The Rise of the Texas Atheist
It's a warm fall morning near the Texas State Capitol's south steps, and there's a fight brewing.
"Don't be an idiot!" a man shouts at a small crowd making its way up toward the Capitol. He is David Stokes, a self-described "street preacher" from Houston, arrived specially in Austin for the occasion. He's in his late 40s or so, wearing jeans, a green T-shirt and mirrored sunglasses. The first thing that really draws the eye, though, is the enormous sign he's carrying.
"WARNING," it reads, in five-inch high orange letters. "Drunks, homosexuals, abortionist [sic], adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, witches, idolaters, HELL AWAITS YOU."
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"Walk away from atheism!" Stokes cries at a couple of college-aged women. Instead, they're walking determinedly toward it, trying not to make eye contact. They make it safely past and up the leaf-lined path toward the Capitol, where they join 400 or so other atheists, agnostics and skeptics gathered for the first day of the Texas Freethought Convention.
With the exception of Stokes, the mood around the Capitol steps is festive. The crowd is set up in portable lawn chairs or standing on the grass in the shade of trees, listening to a tall, broad man at the podium. He's got a pencil-thin Fu Manchu mustache and the sort of hat that Indiana Jones might wear, which is keeping his nearly waist-length hair in check. He's wearing a gray suit and a bolo tie, outfitted at the throat with a black scarab beetle clasp.
Apart from the suit, he looks like a roadie for a terrifying metal band. In fact, he's Aron Ra, a popular "YouTube atheist" from Garland, with more than 60,000 subscribers tuning in each week to hear his shows.
"Atheists aren't the problem here," Ra says, referring to the United States. "For one thing, we'd never force impressionable minors to recite a daily mantra that there is no God, because we're not the ones imposing our views onto other people's children. It's not the atheists impeding medical research either. Neither are we the ones who are against free or affordable health care, nor are we the ones trying to minimize or criminalize women's health care."
The religious right is dragging the United States down, Ra says, and Texas perhaps fastest of all. "I've been to the European continent, and I've been to the Australian continent," he says. "And I can tell you from experience that overseas, the academics don't remember the Alamo. They don't talk about NASA. They're laughing at our lamentable politics."
But there's hope, Zach Moore says a moment later, as he takes Ra's place at the microphone. He's another Dallas atheist, a mild-mannered guy in his 30s with blond hair and a neat goatee. That hope, he says, lies in "the nones."
He's referring to the recent Pew poll that has had atheists everywhere buzzing. It shows that the number of Americans who say they're "unaffiliated" with any religion is rising fast: Around one in five Americans now describe themselves that way, up five percentage points in the last five years. For people under 30, the number is closer to one in three.
"My son and his young friends are going to be raised in a different culture than the one we grew up in," Moore tells the crowd. "That youngest generation, the one in three who are unaffiliated — for our children, it'll be more like half. You're starting to make a difference." Everyone cheers.
"We have the intellectual high ground," he adds a moment later. "We have the moral high ground. And it's only a matter of time before we have the cultural high ground too."
As more speakers take their turns onstage, Stokes, the street preacher, gathers his courage and starts to make his way forward. He and his sign wade into the crowd.
"Darwin was a dummy, bro!" he shouts toward the stage, to general merriment around him. A kid in a "Got Science?" T-shirt snaps a picture with him. Aron Ra stands beside Stokes and poses for a few photos with fans. Everybody strikes more or less the same pose: a huge grin and a big thumbs-up, right next to the words "HELL AWAITS YOU."
Stokes starts to make his way back down the path just as Richard Dawkins, the famous British atheist, starts to deliver his keynote speech.
"You are becoming a real force to be reckoned with," Dawkins tells the crowd. "Although there's no sign politicians have woken up to that fact."
Meanwhile, Moore and his wife, Andrea, have paused for a break. They're pushing their 10-month-old son Patryk in his stroller around a little fountain a few yards away from the crowd. Stokes walks past them, his sign still aloft. Moore and Stokes catch each other's eyes.
"Which way to the fiery furnace?" Moore inquires pleasantly.
"You're standin' in it," Stokes growls back.
"I feel like I can finally take a deep breath," Dana says. She's in her 40s, with long blonde hair and a cigarette in hand. She sneaked out of the Texas Freethought Convention's Saturday afternoon session for a quick smoke, and is now curled up in a big wooden chair on the patio of the Austin Marriott, surrounded by an odd crew of fellow tobacco-hungry atheists: a Houston cabdriver in a Coheed & Cambria T-shirt; a very slim hipster-looking kid from Dallas; a cheery red-haired 911 call taker from an Austin suburb.
Dana is a psychologist at an Army base in South Texas. It's a very conservative environment, she says, one where she has to make sure her patients don't get wind of her atheism.
But in her small community, even off the clock, she can never quite relax. "I'm always careful about what I'm going to say," she says. "Or worried I'll offend someone."
Liz, the red-haired call-taker, agrees. Both her neighborhood and job trend toward the religious, she says. If it weren't for that, she probably wouldn't even come to a convention like this. "If I lived in San Francisco, I wouldn't need to go."
Although they often feel like the odd ones out, nonbelievers have had a home in this state since the mid-19th century, when the Freethinkers, a group of no-nonsense Germans, settled in the Texas Hill Country. According to historian Glen Lich, the Freidenkers thought of the concept of a deity as "irrelevant," and opposed organized churches or clergy. In Comfort, Texas, where one of the largest communities was formed, organized freethinker groups met regularly for more than 100 years, from the 1850s until the mid 1970s.
The most famous Texas atheist, though, is the one from Pittsburgh. Madalyn Murray O'Hair moved from Pennsylvania to Austin in the mid 1960s and founded the American Atheists, which described its mission as defending "the civil rights of nonbelievers" and zealously guarding church-state separation. She did that mainly by filing lawsuits, including the landmark Supreme Court case that banned the Lord's Prayer and Bible reading from public schools.
O'Hair was a notorious figure throughout the 1960s and 1970s, fanning the flames of her infamy on her radio and television shows and in frequently outrageous interviews. In 1989, the now-defunct magazine Freedom Writer asked if she "supported religious freedom."
"Oh, absolutely!" O'Hair responded. "I feel everyone has a right to be insane."
O'Hair disappeared abruptly, along with her son and granddaughter, in 1995. A note on the door of the American Atheists headquarters said, cryptically, that the family had been called away on "an emergency basis." It was later discovered that David Roland Waters, a former AA employee, had kidnapped and murdered the trio with help from two accomplices (one of whom he promptly murdered as well). It wasn't until 2001 that Waters led police to the remote ranch where he'd buried the bodies after dismembering and mutilating them. The Austin Chronicle accused the Austin Police Department of taking too relaxed an approach to the case, possibly because of O'Hair's unpopularity.
A less gruesome chapter in atheist history began in 1994 in Irving, when Tim Gorski and Mike and Marilyn Sullivan founded the North Texas Church of Freethought, which has met monthly in one hotel ballroom or another ever since. The church, the group says on its website, "does most everything every other church in the DFW Metroplex does, but without the supernaturalism." It counts around 300 members, about 100 of whom actually show up for services. Around 2009, a group of NTCoF members spun off to form the Fellowship of Freethought (FOF), which is now the area's largest group, at least online, where they count around 1,100 members.
Despite these sputters of public activity, non-believers have mostly remained out of sight, both in Texas and throughout the Bible Belt. But lately, a small army of determined atheist groups throughout the state has begun working to raise the profile of the not-God-fearing any way they can: engaging in well-publicized charitable work; buying roadside billboards; launching print and television ads; and, in FOF's case, strategizing on how to turn their following online into a larger, flesh-and-blood organization. The activity is especially concentrated in Dallas and Houston: The Houston Atheists are the single largest group in the state, with around 2,000 members, while the Dallas Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, an umbrella group for all of the DFW area's atheist, agnostic, skeptical and freethought organizations, has an estimated 3,000 members.
Texas' skeptical have an uphill battle. A November poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that about half of voters "believe faith is a better guide than scientific evidence on most important questions" of science and public policy. At the Texas Freethought Convention, though, the mood is both celebratory and determined. A couple dozen Dallas atheists have made the trip down; one of the largest contingents is the students from the North Texas chapters of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA).
There are 10 different student groups at various schools in the area, including UT Dallas, UT Arlington, University of North Texas, Tarrant County Community College and Texas Woman's University. There are also four high school groups, according to Kevin Butler, a representative with the SSA. There's even a fledgling atheist group at the deeply religious Baylor University in Waco.
"The administration won't recognize them," Butler says, sounding a little exasperated. The Baylorites don't meet on campus, for fear of possible expulsion. "They have to meet secretly. It's funny, but it's sad too."
But according to Sean Faircloth, the former Maine legislator now with the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Texas' burgeoning atheist movement is more promising than many around the country.
"I love it here," he says, the night before the convention begins. He's standing at the bar at Opal Divine's, the downtown pub where people are checking in for the event. He's wearing a slightly rumpled dark suit and holding his briefcase in one hand, for some reason, along with a huge plastic cup of Sprite in the other.
"Texas is rather strongly organized for humans, atheists and secular people," he explains, waving his glass for emphasis. Some Sprite sloshes on the floor. "But there's an issue with church-state separation here, as represented by Rick Perry. But there may be a tipping point in sight."
And that's why it's so important, as he'll tell convention-goers later, that they become "citizen lobbyists," ones who can speak knowledgeably to politicians about the issues that are important to the non-religious. The goal is simple, he tells the room: "I want us to be in the weeds of American public policy."
It was back in 2008, with that goal of being "in the weeds" of public life, that Zach Moore launched his polite attack on The Dallas Morning News. He asked for a place at a table where it hadn't previously occurred to anyone that the non-religious might desire a seat: the newspaper's "Texas Faith" blog.
Moore is a former devout Presbyterian who started questioning his faith in college. He moved to Texas in 2005 after earning his Ph.D. in pathobiology and molecular medicine; his day job is at a medical research consulting firm. He's also the coordinator for DFWCoR and the director at-large for the Fellowship of Freethought, the Dallas area's single largest group, and its former executive director. Along with Alix Jules, the current FOF executive director, Moore has led many of the efforts to get Dallas' godless out of the shadows and onto the front page.
Moore says he set his sights on the Texas Faith blog as part of DFWCoR's efforts to be "a public face for secular people," and to amend the public perception of atheist groups as a "'let's get together and bash religion' club." Texas Faith has a panel of participants that includes several different denominations of Christians, a couple of Jews, a Buddhist, and even at times a "pluralist" and a Wiccan. The blog describes its purpose as a way to promote "a discussion among formal and informal religious leaders whose faith traditions express a belief in a transcendent power — or the possibility of one." One question they pondered made it obvious that a non-believing voice could contribute: "Could an atheist ever be elected president?"
But when Moore asked the moderator at the time, a Morning News editorialist named Rod Dreher, to put a secular thinker on the panel, Dreher demurred.
"He thought that the Texas Faith blog was a place only for religious people to comment," Moore said last year.
"It struck us as strange that someone who professed no faith at all wanted to be part of the editorial mix on a blog devoted to religious perspectives," Dreher says. "Of course he was welcome in the comments thread, but Zach wanted to be on the roster of regular commenters. It seemed to me that this would be like a Republican asking to be part of a blog called 'Texas Democrats.'"
Dreher left the paper in 2009; Moore tried again last year with the new moderator, columnist Bill McKenzie. This time, Moore claims, the idea was apparently put up to a vote among the panelists.
"I've enjoyed your regular voice in the comments section," one of them wrote in an email to Moore, which he provided to the Observer. "I was at the last gathering of the panel when Bill brought it up before and it was two for (the Unitarian and I) and everyone else voting nay. The chance of that shifting a whole lot more in your favor is small."
McKenzie says no vote took place, and the decision not to include an atheist was the blog moderator's alone. He adds that most of the conversations are only relevant to people of faith, and don't touch on atheism at all: "I just don't remember that many questions like that."
The Dallas atheists' next big moment of publicity happened in February of this year, when a New York-based organization called African Americans for Humanism sponsored a series of atheist billboards in black communities across the country. In Dallas, a billboard placed in South Dallas featured a photo of Fellowship of Freethought executive director Alix Jules, who is black, alongside a picture of the poet Langston Hughes. The tagline: "Doubts About Religion? You're One of Many."
A few pastors were predictably irritated, including the Reverend Kyev Tatum, a Baptist minister who's also head of the Fort Worth chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Last Christmas, Tatum threatened to organize a boycott of city buses after DFWCoR tried to buy ads on the sides of several of them proclaiming "Millions of Americans Are Good Without God."
When the South Dallas billboard went up, Tatum was incensed. He called it "irrational" to spend money on ads when the atheists could be focusing on social issues.
"Do something. You know?" he told the Observer. "Don't say something. Do something. ... We have a garden over there that has about two, three thousand pounds of greens that need picking to give to the poor folk. Pick some greens." They'd be taken to another ministry, he added. "We'll tell them, 'The devil might have picked it, but the good Lord sent it.'"
About a dozen DFWCoR members soon showed up and picked greens for several hours. Then they sent the pictures to the media.
Barely a month later, DFWCoR followed up with another media blitz, dubbed "Our Families Are Great Without Religion." It showed smiling pictures of families looking cheerful and un-Hell-bound. A planned billboard along Interstate 30 went up on schedule. The atheists also signed a contract with the Arlington location of Movie Tavern, paying around $3,000 for a six-month contract to show an ad before movie trailers.
But their godlessness foiled them again. Movie Tavern abruptly backed out of the agreement. "We have never in the history of Movie Tavern run an ad of a religious nature, and we never will," a spokesperson said at the time.
When Movie Tavern backed out, another theater, the Plano Angelika, agreed to run the ads, Moore said. "It's an Easter miracle!" he said in an interview. But the day after those words were printed, the Angelika claimed they had been deluged with angry phone calls. They refused to run the ad, too.
It's Sunday morning, a few weeks after the convention, and Zach Moore is heading to church. He's been invited to speak to a Sunday school class for adults and teens at Trinity Harbor Presbyterian in Rockwall. He's wearing a corduroy coat and jeans and looks right at home.
"I've never met a Christian I didn't like," Moore tells the parishioners when he arrives, his hands folded in his lap. That said, he adds, "I appreciate the opportunity to come here and tell you that all your most cherished beliefs are untrue." He smiles. A few people laugh uncomfortably. Most don't.
Moore speaks at churches fairly often; it's part of his mission to make atheists more visible. His other, arguably more challenging, goal is to make them more cohesive as a group.
To explain why that's necessary, he points back at the Pew poll from this year, showing the rise of "unaffiliated" Americans. "It's definitely encouraging to see that this trend is continuing, and especially so that it's even more pronounced in the millennial generation," he explains in an email. "I think the religious in this country know they have a serious demographic problem on their hands, but I think they're incapable of solving it."
That said, "It's also a bit concerning, because religious institutions do provide social support and community, as well as facilitate tremendous charitable initiatives. Those who leave a religious community lose much of that."
Moore and DFWCoR have been instrumental in organizing those "charitable initiatives" for DFW's atheists. A group of DFWCoR member groups recently sent teams to Light the Night, a walk raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The Fellowship of Freethought also adopted a stretch of Northwest Highway, which they clean every other month. They do the same with the shoreline of White Rock Lake. They also offer "Secular Sunday School" programs for children, along with Camp Quest, a weeklong summer camp for the children of atheist families.
Atheist groups and activities like these are badly needed throughout the South to convince non-believers that they're not alone, and to lend them a sense of community and purpose, says Elizabeth Cornwell, director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. When Dawkins tours the United States on his frequent speaking engagements, the Bible Belt is where they get the best turnout.
"People feel beleaguered," Cornwell says. "The best thing is for people to be able to see one another." She's especially encouraged by atheists in Texas. "There seems to be a great deal of activism and organization here."
The lingering question is what non-religious communities should look like, and what role atheist groups should play in their members' day-to-day lives. There seems to be uncertainty or disagreement among them, about whether these groups should take the place of a religious organization or should look as little like one as possible.
The subject comes up during a Fellowship of Freethought board meeting, held in a tiny room at a Dallas community center. The windowless space is crammed with eight board members, about 15 people in the audience and two roaming, very bored toddlers, the children of board members.
"We all get isolated," says a guy named Chad. "My brother runs the soundboard at his church. My mother cleans hers. It's church in, church out."
This group also holds regular Sunday gatherings, ones that can feel, ironically, pretty churchy: music, speakers, rows of chairs.
That shouldn't turn people off, says Tim Brewer, a former youth pastor and preacher's son. He leads the local chapter of Recovering From Religion, a nationwide nonprofit that tries to help once-religious people ease their transition into non-belief. "Fellowship, music, getting to know people, becoming a better person — these are things we all need," he says. "Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on live music." After leaving the church, he says, he "fell into nihilism and loneliness" for a time. "Until I discovered Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on happiness either."
But not all atheists have come to terms with that. During the FOF meeting, they agree to immediately stop using the "pew/row formation" of chairs, to help de-church the vibe.
They also don't want to put out a huge banner that screams ATHEIST, something that makes some members uncomfortable. Alix Jules, FOF's executive director, has a solution: He hands out buttons, each emblazoned with FOF's logo, a clover-shaped sort of emblem. They're for members to wear to identify themselves at public meetings.
"This is it," he tells the group. "This is as nondescript as it gets. There's no scarlet 'A' here. Most people have no idea what it is. So wear your badges, please."
Then there's the matter of paying for those badges. Atheists seem to give less to charitable causes, and especially to atheist ones, than the religious do. That's according to Jules, who's struggling with how to increase active membership and donations among the group; of their 2,000-plus members, only a fraction show up in person. And if they all did happen to show up, FOF would have no place to put them. They don't own their own building, instead meeting in borrowed spaces all over town.
To become a more powerful force, Jules says, FOF members might have to be willing to put some money behind the cause.
"We give less to our freethought causes than what churches give," he tells the FOF board and its audience. "And we give less to freethought than to things like the SPCA."
Moore agrees. "Church members give 10 times more to churches and 10 times more to organizations like the Red Cross," he says. FOF is also trying, so far unsuccessfully, to put together a modest scholarship fund for four college students.
It's about messaging as much as it's about money. The point — to the giving, to the billboards, to the blogging and to the church visits — is to show the world that atheists, agnostics and skeptics have their own moral compass, and that it works fine without any deity guiding it.
The Rockwall Presbyterians are interested in Moore's non-God-centered view of morality, to be sure. During his visit, one elderly gentleman gets into a long, rather stubborn hypothetical back-and-forth with him about, of all things, Hitler.
"How do you justify telling him what he's doing is wrong?" he asks, several times.
"You're right, I can't threaten him with hellfire," Moore says. "But I can say that what he's doing is causing suffering."
The rest of the group is more interested in what might take to change Moore's mind about the whole atheism thing. Moore takes the question seriously. "I don't know what it would take," he says. "Not to be flippant, but I would like what Thomas [the Apostle] got. He got to see the risen Christ." He pauses for a moment.
"If there is a God," he says, "surely he knows what it would take to change my heart."
"What about personal relationships with Christ?" asks an older lady in the front row. "What do you think about prayer?"
"I'm a scientist," Moore replies. He talks about a study he's read about the efficacy of prayer on healing people after serious operations. "It appeared to make people worse," he tells the group apologetically: more side effects, longer healing times and the like. A woman in a pink sweater puts a hand to her cheek, horrified.
The older lady has a point to make, though: "Your parents still pray for you and have not given up on you, right?" she asks. Moore nods.
"Well," the older lady responds, very firmly. "The Holy Spirit won't give up on you either."
Moore smiles. He seems genuinely touched.
"Are you hostile or friendly?" Richard Dawkins drawls. The famous British atheist is sipping an IPA and looking up at my reporter's notebook and pen. Dawkins has wedged himself into the booth alongside three women in their 20s. They look thrilled and a little nervous. He looks impatient, and submits to being interviewed roughly the way a standoffish cat allows itself to be petted.
It's the night before the convention. We're at Opal Divine's, the downtown Austin pub where the atheists are collecting their plastic name tags. Dawkins is white-haired and rosy-cheeked, wearing a beautifully cut gray linen suit. He's not wearing a name tag. He hardly needs to; everywhere he goes in the bar, the crowd of atheist conventioneers falls silent, a little awed at his presence. Along with the now-departed Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins is one of atheism's leading lights. One of its living saints, if you want to be obnoxious about it.
"I can't believe he's just ... hanging out," one of the conventioneers stammers in awe, his voice barely above a whisper.
Dawkins decides, without my prompting, that I'm probably "friendly." He brushes off a question about how he came to speak in Texas. "It was probably fixed up for me," he says vaguely. He adds that he's "very encouraged" by the Pew poll showing the rise in unaffiliated Americans. That rise is necessary "for the eventual destruction of religion," he says, "which must be what every reasonable person wants."
Though he travels the States frequently, he says, he doesn't run into religious people often. "I don't come across those people," he says. "It's almost like there are two species. I only seem to meet the educated ones."
The crowd around Dawkins has another important thing in common besides their atheism. Paul Cooper, the president of the Freethought Convention, is standing by the check-in table, handing out tags to conventioneers. Aron Ra is leaning against a pole, towering above everyone. Nearby is Darrel Ray, a psychologist and researcher who often writes about atheism and sex. He conducted a huge survey on sexual attitudes among atheists, and found them to have less sexual guilt than Mormons, who top the list, but more than Unitarians, who are apparently the least inhibited among us.
These are the main attractions of the convention. They're all white men.
Critics of organized atheist groups often point out that they can feel like boys' clubs, just like the religious institutions they're meant to negate or replace. That's evident throughout the convention; although there are plenty of women in the audience, and a smattering of people of color, they rarely appear onstage.
One famous atheist blogger, Rebecca Watson, addressed that earlier this year. During a talk at a national conference, she told the mostly male attendees that some women don't enjoy coming to atheist events because of how mercilessly they get hit on. Shortly after she finished her speech, a fellow convention-goer cornered her in an elevator around 4 a.m. and invited her back to his room "for coffee."
"Guys, don't do that," Watson wrote in a blog post. Those words set off a furious argument about whether what the guy had done was inappropriate. It spiraled outward into a huge, raw, angry discussion about feminism and women in the atheist community. Things got much worse when Richard Dawkins himself waded into the comments, sarcastically comparing Watson's incident with the oppression faced by women in the Muslim world.
Female and minority atheists, though, are starting to address the homogeneity of their movement. Melanie Clemmer, another FOF board member, held a "Feminine Faces of Freethought" conference in Dallas earlier this year; despite an unexpected surge in attendance, some 70 attendees all still fit neatly into the lunchroom at the Resource Center, the community center that hosted the event.
For Clemmer, though, the gathering sent a message: "We wanted to show that the freethinking movement has many other faces," she said before the conference, "both in gender and diverse backgrounds, and in the wealth of knowledge that we bring."
They just don't bring it in very large numbers. At the bar in Austin, some of the male atheists can't wait for more women to show up, probably for the reasons Watson described. Johnny and Ting, both in their late 20s and from Houston, are sitting a little glumly in a corner, several empty glasses in front of them. Johnny is a former Muslim; after he told his parents he was an atheist, his father "didn't speak to me for two years," he says. Ting is a Buddhist. He just came down for a weekend trip with his buddy.
"There are no girls here," Johnny says bluntly. "Look at these guys. Would you hang out with them? Do pretty girls want to hang out with these guys? I don't think so." Beyond that, Ting is East Asian and Johnny is Indian; this crowd, Johnny says, "is not our age group, and it's not our demographic."
But he's confident that'll change soon, he says.
"The atheist community, it's not the cool kids yet. But it will be. Right now, it's still a bad word, especially in Texas. What we're doing, we're paving the way for the cool kids to come on board."
He smiles and takes in the room, which is filling up with people. "Ten years from now, this is gonna be really big."