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A Freethinkers’ Haven Grows in—Culpeper?

In one of the most conservative towns in Virginia, a female skeptic is launching a “live-in/live-out think tank” for secularists of all stripes. Only those with a good sense of humor need apply, though.

Seventy miles south of Washington, DC, is the town of Culpeper, Virginia, a pretty little burg of 10,000 with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Culpeper is the sort of place where your social circle is defined by which of the 30-odd Christian churches you belong to, the tallest edifice in town is the Southern Baptist steeple, and the Wal-Mart parking lot is full at 11pm on a Saturday night. George Washington surveyed the town’s limits in 1749–and, according to a local joke, that’s the last interesting thing that happened here.

The solid, red-brick corner house at 409 Macoy Avenue seems transplanted from another planet. On a block of crewcut lawns and military-corner boxwoods, this yard is veiled by a scrim of soaring, lacy bamboo. Cross the front porch and the first thing you spot is a quote by Emma Goldman on the front door: “Atheism is the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.” Well, that’s a breath of fresh air; this town was starting to make you feel a little paranoid. Then you notice there’s no doorbell, only a large Chinese gong, which makes a sonorous clang when you tentatively tap it with the drumstick hanging nearby.

And the smiling blonde woman who opens the front door looks far less like the natives you’ve met than like a young Swedish university professor. Which, it turns out, she is. Introducing herself as Merrie Shaker Pettie, female skeptic, she explains in softly accented but fluent English that she arrived two years ago from Stockholm, where she worked as a lecturer in philosophy. Her father was American, and she moved here when a relative bequeathed her this house.

Inside, the house has the same zen/zany elegance as outside. It’s nothing less than a live-in library, with bookshelves lining every wall including the kitchen and bedrooms. A large globe hangs from the living room ceiling. Upstairs, there’s a photo of two horses having sex. Out back is a hot tub, while two large Southern-style screen porches are set up as lounges looking out on the bamboo grove.

And more quotes. On a kitchen shelf, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature–Frank Lloyd Wright.” Next to the sofa, “There is nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music.–John Keats.” Nietzsche is in there somewhere.

A Laboratory for Living Well

Pettie, 42, is launching a unique clubhouse–she calls it a social laboratory–for freethinkers. After she gives you the grand tour, curled up over steaming cups of tea in the cozy Biographies section, you ask her to clarify.

“It’s a global, live-in or live-out, mutual aid society for experimenting with how to live well in a godless world.” Sounds good. Who’s invited? She rattles off: “Skeptics, free inquirers, perspectivists, agnostics, Franklinites, infidels, eupraxsophists, sinners, secularists, postconventionals, and other persons with a good sense of humor–a/k/a perspective.”

Freethinkers who meet these stern criteria can tap into the network to help solve their problems, find partners or jump-start their visions, according to Pettie. Just hanging out and enjoying the laissez-faire ambience is an option, too. But primarily it’s a problem-solving center to help skeptics advance their projects. Pettie describes her role as helping skeptics find whatever they need, be it brainstorming, visioneering, like-minded allies or incubation for an idea–including, in some cases, helping deserving entrepreneurs to connect with “angels” (private investors) to back their projects.

“It’s kind of a drop-in think tank, where you can live in or out, and stay a day or a year,” she sums up. “It’s both an oasis for the present and an incubator for the future.” And skepticism is unquestionably humanity’s future, Pettie contends.

At the nucleus of this rather mind-bending vision are Pettie and her five-bedroom house, which serves as clubhouse, guesthouse, office and incubator. She says there’s an associated dacha, or country house, about a half-hour away in the Blue Ridge foothills which can be used for group or solo retreats.

Like Gora’s Positive Atheism and multiple other variations, the brand of secularism practiced here is inherently proactive. “Sooner or later, people will accept that no deus ex machina is going to swoop down and save the world, that it’s incumbent on humans to build a heaven on earth,” Pettie says. The purpose of the live-in lab is to support this proactive, practical view of skepticism.

“I don’t have any particular answers. Just a question: how can we help you?” she says.

Best of all: no charges, dues or fees. The society runs a free listing service, logging visitors’ needs or wants, then works one-on-one with people to help them solve their problems.

Debunking vs. De-Funking

How does Pettie’s strategy fit in with those of the existing skeptics’ organizations? “I really like the debunkers. But I’m a de-funker,” she laughs. “My mission is to give hands-on help for freethinkers who are trying to connect with people on their wavelength, or to launch something.”

And the obvious question: Why Culpeper, this bastion of middle-class Christian rectitude? “Contrast! Actually, I have a lot I need to learn about the religious mind, so this place is perfect.” If the locals don’t like what she’s doing, “they can complain to god. She’s the one who told me to do this,” Pettie deadpans.

God gave her another important precept, apparently: “not to fool around much with people who don’t have a good sense of humor.”

Contrast notwithstanding, the lab’s proximity to Washington is clearly another of its paradoxical attractions, a particularly timely one in this emerging age of fundamentalist sureties and faith-based organizations. Outside the belly of the beast, but near enough to keep close watch.

Indeed, it seems that most of the persons involved so far are from DC (as well as from Charlottesville, a progressive university town 45 miles to the south). But Pettie is positioning the service for a national and international constituency. “There are huge numbers of skeptics in Sweden,” a predominantly Lutheran country, she points out.

First priority here goes to helping female skeptics, “because there need to be more of us!” Pettie says. Men are welcome on a “space-available” basis. Today, the only visible participant is male, a retired architect from Washington who is staying at the center part-time. The architect (who asks not to be named in this piece) is starting a consulting service to help people build “healthy houses”–healthy physical plane, healthy social plane, he explains cheerfully.

“Merrie’s got a real eye for finding the mechanism that will trigger positive change,” he comments. “Sometimes it comes in the form of words, sometimes by actions. Surprises are the only unsurprising thing around Merrie.”

No Dogma, Just Catma

Pettie knows of the Secular Web and says she likes its definition of Metaphysical Naturalism. It’s in tune with her own aspiration, which she defines as “ataraxia”: Epicurus’ concept of peace of mind through accepting things exactly as they are, even when they are stubbornly ambiguous. Always learning, always keeping an open mind, always keeping cool.

“I don’t have any dogma. Just catma,” she says.

Be that as it may, she certainly has a repertoire of charming one-liners.

Other than Epicurus, who are her inspirations? She rattles off a few: Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Rabelais, Victoria Woodhull, Paul Kurtz, Fredric Jameson, Virginia Postrel, Martin Seligman, Helene Cixous, Richard Rorty.

Wait, she’s not finished: also Lao Tzu, Now Tzu, Sun Tzu and Moon Tzu.

Bemused? Confused? “Confusion is the first sign of wisdom,” Pettie flashes encouragingly as she dances you past the rows of books to the front door.

So you drive back through the manicured streets, past the steeples and onto the highway to Washington, feeling that you have just witnessed the start of something very interesting. What it is, you’re not exactly sure. For now, though, ambiguity will do.

Copyright 2003, Kristin K. Nauth.