For now, the experience of being an “embattled minority,” as Smith put it, might also draw groups like Oasis together. In the first nationwide census of 1,390 nonbeliever organizations in the U.S., published in the March issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Alfredo García and Joseph Blankholm found that the “presence and number of organized nonbelievers” in a given locality is likely tied to another group: evangelical Christians. The data suggest that “every percentage increase in evangelical Protestants in a county increases the number of nonbeliever organizations by approximately 1 percent,” the study authors wrote. Of the eight Oasis fellowships now meeting publicly, all but one are located in the American Bible Belt or Mormon Corridor, regions in which faith and public life are deeply entwined.
“If you’re living in a very religious part of America ... where religion is infused in every aspect of communal life,” said Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology at Pitzer College, in an interview, “you’re going to feel alienated, and you’re going to feel maybe defensive, and you’re going to feel like you may want something that gives you a sense of belonging, identity, community.” It makes sense that Oasis would first emerge in locations such as Houston, Kansas City, or Salt Lake City, Zuckerman said, where religious affiliation is still fairly normative. They are places where nonbelief can carry a high social cost. As a result, the desire for a nonreligious, multi-generational community—a place to find friendship, socialize one’s kids, construct a moral framework, and work for the common good—may often be more acute.
Driving from midtown to Kansas City Oasis on a Sunday morning, depending on the route, a driver might pass Unity Temple’s brick facade, the portico of New Hope Church of Christ, a cross atop the Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine, the white stucco First Baptist Church, and the gold-spired Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The Tony Aguirre Community Center, where Oasis meets, is a coral, two-story structure down the block from the Rime Buddhist Center in the city’s Westside neighborhood.
Especially in this part of the country, so crowded with religious institutions, many people may feel the need to keep their nonbelief quiet. Vanessa Almazan, 27, is “out” to her brother, but not her mom. “You have to choose your battles,” she said. One 37-year-old mother of four who went to college to become a tribal missionary hasn’t told her parents she’s atheist out of concern that they would break off contact—she wants her kids to know their grandparents. Stories like hers are not the norm, but neither are they unfamiliar. At the door to the gym, Oasis attendees are given a choice of blue or red nametags. The red nametag signals that a person doesn’t want to be photographed, or perhaps doesn’t yet identify publicly as a nonbeliever. During the coffee break, those new to Oasis receive a slip of paper from Marlys Doerflinger, 73, with instructions for how to join the private Facebook group.