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Bobbie Kirkhart: Atheists United’s chief nonbeliever

‘No God? No problem!” That’s one sign of the season. The American Humanist Assn. is pasting it all over Southern California buses to make the point that you don’t have to be godly to be good.

Atheists United, headed by Bobbie Kirkhart, had a different holiday sign for last Christmas. It read, “Reason’s Greetings,” and it was accompanied by one of those stylized Darwin fish, this one wearing a jaunty Santa Claus cap. It went on display, legally, in a Westside park, outnumbered by creches -- and someone stole it.

Kirkhart’s not surprised. She remembers that when a sign went up on the Glendale Freeway, maybe 10 years ago, announcing that the atheist organization was cleaning up roadside trash, it got defaced all the time. Not so much now. And she thinks that’s a good sign, too, that atheism isn’t getting quite the bad rap it used to.

This year, the Atheists United holiday display destined for that same Westside park is a gnome with Charles Darwin’s face on it. Kirkhart is an optimist but not a fool. How long it’ll stay there, she can’t hazard a guess.

As for me, I think I’ll look in vain for a long time yet to find a “Happy Solstice” card in the Hallmark store.

Is this a great time of year or a terrible time of year to be an atheist?

It’s always a great time of year to be an atheist. The traditions of Christmas are almost entirely pre-Christian, so that’s not really a problem for us that some people are celebrating the birth of their god. We are doing what people have always done when the days are cold and dark -- we look to each other for light and warmth.

The downside is this so-called war on Christmas. This year, the Gap had an ad that celebrated Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the solstice. Some Christians are saying it puts the solstice on the same level as Christmas.

Then it arguably does the same for Kwanzaa and Hanukkah too.

They wouldn’t dare boycott based on Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, but they can boycott based on [the solstice]. It’s kind of amazing, such latent bigotry. People who are very insecure in their own beliefs are frightened by other beliefs and want to stifle them. I think their own insecurity makes them afraid to have us in the same society and have any access to the same media.

Where in American history do you find the same protection for non-religion that believers claim for religion?

The 1st Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Certainly most of our Founding Fathers who wrote our Constitution and declared independence were very much concerned about protection of freedom of thought.

Yet many people say this nation was founded as a Judeo-Christian nation.

They get that from the Pilgrims -- and of course today’s most conservative fundamentalists would be quite liberal compared to the Pilgrims. So when people [say they] want the government the Pilgrims established and envisioned, I don’t think they know what they’re asking for.

A 1999 Gallup Poll found that 38% of Americans wouldn’t vote for a Muslim presidential candidate and 48% wouldn’t vote for an atheist. Federal courts have said religious tests for public office are illegal, but North Carolina’s constitution says that atheists cannot hold elected office. That law is being used to challenge the November election of an atheist to the Asheville City Council. So has the public standing of atheists evolved?

I think it’s improved somewhat because of the people we call the Four Horsemen: [authors] Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. It’s been exciting to see atheists’ books in airport bookstores, [like] “God is Not Great,” Hitchens’ book.

And you didn’t say “Thank God” when you saw it?

My son-in-law is training us all to say “Thank Godzilla.”

So if atheism is indeed beginning to register, why is that?

There’s much more access to information. Even in Los Angeles, we’ve had people come to Atheists United and say, “I thought I was the only atheist in the world.” Being able to Google the word “atheist” to access information has helped. I think the biggest single factor is eight years of something pretty close to an open theocracy. People got frightened when George Bush talked about crusades. There are certainly atheists who agreed with that war, but they didn’t think it was a crusade. That woke people up. And I think that many of [them] decided to stand up and be heard -- probably mostly just told their friends and family.

You mean they came out?

They came out. Richard Dawkins has an “out” campaign, and you can get a scarlet A from the Richard Dawkins website to show that you are an “out” atheist.

How big is your membership?

Membership is still low compared to the number of atheists. We are by definition people who go our own way. On any fourth Sunday, when we have our meetings, you’ll find more atheists sitting in the pews of churches and synagogues than in our meetings. Society has sold the idea that religion is by definition good, that religion’s doing good things, and so people go for the socialization and the charitable events. People believe the church is doing good, and some are, of course.

Are these atheists using churchgoing for protective cover?

I have a nephew in Little Rock, Ark., who, if he lived in Los Angeles, would be a serious atheist. But in Little Rock, with exactly the same beliefs, he’s a serious Methodist.

Are atheists persecuted?

Oh, sure. Persecuted is a very strong word for what happens in this country, but I lost a job once. I had been teaching in a private school, but not a religious one. We had a new director, a really vocal Christian. He started prayer meetings, voluntary, before work on Wednesday mornings. The school was failing and it was time for layoffs, and I was among the first. I learned from my Christian friend that [the director] asked why I wasn’t going to prayer meetings. They told him I was an atheist, and he said, “Oh, we’ll take care of that.”

How did you become an atheist?

I grew up in a very religious home. My mother was a Salvation Army officer before she married. That was in Enid, Okla. I call it the whipping strop of the Bible Belt. I loved the church; I taught a Sunday school class. My first job out of college was as a social worker in South-Central L.A. I met people of other religions. I had always been told that those people were just superstitious. [I found] they were as smart as I was -- and they believed [in] Hinduism or Islam. That was a little disconcerting.

I had always had what Christians call the problem of evil. I had never doubted the existence of a god, but I thought God was terribly cruel, and then I felt very guilty because I was judging God. My clients were black and Latino women who were God’s most fervent servants, and my God was at best leaving them to very cruel elements. And I realized that the God that I had grown up believing [in] could not exist.

I looked at other [religious] concepts, and most of them didn’t hold water. [When] my father was very ill, I found myself wanting to pray for his health. And I didn’t believe there was a god up there who was going to hear my prayers. On vacation, I went to a lonely beach in Mazatlan, and I said, “I’m not going to leave this beach until I know what I think.” And I spent about six hours there and came off the beach an atheist.

I have to use the metaphor -- was it a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment for you?

“Pascal’s wager” [is] the idea that if you believe and there is no God, you’ve lost nothing. And if you don’t believe and there is a God, you’ve lost eternal life. What I came to was more practical: If that’s the case, how would I know I’ve chosen the right god? And what would make me think that a god who was that cruel, and would punish me eternally for my honest beliefs, would reward me for trying to make myself believe? And that was the final moment.

What don’t people know about atheists?

Most atheists have happy, full lives; have great families. I found my late husband at Atheists United, and my daughter met her husband at Atheists United. We care about the larger community. We are a free-thought community. I don’t think there’s any higher moral force than the thoughtful, informed, individual human conscience.

Why don’t you just hedge your bets and be an agnostic?

I am an agnostic. People don’t understand what an agnostic is. There’s about a 95% overlap between atheists and agnostic. I don’t know with absolute certainty that there is nothing that could be considered a god. But I know with functional certainty that there’s no god I have to be concerned about in my life or my observable world. An agnostic says “I don’t know.” Theism is about belief, and an atheist says I don’t believe. So I don’t know, and I don’t believe.

How do atheists celebrate the solstice?

We do most of the holiday observances that other people do. You will find [Christians] who don’t do any of the traditional holiday observances because they believe the real meaning of Christmas is worship; you’ll find atheists who don’t like solstice parties. But most of us will get together and there’ll be evergreen decorations and maybe candles and we’ll sing and have a party.

What do you sing?

We’ll probably sing “Imagine.” It’s a great song.

patt.morrison@latimes.com.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s published interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.


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