Thirty Years of Atheism in Minnesota

Published by MNA on

Graphic of Minnesota with stars in 13 cities. Text reads, "30 years and growing with good reason."

By August Berkshire 

In March 1984, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, then president of American Atheists, came to Minneapolis as the featured speaker for the annual fundraising dinner for the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union (now the ACLU-MN).

Afterwards, in a meeting room in the basement, she was joined by her son, Jon Murray. They had previously notified everyone on their mailing list in Minnesota that this was to be a chapter formation meeting. About 150 people showed up.

This was the second or third time they had tried to start a chapter in our state, and this time it was successful, with the formation of the Twin Cities Chapter of American Atheists. That continued until 1991, when American Atheists disbanded its chapters and we became Minnesota Atheists.

In 1985, the group that we now know as the Humanists of Minnesota was formed. A year later they became a chapter of the American Humanist Association.

In 1991, the group that came to be known as the Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists formed at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. It is the oldest, continuously operating, student group in the country.

In 1996, an ad hoc group called the Atheist-Humanist Outreach was formed from members of Minnesota Atheists and the Humanists of Minnesota. From this effort, in 1997, came the Red River Freethinkers in Fargo/Moorhead, the Lake Superior Freethinkers in Duluth/Superior, and the Rochester Area Freethinkers.

Also about that time, the group now called the Central Minnesota Freethinkers was formed in St. Cloud.

In 2003, Camp Quest of Minnesota was formed, and this year they will host their 11th camp.

In the past five years or so, we have seen the formation of the Cannon Falls Freethinkers, the Brainerd Area Atheists & Freethinkers, and the Grand Rapids Atheists and Freethinkers. As a sign of our progress, some of these newer outstate groups are not afraid of the word “atheist.”

Over the years various student atheist groups have formed, not only in the Twin Cities but also in St. Cloud, St. Peter, Northfield, Duluth, Moorhead, Grand Rapids, Winona, and Mankato. There has even been an occasional high school group. Most, if not all of these groups, have been affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance.

Minnesota has also hosted two national conventions of American Atheists, in 1988 and 2008.

The past two years has seen the formation of the Minnesota Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (not an atheist organization but it advocates for atheists’ rights), as well as the Secular Coalition for Minnesota. This year has seen the start of a local Sunday Assembly.

And finally, we must not forget our cousins, the Freethought Toastmasters, the Minnesota Skeptics, and four or five Critical Thinking Clubs.

To borrow from Charles Darwin, from so simple a beginning endless atheist and humanist groups most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Yes, it’s been 30 years, and we’re still growing, with good reason – thanks to all of you.

This is based on my talk at our “Day of Reason” at the State Capitol. I do not list all the atheist/humanist/freethought groups in the state. Nor have I mentioned any local people, since, fortunately, there have simply been too many who have contributed to our movement’s success. Nor have I detailed all the group name changes that have occurred. Instead, I have tried to give an overall sense of the progress we have made.

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