Jon Garvin admits it's been hard drumming up members for the Missoula Area Secular Society, playfully dubbed M.A.S.S. Atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and the like usually keep their beliefs—or complete lack thereof—to themselves, he says.
But the number of skeptics and non-theists is on the rise across the country. Groups like M.A.S.S have cropped up in cities like Bozeman, Spokane and Seattle over the last two years, and in the interests of increasing its level of activity, M.A.S.S. obtained nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service last month. The move has prompted the group to broaden its agenda from Sunday brunches and occasional pub-crawls to educational lectures on topics like astronomy and stem cell research.
"We're going to be doing more outreach," says Garvin, the group's president. "I think one of the things we want to do now is there's been a lot of talk about putting up a billboard, and we want to get involved with local festivals."
Since its formation in July 2008, M.A.S.S. has struggled to create a sense of community for Missoula's secular individuals. Monthly meetings now attract about 25 people, Garvin says, and the group's online membership on Facebook has grown to 173. They've even attracted several "pastafarians," he adds, a group that sarcastically worships the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Yet most M.A.S.S. members, like former Loyola Sacred Heart chemistry teacher Milo Coladonato, come from extremely religious backgrounds. Coladonato says he began to fall out of faith while obtaining his master's degree in divinity and theology at Western Theological Seminary, and has noticed others with M.A.S.S. joining after coming to similar "rational conclusions."
"I worked through that whole thing—I realized there's virtually no validity," Coladonato says of organized religion. "It's just a man-made thing, these are man-made books. Any inspiration they provide is a human construction."
While M.A.S.S. had tried to remain non-confrontational with local religious institutions, the group's growing presence has placed it in the middle of recent controversy. Garvin says several M.A.S.S. members had a hand in opposing the church service at the Western Montana Fair this August.
"We just don't want it to be mixed up with government activities," Garvin says. "Especially in such a way that it implies government endorsement...That's a line in the sand."
It's a line even pastafarians like Garvin feel compelled to draw.