My Weekend With a Bunch of Atheists

My Weekend With a Bunch of Atheists
Max Temescu

I was seventeen when my yeshiva class assembled for "the talk." We shuffled through the school's dining hall and into an adjoining common area, and there stood a bearded, middle-aged rabbi in a rumpled white dress shirt and black suit. Over the course of two hours, he conclusively proved the divine origin of the Torah. He ripped fatal holes through Christianity and Islam's claims to authenticity. He name-dropped Seinfeld creator Larry David and other Hollywood friends.

At the end of the speech, the rabbi clutched his black velvet yarmulke above his head and bellowed that he would rather leave Judaism than follow its customs out of habit or some shallow sense of comfort.

"If you don't want to be here," he said, firmly replacing the yarmulke atop his salt-and-pepper hair, "then just leave!"

Eight years later the memory bubbles through my mind as I hasten across Washington University's campus. Classes are out for the summer, meaning the place is deserted save for a wedding party, some cricket players and, for the next three days, several hundred atheists. That's why I'm here.

I find the sign-in desk for the Gateway to Reason conference through the entrance of the Laboratory Science Building. I'm immediately waved aside by a local member of the Satanic Temple. She whispers that none other than Doug Mesner — a.k.a. "Lucien Greaves," the Satantic Temple's enigmatic founder and spokesman — will be arriving on Sunday to address the conference.

It's a marquee addition for the Gateway to Reason: This year, the Temple courted Christian hand-wringing and news coverage by suing the state of Missouri over its restrictive abortion laws. In the still-pending lawsuits, its attorneys argued that mandated waiting periods and other onerous requirements on women seeking abortions infringe on its members' religious beliefs. And even though the Satanic Temple's tenets are fundamentally opposed to all forms of supernaturalism (including the idea of worshiping a literal Satan), its supporters profess deep and genuine beliefs about bodily autonomy and a woman's right to choose. The high-profile effort has turned the group into atheist superstars.

Even beyond the buzzworthy presence of Satanists, the conference's chief organizer, a professional pet photographer named Thomas True, has already assured me that the conference is a big deal for St. Louis.

"I travel to about ten different cities in Missouri and Illinois, I'm constantly finding and meeting atheists and freethinkers." True told me over the phone in May. "I've been trying to get something like this going for years."

According to True, Gateway to Reason, held July 31 to August 2, would be the first event of its kind in St. Louis.

"A lot of larger conventions are on the east and west coasts, or they migrate to places on the edges, like Austin," he said. "St. Louis is convenient to get to, and a convention like this has never been held in a metro area like this."

To bolster his point, he cited a 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center that found 23 percent of the U.S. population doesn't identify with a religion.

"That group should actually exceed even the evangelicals within the next presidential election," he said excitedly. "We are right in line."

I'm already late for the convention's first event, a documentary screening, and so instead I decide to wander a bit. I spot a booth hawking what initially looks like a children's picture book, titled Bedtime Bible Stories. I find myself staring at a lushly colored illustration of a blood-covered Grecian solider, a baby slung over his shoulder by its umbilical cord. At the soldier's feet are a coil of intestines and a woman with a slashed abdomen. In classic cartoon fashion, X's are drawn where her eyes should be.

"See, if you're reading your Bible, it's Hosea chapter 13, verse 16, where God literally commands soldiers to kill pregnant women and rip babies from their womb," says Joey Kirkman, the book's author. A former evangelical Christian, he explains that Bedtime Bible Stories is intended to strip away the romanticism of Old and New Testament stories. It's also intended to be funny.

"I'm not really making fun of a dead baby being ripped out of a mother; I'm making fun of a fictional book," Kirkman continues. To sell books, he tours conventions like this one — nearly twenty so far, by his count, in the past two years.

Kirkman pulls out a copy of Bedtime Bible Stories and flips a few pages. Now we're looking at a drawing of Noah standing before his ark as floodwaters rise around him. A pregnant woman with a baby tied to her back reaches toward Noah, begging for a spot on the ark.

In school, I was taught that the story of Noah's flood was a literal account, a real-life chronicle of the monumental stakes underpinning our own existence. Ultimately, various rabbis and teachers instructed, it was a story of God's boundless capacity for renewal and love.

I stopped wearing the yarmulke more than two years ago, and although I can see what Kirkman is getting at, the pictures don't feel funny to me. His pitch makes me uncomfortable; it feels like I'm being asked to laugh at my previous self for being so dumb, so gullibly bloodthirsty. (On a pettier level, I've read enough of the Bible to know Kirkman misinterpreted the passage in Hosea. God wasn't "literally" commanding soldiers to kill babies. Rather, it is the prophet Hosea foretelling the ruin to befall the Jews if they fail to repent. Maybe that's a small distinction, but more than a decade of Bible study makes me a stickler for textual context.)

"The only thing that explains it is childhood indoctrination," Kirkman tells me. "If someone walked up to you at age twenty and said, 'Hey, this is what my God does, and this is loving,' you would say, 'This is batshit crazy!'"

Kirkman points back to Noah and his drowning cartoon world. "According to the Bible, this is what happened," he says. "Pregnant women died. Their children died. If God said to bring only two of everything, lots of animals died."

He's right, of course, but there's something else gnawing at me. This convention is designed to appeal to people just like me, the heretics, the disappointers of forefathers, the forsakers of tradition. But if atheism could wash away belief like Noah's flood, I wonder, what would be left? What would be built in its place? Would it be good?

click to enlarge Steve Hill, a University City native and traveling comedian, says atheism is a difficult sell in the black community. - Danny Wicentowski
Danny Wicentowski
Steve Hill, a University City native and traveling comedian, says atheism is a difficult sell in the black community.

The convention kicks off
with a screening of Contradiction: A Question of Faith. It's a 2013 documentary that attempts deconstruct the mystique of black churches. Through the narration of its creator, Jeremiah Camara, the film argues that the church's venerated status among black communities is in fact exploitative, that these communities are being robbed of ambition (if not money) by religious leaders who glorify submissiveness to a higher master.

After the credits roll, Camara watches from a seat as his hype man, Steve Hill, works the crowd. A Missouri native, Hill grew up in University City, a few minutes' drive from Washington University's campus. He's also slated to perform during the "Atheists Are Funny" block Saturday night.

"I want to conduct a quick scientific survey," Hill says after the initial applause dies down. He peers around the auditorium. "Black people in here: What you think about the movie?"

The question is met with silence. Then, the sound of one black guy clapping in a back row. People laugh. Camara and Hill, a black atheist filmmaker and black atheist comedian, have spent the past year touring across the country in rooms similar to this one — mostly white people.

Hill pivots back to the film. "This movie means a lot to me," he says. "I grew up dirt poor here, fled here in 1979. My mother prayed all the time, and I can see by this whole Ferguson incident that the praying is still not helping us. As long as we're praying, we're going to be in trouble."

Hill then introduces Camara. After two or three questions, Camara is hit with a query that, with just one or two different word choices, wouldn't sound out of place at a conference of evangelicals.

In essence: How do we reach people who aren't like us with these ideas we feel strongly about? How do we convince them our cause is meaningful?

But because he's talking about race, and he's trying to do it with the utmost sensitivity, the questioner quickly devolves into babble.

"So, I have a lot of black friends," he begins. "I have a lot of atheist friends. I have zero black atheist friends. What's the best way to have these conversations...without being offended? And without coming off as, I'm trying to embarrass or talk down to, I feel like sometimes that can come across very condescending. How do I do that with my black friends, knowing this now, and to have an opportunity...?"

His question trails off into merciful silence. I'm cringing with muscles I've never felt before.

"That's a good question," Camara says calmly. He proceeds to turn the question back to his film's central thesis. "I would just say ask questions, as opposed to making statements. Why do you go to church? What is it actually doing for the community? Why are there so many churches in the community yet there are so many problems? Why are they coexisting in the midst of poverty and powerlessness?

"That's going to force them to think about it."

After the presentation, I find Hill sitting behind Camara's booth display of T-shirts and DVDs. He's wearing a leather jacket featuring patches from his time in the Marines and as a prison guard in California.

Hill tells me that he and Camara have had little luck gathering black audiences for the movie, and even those few successful screenings featured "excruciatingly, painfully low" attendance.

Hill bemoans the prevalence of religion among African Americans. Watching clergy members rise to prominence during the Ferguson protests made him furious.

"It's false hope," he says. "That's the worst thing you can have, is false hope. We have to get politically active."

I head back to the auditorium, where I catch most of the speech from Russell Glasser, a host of The Atheist Experience webcast and cable access TV show. During the question and answer session, a young woman with short blonde hair and a brown dress takes the microphone. She says she recently abandoned plans to become a Catholic nun. She doesn't know how break the news to her religious friends or, for that matter, what to do about the five nuns who follow her on Twitter.

Glasser answers thoughtfully, advising that total digital transparency might be a noble goal but, given the circumstances, she's shouldn't feel pressured to notify social media of everything all at once. Coming out as an atheist is a process, he says, and it can be a lengthy and complicated one.

"And we've got your back!" someone yells. The auditorium briefly erupts in cheers and whoops of encouragement. The young woman beams.

click to enlarge My Weekend With a Bunch of Atheists
Danny Wicentowski

I catch up to the young woman by a row of tables holding stacks of atheist newsletters. I must know more about her problems with Twitter nuns. Do sisters subtweet? Can a catechism be recited in 140 characters?

Gabrielle Gojko, I learn, is eighteen years old and a native of Edwardsville, Illinois. This is her first atheist convention, but just two weeks ago she was attending a major Catholic youth conference on the campus of Missouri State University in Springfield.

I remark that a Christian youth conference seems like a strange event to attract a non-believer, and she explains that she had actually attended it for the previous four years. She made friends, bonded with pastors and joined fellow Christians in being part of something greater. This was the first year she attended as an atheist.

"I mainly went because I wanted to be with the people who I loved and cared about and hadn't seen in a while at church. I was still kind of hoping that they would say something that actually made sense. But they didn't."

Gojko was baptized a Catholic as a high school freshman. Earlier that year, on a Friday evening in March, seven-year-old Macie Crow had been playing in a culvert behind her Edwardsville house when the decrepit structure collapsed. The little girl's life was snuffed out by a six-foot slab of concrete. Crow was one of Gojko's neighbors.

"I couldn't grasp the idea of death," she reflects. "My way of coping with it was going to the church."

What began as a coping mechanism became, for Gojko, a portal to a world of clarity and empowerment. Somewhat ironically, her final push toward religion came after a bitter argument with an atheist classmate.

"She took an aggressive approach, called me a bigot, called my religious friends bigots, and after all that, I was very turned off by atheism," Gojko says. "I wasn't Catholic yet. If she had persisted in a kind way, maybe I wouldn't have ever become Catholic. Who knows?"

I'm certain she intended it as rhetorical, but Gojko's trailing question strikes me as something more, a kind of psychoanalysis wrapped around a theological thought experiment: If her friend's hated of religion was so repulsive that, at least in part, it enabled Gojko's turn to Christ, what does that say about atheism? Should we just chalk it up to the friend being an asshole? Or does it indicate something deeper, a bitter intolerance among atheists that comes across as spiteful?

I know that bitterness. I feel it when I read about Orthodox rabbis who forbid their followers to report child molesters to secular authorities. It's that twinge in my chest when I remember how a fairly recent version of myself considered the Torah a timeless moral guide, even though I was spending hours a day studying laws that hadn't been applied in more than a millennium. I get angry knowing that I spent most of my life following a book whose author deemed homosexuality and shrimp "abominations" while simultaneously establishing a legal framework to buy, sell and breed slaves.

Google the word "atheist" and it becomes immediately apparent that a certain slice of self-identifying rationalists turn downright brutal when it comes to the Bible. Kirkman's illustrated works of Biblical horror appeal to that crowd, and Gateway to Reason's schedule features at least half a dozen presentations devoted to similar Biblical mockery. (Sure, you could have just as much fun deriding Islam or Hinduism, but Christianity is the prevalent religion in the Midwest; its teachings are the petri dish that most conference attendees swim in.)

As for Gojko, that first, negative impression of atheism drove her to enroll in a Catholic high school. Soon after, she started making preparations for her future life as a nun.

Something changed a few months ago. At the urging of a different atheist friend, she started watching atheist-themed YouTube videos and webcasts. She can't put her finger on what exactly shook her Christian faith, but it's gone. She's sure of that — even as she mourns what has been lost.

"I got this sense of joy from the other nuns that I had met. They were just so compassionate and everything. They were wonderful. It was so hard to give that up," she says. "It was almost exactly two years ago that I decided I was open to becoming a nun, and then almost exactly a year ago when I was like, 'I'm definitely gonna do it.' If I could have, I would have joined a convent right then."

After Gojko saunters back to the auditorium for the next speaker, I head to the snack table. Of course, this is when I realize that I am cashless. I mumble a stream of apologies and begin fumbling for my debit card so I can purchase a $1.50 bag of Mini Oreos.

The guy behind the counter waves away my card.

"Actually, she just paid for you," he says, pointing to a woman with a shaved head who's walking away. I spot her just in time to watch her disappear around a corner. I hadn't even noticed her standing in line next to me.

I walk to the auditorium, open the bag of Oreos and take my seat for the next speaker. I think of Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish scholar and philosopher. He once wrote that the act of giving anonymous charity — without seeking acknowledgment or praise — is a perfect act of kindness. Maimonides classified the act, or mitzvah, as among those deeds performed solely "for the sake of Heaven."

I stuff five cookies in my mouth. So much for Maimonides.

My second day of the conference begins with a speech from a Washington University physicist. The subject: "Why does time move forward and not backward?"

The answer, I think, has to do with quantum entanglements and the superposition of particles. Or something like that. It's the first moment of conference where it seems like we're finally approaching "meaning of life" territory, something that addresses the big picture and doesn't merely tear down an evangelical strawman.

But it's a tease. Several more speakers unleash stale criticisms of Bible-inspired lifestyles, sometimes with the help of lengthy PowerPoint presentations. The highlight of the day's slate is Dan Barker, a former preacher who now serves as co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"We atheists truly have the good news, and the news is this: There is no purpose to life," Barker says triumphantly. "Thinking that there's a purpose of life is to cheapen life, but there can be meaning and purpose in life. Usually you don't find it. It finds you."

The downpour of platitudes is thankfully short-lived, and during the break I retreat (again) to buy junk food and schmooze with the godless convention-goers. That's how I meet Stacey Holland and her husband.

Born into a Mormon community in Utah, Holland realized she was an atheist at age seven, one year before her baptism. When her parents divorced three years later, her father fled the influence of the church. Her mother had other plans.

"When I was twelve the temple in Las Vegas was being built and dedicated, and you needed to have a recommendation from the church to go in," Stacey tells me. "So I was brought into this guy's office. The door is shut, my mom's out in the lobby, and he's asking me if I've ever had sex, have I masturbated, did I do drugs, watch pornography, smoked, the whole thing."

Holland wanted nothing to do with that scene. She moved back to the St. Louis region to be with her dad, but the church still wasn't ready to let her go.

"They keep finding me," she says. "We had moved a couple different times, and they would track me down each time. They keep going back to my dad's house, monthly, asking for me. We ended up threatening restraining orders."

But there are moments, as when she lost her job two years ago, when Holland entertains the thought of going back. Her mother, of course, urged her wayward daughter to return to the fold. You're a full member of the Mormon church, she told Stacey. They can find you a job. They can put you back on your feet.

Holland didn't want that life. But at the same time, she fantasized about that life.

It's a uniquely atheist bind. An Orthodox Jewish community may be stitched together with Sabbath meals and prayer services, but it wasn't the rabbi's sermon that delivered home-cooked meals for my mother after she underwent surgery. Matzo ball soup didn't land me or my friends summer jobs. Whether Judaism or Mormonism, organized religion provides an unmatched safety net.

Surprisingly, Holland points to Gojko standing on other side of the room.

"That young lady over there," she says, "she's been dealing with her own personal stuff, and people here are saying, 'Yeah, we'll help you, we've got your back.' That's what has to be broken down, the feeling that we're the only ones out here. There's real safety in numbers."

Holland has a point, but the hard truth is that atheism, in its current forms, can't match the benefits package available at the nearest church.

Tamatha Crowson, a "relatively new atheist" from Cape Girardeau, has the same thing on her mind as she browses pamphlets for the Foundation Beyond Belief's Humanist Disaster Recovery Teams. The organization, the first of its kind, aims to train groups of atheist first responders all over the world. Crowson says it's exactly what she's been looking for.

"I've been really interested lately in secular charity work," she says. "I have a friend who is in the last stages of cancer. He's a single dad of a couple girls, and I recently did a pretty large-scale fundraising mission for him. I felt very useful, so I've been thinking: How can I rally people that are not in churches to help people in need?"

Crowson has gone through different stages of religious observance. When she had her kids, she worried that she didn't have any value system to offer them. So she became a Southern Baptist, but later left religion after she was expelled from a faith-based addiction treatment program.

"I was so disappointed, not because I was kicked out, but because everything I'd been told about love and charity and grace and help — it didn't apply when you didn't fit into their mold anymore. That really set me off on a mission to spread some other kind of love."

On Sunday, Crowson is in the audience when Hemant Mehta, a blogger and activist, echoes her wish for a more proactive and engaged atheism.

"We have to find a way to make people feel important, like they're part of something, to give them a purpose. We as atheists don't do that as a whole. We're not good at that. We like to come together, we like to laugh at religion, and then we leave."

Religious communities, on the other hand, offer daycare, youth activities and mission trips — a sense of belonging and contribution. Answers to the Big Questions. Weekly potluck dinners.

"I can rattle off a bunch of reasons why God doesn't exist, but it's really hard, from what I've seen, for atheists to connect on a more emotional level," Mehta continues. "Why are we here? What's our purpose? Where are we going to go after we die? We all know the answer the church offers to those questions. Now, it's wrong, it's not true, they're selling you this lie and they're offering false hope. I don't want to do that. I want to offer words of honesty, but honesty doesn't always make us feel better. So how do we overcome that? How do we talk about death so that people actually listen? How do you talk to an atheist about losing a child?"

click to enlarge Satanic Temple spokesman Doug Mesner doesn't advocate belief in a literal Satan, but that doesn't make his message any more palatable for Christians. - Danny Wicentowski
Danny Wicentowski
Satanic Temple spokesman Doug Mesner doesn't advocate belief in a literal Satan, but that doesn't make his message any more palatable for Christians.

If ever there were a perfect spokesman
for a group of atheistic, abortion-loving Satanists, it's Doug Mesner. The founder of the Satanic Temple has a gray, almost translucent pallor. He wears a black button-down shirt over dark pants. His right eye is clouded-over and unfocused; the left is green and piercing. He kind of looks like a vampire.

Up until 2013, Mesner hid his identity behind the persona of "Lucien Greaves," a suitably demonic-sounding name that allowed him to insulate his real life from the people who consider him a disciple of the antichrist.

OK, but what does the the Satanic Temple actually stand for, I ask Mesner. Is it, as others have suggested, nothing but a piece of trollish performance art, a practical joke pushed too far? A new-age cult?

"I think this is what religion is supposed to be," Mesner says matter-of-factly. "I think we're bringing it back to that kind of original conception."

I wasn't expecting that answer. This is the same guy who just two weeks prior stood on a stage in a Detroit warehouse and unveiled an eight-foot statute of the goat-headed Pagan god Baphomet. Last week, the Temple formally applied for permission to install the Baphomet statute on Arkansas' capitol grounds, a pointed reaction to the state's plans to build a monument depicting the Ten Commandments in the same location.

"I think the biggest mistake the atheist movement makes is discarding religion entirely," Mesner says. "To a lot of people, that sounds paradoxical. To them, atheism means no religion. But I don't think that's true at all. Atheism means you don't worship a personal deity. That's all it means. Religion can be something based on metaphor. It can be this cultural construct in the sense of cultural identity, and it gives you that sense of community."

Mesner is betting that he can extend this argument to the courts, and it's certainly possible that judges will balk at granting a metaphorical religion the same legal rights as followers of mainstream faiths. But this is the fight Mesner wants.

"If you concede that religion belongs solely to supernaturalists, then you're giving privilege to supernaturalism. In effect you're saying that your own deeply held values, your own sense of cultural identity, isn't as valuable as that of the superstitious."

There's something undeniably edgy and exciting in the Satanic Temple's approach. Mesner and his black-dressed colleagues are betting they can use atheistic Satanism to break through the societal walls that preserve religious privilege for a select set of faiths. If the Satanists succeed, they could fundamentally change religious life in America as we know it.

I bid farewell to Mesner and take my leave of the Gateway to Reason conference. A summer wind blows through the empty campus. In less than a month, these sidewalks will be crushed with students riding bikes and lugging backpacks.

Mesner's last point is still worming through my head. I remember myself as a 22-year-old college senior who secretly bought Jimmy John's and hid the non-kosher evidence from his roommate. Is the freedom to eat delicious sandwiches more important than following the 3,500-year tradition of my forefathers? Is the freedom more meaningful than honoring the wishes of my parents and teachers?

Oy vey, indeed.

There came a point, toward the beginning of my senior year of college, when I had to give it all up. I had stop hiding Jimmy John's wrappers. I had to stop pretending that I kept the Sabbath. I even stopped wearing the yarmulke — that was lot harder than the rabbi made it seem during his speech to my yeshiva class.

After wearing the yarmulke for twenty years, I had grown comfortable dealing with awkward questions posed by bystanders at movies or baseball games. They'd ask, "Why do you wear that thing on your head?"

"Well," I'd always answer, "Jewish men wear it as a reminder that God is always above us."

The yarmulke wasn't just a disc of fabric. It was a part of my identity, the thing that made me stand out in any crowd. It was a constant reminder to me of what my high school rabbis would say before every summer vacation: Whatever you do, don't embarrass the Jews or God, don't be a Chillul Hashem.

With the yarmulke on, I could never escape my identity as a Jew. Every action was meaningful and representational, a reflection of God's commandment to be a light unto the nations, part of a chosen people. It was a moral weight clipped to my hair.

The moment I took the yarmulke off, I looked like everybody else. Just another human.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" wrote Hillel, the great Babylonian Torah scholar and commentator. It's the first verse of Hillel's most famous teaching, repeated in countless sermons and recited by yeshiva students for more than 2,000 years. Yet it always sounded odd to me, coming from a presumably devout and holy rabbi. Isn't God for everyone? Isn't that the point?

If time moved backward, I'd visit the dusty Babylonian study hall at the very moment Hillel wrote those words. I'd ask him about Jimmy John's sandwiches and yarmulkes and slavery. Maybe Hillel knew, way back then, what was to come. When his pen struck parchment, maybe he was thinking of people like Gabrielle Gojko, Tamatha Crowson and Stacey Holland. Maybe he was thinking of Jews like me.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" Hillel wrote. "If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?"

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.