Life Without A God
The Atheist Movement Tries to Regroup
by Ethan G. Machado
OurTown (Portland, Oregon) August 4, 1997
A small congregation gathers every Tuesday night in the same building where The Kingsmen once recorded the smash-hit party single "Louie, Louie." Ten members -- three women and seven men -- some middle-aged and working class, others retired with hearing aids, begin an earnest discussion of religion. They spend much of their two-hour meeting talking about people being burnt to death by the Lord for complaining. They claim the Bible glorifies cannibalism. They complain about Pat Robertson's religious power. They cite The Bible Handbook often.
Of course, this isn't your typical Bible handbook and this isn't your typical Bible study group. Around the room, anti-religion sentiment gets tossed about as the focus wavers from modern-day issues regarding separation of church and state to obscure biblical references that ridicule religion's roots.
Toward the end of their meeting, when everyone tires of denouncing the Lord's existence, a hat is passed around, and people toss in fives and a few twenties. They must raise $1,000 a month to pay the lease on their building, the Atheist Community Center for Rational Thought at 415 S.W. 13th Ave. The owner of the adjacent bar, The Eagle, has offered to buy up the valuable property from the organization. The offer entices Jerry Billings, the center's secretary treasurer and anti-Bible thumping leader. The group attributes tonight's low attendance to the difficult parking problems arising from the newly refurbished Crystal Ballroom. They hope to move to a smaller location, with easier access. Before the group disperses, Billings reminds everyone that the most important aspect of these meetings is the "...chance to hang out with people who think like you do."
A retired lawyer who moved to Portland from Nebraska at age 16, Billings founded the center after the national chapter left Portland five years ago. Billings speaks to his following with a slight fundamentalist Southern twang. As he stands in front of the makeshift pew, his lot in life, it seems, could easily have been that of a minister. Although his belly jiggles within the constraints of his belt, his mind is firm, full of atheistic axioms and antithetical anecdotes. Behind Billings an old piano rests unused. Above the piano, a yellow computer printout covers the white tackboard "Welcome to the front lines of the American Post-Christian Era"
The atheist front line has taken its share of beatings lately.
On September 4, 1995, Madalyn Murray O'Hair disappeared. As the leader for the American Atheist movement, O'Hair seemed more suited for a role similar to Jimmy Swaggart. Wrote Mimi Swartz in the March issue of Vanity Fair, "The woman whose 1963 landmark case helped take prayer out of schools, Madalyn Murray O'Hair disappeared ... along with her son, her granddaughter and more than $625,000." Her huckster lifestyle damaged the reputation of an organization that already faced overwhelming odds in a country where coins are labeled "In God We Trust."
"She's an anathema," says Billings. "Atheists hate her for what she did to discredit the movement."
Despite this setback, there are still 7 to 9 percent in the United States who contend that no supernatural being exists; that the Bible is full of refutable bunk; and that anyone who believes in God is just plain afraid of the truth.
Ask 88-year-old Art Thomas, a retired hotel clerk who came out here during World War II to help in the shipyards, and he'll tell you there's no God. Thomas hasn't sought a supernatural force in the face of aging and death: "I don't feel the need," he says. "When I'm dead, I'm dead. You see, I'll be dead so I won't remember."
His pal Tony Lajcin, in his late sixties, will also tell you there is no God. As an ex-Catholic, Lajcin fits an atheist stereotype. Like many atheists, he was raised in religious circles, but later disavowed the church as a flawed system. It is an institution, he says, that has caused more historical damage than it has good.
"I never say one nation under God," says Lajcin. During Christmas, he says he celebrates the winter solstice.
Both Thomas and Lajcin consider themselves proud Americans and proud Oregonians. They say they relish their right to express themselves freely. The Atheist Center estimates that up to as many as 15 percent of the state of Oregon "practices" atheism, approximately 350,000 people.
"We've got a lot of closet atheists, people who won't admit they're atheists for fear of retribution," says Billings. "Personally, I think those are the worst kind."
Fred Keyes, 42, has a timid air about him, but he will eagerly discuss his atheism with you. Raised a Protestant, he became an atheist in the '70s when he watched All in the Family. He says he identified with Mike Stivich, Archie's son-in-law, who will go down in history as the first atheist on television. The 120th episode of All in the Family, "The Little Atheist," revolves around a Thanksgiving dinner that turns into a "battleground when Archie discovers that Mike and Gloria don't want to impose the family's religious beliefs on their baby."
Where Keyes found a kindred spirit on mainstream television, the atheist movement has not always been allowed such prime time access. The first known radio broadcast in favor of atheism took place in 1946 when Robert Harold Scott presented the first known U.S. radio broadcast in favor of atheism. Since the Federal Communications Commission stipulated radio stations give air time for religious views, Scott asked the FCC for an opportunity to express the other side. His talk drew such protests that Scott was silenced in the future by the FCC. Scott's words, however, were not exactly abrasive. He said:
"I do not throw stones at church windows. I do not mock at people kneeling in prayer. I respect everyone's right to have and to express the belief that a god exists. But I require respect for the corresponding right to express disbelief in such a being."
With the advent of the Internet, religious groups' ability to silence atheists has come undone. Like those believers who spread their message over the Internet, atheist organizations appear on the Web in large numbers. A search of yahoo.com, a search engine, reveals 44 sites for atheists. Billings, who goes under the name PlaneMan on the Internet, slips in and out of religious chat rooms on America On-Line preaching his rational thought message. *He has his own website at http://www.PositiveAtheism.org. Cliff Walker, editor of the monthly atheist publication Critical Thinker, maintains the site. Walker argues in the July issue of his publication that Dennis Rodman's anti-Mormon sentiments should not have been silenced, and that Mormons have a dubious history that should be held up to further scrutiny.
Note: This web site and domain have never belonged to Jerry Billings and have always been owned by Cliff Walker. We seriously doubt that Billings made this claim (or would make such a claim) and thus attribute this remark to poor journalism.
On their web site you can order Darwin fish (a common symbol of atheists) or delve through hundreds of articles relating to atheist issues.
"We just want to educate people that supernatural forces do not exist," says Billings.
Most atheists and some agnostics (those who are unsure of a supernatural being) keep their non-religious beliefs to the themselves. Several professionals we spoke to asked that they not be identified for fear of losing clients. Others said they don't teach their atheist beliefs to their children because they fear their children will be ridiculed at school.
There are pockets in Portland like the Atheist Center and Reed College, however, where atheists speak without fear. In 1996, Reed College ranked as America's least religious college in a nationwide survey, according to a report commissioned by The Princeton Review. Fifty-nine percent of Reed students professed no religious affiliation, though atheism was not an option on the survey.
Although this belief system has a sizable Oregon constituency, its influence goes largely unheard.
Lanny Swerdlow, president of the Atheist Center, might be likened to O'Hair considering his own racy past as owner of the now defunct City Nightclub. He concedes the center's limited influence. Nonetheless, Swerdlow is unapologetic and steadfast in his belief that supernatural forces do not exist. He is disturbed that the media doesn't call on the atheist voice for oppositional viewpoints on religious issues. He constantly faxes atheist news items to all media outlets.
"Two years ago the Oregon Historical Society had an anniversary for the song 'Louie, Louie' here. There was a lot of big fanfare; every TV station was here. People came in and looked around. The lead singer signed autographs. Not one television channel mentioned that the Atheist Center even existed."
Atheists have stepped to the forefront on two recent Oregon political issues: First, they have been vocal in their support of Measure 16 (the right to die bill). Second, they insist the Boy Scouts of America not recruit members from public schools. Billings' daughter, Nancy Powell, has been a central figure in the ongoing Boy Scout issue.
"It's a well-known organization, but it has long-standing rules that prevent non-religious people from joining. That's discrimination," says Powell, whose 6-year-old boy was distraught after being told "people like you" aren't allowed in the Boy Scouts. Powell took her complaint to Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of Portland Public Schools. It's been more than 100 days and Bierwirth has failed to respond.
"Their rules (Portland Public Schools) are not being followed," says Powell. "You'd think they'd say, 'Here's our rules. Here's how we violated the rules.' But the school district is ignoring me. I don't want any more 6-year-olds harmed like my son was in a place where he's supposed to be safe."
While it is likely Powell's tenacity will eventually bring an end to Boy Scouts recruiting members in public schools, there are other issues where atheists run into a dead end. They argue that churches should pay taxes on their property. County Chairperson Beverly Stein stopped by the center in early summer to discuss this issue with members. Once a month the Atheist Center invites a speaker to discuss issues relevant to atheists. Recent issues centered around rights for atheists in prison and drug treatment options that don't follow Alcoholics Anonymous' spiritualized method of healing.
"Religion has inundated every cause in America. The ACLU even has religion it," says Swerdlow.
"We don't have enough influence to have an agenda," agrees Chris Kerchum, one of the three women at the meeting. Kerchum was raised Catholic and describes religion "as a great way to control people." She expressed her outrage at being harassed by fellow workers while working at Tri-Met, but wished to keep those specific complaints off-the-record.
With religion casting such an irrefutable spell over this country, how does an atheist cope with everyday life in America? Is there anything to believe in at all?
"No, nothing. We don't believe in anything," says Billings. "I suppose you could say we 'believe' in decent behavior. We 'believe' decent behavior is a social construct learned from the days when we lived in caves. But you have to remember the word 'belief' is a religion-based construct."