'Are You with the Atheists?'
A Unitarian Universalist attends the annual conference of American Atheists "to get some sense of what it would be like, for the first time in my life, to be the most religious person on the premises."
by Dan Kennedy
I was talking with the desk clerk at Boston's Hyatt Harborside Hotel, where the annual convention of the organization American Atheists was meeting. My mission: to see whether I could leave and return later without incurring another parking fee.
"Are you with the atheists?" the clerk asked.
"No!" I responded vehemently. More vehemently than I had intended. I laughed uneasily, paused, and mumbled, "I'm a reporter. I'm just covering them."
My outburst surprised me. I should have felt some kinship with the couple of hundred atheists who had gathered that Easter weekend (no kidding) at the Hyatt, a modern, rather sterile hotel hard by Logan Airport. My own spiritual journey from a staunchly secular agnostic in my teens and early adulthood to a vaguely spiritual, but determinedly humanist, middle age had not taken me all that far from where the atheists stand. Yet there I was, implicitly putting them down, trying to persuade a total stranger who really didn't care that I wasn't one of them.
Well, for what it's worth, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times before the cock crowed. More to the point, as the scholar (and atheist) Wendy Kaminer wrote in The New Republic in 1996, "Atheists generate about as much sympathy as pedophiles. But, while pedophilia may at least be characterized as a disease, atheism is a choice, a willful rejection of beliefs to which vast majorities of people cling."
In a sense, atheism is the purest essence of one flavor of the unorthodoxy that we Unitarian Universalists cherish one that has found little popularity since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The attacks may have been the direct result of religion gone bad; yet, in the United States, the response of the majority was not to question the role of religion in public life but rather to underscore it with prayer services, vigils, and the like. At least President Bush has taken an interfaith approach and emphasized the essentially peaceful nature of mainstream Islam.
Then, in June, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled that requiring schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state because it includes the phrase "under God." Observers of the judicial system immediately predicted that the panel's ruling would never withstand Supreme Court scrutiny.
But rather than let the legal process play itself out, members of Congress rushed to the steps of the Capitol to recite the Pledge, and to the floor of the House and the Senate to denounce the courts. Their irresponsible behavior, not surprisingly, incited the more retrograde elements of public opinion.
I happened to find myself in a football stadium in Salt Lake City on the Fourth of July, attending a celebration called "Red Hot 4th." Normally, I find exhibitions of patriotism quite moving; this is one liberal who flies a flag outside his house. But I felt like a foreigner in my own country when an elderly war hero angrily led a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the words "under God" spat out in defiance of "some judge in California," as it was put by a local news anchor who was emceeing the event. That, in turn, was followed by chants of "USA! USA! USA!"
Such outbursts of public religiosity and a decidedly know-nothing religiosity at that remind us that most Unitarian Universalists have more in common with atheists than they do with, say, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. And it goes beyond that. Some of us don't just share common ground with atheists we are atheists.
In 1997, the Unitarian Universalist Association surveyed more than 8,000 active UUs and found that humanists a category that includes agnostics and atheists constituted 46 percent of the membership. How many identify as atheists? The most recent nationwide survey to ask that question was conducted in 1987 by the UUA Commission on Appraisal, which found that 7 percent of Unitarian Universalists picked "atheist" over other options, including "humanist." Going back even further, 21 percent of Unitarian Universalists in 1979 said that the concept of God is irrelevant or harmful, down from 30 percent in 1967. According to a 2001 report in The Christian Century, a study by Ohio University professor James Casebolt found that 18 percent of Unitarian Universalists whom he polled in Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania considered themselves atheists. By comparison, a 2002 City University of New York study found that just 0.4 percent of all Americans say they're atheists.
It's one thing not to profess a belief in God, or gods, or whatever. It's something else to be as in-your-face about it as the delegates to the American Atheists convention, with their angry denunciations of the religious outburst that followed 9/11.
For a typical Unitarian Universalist with a vaguely spiritual orientation, militant atheism such as that professed by the American Atheists represents a different, and more difficult, intellectual challenge than we're accustomed to. Denunciations of the religious right, and of its influence on such issues as reproductive choice and the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, come easily to us. So does criticism of institutions such as the hierarchical, secretive culture in the Roman Catholic Church that did so much for so long to protect priests who sexually abuse children.
By contrast, atheism especially the outspoken brand fostered by American Atheists forces Unitarian Universalists to look to our left rather than to our right. Unitarian Universalists appeal to reason; atheists say we are only slightly less superstitious than traditional believers. The atheists issue press releases denouncing plans to erect a cross at the site of the World Trade Center, and call the "under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance "as inappropriate as declaring our secular nation 'under Zeus,' Vishnu, or any other deity." Such fire-breathing rhetoric makes Unitarian Universalist skepticism sound wimpy by comparison.
I went to the American Atheists convention in March warily, furtively, no-I'm-not-one-of-them-thank-you-very-much to listen and to learn. And to get some sense of what it would be like, for the first time in my life, to be the most religious person on the premises.
Ellen Johnson is a carefully groomed, soft-spoken, self-described "soccer mom" from New Jersey who comes across more as a lobbyist than a rabble-rouser. She is also a second-generation atheist and the successor to the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the founder of American Atheists, by some accounts "the most hated woman in America," and a plaintiff in the 1963 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared school prayer unconstitutional. [See "A Victory for the Heretics."]
Despite Johnson's persona as the antithesis of her colorful predecessor, her rhetoric was unsparing. Standing in front of a banner that read "American Atheists: Leading the Way for Atheists' Civil Rights," Johnson seethed as she denounced such post–9/11 idiocies as reintroduction of the Ten Commandments Defense Act in the House of Representatives, which would give states the right to decide whether to display the Ten Commandments on public property, and a decision by school officials in Palestine, Texas, to allow a minister to lead students in prayer.
"Atheists felt marginalized and angered," Johnson said. "It's religion that caused the attack on our country, and it's religion that divides America. We are also grieving Americans, and we won't shut up and be quiet while others break the law." She also told the crowd about a planned "March on Washington for Godless Americans." The message: "We are free, proud, godless, and on the move." (The march, which took place on Saturday, November 2, drew about 2,000 atheists and other non-believers, according to an account in the Washington Post. "Ladies and gentlemen, I see a sleeping giant that is waking up and is ready to assert its political and cultural influence," Johnson told the crowd. And she announced the formation of an atheists' PAC.)
To be sure, I didn't find a whole lot in Johnson's message with which to disagree. But my attitude tends to be: "Who cares?" I know my views are not mainstream, and I don't expect to see them reflected in the majority culture; all I ask is that the majority's views not be imposed on me. The idea that nearly 300 people would travel across the country to spend a weekend complaining about such trivial insults if, indeed, they can even be considered insults struck me as weird.
At lunch Lydia Rice tried to set me straight. A manufacturing engineer from Silicon Valley, Rice described herself as a refugee from a conservative religious childhood in which women were treated as "slaves." Having overcome such an upbringing, she said, the impulse to activism came naturally. She was the prime mover behind a nonreligious memorial to the victims of 9/11 at Golden Gate State Park in San Francisco. She is quick to point out what she sees as the damaging effects of religion on everyday life.
"There are so many religious images that are really ugly," Rice told me. As an example, she cited the crucifix. "It's a picture of a guy being tortured to death," she said. "Do you really want your kids looking at that? It's an ugly, ugly vision."
If being an atheist in Silicon Valley is hard, imagine what it must be like in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. James Ramsey, American Atheists' state director for Virginia, lives near a small city called Harrisonburg. Young, bearded, bespectacled, and with a long ponytail, he looks like the sort of person you might run into at a science-fiction convention offset by a well-tailored suit and an unusually sober demeanor.
Ramsey, whose family finds his atheism so upsetting that he says his brother is able to refer to it only as "the A-word," says becoming an active, outspoken atheist was part of his "leaving the closet gays and atheists both have closets." His license plate reads "ATHEISM." He recalls the time that his supervisor at the warehouse where he works as a clerk saw him on television, protesting at City Hall against the National Day of Prayer. He counts himself lucky that he wasn't fired.
Occasionally, Ramsey says, he'll encounter someone who is put off by his outspokenness and who tells him something like, "You need to remember what kind of community you're in." Ramsey's response: "Listen, this is my community, too."
It's not that the American Atheists convention was all serious presentations and polemics. There was, for instance, the bookstore a veritable laugh riot of bumper stickers ("WWJD Who Wants Jelly Donuts?"), T-shirts ("Proud to Be an American Atheist," complete with American flag trying wearing that to the 7-Eleven), and books (Martin Luther: Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor apparently serious, but a bizarrely over-the-top title nevertheless).
There was a presentation by Arlo Pignotti called "Holy Paraphernalia Mania," a show of religious artifacts ranging from a Scientology E-meter to a little bronze statuette of Jesus and his dog ("I don't remember that in the Gospels," he quipped) to something called "rumpology" whereby Jacqueline Stallone (Sylvester's mom) promises to predict your future if you will merely send her a photocopy of your butt, along with (naturally) $100. (Try "rumpology" and "Stallone" in your Web search engine. I was amazed.)
And there was the event that convention organizers had billed as the highlight of the weekend, the showing of a video called Godstuff, by Joe Bob Briggs (the stage name for the writer and tongue-in-cheek movie critic John Bloom), an outrageously over-the-top compilation of clips from religious television shows. The star: Robert Tilton, a televangelist whose on-air greed makes Jim Bakker look like someone who's taken a vow of poverty. "This could be like Religious Talk Soup," quipped Briggs, who was on hand to introduce his film and sign autographs.
At the same time, though, I couldn't help but sense a forced, brittle quality to the weekend's proceedings a quality I couldn't quite put my finger on until someone asked Briggs whether he was an atheist. Well, no, he said, he wasn't, but he added something to the effect that his religious views were closer to those of the atheists than to those of the evangelists he was lampooning. Briggs's confession, as it were, was met with a noticeable silence. Later, a member of the audience gently admonished Briggs for playing a clip of a troupe of dancing rabbis strictly for laughs, saying they were actually part of a dangerous cult, and that he himself had had to struggle mightily to escape from his own family's Judaism.
It later occurred to me that Briggs had challenged however unintentionally the certainty that prevailed at the convention, a certainty so rigid that it makes no effort to distinguish serious attempts to understand the universe from well, rumpology. The weekend's agenda was assertion, not debate, not challenge. I came to suspect that the last thing the conventioneers wanted was for Joe Bob Briggs to walk into their midst, make them laugh, and then admit that, no, he didn't share their certainty.
No less than that Fourth of July night in Salt Lake, there was discomfort, even a touch of anger, when the prevailing belief system was challenged. As Andrew Stuttaford, who covered the convention for National Review, put it: "Fundamentalism, it was obvious that weekend, does not depend on a god."
And there was the whiff of fundamentalism in the air, if by fundamentalism you mean absolute certainty, coupled with a defensiveness suggesting that, beneath the surface, maybe the certainty isn't so absolute after all. A member of my church who also attended, an atheist who strikes me as far more comfortable in his convictions than many at the convention, later offered me a succinct assessment of the proceedings: "Not fun." And it stands to reason that the subset of a subset of a subset of atheists who would fly to Boston to spend their weekend listening to presentations about atheism would have to be, if not unusually dedicated, then perhaps just a tad defensive about the certainty of their beliefs.
No, not fun at all.
I don't mean to push this line of argument too far. I liked most of the atheists I met. I agreed with much of what they had to say about the irrationality of dogma and about the role of religion in public life. At one point, a speaker half-seriously proposed that Ellen Johnson run for governor of New Jersey, and I thought: Why not? She's liberal, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and damn well isn't going to file a bill that would, say, let parents use taxpayer-financed subsides to send their kids to Catholic schools. There is, as I said, much common ground between atheists and most Unitarian Universalists, including those of us with a spiritual orientation.
But what gets in the way, at least for me, is the certainty. Each person has his or her own reasons for becoming a Unitarian Universalist. Mine has a lot to do with our willingness, even eagerness, to embrace uncertainty. If I can't accept the certainty of belief, why should I find it any more palatable to run to the arms of unbelief instead?
After I wrote about the atheists' convention in the Boston Phoenix last April, I received a number of e-mails from atheists who had come to Boston. All were thoughtful; most were appreciative that at least I had not attacked them. But several writers suggested that by agreeing with much of their world view but rejecting their bottom line, I was fooling myself and fooling others in order to make my way more easily in mainstream society.
"Based solely upon what you wrote, it appears to me that you are a closet Atheist," wrote one correspondent. "You seemed to do everything possible in the article to disavow yourself from the Atheists. You sympathized and agreed with us, but did your best to maintain a rigid schism between you and Atheism."
Well, yes. As I told the desk clerk at the Hyatt Harborside, I am not an atheist.
Atheism has its purposes in a culture suffused with icky piety and unthinking invocations of God, invocations voiced to explain everything from why some people live and some die to who wins the Superbowl. In a world plagued by -isms that claim to have The Answer, atheism serves as a counterweight. If it becomes its own Answer, then it is no better than the religiosity that it mocks.
Dan Kennedy is the senior writer for the Boston Phoenix and a member of the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church in Danvers, Massachusetts. His work can be found on-line at www.dankennedy.net.