By Kile Jones, Claremont School of Theology
On February 28, 2011, I attended a meeting of Atheists United at the Center for Inquiry (CFI) in Hollywood, California. It was a typical day in southern California—sunny, beautiful, without a cloud in sight—when I pulled into the parking lot of the CFI. On a nearby mountain you could see the famous Hollywood Sign looming in the distance. The CFI is located next to a Mexican Pentecostal Church and a Christian Science Reading Room, proof of the religious diversity in Los Angeles.
From the outside, CFI looks like more like a warehouse than a Church. Its electric sign, found on the street corner, not only announces headlines and CFI news, but also provides one of the only ways of detecting the building. While in the parking lot I was approached by the treasurer of Atheists United, Norm, who politely asked me if I was attending their meeting. Answering yes, I then told him that I was a Ph.D. student at Claremont School of Theology. To this he comically asked, “What are you, an Episcopalian Priest?” With a few chucks and giggles I proceeded to tell him that I was one of the only atheists who attend Claremont School of Theology. Having come to hear Dan Barker talk, Norm told me that Mr. Barker could not make it and that somebody else would be presenting. Although surprised, Norm’s friendly nature calmed my disappointment.
Walking into the building, past a tranquil patio with “Einstein the Atheist Dog” (a very sweet animal) tied to the fence, I noticed that the inside was much more adorned than the outside. There was a bookstore, an information and welcoming counter, tables where food is eaten after the service, a book table with almost all of the books required for my Atheism and Secularity course (i.e. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Zuckerman, etc.), a food counter with various waters and sodas, and a golden thread with the names of “Heroic Freethinkers” painted around the top of the inside wall. These thinkers included: Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilie, Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Charles Darwin, Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and Bertrand Russell. Upon viewing this tribute, I was struck by a rich sense of the history and tradition of unbelief.
Inside the “Steve Allen” theatre, a room at the back of the building where the service takes place, the narrative of a beautiful interior falls apart. This theatre had orange walls, electric wires dangling around, and looked more like a run-down Improv stage than an actual theatre. It was humble, and may have been breaking fire codes. The theatre seating was comfortable, and coffee in the theatre was apparently acceptable (I never asked but I never got reprimanded), and compared to sitting through a Catholic Mass on wooden pews, it was rather relaxing. The microphone kept cutting out, the sound could use improvement, and it was apparent that they needed an electronic make over. These failures of production stand in stark contrast with many Evangelical Churches that have concert sound, high tech equipment, and professionally trained sound engineers. It was clear that they do not have anywhere near the amount of funding an average Christian Church has.
When I entered the building, two members of Atheists United greeted me with bright smiles. They asked me if I had attended before, if I wanted to sign up for email updates from Atheists United, and handed me a nametag that I quickly filled out and stuck to my chest. You could hear various groups of two to four people discussing topics from the separation of Church and State, to Richard Dawkins, to the weather. The people were friendly, non-confrontational, and appeared to have a sincere interest in those who attend their services. Most people seemed to know each other, but you could tell that this was less so than the usual small, intimate Church. When I found out that they only meet on the last Sunday of every month, it made sense why this was the case.
While sitting at one of the tables writing notes before the service, I was approached by the Vice President of Atheists United, Ingemar. The first thing I noticed about him was his Swedish accent and friendly demeanor. I talked with him about Atheists United, the CFI, Church and State relations in Sweden, and religion in contemporary America. I told him that I was taking a class with Dr. Phil Zuckerman at Claremont Graduate University, which appeared to have perked his interest. He mentioned how Dr. Zuckerman had just spoken at their meeting, and how enjoyable and stimulating his talk was. After a loud call announcing the beginning of service, reminiscent of a Christian herald publicly announcing Church service to his puritan neighbors, I entered the theatre.
In my estimation, the 35 or so people who were in attendance were 95% white, 60% men, 10% were couples, with 50% of the crowd over the age of 35. They were primarily lower middle class. There was only one child and one teenager present. This makes sense given the fact that religious persons have more children than atheists. The clothing they wore was casual and relaxed, probably no different from what they would wear any other day of the week. From the view I had sitting in the back, I noticed that most of the men were balding. The women dressed as humble as the men. According to contemporary standards in the culture of southern California, they were lacking in make-up, nail, and hair work. This stands in contrast to the attire worn by those attending the Mexican Pentecostal Church next door. The Pentecostals were in their best Sunday suits, dolled-up for the Sabbath. I was thoroughly surprised by the “blue collar/working stiff” atmosphere, since I had previously found out that the majority of self-identifying atheists are white, middle class, males. Having a building in Hollywood may have also unconsciously contributed to this suprisement.
At the opening of the service, the President of Atheists United, Bobbie, made a few announcements. She mentioned an upcoming “tabling” training that teaches people how to manage an Atheists United table at local fairs and public events. She also mentioned how this service would be recorded and made available on Ustream. One of the most interesting and comical announcements was when Billie asked everyone in the audience to turn on their cell phones and invite someone to Atheists United. I observed a handful of audience members actually making calls.
As I mentioned earlier, I was expecting Dan Barker to speak, but instead it was a Thomas Jefferson impersonator who took his place. He walked out in a purple coat, laced with white linen, and with shoes one would not wish to walk one city block in. He held a silver chalice in his hand, spoke with a dignified accent, and received a great amount of clapping from the audience. He had an impressive knowledge of Thomas Jefferson that was seen clearly when he recited the Declaration of Independence from memory. He mentioned some of Jefferson’s accomplishments, which I will list here:
- Wrote Declaration of Independence in seventeen days
- Founded the University of Virginia
- Created his own amended New Testament
- Founded a Navy
- Fought against smallpox
He also mentioned how Jefferson promoted freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the separation of Church and State, the right of citizens to petition their government, and democracy. He pointed out how Jefferson thought of Christianity as the best manifestation of religion, but believed that Unitarian Universalism would eventually become the dominant religion of the country. He spoke of Jefferson’s distaste for slavery (even though he owned slaves and took one as his concubine), how he was opposed to factionalism, didn’t believe in standing armies, and was self-conscious and shy when speaking in public.
The questions asked by the audience members revealed something about their interest in Jefferson. As the microphone was passed around, audience members began asking questions.
- (me) Why do you think that religion is essential to maintaining a civil society?
- (man) Did you start factionalism by establishing the Democratic-Republican Party?
- (older woman) What about slavery? Why did you own slaves?
- (man) Did you commit adultery with a slave woman?
- (me) Did God grant us rights, and if so, how can they be thought of as natural?
- (woman) What about Tripoli and North Africa?
- (man) Could you tell us about your fall out with John Adams and your eventual reconciliation?
- (man) What would you say to the Tea Party?
- (fellow student) How would Jefferson have thought about Islam?
- (woman) How did you become President?
To the audience’s pleasure, each of these questions was answered with historical dates and facts. He never avoided a question and answered each of them fully, even if it made Jefferson look bad (like the question about slaves).
The dialogue between the speaker and the audience had a certain feel about it. The questions showed how the audience was generally critical of the Tea Party, Republicans, conservative politics, and religious zealots. This made sense to me, since 32% of those who mark “none” as their religious affiliation are registered Democrats, and 43% of them are registered Independents. Finding a politically conservative atheist is a difficult task. The people in the audience were generally interested and focused, even though I found one older man sleeping during the service. The speaker had many jokes to say, and the audience seemed to appreciate it. A couple of the older women had trouble turning the microphone on, and the audience had to direct them by yelling, “Turn the microphone on!”
After the speaker finished, Bobbie made another couple of announcements. She mentioned the family who brought the only child, thanking them for coming and mentioning the child’s name, to make sure the audience remembered it. Bobbie went on the mention a recent article in the men’s magazine GQ, where Billy Ray Cyrus mentions viewing a highway sign with his daughter, Miley Cyrus, sponsored by Atheists United. Apparently, Mr. Cyrus commented that the sponsored highway sign might as well have read: “You will now be attacked by Satan.” Bobbie, in comical fashion, responded by saying, “As long as all Christians are as convincing as Billy Ray Cyrus, we atheists have nothing to fear.” She also mentioned how interesting it is that the CFI “speaks for the devil.” Chuckles were heard throughout the theatre.
When the service was over, Bobbie announced that there would be Dominos pizza, free of charge, for everyone to enjoy. She said it was free because, “we [Atheists United] value community.” Due to time constraints, I had to leave without any pizza. The service had been interesting, intellectually stimulating, and presented an admirable picture of what atheist meet-ups ought to look like. In my opinion, many religious believers would enjoy the people at Atheists United, even if they do not agree with their beliefs.
If asked to suggest any changes to the meeting, I could only answer with superficial, financially related critiques. They would be twofold: revamp the electronic and sound issues, and repaint the inside of the theatre. Besides these, I cannot think of anything else I would have changed about the meeting. The drive home to Claremont was just as enjoyable. A close friend and I discussed the meeting and compared it to other religious services we have attended. We both agreed that, in contrast to many Christian services in southern California, the Atheists United group was less funded, less fashion-focused, and had significantly less kids and teenagers. It was also more personal and intimate than large church meetings and mega-church services.
In conclusion, the Atheists United meeting I attended bore out most of the limited statistics on atheism. It showed me a concrete manifestation of atheistic beliefs. Although the service mirrored many of the statistics on atheists, the people in attendance were more than mere statistics. They were unique individuals, in a unique location, with a unique ethos. To put it frankly: they bore out most of the statistics, but in their own unique way. I thoroughly enjoyed the service and would ask other religious groups to see the positive elements at play in meetings like Atheists United. These atheists—usually considered to be in opposition to any and all religion—actually form a pivotal role in the religious and philosophical diversity of southern California, and the greater world.
Originally posted on State of Formation
Kile Jones, 28, holds a Bachelors of Theology (B.Th.) from Faith Seminary, a Masters of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) and a Masters of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) from Boston University. He also holds a Certificate in Science and Religion from the Boston Theological Institute. He is current pursuing a Ph.D. in Religion at Claremont Lincoln University.
Mr. Jones has been published in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, Philosophy Now, Free Inquiry, World Futures, Human Affairs, and the Secular Web. He has presented at Conferences around the United States and the United Kingdom, particularly at Trinity College Dublin, University of York, Harvard Divinity School, Plymouth State University, Boston University, and Claremont Graduate University. He is the Founder/Editor-in-chief of Claremont Journal of Religion. His interests include religion and science, atheism, secularism, and philosophy of religion. He also reviews books for Reviews in Religion and Theology (RRT) and is a Contributing Scholar for State of Formation, an academic blog for emerging religious and ethical leaders. He maintains his personal blog at: www.kilejones.com
 Andrew Greenly and Michael Hout, The Truth about Conservative Christians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 97
 Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, Religion in a Free Market (New York: Paramount Market, 2007), 236 (white), 157 (middle-class), (males) 70.
 Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, Religion in a Free Market (New York: Paramount Market, 2006), 212