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LA-based Atheists United fears rise of ‘religious nationalism’ after recent court rulings

Los Angeles-based organization Atheists United hosts a monthly food giveaway
Los Angeles-based organization Atheists United hosts a monthly food giveaway to the needy in the city.
(Evan Clark)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Sept. 8. I’m Justin Ray.

Religious groups have recently won several legal and political victories. Last week, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a $400,000 settlement with a church after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of worshipers defying COVID-19 restrictions. And last week, religious conservatives claimed victory after Texas passed a controversial abortion law and the Supreme Court decided to allow it. The top candidates in the recall race are campaigning in houses of worship.

What do the nonreligious make of all this? Evan Clark, 33, (pictured below) executive director of Los Angeles-based Atheists United, tells The Times that the secular community is “seeing a complete lack of representation” in narratives involving religion (I have written about the media’s mishandling of the nonreligious before).

Yet, there’s evidence that America is becoming less religious; earlier this year it was reported that for the first time since Gallup began tracking the numbers in 1937, Americans who are members of a church, synagogue or mosque are not in the majority. Pew reported in 2019 that Christianity is declining at a rapid pace.

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But when it comes to Atheists United, the organization isn’t solely focused on religion; it also champions causes such as the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.

“One thing that happens when we talk about atheists and atheism is that people get very fixated on the atheism,” he says. “They start only thinking about atheists as people who happen to not believe in a god or gods, which is the most basic definition of atheist. But atheists are people who have full sets of values and have needs and wants, just like everyone else. We look at ourselves as a value-centered community.”

Atheists United is one of 230 local affiliates claimed by American Atheists, a national advocacy organization. Additionally, there are 15 separate subgroups in the L.A. area, and chapters in San Luis Obispo and Santa Clarita, Clark says.

Here’s what to know about Atheists United’s work, how one ends up leading such an organization, and the atheist perspective on current events.

The organization

Atheists United “exists to build thriving atheist communities, empower people to express their secular values and promote separation of government and religion,” according to its site. They host speaker events and meet-ups. They have created resources like “Atheist Street Pirates,” an interactive map that tracks illegal signs on public roads and streets that have religious sentiments like “Jesus Christ Forever” or Bible verses. They also organize a “Recovering from Religion” support group for those who want to change/leave their faith.

The organization recently partnered with the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank to feed the needy in Historic Filipinotown. “Every third Friday of each month at four o’clock, we hand out usually about three-and-a-half-thousand pounds of food to those in the neighborhood,” according to Clark. The organization also provides secular services, like its recently launched a partnership with Smart Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction program.

Atheists United welcomes all, including the religious. Clark points out that for years, the lead singer of their choir was Catholic (by the way, the choir is named “Voices of Reason”).

Becoming an atheist leader

Clark was born in Sacramento but spent most of his youth in a New England suburb that was very Catholic. As a kid, he in fact went to a Catholic school but “quickly discovered belief in God was not working for me.” He left to attend public school, but decided to enroll in a religious institution for college.

Evan Clark, the executive director of Los Angeles-based Atheists United.

Oddly enough, this is where Clark’s career in atheism started. It sounds like a great sitcom: He founded the Secular Student Alliance at California Lutheran University. Despite the seemingly opposite missions of the organization and the school, he says CLU “really embraced it.” Not only that, but he even became student body president.

In 2014, he moved to Arizona to work for the congressional campaign of James Woods (not that one, this one). After the campaign ended, he helped found a consulting firm called Spectrum Experience that helps nonreligious candidates run for office. Then he took on the role at Atheists United, which he has served in for nearly three years.

Current events

Clark believes religion has an outsized influence. He points to corporate and school holidays aligned with Christian traditions, as well as the recent decisions made by courts that he says have supported the religious over others in society.

“I love that we’re finally having larger conversations about male privilege and white privilege in society,” Clark says. “Well, we need to continue that conversation and also talk about religious privilege in society and in America. That is Christian privilege. And what that means is the unearned access to power in our society.”

He is especially concerned about the influence SCOTUS may have on the country.

“The Supreme Court is now in a place where religious nationalism could be the preference, prioritized and become the law of the land because of the makeup of the current court. The separation of church and state is, I think, one of the largest social justice issues of our time,” Clark says. “And we’re looking at possibly one of the worst eras in American history for progress in that space. I’m very scared for marginalized communities, especially women, the LGBTQ community, atheists, minority religious identities — often in refugee communities. We find that those groups are often the first to be hurt and attacked.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

Urban California taming virus surge, but areas with low vaccination rates still in danger. Coronavirus cases are showing new signs of slowing across many parts of the state. However, areas of rural Northern California and the Central Valley continue to struggle with much higher rates of hospitalizations. The Sacramento area recently reported hospitalizations nearly as bad as during the winter surge; in California’s rural north, COVID-19 hospitalizations are almost twice as severe as they were during the peak of the winter wave. Physicians in Mendocino County say: “Never before have we seen such a surge of sick, young patients.” Los Angeles Times

The NFL had a secret COVID-19 plan. As other leagues staged abbreviated seasons and quarantined their players in hopes of shielding them from COVID-19, the NFL navigated its way through an entire schedule, postponing when necessary, continually adjusting safety protocols, but never canceling a game. In multiple interviews with the Los Angeles Times, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and more than two dozen people explained the fragile process of staging a season amid a pandemic, and the commissioner’s focus on safely completing all 256 regular-season games, the playoffs and Super Bowl without relying on an NBA-style bubble. Los Angeles Times

The official NFL logo is seen on the back of a hat.
The official NFL logo on the back of a hat in Los Angeles.
(Chris Delmas / AFP/Getty Images)

L.A. STORIES

Britney Spears’ father filed Tuesday to end the court conservatorship that has controlled the singer’s life and money for 13 years. Jamie Spears filed his petition to terminate the conservatorship in Los Angeles County Superior Court. “As Mr. Spears has said again and again, all he wants is what is best for his daughter,” the document says. “If Ms. Spears wants to terminate the conservatorship and believes that she can handle her own life, Mr. Spears believes that she should get that chance.” Los Angeles Times

Our daily news podcast

If you’re a fan of this newsletter, you’ll probably love our new daily podcast, “The Times,” hosted by columnist Gustavo Arellano, along with reporters from across our newsroom. Every weekday, it takes you beyond the headlines. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts and follow on Spotify.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Churches become a center of the California recall campaign. As candidates traverse California ahead of the recall election on Sept. 14, faith communities have become a central place for proselytizing to potential voters. The role of religion on the campaign trail has been amplified in recent weeks by lingering anger over California’s COVID-19 restrictions that severely limited in-person worship, as well as Elder’s rising candidacy, which has enjoyed significant support from Christian conservatives. Los Angeles Times

In red California, Trump’s lies about a rigged election echo among recall supporters. The most fervent support for the recall has come from Northern California, where rural conservatives say that their voices are drowned out in Sacramento by urban Democrats. But in many ways, this election is still about Donald J. Trump. Conservatives talk about the recall effort through the lens of Trump’s lies that he won the 2020 election. By and large, they refuse to cast their ballots by mail, believing his false claims that mail-in voting leads to rampant voter fraud. If Newsom prevails, many won’t trust the results — just as they didn’t after Trump lost. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

Man suspected of shooting ex-girlfriend dies in Fresno police custody after getting tased. Jorge Calleres, 39, of Parlier, died after a struggle with Fresno police officers while being arrested, police said. Calleres refused to be detained, prompting officers to fire a taser on Calleres and use three handcuffs to cuff him in the back after initially taking him to the ground. Officers then noticed Calleres suddenly started having medical issues. Investigators later learned that Calleres had shot his ex-girlfriend in the face earlier in the day, police said. As of Sunday, she was in critical condition. Fresno Bee

Four people were hospitalized after a car careened into a homeless encampment on a sidewalk in Koreatown early Tuesday morning, authorities said. The vehicle slammed into the encampment around 6 a.m., trapping a person beneath the vehicle, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. Firefighters used a massive apparatus to lift the vehicle and free the person pinned under it, said Capt. Erik Scott, an LAFD public information officer. Los Angeles Times

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

San Diego County’s campaign to fight medical falsehoods gains momentum. Hundreds lined up last week to condemn a San Diego County Board of Supervisors resolution declaring medical misinformation a public health crisis, arguing it was an attempt to stifle free speech. But the nation’s public health community appears to be rallying around the board’s unprecedented 3-2 decision to challenge what it says is a growing body of COVID-19 falsehoods eroding confidence in vaccines and perpetuating the spread of the coronavirus. Is this the start of something bigger than San Diego? It appears so. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

I want to wish a happy birthday to Al Maggini, who recently celebrated his 106th birthday. Born Sept. 5, 1915, in San Francisco, he is believed to be Sonoma County’s oldest veteran. A recent party for the centenarian was attended by U.S. Air Force recruiters, who presented Maggini a quilt from the Vietnam Veterans of America. It was also attended by “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz’s widow, Jean Schulz, and representatives of Rep. Mike Thompson and state Sen. Mike McGuire. Press Democrat

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: 84. San Diego: 79. San Francisco: Make a playlist of tunes that make you nostalgic! 74. San Jose: Make sure you check your sous-chef’s resume before you hire, 87. Fresno: 105. Sacramento: 103.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Mike Doan:

We loved our house in the East Bay hills, with a great view of San Francisco Bay. But we found that the whole El Cerrito neighborhood had been built on a filled-in creek. After a big rain in 1958, our patio and front sidewalk cracked as the land started moving downhill. We were lucky: Some houses had to be abandoned when the cracks actually went through their living rooms and bedrooms. We were fortunate to find a buyer and move to “safety” in El Sobrante, which lies below an earthen dam on the notorious Hayward Fault. A very California experience!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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