Duluth atheists face stigma from public

Editors note: This story has been updated from its original version, which was first published on Thursday, March 1.

Dr. William van Druten, 79, is a leading atheist authority in Duluth and is one of the founding members of the Lake Superior Free Thinkers group. He formerly was a psychiatrist at the Duluth Clinic and was one of the American Civil Liberties Union plaintiffs who sued the city of Duluth to remove the Ten Commandments plaque from the City Hall lawn in 2004.

Hand-carved woodwork adorns almost every nook and cranny of his Duluth home. There is a homemade chess set, an intricate shield of armor, and above most entryways there hangs an ornament with Latin phrases. Metal pipes from an organ hang on one wall. A hard cover copy of "The Canterbury Tales" is the lone book that sits on his mantle.

The upstairs is different; a death threat hangs on his wall.

“I did get a death threat at that time,” Dr. Van Druten said in regards to the Ten Commandments suit with a chuckle. “Which I have on my wall upstairs.”

Dr. Van Druten recalls mistrust for his beliefs even in preschool.

“One day this little girl came back from Sunday school with a grim face and told us that we were all going to Hell, which is just an awful place,” Dr. Van Druten said. “And not only that our parents were going to hell too... After that she was not allowed to play with us anymore. In fact, even though she lived directly across the street, I never saw her but maybe once more.”

To this day, several decades later, he still remembers her full name and the street they lived on.

Dr. Van Druten perceived a negative reaction to his beliefs near the end of his career in the late '90s as a psychiatrist at the Duluth Clinic, which merged with St. Mary’s Hospital to form SMDC, now Essentia Health.

“All the doctors on the hospital staff would have to sign an oath that they would practice according to the Vatican restrictions of medicine,” Dr. Van Druten said. “They would have to set aside their normal scientific medical practice in certain regards… I signed it, but then I wrote in the bottom ‘For consenting Catholics only’.”

According to Dr. Van Druten, this did not go over well with the administration at SMDC; he ended up on what was called the “Courtesy Staff,” meaning he had admitting privileges but mostly worked in outpatient psychiatry.

“They, what’s the word? Canned me,” he said. “That isn’t the official word, but they removed me from the hospital staff.”

A call was made by LakeVoice to Essentia Health for the response on Thursday, March 1, but as of Friday no response had been received.

Outside viewpoint on atheism

According to a 2006 University of Minnesota study, atheists are the least trusted minority group in the United States.

Erik Reinertsen is a pastor at the Water's Edge Community Church in Duluth and had some interesting ideas about the study.

“When I think of atheists, I don’t think of them as being untrustworthy,” Reinertsen said. “I would venture to guess that because some atheists… are very anti-religion and in particular anti-Christian, that because of that persecution, Christians are feeling that attack and maybe they respond by saying generally, I don’t trust atheists.”

“I would think that for Joe Churchgoer there probably is a fear [of atheists],” Reinertsen said.

Reinertsen thought that the public atheists have an intimidating, well-learned presence, and typically tend to be on the attacking side while on television or other media. He also hypothesized that believers may be afraid to challenge their own beliefs.

The Lake Superior Free Thinkers found some controversy in recent years with billboards placed around Duluth.

A billboard put out by the Lake Superior Free Thinkers

“When I see a sign like that, my heart goes out to the people that are putting that up,” Reinertsen said. “I believe that they are blind to the truth, to true reality. And I was blind to true reality for much of my life so I can relate to them being in that spot.”

Reinertsen spoke to people who were very upset with this billboard in particular and recognized the emotions that these public displays can bring up with people on both sides of the fence.

Discovering Atheism

For Nicole Smith, a UMD junior and vice president of the Secular Humanist Association, the path to atheism wasn't clear.

Smith was raised Catholic because of her dad and his family's beliefs. Her grandma even wanted her to become a nun. They eventually converted to Lutheranism during her high school years.

“I didn’t know that I was an atheist until I got to college,” Smith said. “I was kind of starting to doubt religion, and then when I found out about the skeptics group… that’s when I was like, ‘This is it! This is what I am!’.”

Coming out to her parents as an atheist was a difficult process. She first told her sister whom she has always been able to trust during her senior year of high school. She ended up telling her mother during her first year of college during ‘A’ Week. ‘A’ Week is an annual week in March where people change their Facebook profile pictures to an ‘A’ in order to raise awareness of atheism. This year's ‘A’ Week runs from March 18-24.

“My mom asked, ‘What’s the ‘A’ for?’,” Smith said. “I was like, this is the perfect chance! I just need to tell her. So I told her right away.”

Smith’s mother was less than enthusiastic about the news, not wanting her daughter to push atheist beliefs on her, and questioning whether her daughter even understand what the term atheism means.

Eventually, Smith's mother accepted her daughter's beliefs, but she still encourages her to attend church.

Avoiding controversy, keeping an open mind

Reactions to atheist messages, such as the billboard sponsored by the Lake Superior Free Thinkers, keep the Secular Humanist Association very low-key as they try to avoid controversy.

“We have put up posters around the school, and they have been torn down,” Smith said. “We try to keep it on the down low, because we don’t know how people are going to act.”

Despite her strong beliefs, Smith would consider going back to the church to offer her future children the opportunity to have religion in their lives.

“I’m OK with that,” Smith said. “If my kids decide that they want to go to church I will bring them to church. I don’t necessarily know if I would stick with it, but I believe it’s OK to be religious.”

For more on this story, look at St. Mary’s Hospital requires physicians to practice under Catholic directive.

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