"Faith" is a concept that is, more often than not, a celebrated one. Religious people of all stripes tend to say things like "my faith keeps me centered." In the perennial holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life," a first-class angel says of Clarence Odbody - the second-class angel tasked with convincing the shattered George Bailey that life is worth living - that he has "the faith of a child," and that's meant as a compliment.

In recent years, though, people without religious faith have seen the world becoming more favorable to them. With the rise of anti-religious philosophers such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, those who never had faith (or lost it at some point) are becoming more mainstream. In America, Christians are becoming fewer. The Washington Post cited a Pew Research Center survey in 2015 that said between 2007-14, people who identified as Christian dropped from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. Those who declare themselves without religion are growing in numbers. In the same survey, the "unaffiliated" population grew from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. A shift is underway.

Yet there's still a need for the faithless - who often come to their nonbelief through years of deep consideration - to experience the same kind of kinship that the faithful experience at church, temple, mosque or whatever the holy house might be. They need to be able to socialize with like-minded people.

This is why, if you had dropped into Mexico Lindo in the Fitger's complex on a recent Thursday night, you would've found a friendly group of folks sitting around, poking at baskets of chips while engaged in conversations about topics more serious than you'd usually find on a casual night out.

There, the Lake Superior Freethinkers - some of them, anyway - had gathered for their monthly "First Thursday Happy Hours." It's a regular deal, as are their "Third Wednesday Socials" and their big get-together on the first Sunday of each month at the Radisson in downtown Duluth. At these events, atheists and agnostics come together in fellowship.

"I joined because I was looking for a community of people who are interested in discussing things that are important in life, but who are also committed to using science and research in those discussions," member Dave Broman said. "I think that if we want to make our community and our world a better place, we need to make good decisions, and we need to see things the way they are. To do this, we need to rely on science and reason. LSF is a community that wants to follow the truth wherever it leads. LSF works to improve the way we understand the world, and the way we see each other and ourselves."

Jim Lyttle, the group's secretary, said that people come to the Freethinkers for different reasons. "We have members who have been hurt by religious people, or by religion itself, or who have worked to help others hurt in those ways," he said.

The founder of the group, Dr. William van Druten, started the LSF in 1997 in part to protest the Catholic church's role in local health care. He is a psychiatrist and saw clients who dealt with lots of guilt, Lyttle said.

"Some of us were raised without any particular concern for religion," Lyttle said. "Others of us were very religious for a long time - our president was a monk - but became disillusioned one way or another.

"Some of us, of course, want to save the planet or women or members of minority groups, or the oppressed in general. Others of us, like me, hope to discourage people from celebrating 'faith' in things or ideas that are counter to the evidence, if only for the sake of clear and critical thinking on other matters."

To a person, the members of the LSF are serious, considerate and learned, but they also are easy with a laugh or a witty remark. "I find the Freethinkers to be an endlessly varied and interesting group," said treasurer Charles Gessert, "and my life has been enriched by many discussions, dinners and happy hours with interesting skeptics."

The LSF is in the midst of working on a new mission statement to better guide their growing ranks, and the group members are excited to welcome more people in. For them, it's about establishing a safe space for discussion, where nonbelief is a welcome quality.

"The overall direction points toward encouraging a wider respect for secular thinking in our community," Gessert said. "Personally, I support that development. I do not see growth as a major goal, but since the Freethinkers tend to be older folks who have the irritating habit of dying off, we need to replenish our ranks with younger members. I would like to see affiliations with various campus groups with similar values."

"If you're looking for something more intellectual than bars, churches and sporting events," said Broman, "you should give it a try."


Learn more at www.lsfreethinkers.wordpress.com or the group's Facebook page.