Written by: Peter Harriman, Argus Leader
Churches in any town in South Dakota are ubiquitous. They are brick and clapboard monuments to fundamental aspects of the state's culture and society. They seem as common as corn and enduring as prairie sunsets.
But seven billboards posted this week are sending a jarring, countering message across South Dakota. Sponsored by the Coalition for Reason, the billboards in five cities in the state are prompting speculation into the state of religion here.
Written across an eye-catching photo of the earth from space, the signs are inscribed "Don't believe in God? Join the club!"
They've had an immediate, dramatic effect on recruitment for the Siouxland Freethinkers, a self-described community of atheists, agnostics, humanists and skeptics in this area, and a member of the Coalition for Reason.
"We have gained 20 members online just today. They're curious about our group, what we do, when can they come to something," Amanda Novotny, president of the group, said Tuesday.
The billboards might have tapped into a wellspring of latent atheism and agnosticism. Still, they have not yet drawn everyone's notice. Jerry Klein, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, and Seth Sundstrom, head pastor for The Crossing church in Sioux Falls, say neither shock, outrage nor curiosity about the billboards has swept through congregations yet.
"I've not heard anything," Sundstrom said.
Some people have been affected by the message, though.
"It's heartbreaking to see that, just because that would be a really empty philosophy to live by," said Jeremy Brown, of Sioux Falls.
The Pew Research Center this year released a study that finds 20 percent of adults in the U.S., including one-third of those aged 18 to 30, have no religious affiliation. The figure climbed sharply from 2002, when the number without religious affiliation was 14 percent. A study from the 1990s found it at only 7 percent.
There is an important distinction, however, between people who have turned their back on organized religion and those who have gone on to declare there is no deity. Only 12 percent of the religiously unaffiliated are avowed atheists, according to Pew data; 16 percent are agnostic, and the rest say they just have no particular religion.
"Nationwide, the trend I see and read about and encounter in my students is more people are serious about religious observance but are offended by religions' narrowness," said Richard Swanson, Augustana College religion professor. He cites examples of friends and students who were used badly by religion in the past, including being condemned by their own religious communities.
Christina Hitchcock, associate professor of practical theology at the University of Sioux Falls, said her students fall generally into two camps. "Lots of students are raised in Christian families," she says, and they come to college with their support for the values they learned still intact.
And those values historically were of enormous importance, Swanson points out. Among Christians, Jews and Muslims who came to South Dakota in the 19th century and early 20th century, he says, "religious observance goes back to traditions that kept our ancestors alive when they settled on the prairie."
Every generation is further removed from pioneer days, though. The other group Hitchcock sees are "students who are very interested in questioning everything, looking at new answers and ideas." Their numbers have grown in the 12 years she has been teaching, Hitchcock said.
There always are lively debates in her classes whether a rational case can be made for faith - what Hitchcock calls apologetics - or whether it is outside reason.
"That tension is often there in the Christian community. My students tend to like apologetics. I tend to like the other side, so we have good discussions."
Brown would like to reach out to groups such as the Siouxland Freethinkers and have similar discourse.
"We should talk with them, hang out with them, listen to them ... listen to their side of the story, understand their life story and personal history," he says. Then, he believes, he can put forth a persuasive, rational argument for the existence of a deity.
"There is tons of actual proof that is real and exists that can be backed up by science that there is a God and he exists," Brown said.
He added, "You don't really work hard at defending and arguing for or against something that isn't real." What would be the point?
The quality of such debate is getting sharper, more clearly focused, more sophisticated, according to Swanson, because people in the U.S. have had several hundred years of practice handling the principles at the foundation of these arguments.
The roots of "a refusal to accept (religious) authority on the basis of that authority's assertion of its own power" goes back to the French Revolution, Swanson said. Religion that was wielded as a repressive economic, political and social club was challenged during the French Revolution. Hand-in-hand with that was the emergence of scientific thought, which provided a new measure for the validity of religious beliefs.
All of it has percolated down through the years from the academic world to general society. Formerly, "that stuff was read by only a relatively small group of college-educated people," Swanson said. "Now I hear people making the same arguments in popular form. Maybe an evolution is going on with the spread of those ideas."
Also, the world has become smaller. People have an ever-widening frame of reference. "Not all historic cultures have a notion of an overarching deity," Swanson said. "There is none in Buddhism. "It's not anti-theology, it just doesn't have an overarching theology it construes the world with. When you encounter such cultures, you can experiment with the notion you can hold a society together without accounting for a deity."
For the Siouxland Freethinkers who lit the fuse on such debates in South Dakota this week, "overall, it has been pretty positive," Novotny said of reaction to the billboards.
"Honestly, I was not really sure what I expected."
The South Dakota effort is part of a national campaign by the Coalition for Reason to erect billboards in states.
"I was not sure which way it would go in South Dakota," Novotny admitted.