ELLSWORTH, Maine — Don Mead considers himself to be a “spiritual atheist.”
Mead, 69, of Surry was a practicing Buddhist for 40 years. He still meditates but no longer considers himself a follower of the Buddha.
Once a month, Mead gathers with others who consider themselves atheists. The group, the Downeast Humanists and Freethinkers, meets at 3:30 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month either in a private home or at the Maine Grind, 192 Main St., Ellsworth. Participants discuss ethical issues that often are in the news, such as physician-assisted suicide, evolution, same-sex marriage, and crime and punishment.
“I like the challenge of the conversation here,” Mead said at a monthly session earlier this year. “It’s like a grinding wheel that I sharpen my intellect with. I do that by asking some very pointed questions.”
Nancy Glista, 56, of Franklin founded the group five years ago because she felt the need to connect with “sane, rational people.” The first meeting was held at her home with a few people she knew shared her beliefs. Interest in the group grew through word of mouth at first and, more recently, on the Internet.
Members also staff tables at the annual HOPE Festival, sponsored by the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine in Bangor, and the WERU-FM Full Circle Fair in Blue Hill. Glista stressed that although it has a name and is affiliated with a national group — the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis. — the Downeast Humanists and Freethinkers is very laid back.
“We have no dues, no secretary and no dogma,” Glista said. “We’re hardly an organization at all.”
Glista’s interest in spending time with like-minded people roughly coincided with the publication of several best-sellers that criticized organized religion, including “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris, published in 2004; “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, published in 2006; and “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, published in 2007.
The Center for Inquiry, based in Amherst, N.Y., last year sponsored International Blasphemy Day on Sept. 30, the anniversary of a Danish newspaper’s publication of Mohammed cartoons, which sparked international outrage. The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry and humanist values, according to information on its website.
Although atheists have become more vocal, they still are small in number. The 2008 Trinity American Religious Identity Study found that although the proportion of Americans who do not identify with a religion has doubled to 15 percent of the population since 1990, less than 1 percent call themselves atheists.
Glista said those who attend monthly sessions of the Downeast Humanists and Freethinkers are looking for fellowship and are not out to convert people to their views.
“I really enjoy the give and take with all sorts of people who are rational,” said Kurt Wray, 80, of Hancock. “I enjoy getting other people’s feedback. It sharpens my own understanding of issues.”
Wray was raised in a Jewish household in Yonkers, N.Y. The last religious ritual he took part in was his bar mitzvah, a ceremony where 13-year-old boys — and in some synagogues girls — are welcomed as adults into their congregations.
“None of it made any sense,” Wray said. “All I remember of my bar mitzvah is standing up and sitting down and standing up and sitting down and asking myself, ‘Why am I going through this?’”
His wife, Torj Wray, 81, of Hancock, was brought up in a very religious Baptist family.
“I grew up a believer, but stopped believing in Christian dogma in college,” she said. “It’s very nice to speak about these things with people who are not horrified.”
When the two decided to marry, both their families warned them that it would never work out because of the difference in their religious upbringings, Kurt Wray said. “But one of the few things we’ve never fought about is religion.”