PACIFICA — Jim Heldberg became an atheist sitting in church.
Raised by Methodist parents in Kansas, Heldberg spent every weekend in church as a child. He grew into a teenager with an interest in science who, while seeking objective answers to his questions, would take notes on everything the preacher was saying.
“I couldn’t square religion with my goal of being a scientist,” says Heldberg, now 66. “How does prayer work? Nobody can explain it. How can there be invisible people in the sky? I wanted it to fit, and it frustrated me that it didn’t fit.”
Heldberg felt different from his kin and community, who were connected by the church.
He didn’t know what “atheism” was until the day his mother hurled it at him.
“Just the fact that there was a word was very comforting to me. It meant I wasn’t alone,” he said.
Years later, Heldberg moved to Pacifica and found a new community of friends and like-minded thinkers among atheists in the Bay Area. Ten years ago, he founded San Francisco Atheists — one of three local atheist groups, including Silicon Valley Atheists and East Bay Atheists — and became the national affiliation director with American Atheists, the online hub of atheist activists across America.
The move marked the beginning of Heldberg’s time as a political organizer. Angry at the “government support of religion” he saw in the rise of the evangelical right and the blurring of lines between church and state, he and his fellow San Francisco Atheists have held protest rallies and given speeches from the steps of City Hall.
The prominent Pacifica businessman — who did not become a scientist after all — is responsible for “affiliating” many of the American Atheists’ 59 chapters across the country. The San Francisco Atheists will honor Heldberg’s many years of service tonight at a public dinner at Schroeder’s German Restaurant in San Francisco.
As national affiliation director, Heldberg doesn’t recruit people to atheism the way some religions do.
“It’s not a movement; it’s not sophisticated enough to be called a movement. It’s an urge. It’s a feeling,” he said. “I don’t go up to people and say, ‘You should be an atheist.’ I don’t need to. The more the religious right takes over the government, the more people come to find us.”
Gaining respect as an atheist is hard. It’s different than being an agnostic; atheism is a repudiation of faith, while agnostics simply don’t believe in anything in particular. Declaring himself as an atheist in public has caused Heldberg to receive harassing phone calls and e-mails from Christians who tell him he’s going to hell.
According to a 2006 study from the University of Minnesota, all segments of America distrust atheists more than any other minority group, including homosexuals, recent immigrants, or Muslims.
Atheists only make up 3 percent of the U.S. population, and yet they are viewed as such a threat to the American way of life that most Americans said they would oppose letting their children marry one.
“People just have this belief that if you don’t believe in God, you can’t be an upstanding, ethical citizen. And the government doesn’t help by sticking religious phrases into patriotic slogans, like ‘One Nation Under God,'” said Dave Kong, state director for American Atheists.
Although the national group only has about 3,000 official members, Heldberg believes there are many other would-be atheists among the free-thinkers of California. They just go by other names, such as “secular humanists,” objectivists” or “rationalists.”
“I like the name ‘Atheist’ because it’s honest. These are people kind of hiding behind other names because they don’t want to offend other people,” he says.
Heldberg, however, isn’t afraid of offending other people if necessary. He and other local atheists joined a counter-protest against the use of San Francisco City Hall as a staging ground for “Battle Cry,” a two-day protest by 25,000 evangelical Christian youth in March 2006, and later passed out atheist literature to Christians outside another protest location at AT&T Park.
He and his atheist colleagues rallied outside the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in support of Sacramento atheist Michael Newdow, who argued a case before the Supreme Court in 2004 seeking to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance on constitutional grounds. Heldberg says he has nothing against the practice of religion but not at the expense of the government or his own freedom of speech.
Signs that church and state have become too close are everywhere, he says — from the words “In God we Trust” on American money to the fact that the Bush administration’s office of faith-based and community initiatives awards grants to church councils as well as secular charities. The tradition of presidential candidates stumping in churches is equally wrong, Heldberg believes.
“Is that legal? Not the way I read the Constitution,” he said. “Our government is using religion to further its own goals.”
The dinner to honor Heldberg begins tonight at 6 at Schroeder’s German Restaurant, 240 Front St., in San Francisco.
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