James Gillham, president of Albany Georgia Atheists, said his organization wants only to provide a social network for other “free thinkers,” and to dispel misconceptions and prejudices about atheists and agnostics. The two and a half year old group has grown to 65 members, Gillham said.
ALBANY, Ga. -- James Gillham says he's a happier man these days, now that he's with others of his kind. Gillham is an atheist -- a rare bird in Southwest Georgia -- and that can be a solitary life. For the two and a half years since he arrived from California, he's managed to ease his loneliness through Albany Georgia Atheists, a group he serves as president.
"So much here is on the foundation of the church," said Gillham, a contractor at MCLB. "It's a huge part of the culture."
While he was warmly welcomed as a newcomer, a typical question posed by residents was "Have you found a church yet?" or "Why don't you visit my church?" Gillham said. While the well-intentioned comments were appreciated, it seemed to intensify his sense of isolation. He missed the relationships he'd had back home in California.
"Albany Georgia Atheists (albanygeorgiaatheists.com) is a place where free thinkers like myself can come together and build those social networks," Gillham said. "Our first meeting was in December of 2011 -- just myself and one other guy at Joe Muggs coffee shop at the mall. Now we have 65 members."
Gillham said that while he and other atheists are destined to view things differently from most other people, those who embrace religion have no reason to fear them.
"There's nothing wrong with their perspectives," Gillham said. "We could argue certain points within each religion, but that's not what our group is all about. We're about building those social networks and encouraging free thought."
In fact, Gillham says the young group has gone beyond the social club concept and wants to be a part of building the community. For the most part, he says, that effort has progressed with little incident. But not always.
"We sponsored a 5K run out at Darton (State College) a couple of weeks ago," Gillham said. "Some of the runners there took sharpies and colored out the logos on the shirts. We got a chuckle out of that, but you know, if we'd done the same to a church logo we never would have heard the end of it."
On another occasion, Gillham was in the office of a local service organization he declined to name. The purpose of the visit was to offer help, Gillham said.
"The conversation seemed productive until I mentioned who I represented," Gillam said. "Instantly, communications shut down. They were quick to push me out the door."
According to Gillham, the mission of Albany Georgia Atheists is two-pronged: to provide a social outlet for members of the group, including activities such as game nights, movie nights, weekend canoe trips and the like; and also to work toward dispelling negative ideas many people hold regarding any form of atheism.
"A lot of people go automatically on the defensive," Gillham said. "They want to accuse us of being Satanists or in league with the devil."
Gillham never had a strong belief in God, he said. Since he was very young, he felt something just wasn't right. Nothing made real sense. Then, during the first of two tours of Marine duty, he came to an understanding with himself.
"By the way, the old saying about 'no atheists in foxholes' is just not true," Gillam said. "The idea is that if someone is shooting at you, you're going to pray just didn't work for me."
According to Gillham, it was during heavy fighting in Iraq -- before Fallujah was taken the second time -- that he happened to read an article on atheism.
"Suddenly, everything made sense," Gillham said. "I understood why all those years I could never find faith in a higher power -- because I was an atheist."
Gillham said that a common Christian misconception is that only religious people can be moral. The idea tends to make his blood boil.
"That human beings can't understand that things like rape and murder are wrong without a 4,000-year-old book is just ridiculous," Gillham said. "It's actually insulting to me. Morality is innate in all of us. It comes from our ability to empathize with other people. We do the right things because they are the right things to do."