I received this story from Terrence Jackson and (with his permission) wanted to share it with everyone.
Terrence lives and works in Yellowstone National Park and has started a freethought group on the site. How does that happen? Can national parks even have religious/non-religious groups? He answers those questions in the story:
I live and work in Yellowstone National Park, a 2.2 million acre national reserve that resides mostly within the state of Wyoming but falls into Montana and Idaho territory as well. This is a land of geysers, grizzlies, waterfalls, canyons, lakes, rivers, and some of the most spectacular mountain views in the world. This land is often referred to as “Big Sky country” or “God’s Country.” It is truly a place that people who live here, work here, or simply visit will always have in their hearts and will remember for many years to come.
Our workforce is one of the most diverse in the world, with employees representing all 50 states and over 30 countries. Every year, thousands of people enter the park as employees of one of the three companies contracting within the territory: Xanterra Parks and Resorts (my company), Delaware North, and the National Park Service. With so many unique aspects of life evident through the presence of our employees, we play host to workers of all nationalities, creeds, and sexual orientations. We also employ hundreds of employees with disabilities who desire greatly to simply get the opportunity to work in one of the most majestic places on earth.
Two dedicated organizations, The Yellowstone Christian Innovators and A Christian Ministry in the National Park (ACMNP) send in missionaries every year as employees to form Bible study and discussion groups for those who know Jesus Christ or who long for a relationship with him. Through their work, hundreds of employees every year accept Christ into their life as their personal savior. There are also services for Jewish and Muslim employees, though these are not run by any park organization.
Taking notice of these groups, I began to ask myself why (as I was aware that I was not the only atheist in the park) there were no groups for those who simply wanted to form and discuss the most important issues of today, without feeling like a preacher was standing over their shoulder whispering the “good news” of their gods. Trying to get a better understanding, I began to ask around the park if there was such a group, in the unlikely event that I had simply missed it. It turned out I was right. No person had come forth to create such a group, and I felt that the only way that everyone could truly have their voice heard was through someone creating an organization that would allow this. An organization where everyone was on an equal playing field, and all could have a say in speaking out on the things that resonated most in them.
This is how the Yellowstone National Park (YNP) Freethought Alliance was born. Along with a good friend of mine, Jeremy Land, we devised the concept of the YNP Freethought Alliance to promote a form of social discourse unlike anything we had ever seen. Our goal is to give people a chance to share personal stories, give speeches on the critical topics, and debate and discuss amongst others who may agree or disagree with their point of view. The topics include, but are not limited to: science, politics, religion, abortion, gay rights, the economy, and the war in Iraq. We do not deny anyone our podium, unless the remarks they make are malicious or racist. We desire to create an environment that welcomes atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, secular humanists, and believers alike, to unite in the common goal of grasping a greater understanding of life, the cosmos, and reality.
This will be the first year for our group to truly take off and hopefully succeed in its goal. We remain excited to finally have the opportunity to be with others who may feel the way we feel, and share our passion for a world of free inquiry, reason, and understanding. We have faced little animosity, but what we have received has been in the form of emails and phone calls. Recently, I received an e-mail that told me that I was going to go to Hell for speaking out against religious belief, and I simply responded back that my goal is not to necessarily speak out against it, but provide my reasoning for dismissing it. I also lost a so-called “friend”, who called me late one night to tell me that she could no longer associate herself with me if I did not know (not believe, mind you, but know) that Jesus Christ was “the way, the truth, and the life.” This didn’t bother me at all because I knew that a true friend would accept me for anything that I was or that I am. This strengthened our resolve even more, and simply made me want to see our plans in action.
So, that is who we are, that is what we do, and we don’t plan to stop with Yellowstone. Our long term goals include, primarily, establishing our organization at parks all across the continent, and not letting others diminish our commitment to honoring rationality, logic, and reason.
In case you’re curious about the discussion topics not necessarily relating to freethought and the members coming from all over the religious spectrum, Terrence says this:
We primarily discuss issues of religious belief, and we are attended now mostly by atheists and agnostics. We do, though, discuss other issues that do not pertain to religion, and believers have come to our meetings to hear what we have to say and give their input. We seem to have transformed ourselves into a free speech group, where debating critical issues not limited to religion has become the norm. We want to be considered a freethought group, as that is our intention. We do not, though, feel that allowing believers or debating the important issues changes that. We feel it our job to promote an environment that allows some of the most important discourse that we can create that discusses religious belief, but we do find ourselves, at many times, spent on the topic of religion. Thus, we entertain all ideas and discussion.
Best of luck to the group!