Dan Kelleher stands in front of one of the many bookshelves that line the walls of his Creston library, holding a bible with a sticker on the cover that reads “Warning: Literal belief in this book may endanger your life and health.
Dan Kelleher stood out among the 45 people who attended the dedication last fall of a monument to the Ten Commandments in front of the old Flathead County courthouse, a public building that houses county offices.
While most of those attending the dedication sang “God Bless America,” Kelleher stood by smiling, wearing a white sweatshirt with the words “God Bless America” set in black, but altered with red to read “Godless American.”
After local supporters of the monument, including county commissioner Gary Hall, finished speaking to television reporters, Kelleher took his turn to denounce the dedication. He pointed out that the particular set of commandments at the old courthouse represent just one religion, and just one of many interpretations of the commandments.
Kelleher makes frequent appearances at events where he believes the line between church and state are being blurred, including Christian seminars held on school property and National Prayer Day events. He’s written dozens of letters to Flathead valley newspapers in support of atheism and in opposition to what he sees as the encroachment of Christianity on the state. He’s formed the Flathead Free Thought Forum, a social group for local atheists and agnostics, which just this summer began attracting enough members to hold regular meetings. And in August, he became a board member of the Center for Inquiry (CFI), an international organization headquartered in Amherst, N.Y., which formed in 1991 “to promote and defend reason, science and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor,” and to provide “rational ethical alternatives to the reigning paranormal and religious systems of belief.”
In a valley where the Ten Commandments have popped up not just in front of county offices, but in people’s yards, in front of churches and on dozens of semi-trailer-sized billboards thanks to a group called GodsTenCommandments.us, Kelleher knows that he’s swimming against the current.
But during an interview at his estate near Creston, he seems more professorial than confrontational. Kelleher dresses in a blue dress shirt and black pants. He wears glasses, and his head is clean-shaven. In a lodge that serves as his personal library—nearly as large as any publicly funded library in the valley—he gives a tour of a his self-directed study of philosophy, science and religion that began in 1979, after he sold an electronics company he helped found.
For years, Kelleher kept his study to himself, during a period of what he calls “intellectual masturbation.” But, he says, “Around the early ’90s I began to see the rise of the Christian right in America, going after our legal system.”
Kelleher then started donating money to groups like CFI, and began writing letters and attending events. Three years ago, he formed the Free Thought Forum, which now has about 35 Flathead valley members and meets once a month.
Forum members such as Kalispell resident Fred Spoerl appreciate the presence of Kelleher and his group.
“Being an atheist in this area is like being a homosexual 50 years ago,” Spoerl says. “Most people are afraid to come out of the closet because they’re afraid of bias and bigotry.”
He says he kept his atheism to himself for years, because he feared it would hurt business at the art gallery he owned in Bigfork until 2003.
Spoerl thinks Kelleher’s group helps to create a community for people who question faith, much like people of faith already have.
But not everyone appreciates Kelleher’s activism.
“I don’t like to speak negative about folks,” county commissioner Hall says. But he feels like Kelleher is the one trying to force his beliefs on others.
“Myself, as a deeply religious person, I leave him alone to let him believe as he wants to believe,” Hall says. “I think he sometimes has the tendency to cross the line of criticism in trying to get others to believe his way.”
But Kelleher says that if some Christians weren’t trying to bring their religion to county buildings, public schools, and the law, he wouldn’t be pushing back so hard.
Born and raised Catholic, Kelleher says he attended Catholic schools until he graduated with a Bachelor of Science from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
He explains that over time, he began doubting religion. Then in a class on Catholicism at Merrimack, he came across Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God.
“I thought ‘Finally, an intellectual answer, not an emotional one,’” to questions of faith, Kelleher says. But the proofs had the opposite of their intended effect.
“I thought, ‘I can see the flaws,’” he says. Years later, Kelleher retired, and began his private studies as a committed atheist.
His library, filled with Greek, Roman and modern philosophers, contains dozens of books on the origins of the Bible, and several different copies of the Bible itself.
His favorite edition, a King James version, shows wear from heavy use, with phrases and paragraphs throughout underlined and asterisked. The margins are full of notations. But unlike the inspirational comments you might find in the Bible of a devout Christian, Kelleher’s contains notes on his forensic examination of the book. He highlights sections where the voice of the writer changes, discrepancies in the accounts of Jesus provided by the Gospels, and Biblical contradictions.
For example, he notes in Matthew that Jesus gives a sermon “on the mount,” but in Luke, the same sermon is held in a valley.
“That’s a minor contradiction,” Kelleher concedes. “But they say the Bible is inerrant.”
Like Spoerl, Kelleher makes a comparison between society’s view of homosexuals and atheists. Specifically, he conjures up the Stonewall Riot, in which gays and transgendered people targeted by a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City rioted. That pivotal incident led many gays to fight publicly for acceptance.
He believes the time has come for American atheists to fight discrimination and demand equal treatment by their government and their peers. And through his board position at CFI, and through the Free Thought Forum, he hopes to push the movement along nationally and locally.
“This is the Stonewall for atheists,” Kelleher says.