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PATT MORRISON ASKS

Bobbie Kirkhart: Atheists United's chief nonbeliever

'It's always a great time of year to be an atheist'

December 12, 2009|Patt Morrison

'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?

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