FULTON — Gale Fuller is a minister, but he doesn't believe in God.
He didn't pray as a Navy corpsman treating the wounded in World War II.
Editor's note: Now in its third year of reporting on sensitive issues, Project 573 devoted its attention during 2012-13 to the growing group of people who check "none" when asked to designate a religion.
In 2008, Pew Research Center added “none of the above” to its questions about faith. Since then, there has been a 5 percent increase in the number of people who affiliate with no particular religion or call themselves atheist or agnostic.
This report, "Who are the American Nones?" published fully online as Project 573 "None of the Above," looks at their profiles, preferences, philosophies and lifestyles.
Project 573 is made up of seniors at the Missouri School of Journalism who studied print and digital news, radio/TV journalism, magazine, photojournalism, convergence journalism and strategic communication.
He didn’t pray when his wife of almost 25 years died suddenly of a heart attack, and he doesn't pray before meals, at weddings or during memorial services.
Fuller, an 86-year-old retired professor of clinical psychology, is a secular humanist.
Sometimes, he pins a red letter A to the lapel of his blazer to mark himself an atheist; sometimes he wears a small gold pin that represents the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
He believes in no higher power, only the independence and reason of human beings.
As a humanist minister, he performs secular weddings, memorials and baby-naming ceremonies for people looking for a non-religious alternative to traditional church-sanctioned rites.
Sometimes, he says, a couple will want to please their families and request a prayer during the service. That’s fine with Fuller; it’s their ceremony. But he asks someone else to lead the prayer.
So when heads are bowed and hands are folded, when the walls of the country club or banquet hall or dining room at the Kiwanis club resound with murmured devotions, what’s running through the minister’s head?
“A number of things,” he says. “Not always the same thing, but around the same theme — how ignorant they are to be so attached to what I see as a myth. An age-old myth.”
Becoming a humanist
Fuller began identifying as humanist in the mid-1980s.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union explains its philosophy this way:
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives.
"It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities.
"It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”
Fuller decided to become a minister with the American Humanist Association in 1987. He didn’t see many alternatives to church ceremonies, and he wanted to provide that.
Humanist ministers have all the same legal authority as traditional clergy. An applicant must be a dues-paying member of the AHA for at least one year, have four references, and pass an interview with the Humanist Celebrant Certification Committee. The process takes about two to six months.
According to the Humanist Society website, he’s listed as the only humanist celebrant in Missouri. In the nearly 30 years he has been practicing, he can count about 200 ceremonies he has performed, mostly weddings.
Some years he does a few, some years he does none. Last year he didn’t perform any. He was enlisted to perform a ceremony for an already-married couple in June, but they recently opted for a different venue.
He’d like to do more, he says. But not too many.
Tailoring the ceremonies
Fuller’s services differ from family to family. When planning a wedding, he sits down with the couple and pulls out a thick binder labeled “It’s Your Wedding” with various ceremony options.
He says couples almost always pick the same option — the one that most resembles a church service.
"Many of the people that are getting married have families that are still quite religious, some of them very religious. And they don’t want to alienate them.
"They want a ceremony that's as much like a real church wedding as it can be without being a religious service."
In 2006, he married Lee and Alison Hughes at the Meadow Lake Acres Country Club in Jefferson City. Alison’s father taught with Fuller at Westminster, and she grew up calling him "Papa Fuller." Neither of them religious, she and her soon-to-be husband decided against a church ceremony, and Papa Fuller was an obvious choice.
"There wasn’t anything ethereal about it," she says of the ceremony. "The core of what Gale was able to put together … it had to do with our own marriage. The main focus was on us."
The verbiage was about mutual respect, support and honor, she says. They laid bare what they intended their relationship to be in the company of family and friends.
Alison says a devoutly Catholic friend came up to her after the ceremony to tell her it was one of the most beautiful weddings she’d ever attended.
In the beginning
Fuller was born in 1927 to a Baptist family. His father was the program director of a traveling circus, and the whole family was a part of the show.
Fuller’s mother was a musician with her own calliope. Fuller, his brother and sister rode horses bareback — they stood up, did handstands and somersaults on the backs of the horses, while they galloped around.
His brother was also a clown (“not only in our act but in general”), and Fuller walked the high wire. The highest he ever walked was about 30 feet. He never fell during a performance.
School was difficult. The family performed out of town too often for Fuller to join any sports teams. He kept up with his studies through homeschooling when they were away, but he wasn't taken with school.
Around the age of 11 or 12, he became curious about his family’s Baptist faith. He had Jewish and Catholic friends in his hometown of Hastings, Neb., and he couldn’t understand how all these religions existed if each claimed to be the ultimate truth.
He couldn’t bring this up to his parents, who refused to perform in front of the Sunday crowds because it was the “Lord’s day.”
He knew what they would say: “Go ask a preacher,” or “Someday you’ll understand.”
This was the late 1930s. People whispered behind the backs of those they didn’t see in church. Fuller knew that his growing dissatisfaction with the idea of religion put him in the minority, but it didn’t bother him.
“I didn’t feel like I was confused about it,” he says. “I thought all the rest of them were.”
Roll of the dice
By the time he was in high school, Fuller decided he wanted to drop out. His mother wouldn’t have it. His teacher wouldn’t have it. So he stayed, performing in school theater productions in lieu of sports.
When he was 17, Fuller spotted his opportunity.
It was 1945, and the U.S. still needed young men to join the cause for the Second World War. Fuller knew if he was drafted, he would go into the Army, a thought that chilled him.
Instead he enlisted in the Navy, leaving school with enough credits to graduate in absentia at the end of the school term.
He was a hospital corpsman, stationed at the Naval hospital in Key West, Fla. He helped treat wounded men. He held down tourniquets while legs were amputated. Once, he handed a surgeon instruments as the surgeon hammered out a piece of titanium to cover a 2- or 3-inch hole in the side of a man’s head.
Fuller began to doubt the basis for most religious faiths. He would look at the mutilated man in front of him — the man with a stump for a leg, or a piece of titanium on his head — and he would wonder: Why him and not me?
“Roll of the dice,” he says today, sitting in his chair behind the coffee table stacked with humanist periodicals and a book on existentialism.
“I was at a certain place at a certain time, and I ended up where I am. He was at a certain place at a certain time, and he wound up where he is.”
Factors like education, experience and interests influence the outcome, sure, but that’s it – a Rube Goldberg of concrete, observable circumstances. Nothing divine about it.
The Good Witch of the North
Fuller was in the Navy for another two years after the war ended. When he left, he went back to the circus. But something was different. He’d met educated people in the Navy, and now he wanted more.
He gave school another try. He enrolled as a biology student in Hastings College, a Presbyterian school of about 800 students back in his hometown.
It had mandatory chapel services twice a week; individual seats were assigned to every student, and it was obvious when someone wasn’t there. Fuller was never there.
Inevitably he was called into the dean’s office. In not so many words, he was told if he didn’t start attending chapel services, he’d be kicked out of Hastings.
Fuller reminded the dean that he was attending school on the government’s dime, and that someone would be unhappy if he wasn’t getting an education with that money. He didn’t catch any grief for his empty seat after that.
In the spring of his junior year, Fuller was Oz in the school’s theater production of “The Wizard of Oz.” There, he met the Good Witch of the North, a pretty music student named Doris. She was a virtuoso on campus with her beautiful singing voice.
One Friday afternoon, Doris invited him to a sorority event that weekend. A couple of weeks later, on their second date, he asked her to marry him.
“Are you crazy?” she asked.
“Maybe,” he said. “But that’s not what I asked.”
She laughed him off.
He kept asking.
The next year, after learning Fuller was being recalled to active duty in the Navy after he graduated, she wondered if he was still serious about getting married. He was.
They had a small ceremony at her parents’ home in western Nebraska. Doris wasn’t religious either, but a local preacher officiated to please the in-laws.
Fuller liked learning why people do the things they do, so he pursued a master’s degree in psychology and earned his doctorate in 1961.
In 1955, he took a teaching position at Westminster College in Fulton, where he taught for 40 years, until he retired in 1995.
He and Doris had three children. She was an elementary school music teacher in Jefferson City and a choir director for churches in Fulton.
She was crazy for music, and church services gave her the chance to sing. The kids were not baptized, but Doris took them to Sunday school. It wasn’t long before they decided on their own to stop attending.
On Dec. 19, 1975, Fuller kissed Doris goodbye in their front yard. He drove to work, and she did the same. She was preparing her students for a Christmas program the same day.
Later that morning, Fuller received a call to come to the emergency room of St. Mary’s Hospital. Three or four chaplains were there, he remembers, when he learned that his 48-year-old wife had a heart attack. She was dead on arrival.
After a funeral officiated by the Presbyterian minister from the church where Doris worked, Fuller received a letter.
It was from a little girl in her class. She described what she saw on the day her teacher died.
Mrs. Fuller, she said, was making her students look presentable for the parents who would be watching the Christmas program. She bent down to adjust a little boy’s necktie, then fell down.
He visits Doris’ grave a couple times a year. He doesn’t talk to her when he’s there, but he puts flowers on the grave to brighten up the place. She can’t see them, he knows, or smell them.
When asked about the afterlife, he talks about quantum physics – atoms, subatomic particles and sub-subatomic particles, flying off into space toward other galaxies, sticking around on earth and combining to form other things.
“There’s no consciousness,” he says. “That’s part of our mortal being. Our mortal being goes ‘pfft,’ with not only our consciousness, but everything else. What’s done is done, but not with the basic building blocks of which all of us are constituted.”
He still has the letter from the little girl describing the last thing his wife did before she died.
Fuller’s own second wedding was a religious one. His wife, Phyllis, was a practicing Catholic when she married him 25 years ago, though she’s identified as humanist since 2007. Mail from the American Humanist Association is addressed to “Gale and Phyllis Fuller.”
They don’t talk much about religion. It just doesn’t come up.
He’s had two open-heart surgeries. After the second one, Phyllis and his children decided it was time for him to give up raising cattle on his property.
These days, he reads books on philosophy, history and, of course, quantum mechanics. He attends Sunday services at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Jefferson City, although sometimes it gets too preachy for him.
Inevitably, a conversation with him turns to what he wants to happen when he passes away.
“I want to be buried,” he says, “and for a very specific reason which may or may not happen.”
Some day, Fuller believes, maybe 1,000, 2,000 or 10,000 years from now, a future civilization, a future species, might be poking around what was once Fulton, Mo. Maybe they’ll find his bones. Maybe his bones will be able to teach them something.
“So I would hope that sometime in the future, if there’s any purpose at all, that would be it,” he says.
“Sort of put myself on hold for some future generation to explore and develop and ponder over.”