SARASOTA -- Fifteen years ago, a local man named Noel Smith was wondering if there were any other humanists in the area who wanted to get together and discuss their ideas and philosophy.
He sent out invitations to about 50 local people who were on a mailing list for the national Council for Secular Humanism.
Six people showed up and started a group called the Humanists of Sarasota Bay.
The membership stayed small until about seven years ago.
"We stayed pretty small," said Jacqui Kinnie, one of those original six members. "And then, all of a sudden, boom!"
These days Humanists of Sarasota Bay, or HUSBAY, has about 125 members, and it's continuing to grow rapidly.
It's not a church or a religion, but it fulfills many of those same functions.
"People are moving to this area all the time," said HUSBAY president Dave Helgager. "When humanists move to this area and they're looking for like-minded people,
they find us."
Someone who's religious might look for a church, synagogue or mosque, Helgager said. Humanists are more likely to do a Google search and find groups to join.
"We're not a religion," Kinnie said. "We're more in the category of an education organization. But we're like a religion in that we're a group with similar philosophies who care for each other."
Both Helgager and Kinnie allow that the term "humanist" has been turned into a pejorative in certain circles who paint it as a cynical and godless philosophy. But that can only happen, they say, when people don't understand the philosophy.
"We believe in reason and science," Helgager said. "It's not that we don't believe in God, it's that we have never seen any empirical evidence that God exists."
Kinnie agreed with Helgager's definition, but had her own: "It's the belief that humans' destiny lies in the hands of humans," she said. "I don't see it as cynical at all. It's a belief in humanity, and that helps me."
There are different kinds of humanism, including religious humanism. HUSBAY is officially a secular humanist group. That's different than just being an atheist group. Secular humanism embodies, HUSBAY members say, a philosophy of acceptance and fellowship among people. Atheism, on the other hand, is simply a lack of belief.
The group holds weekly lunches at New Dynasty restaurant in Sarasota that are open to the public. Its members have formed book review groups, film groups and philosophy groups that meet regularly. It also hosts an annual Darwin Day event in February. This year's Darwin Day observation is highlighted by a presentation from Jeff Rodgers, the director of the Bishop Planetarium in Bradenton.
Some activities are open only to members, but membership is only $30 a year.
The group has members ranging from Reagan Republicans to Kennedy Democrats, Kinnie said, but they all hold one political belief in common, and that's the importance of the separation of church and state.
Despite the secular nature of HUSBAY, that's a pro-religion stance, Helgager said, because it guards against government control of religion.
Kinnie said one reason HUSBAY has grown so much in recent years is the growth of humanism nationally in reaction to threats against that separation.
"The secular movement has grown to the point where it even got some political lobbying power," Kinnie said. "I don't like that personally, because it's actually a defensive position, and we like to have a more positive position. But when it comes to separation of church and state, more and more religious stuff is being funded by the taxpayers, and people are reacting to that."
For more information go tosarasota.humanists.net.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.