True nonbelievers

Sacramento atheists have their own orthodoxy as they proselytize to the faithless

Emil Bernstein wants nothing to do with “god” or organized religion.

Emil Bernstein wants nothing to do with “god” or organized religion.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church, Doug Kraft, should have felt at home, standing in a little meeting room at the back of his own church, getting ready to deliver his sermon. But he didn’t.

Attendees were milling around, exchanging friendly greetings, nibbling on cookies, sipping coffee and handing out literature to newcomers. The cozy, laid-back atmosphere in this room would soon change, however, and erupt into a highly explosive forum as Kraft took the stage and began his sermon on “Transcendence for Atheists.”

What Kraft learned on this spring evening is that atheists have an orthodoxy of their own, as strong and as unyielding as that of the strictest denominations. They are open-minded, yes, but just don’t mention the word “god.”

Barely 10 minutes into his sermon, Kraft was interrupted by Emil Bernstein, former professor of zoology and long time atheist, who grabbed the audience microphone and attacked what he believed to be the hidden religious agenda behind Kraft’s speech, something more suited to a Sunday sermon than a speech to “freethinkers.”

Bernstein scoffed at Kraft’s use of words like “transcendence,” “spirituality,” “soul,” and (heaven forbid!) “God.” The outburst set the tone for the evening, as the microphone was passed from atheist to atheist, each decrying Kraft’s blasphemy to their belief systems.

“Why do we need these concepts?” Bernstein questioned the speaker.

Some of the members finally came to Kraft’s defense, but they appeared to be members of his Unitarian congregation, a denomination definitely closer to the atheists than to the Roman Catholic Church, but without the atheists’ sometimes dogmatic disbelief. Their defense of Kraft held little sway with people like Bernstein.

Perhaps Kraft just wasn’t ready to take on such a passionate, scholarly group of atheists and humanists. At a Humanist Association of the Greater Sacramento Area (HAGSA) meeting, the rules are simple: Leave the religion out.

Dressed in a bohemian-style shirt and faded jeans, seasoned with 25 years of Buddhist meditation, Kraft wanted to illustrate a hierarchy of human consciousness from birth to enlightenment. He’s talked about how things in nature transcend from one state to the next, and how that is part of our evolution, a concept he’s sure atheists and humanists can relate to.

But then he pushed further: Why not go one step beyond? Is it possible for someone who believes there is no God to transcend the earthly? Can atheists touch the divine? The answer, from this group, was a resounding “no.”

Let’s face it, transcendence is a hard sell for atheists—too ethereal, too poetic and goofy with not enough evidence or scientific purpose. You can’t put anything otherworldly past an atheist. That would be like trying to sneak sin past Billy Graham, like walking on Easter egg shells, or pinning a Star of David on top of a Christmas tree and hoping the Pope wouldn’t notice.

“These words make people feel good because they sort of describe how they feel, but we don’t have to do that here,” Bernstein adds. “Let’s tackle the problems of the world without bringing in concepts of God and spirit and all these other words.”

Firm in his belief that such concepts are irrelevant to atheists, Bernstein represents what could be seen as the fundamentalist branch of his religion, the religion of no religion, the deeply held faith that there is no God. But there are others in his fold who hold different views.

It is ironic that HAGSA holds its meetings in a church. The Unitarian Universalist Church, after all, belongs to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento (UUSS), from which HAGSA has drawn many of its members.

Even Emil and Eleanor Bernstein were once members (for four years, in fact) of this church, or “society,” if you prefer (because the word “church” does so nauseate an atheist). Emil Bernstein claims he quit when his progressive agenda and social activism were no longer compatible with what was becoming more and more of a religious atmosphere.

“I would not join until they assured me that atheists were welcome,” said Bernstein, a rather petite, older Jewish man who has been married to his wife, Eleanor, for 50 years. “So just to become members of the community, my wife and I joined. It was fine for a few years until they got a minister who was very, very dogmatic. Being an atheist is not a religion unless you turn it into that.”

Sacramento’s other “freethinking” group, Atheists and Other Freethinkers (AOF), holds its monthly meetings on Sundays—yes, on the holy Sabbath when other churchgoers are praying, singing, praising God and giving money to their congregations.

At a recent AOF meeting, member and director-at-large Mynga Futrell substituted for a guest speaker who canceled at the last minute. Futrell is a very strong presence at these meetings: articulate, adamant, bookish. She seemed to be all over the place, doing five things with one hand.

AOF treasurer Ken Nahigian described her as a “whirlwind of energy and part of the true heart of AOF.” They were gathered in the Sierra 2 Community Center, the usual AOF meeting place. The room had a stale, musty feel with the usual table of literature and coffee, and a funky, old projector that didn’t want to stay focused throughout Futrell’s presentation. You wouldn’t find an “I Want to Believe” poster in here.

The Bernsteins were seated in the front row, and Nahigian was somewhere in the middle.

Sporting a tied-back ponytail and a beard with hints of gray, Nahigian knows Sundays very well. He arrived at the AOF meeting a bit late, dragging in a bookbag as if he were ready to attend Sunday school all over again. Old habit? Perhaps.

Ken Nahigian likes the idea of turning atheism into a kind of church.

Photo By Larry Dalton

As a youngster, Nahigian faithfully attended Sunday school and went to church with his Armenian Orthodox family every week. Religion became a refuge from his pre-teen loneliness and teenage angst. He even found solace in the occult during his high-school years when his reading preferences and a taste for something exotic moved him to experiment with his faith.

“But I don’t think I ever took it seriously,” Nahigian says about his brief stint with the occult. “I never believed it was true. It was just sort of like a mind game. I looked at it more like anthropology, how other people looked at the world.”

Then, in his first year of college, God recruited him back as a soldier, this time with the help of some new friends from Campus Crusade for Christ. This phase of his life lasted until his early 20s, when he once again abandoned Christianity. Today, he talks about what a slow and painful process it was escaping the grips and guilt of Christianity.

More than 26 years later, the well-versed proselytizing of Nahigian has become an asset for groups like AOF and HAGSA, because he’s looked at God from both sides now. He’s been unconverted several times, and knows his Bible and secret handshakes inside out. He says he’s a backslider, a Christian who has taken the fall, but prefers to be called an agnostic, a deist or simply a freethinker.

AOF is like a denomination of HAGSA, which has been around for about 21 years. AOF was founded in 1993 when a few Sacramento atheists met one another at an American Atheists convention and decided to form a sect of their own.

Like the persecuted Protestants in the Old World or the targeted mistreatment of the Branch Davidians in the new one, atheists today see themselves as “the last taboo” in a country largely Christian and hostile toward their religion of choice.

They feel misrepresented by the religious right and misunderstood most of the time by other religious groups. They struggle for legitimacy, acceptance and social validation. So, for some atheists such as Nahigian, the struggle comes down to choosing the right label.

Nahigian admits that there was some initial grappling over AOF’s name. He originally opposed the word “atheist” because of its negative connotation and his own distaste for the word. But he was outvoted by the rest of the group, who wanted to remain true to who they are, but later decided to broaden their membership to “other freethinkers” to include humanists, agnostics and other similar philosophical viewpoints.

Sharing recent AOF triumphs, Futrell talked about the Book Basket Project, which she is spearheading through AOF, with help from HAGSA. The purpose of the project is to donate books to the Sacramento Public Library on behalf of Sacramento’s Community of Reason, books which (you guessed it) are God-free and “add reason to the season.”

There is also talk of Reason House, a project currently in the conceptual, exploratory stage. This proposal to purchase a meeting house where the two groups (AOF and HAGSA) can hold their monthly meetings, have weddings, funerals, baby welcomings, socials and perhaps even a Sunday Freethought School echoes their belief that even nonbelievers need a church.

“What I like about AOF is not so much the atheism aspect, but the fact that there’s a kind of fellowship and camaraderie where we can discuss social, intellectual issues, things about the history of the Bible and Christianity that I would never learn in a church,” said Nahigian.

In that way, AOF can serve as a sort of Sunday school for atheists. Yet the more AOF and other atheist groups begin to take on the trappings of a traditional religion, the more resistance they can feel from people like Bernstein.

“A big problem with the whole atheist/unbelief movement is that they don’t have many communities like ours that fill their social needs,” said Nahigian. He believes that because freethinkers tend to be mavericks, they are also their own islands. “And some are quite happy that way, but others enjoy having a sense of community and belonging to a group and interacting with people who think as they do.”

At the end of one of AOF’s meetings, Futrell and other members made the usual rounds of post-meeting chitchats. But there was one man Futrell had been waiting to talk to. He was a tall African-American man whom she chatted with at length after the meeting, because, frankly, African-Americans (and other minorities for that matter) are quite the anomaly at AOF gatherings.

Futrell and the man huddled together, separate from the rest of the lingering attendees. They exchanged warm handshakes as the man confided in Futrell a bit about himself, his family history and how he came to his current faith. And then, because there was a time limit on the rented room, the members disassembled their stage, packed up their literature and refreshments and adjourned until next time.

With roughly 150 members in HAGSA and about 200 on AOF’s mailing list, the two groups are well aware of their outreach potentials. Spreading the good word has definitely been helped by the Internet. Both groups have their own Web sites with links to other like-minded organizations and topics of interest.

They also put out their own newsletter, and even have their own 24-hour voice mail where potential new converts can contact the groups and obtain information. To reach out to younger people, this past February the two groups, along with the Anthropology Department at California State University, Sacramento, sponsored Darwin Day, a social event in celebration of the famous evolutionist’s birthday. Their meetings are always open to the public, and their featured guest speakers and provocative topics of discussion helped to lure the unsuspecting man-off-the-street.

“We’re not into recruiting anyone,” maintained Wayne Luney, current president of HAGSA. “People have to come because they want to, because they’re curious, because they want to hear the speaker.”

It was one of AOF’s past speakers, Bories Alsonof-Farhangi, a professor of economics and political science from the University of Azerbijian, who first motivated the group to set up information tables at CSUS.

He told the group that when he first came to the United States, he thought it looked like the Holy Land, with the Hare Krishnas in the airports and missionaries on all the university campuses. He encouraged AOF and other “freethought” groups to do their own missionary work and even suggested having a youth pastor equivalent.

The religionists needn’t be the only ones spreading their gospel and trying to save people’s souls.

“It’s not the primary focus for the group to get more members,” said Nahigian. “The focus is to get the message out, get people to understand us.”

He believes that there are a lot of people out there who are already sympathetic to their point of view but think they’re all alone: "We just need to wave a flag and say ‘Here we are!' and hope that if we build it, they will come. And actually, that’s what we’ve been pretty successful at so far."