In California, One Convention So Over God
It’s Easter weekend, a Saturday luncheon in a hotel dining room, and the place is filled to capacity with a hundred like-minded guests chewing buffetized chicken and whipped potatoes and talking about Jesus Christ.
“Would you just look,” says Dennis Horvitz, arms raised in salute. “Look at these normal, normal people. Normal with a capital N! Doesn’t this just scream Middle America at 4,000 decibels?”
Horvitz pauses a moment for dramatic effect. Holds it. Holds it. Then he exhales: “And we’re the . . . Devil?”
Nods all around from his table mates. Persecution. Retribution. The shunning. They all tell it. It’s like a Mel Gibson movie — in a parallel universe.
But they are a welcoming, if a bit intense, bunch at the 30th annual national convention of the American Atheists, one of the country’s most active godless associations, founded by the firebrand pioneer of 1960s atheism, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, now dead.
And Horvitz is correct. The godless do not look so different from anyone else. Normal with a capital N. You couldn’t pick them out of a police lineup in the hunt for a secular humanist.
O’Hair was gray-haired and foulmouthed and favored tent dresses. Her style was in-your-face. Rabble-rouser to the nth degree. Beloved by some. But the leader of the American Atheists today is Ellen Johnson of Parsippany, N.J., who wears tailored suits and matching pumps. She is blond and trim and as put together as an astronaut’s wife at an Apollo launch.
Really, this gathering looks like decaffeinated Unitarians. Or like a real estate investment seminar in Indiana. Slightly more men than women. Older than younger. A few aging hippie ponytails. A T-shirt that reads: “Who Would Jesus Bomb?”
The general political tilt feels left of center, with hints of libertarian, mostly anti-Bush — though one of the longtime members, Edwin Kagin, who runs an atheist-centric summer camp for kids called Camp Quest (motto: “It’s Beyond Belief!”), is a certified firearms instructor for the National Rifle Association; his wife, Helen, tells us she has a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Almost all white, this crowd, except Charlie Boy, an atheist rapper who performed a selection of his songs, and Aroup Chatterjee, an atheist lawyer and author originally from India, who read from his book “The Final Verdict,” which “probes the life and sordid legacy of Mother Teresa.”
The gathering has that convention vibe. Watery coffee. Uncomfortable chairs. Speakers in a darkened ballroom hanging on through the final minutes of an hour-long PowerPoint presentation. Topics include “Atheists Engaging the Political Process: How to Effectively Support and Oppose Legislation” and “Noah’s Second Flood: Religious Domination in the Media and the Great Disinformation Inundation.”
In the lobby are tables selling books on papal corruption and greeting cards that wish recipients a Happy Solstice. One set of holiday-season cards is for the “Jesus Ski Team,” depicting Christ hauling his cross up a snowy mountainside. There are bumper stickers that read “Praying Is Begging.”
Several attendees show a visiting reporter how they scratch out the words “In God We Trust” from dollar bills. One fellow says he defaces $300 a month.
The annual gathering always occurs over Easter weekend. Is this a poke in the eyes of religionists?
“Actually,” Horvitz says, “it’s the rates.” It seems convention hotels typically discount room rates over the stay-at-home holiday.
Be that as it may, these are heady, edgy days for American atheists. Last month, California physician and attorney Michael A. Newdow, representing himself, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court as he sought to ban the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because of the phrase “under God,” added in 1954 during the fervor of the anti-communist Cold War.
If the Supreme Court sides with the separation-of-church-and-state set, it would inflame the culture wars during an election year.
That would be a huge ruling, and mark a clear victory for the atheists. The buzz at the convention, however, is mixed. Rounds of applause break out at the mention of Newdow. But some secular humanists here worry that it could create a backlash against their goal of “freedom from religion,” fearing that Congress and the 2004 candidates would align themselves with a pledge that most Americans tell pollsters they like just the way it is.
Organized nonbelief is a bit of an oxymoron, or, as Ellen Johnson likes to put it, getting atheists to cooperate collectively is “like herding cats.”
Perhaps that’s natural among a constituency that labels itself freethinkers.
Alexander Waugh, the grandson of Evelyn Waugh (British author of “Brideshead Revisited,” etc.), is on hand to discuss his book “God,” which compiles historical and literary references to a supreme being. The balding, rumple-suited Waugh is very droll and pommy, but he makes the point to the audience that, though he himself might/might not be an atheist, only in America would people join an atheist society. “To be an atheist, you’re stating a belief in something,” he says.
Kenneth Bronstein, president of New York City Atheists, recalls attending his first meeting of the Gotham group. “It was sad,” he says. “Ten guys in a room, all arguing with each other.” A typical rally would draw a dozen people. “We should have thousands,” Bronstein says.
The national movement has met with little success in electing an avowed atheist to higher office. “It’s gonna cost a lot of money,” says Bronstein, who then jokes: “The first thing you need to do is take all these cheap atheists and get rid of them.”
(Noted: There were a lot of separate checks during the cocktail hour for atheist singles in the lounge.)
To push their agenda, the atheists, freethinkers and secular humanists announced a month ago the formation of GAMPAC, the Godless American Political Action Committee, designed to funnel funds to candidates advocating separation of church and state.
We ask Jeffrey K. Lewis, a software designer from Eugene, Ore., and a leader of the action committee, about, umm, the name. We wonder how many candidates are ready to have among their endorsements the overtly godless.
“It might be a problem in today’s climate,” Lewis says. But in time, he hopes, “our name will become softer” as people hear it more often.
Lewis and other conferees repeat that national polling suggests there are 30 million “nonbelievers” in the population — a vast untapped well of agnostics and doubters and anti-deists and church-shirkers.
But the atheists here understand that most of those people are not aligned, specifically, with the atheist movement.
It retains a stigma.
It is revealing, the atheists admit, that they have adopted the language of the gay rights movement. “I’ve only been out of the closet for a year,” says Seattle’s Bob Seidensticker of his atheism. Like many here, he told family members for years that he was a doubter, an agnostic, that he was “questioning.” But he recalls that at one family gathering, he was listening to a relative talk about how Noah’s ark had dinosaurs; he finally flipped and declared himself. It was liberating, but tough.
Seidensticker was eating lunch during a break with Monty Gaither, the Arizona director of American Atheists, who works as a software tech at an aerospace company. Back in 1980s, Gaither was one of four Arizona State University students who, with the American Civil Liberities Union, sued to have a cross removed from the campus. These days, he’s waging battles to have the Ten Commandments pulled from a public park in Phoenix and Bible verses removed from Grand Canyon National Park.
There are some things you should know: Some of these atheists know their Bible, plus their biblical-lands history. Want to debate the role of the Zadokite priests? What the Hittites were up to? Whether there is archaeological or genetic evidence that Moses and the Israelites were ever in Egypt? Ask one of these people. But be forewarned: You might want to brush up on your geology before you start asking about the Flood.
Gaither is wearing a “Proud to Be an Atheist” T-shirt. He once was a young Bible quoter par excellence on the Southern Baptist circuit of youthful savants. “Medals and pins? Nobody had more,” Gaither says. But one day, he says, he began to compile these “contradictions” in the Bible. He was just a kid. “I made a list of 200 and stopped,” he says. His relatives told him, “You read too much.” He says, “Can you imagine?”
Gaither spends hours a week in chat rooms debating the Scriptures. That is another thing about the atheists at this convention. They can be snide. They can bash. Frank Zindler, director of the American Atheist Press, does a whole hour on the podium lecturing on “the parasitic class” of priests and ministers engaged in what he called “the ignorance industry,” saying, “These guys can spew out more disinformation and nonsense in 30 minutes than I can refute in 30 years.”
Yes, these atheists are absolutely obsessed with religion. The weekend was like antimatter Bible camp. Every conversation eventually wound its way back to the topic.
Out in the lobby, David Mandell was passing out copies of his “Atheist Anthem,” sung to a march that he was happy to play on his harmonica. (He is member of the Fremont [Calif.] Senior Sweet Harps).
Mandell, a retired Federal Aviation Administration radar technician, won Best Letter to the Editor from the American Atheists in 2003 for a few lines of argument he managed to get published in a small Oakland area newspaper.
He wears a button that reads “GOD” with a red circle and stripe across it. “I don’t know if you know this,” he says, “but 90 percent of atheists once belonged to some religion, but through the years they began to question. They wanted to know the truth. They searched. And they decided they wanted to believe in reality and not fantasy.”
But, Mandell says, “the process is very painful” because it involves the feeling that parents or authority figures might have lied to you. “You were brainwashed. And then for years, you have what I call the God-phobia. I was afraid. I was scared to say, ‘May God strike me dead.’ ” But he kept at it. “Over and over.” Saying it. Thinking about it.
How long did it take to become “desensitized,” as he put it?
“Fifteen years,” Mandell says, quietly. That’s a long time. “You’re telling me,” he says.