Last weekend, American Atheists—the largest organization of its sort—held its 30th annual convention here in San Diego. Like any gathering of like-minded people, there were plenty of opportunities to take shots at the opposition—the “theists,” who comprise roughly three-quarters of the American population and dwarf the country's professed atheists.
An us-against-them mindset is necessary, though, when you've got big plans to enact change.
Since Madeline Murray O'Hair won her battle in 1970 to keep Bible recitation out of public schools, atheists have increasingly taken on anything that threatens a hard separation between church and state—including anything from the practice of swearing on a Bible in court to moneyed religious organizations throwing their considerable weight into politics.
At the conference, American Atheists president Ellen Johnson announced that in March, GAMPAC-the Godless Americans Political Action Committee-was formed, to give atheists a stronger political voice.
CityBeat sat down for a brief chat with Dave Kong, director of the California branch of American Athiests, to talk about the atheist foray into politics, the public perception of living a “Godless” life and the existential hurdles that come with being an atheist
CityBeat: Could support from the GAMPAC work against someone running for office? Let's say you support John Kerry. I could see the Bush campaign latching on to that. Is that a concern?
Dave Kong: It's not a concern for us; for the elected official, it might be a concern. We had given an award to mayor Ralph Appezzato from Alameda for removing the [religious] invocation from City Council meetings. We went to present the award to him-and at that point he was getting ready to run for county Board of Supervisors-and he actually told us, “You know I love you guys, but I'm really afraid that if I'm photographed with atheists right now it could hurt the campaign.” Could we hold off and do the ceremony a month from now? And we're like, “It's in our best interest to have you elected. We're not out here to get our own publicity and screw you up in the process.” So we waited a month. He actually won the run-off and, sure enough, we had our meeting and he was just pleased as punch. On the other hand, [Congressman] Pete Stark got his award and the next week he was in the [San Francisco] Chronicle, big article, totally standing up for the separation for church and state, and I think we had an influence on that.
Would you say atheists are more about a political ideology-separation of church and state-or more about whether or not God exists?
It's really more of a personal philosophy. This trend to move it into the political arena as a unit, as all of us voting together, is going to be a very interesting process because, typically, atheists are free thinkers; they think on their own, which is why in the past we've always avoided the political because we have some atheists who are Republicans, some atheists who are Democrats, atheists who are Greens, atheists who are Communists-you name it, we run all spectrums. So this trying to get us into a formal voting bloc on certain issues-I can see a definite challenge to that.
On the political side of atheism, what would be the two or three main issues that you're working on now?
Right now our main beef is, of course, government funding of religion. We also totally disagree with any symbolic endorsement of religion and that includes crosses on public property, includes “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. We changed our national motto to “In God We Trust” back in 1955 or '56.
Is there such thing as a questioning atheist?
Well, then you have the agnostics. They've become the in-between-“as far as I can tell, there's no God-how could we as humans possibly know? ... Like Woody Allen, you know, sometimes you'll hear him call himself an agnostic, other times he'll call himself an atheist.... Some people don't want to use the “A” word because they're afraid it's going to stigmatize [them]. The point of American Atheists is if you don't use the word “atheist,” it's never going to be destigmatized. We've used it enough and it's starting to get out in the press, and rather than-gasp!-there's atheists in the paper, now it's, oh, it's just the atheists again.
You mentioned in your welcome speech on Friday an event that had “humanized atheists in the press.”
After 9/11 all these memorials came out; all of them were so heavily saturated with religion. We were all devastated by the 9/11 tragedy and yet these memorials-we can't participate in this, we don't feel welcome to participate. In fact, the few that we asked to come and speak at, we were flatly rejected... so we held our own memorial and it got picked up by the national press, L.A. Times, places like that, at a time when we most needed to put a human face on atheists.
What's the stereotype of an atheist?
There's one where people think we're just cold, analytical people who look at a sunset and say, “It's just the sun bringing its rays down and radiation and all that,” and taking the romance out of life. That's one of the problems we've had. When I first started out in the atheist movement, the big issue with religious people was, well, if you're an atheist, you must do bad things. Over the years, they've finally gotten over that but now the reverse is happening; now I'm getting groups that say, “Well, you're an atheist and I can understand you don't do bad things but how can you be motivated to do good things?” And if you do good things, somehow they feel they must couch it in religious terms. To me that's very distressing, because when I do good things, when I help out the homeless and all that, it's not religion; it's just people and people need to help people, you know? I mean, they're my species.
Is there any religion that you think “gets it” more than others?
There are some religions that are kind of non-deistic like the Buddhists [and] the Taoists. I won a trip to China about a year and a half ago and found out they were wonderful people, essentially atheists. I traveled with them and said I'm an atheist, and everyone said, “Oh!” Had a great time.
How does the atheist community view religious-based conflict?
It's just distressing. It's a hard thing for us to watch. Sept. 11 was obviously religiously based, and you've got our side going, “Our God would never do that and our God is better than your God.” That was really frightening for us because we just saw this Christian-versus-Muslim thing starting to build very quickly, and once you get that started, how do you turn back?
George Bush is openly Christian. Is there anyone in the atheist community who supports him?
I'm sure that if you talked to a large group of our members, you'd find Bush supporters. Like I say, we're a mixed group and that's why this political action committee is going to be a definite challenge.
You have a firm belief in keeping religion and state- or federally funded operations separate. At the same time, there are people who turn their lives around because of religion.
In the atheist sense, the alcoholic that gets off alcohol and starts going to church, they're just replacing one dependency for another and it's still clouding their clear, true critical thinking.... If an individual feels they need support from a religion, I'm not going to knock it as much as I may think religion is silly and worthless and all that stuff. It's individual choice.
The thought of life after death is what keeps most people clinging to religion. For atheists, there's no life after death, is there?
“Worm food” is my favorite term to use. When we die, we're going to be worm food. It is a scary prospect. I remember a couple of years ago lying in bed one night and suddenly the idea of just nothingness... just totally freaked me out. I remember sitting up in bed and broke into a sweat, but you realize, though, that death just happens, so you've got to live. You've got to make the most of your life. My dad ended up dying of AIDS at age 65, but at the same time he lived a completely full life, was a fighter for the First Amendment, he traveled around the world. He lived a good life. He knew he wasn't going to heaven, but you make the most of it. Maybe atheists are trying to leave the world a better place than we found it, maybe that's our bid for immortality.
Is there an ongoing push to convert “theists”?
There are some atheists who are very evangelical, for lack of a better word. They see a religious person and they will go and try to talk to them until they are blue in the face....Sure, if anybody wants to wake up and admit there's no God, we're certainly happy to encourage that along. American Atheists ourselves have never really been into proselytizing. We're there for the curious who'll come up to us and say, “Hey, I've always wondered about this,” or “What do you think of the Shroud of Turin?” We're certainly willing to give them our opinion, and if you call that proselytizing, I guess it is.
So, what do you think of the Shroud of Turin?
I think it's a total sham, of course.