong and changing my beliefs if I’m proven wrong.

Are there myths about atheists?

O’Connell: One that I hear a lot is that atheists hate God or are angry at God. That has nothing to do with it. I have no emotion toward God because I don’t think God exists. I’m not angry at God. I can’t be angry at something that I don’t believe is there.

I have no problem with other people who are religious. It doesn’t offend me that other people believe in God or that the belief in a religion gives them comfort. That’s great, that’s awesome, I’m really happy for them, I just don’t believe that way.

Eide: For me, the stereotype of an atheist is someone who’s an angry, young person sitting in their mother’s basement on the Internet and really just railing against religion. That’s not the case. Certainly we critically analyze religion.

O’Connell: And certainly there are people who do that, but that’s not the majority.


Eide: We want to have a conversation. We enjoy bringing things to the table.

O’Connell: We’re not out to attack or persecute anybody. We just want to talk about it. We want to find out why people think the way they think or why they believe the way they believe. We want to be able to engage that conversation and that debate and foster some thought about it.

How do you promote nonbelief as a positive force?

Eide: Education and critical thinking. Critical thinking is the method by which we understand education today.

Education has been different in the past. It’s been much more authoritarian. Today’s education is about teaching people to critically think and analyze and make their own opinions. That’s what we want.

It’s not about the conclusions you make, in my opinion. It’s about the conversation and the process and your ability to understand one another.

Great Plains Atheists is primarily an activist organization. We don’t want to be threatening, we don’t want to be invasive.

It’s about putting a face to a name. It’s about encouraging people to understand what atheism is but also to understand that we’re a part of the community, we’re your neighbors. We are your colleagues. We are your friends.


The fact that most people don’t feel comfortable talking about it is understandable. There are a lot of stereotypes.

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