Longform

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."

"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.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan