Waiting for Lightning to Strike: A Wobbly Agnostic among the Atheists

The atheists are coming to Des Moines to hold their national convention. I read that in surprise—they’re coming here? How strange. I go about my day, but I keep thinking about those atheists. How do they live in a world without God? What could I learn from them that would help me? I’m not an atheist, but I’m not the woman I used to be, either. Before the day is over, I’ve recruited my colleague and we sign up for the convention. After I pay for my registration, I cannot shake the feeling that I’ve just plunked down money for a prostitute. Or I am one. Or worse, that I’ve just paid the 2011 equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.

There is no place to park. I circle blocks looking for a space and in so doing pass the protesters pacing the sidewalks in front of the Embassy Suites. My heart sinks. Des Moines is a relatively small city with a gold-domed capitol overshadowing buildings of varying sizes and architectural styles—it looks like a child upended his collection of blocks and called it a city. A nice farmers’ market on Saturday mornings is really the only reason I come downtown. It’s the territory of insurance companies, Quizno’s, and conventioneers. Nancy helps me watch for a parking place, but I’m rattled by the people with the signs. They’ll spot me, I know. They’ll know that I am the dog who left the church and returned to her vomit. I imagine their looks of disgust. I circle the block in widening gyres.

We pay to park. We are surrounded by atheist cars festooned with bumper stickers, like those of zealots everywhere. I am allergic to acolytes these days, and I fight the urge to grab Nancy’s hand. We cross the street and encounter the protesters. The first sign is sweet: GOD BELIEVES IN YOU. Actually, that’s the only sign I read; the others are more verbose and I duck my head, avoiding eye contact. I shake my head “no” at the tracts that are held out. Disembodied arms thrust their neatly and concisely spelled-out steps to salvation. I step around.

Later in the day, a protester engaged in conversation holds his sign over his shoulder for Nancy and me to see: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN IS FOR BENT PEOPLE. That sign embarrasses and infuriates me, highlighting the intolerance that gives some fundamentalist Christians such a bad name. (The Jesus in the Bible these guys claim to serve? He’s sitting down having a beer with those fictional cowboys; he’s telling them a story around the campfire.)

Nancy and I make our way through the crowded registration lobby. “I met you at Skepticon,” a young woman says to someone behind me. We accept our nametags and our programs from the person at the registration table. I don’t want to pay an extra three dollars for the lanyard, so I am left with the option of pinning the American Atheist tag (“Carolyn Briggs” below the atom logo—an atom apparently being the antithesis of God’s existence) on my sweater. I fumble with the tag for a few minutes; I can’t bring myself to actually wear it. I finally clip it on the zipper of my tiny orange purse.

“For those of you in the lobby,” a basso profundo invisibly booms, “this is God. Please come into the auditorium and take your seats.”

“Why Des Moines?”

We join the crowd merging into the large room with three screens lining the wall behind the podium. The large man with the omnipotent voice is doing a little stand-up and telling us that a thunderstorm had hit his neighborhood the night before and when beautiful blue lightning hit a tree in the yard, he had shouted, “You missed me, you Son of a Bitch!” A polite tittering follows that story. I note the atheist sense of humor may not be subtle. The mayor of Des Moines welcomes the American Atheists to Des Moines.

“We’re receptive to all people, regardless of church or lack of church. We are a better community and a better world with diversity,” he says. (Later in the conference we will hear that initial contact with the city of Des Moines resulted in a curt reply that Des Moines was a Christian city, thank you very much and don’t call again. Someone apparently got through on the second try.)

The potbellied MC crosses the stage in that wide-legged stride that identifies him as an ex-jock, a guy who crushed the quarterback for the pure joy of it.  Back at the podium, he tells us that many were confused when the American Atheists chose Des Moines as the national convention site. “Why Des Moines?” people kept asking.

“Why Des Moines? Because if we go to New York or L.A., we’re just another convention. We were in Atlanta last year and we didn’t raise an eyebrow. The adult toy convention had been there the week before. But we’ve got protesters in Des Moines!” The crowd murmurs, applauds, a few whistles.

“It makes us know how right we are, doesn’t it? Let’s begin with a few announcements. The Rapture is scheduled for May 21, and we’re throwing some Rapture Parties around the country. You’ll want to have a Rapture Buddy with you that day because you don’t want to be alone when the Great Tribulation begins.”

The president of the Iowa Freethinkers is a former Pentecostal preacher. He refers to organizations I had no idea existed in my home state—the Siouxland Atheists and the Iowa State University Atheists and Agnostics Society. “If you don’t believe in God,” he said, “look around the room. You’re not alone. People go to church because they have social needs. Atheists are no different. Fellowship is not a religious word; it’s a human word.”

A middle-aged couple on our right wear cardigans and expensive shoes and small fixed smiles on their faces, expectant and serene. Next to us sit three college-aged young men, one with a math book open on his lap, another intent on his iPhone. There are a lot of white people in this room; I scan for diversity and find a few people of color, but the audience is only consistently stratified by age. There are elderly atheists, but also lots of middle-aged and hipster young-twenties atheists. I see both aging hippies still wearing tie-dye and elegant white-haired people who would fit into any Episcopal congregation in the Midwest. More than a few wheelchairs.

A letter is read from Christopher Hitchens, a sad letter in which he says that he has lost his voice and that he is engaged in an argument with death. “We affirm life,” he writes. “We are not cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to adulate. I am present with you—only metaphorically in spirit. Don’t keep the faith.”

The president of the Iowa Freethinkers urges us to be gracious to the staff, to be generous with our tips. “Do you know the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?” he asks. “Atheists mark out the ‘In God we Trust’ on their money.”

A woman raises her hand and stands up as someone brings her a microphone.

“My husband and I removed the Gideon Bible from our bedside table. We placed it in the hall and we urge everyone here to do the same,” she says. People nod and a few applaud. So far, I know this much about atheists: they don’t keep, they mark out, and they remove.  

“Religion is Weak”

David Silverman, the flashy young president, welcomes us to the 37th annual American Atheist Convention. He says he is not a militant atheist, he is an atheist extremist. He asks us to raise our hands if this is our first time at an atheist event. Nancy and I raise our hands, and so do many others. He asks some atheist dignitaries to stand and be recognized. The old men and the old women slowly rise to their feet and dip their heads, acknowledging the applause. I am filled with another fierce wave of sorrow. I feel sorry for them. Why is it? Where does this come from? The badge on my purse winks my name in the overhead light. Carolyn Briggs. I casually cover it with my hand.

“Religion is weak. It cannot stand on its own. The invisible man in the sky has become weaker and weaker,” Silverman says. He is dynamic, pacing the stage, Jake Gyllenhall-cute from where I sit. “Religion needs support from the state because it cannot stand alone. Consider an America where politicians don’t preach.”

The Treaty of Tripoli!” someone shouts from the audience.  

“Absolutely,” Silverman answers. “Educate yourselves and others. The Treaty of Tripoli makes it absolutely clear that John Adams, a founding father, did not consider America a Christian nation.” 

“Our battle is against religion, not believers. They are sincere people who have been brainwashed since birth,” Silverman continues. He is more charitable than I, apparently. I want to deck some of the pastors I’ve seen on cable TV. “There are good theists and bad theists. There are good atheists and bad atheists. What we must do is to coax the atheists out of the pews; the folks who are Christian in name only.”

A theme has emerged in the convention speeches. Closeted atheists need to become outed atheists. “These church-pew atheists are victims of the chokehold religion has on them. The Emperor is not only naked, he’s ugly and needs deodorant.”

I swallow hard and listen closer. We’ve been told this is the largest American Atheist convention ever and the audience is buzzing. A gauntlet has been thrown. David Silverman is not holding back. And it’s because he truly doesn’t believe. David Silverman knows there is no God, just as I always knew there was a God. Call us fundamentalists, the two of us. But here’s the difference: I am a reformed fundamentalist. I can now entertain the idea that my truth may not be the only truth. I want to understand, to listen and consider other people’s points of view, even when I find their convictions strange or frightening. That’s why I’m here. If I reject this group’s beliefs without understanding them, then I have not changed from the zealot I once was. But I’m nervous and feel a bit nauseous. I’m waiting for lightning that won’t miss this time.

Silverman quotes an American Atheist sponsored billboard, one of several versions installed throughout the nation: “The rapture: You know it’s nonsense. 2000 years of any day now.” Their advertising campaign plans include one in which aerial banners will be flown over all fifty states that read, “God less America” and “Atheism is patriotic.” And there are more plans, ambitious ones, especially for the coming largest secular event anywhere, ever. People applaud this news, a murmur through the convention hall, Blackberries and iPhones tweeting on all sides of me. 

“When you come out of the closet, shut the door behind you because you won’t need it anymore,” he continues. (Who’s he talking to? He’s preaching to the choir, isn’t he? As far as he knows?) “If you don’t have a deity,” he says, “you are an atheist.” I’m an English teacher and I agree this may indeed define an atheist—someone without a god. A human being minus a god. An old misery lodges in my throat as I try to decipher the tattoos on the bare shoulders of the woman in front of me. Both fleshy arms are covered with black ink.

Bible-Reading Atheists

“Raise your hand if you’ve read the Bible,” Silverman asks. The room is filled with a flood of hands. I don’t see anyone that doesn’t have his or her hand up.

“Raise your hand if you’ve read the Bible cover to cover.” My hand stays up and again, I’m not alone. Swarms of hands. I look at the atheists who have read the Bible and I wonder. Have any of you ever kissed the Bible? Have you ever cried as you read it? Did your insides light up like a pinball machine? Did you annotate and highlight and earmark and bookmark and run to the phone to call your girlfriend because you found a Scripture that was God speaking to you?

“That’s why we know more than they do. You need to tell your Christian friends to read the Bible. Reading the Bible makes atheists. Christian education makes atheists. I’ve given the Bible to my fourteen-year-old daughter and I’ve asked her to read it.” I picture his daughter taking the Bible out of his hand. Did she roll her eyes? Did she want to please her dad by reading it? If she started to read, what did she make of it? Those genealogies, oy vey. I  can remember doggedly making my way through them. I had been taught that every word in the Bible was in there for a reason—it was profitable and meant to instruct, to guide. So I read all of the fathers and the sons, the fathers, the fathers, and their sons all with indecipherable names, but still I persisted in reading who begat whom day after day, year after year.

There’s a break finally. Nancy and I wander through the room where merchandise is displayed: books, bumper stickers, jewelry. I was born OK the first time. At first they burn books, then the people. I excuse myself and use the restroom. There are atheists in there discussing American Idol and what happened the night before. That helps me calm down a bit. Okay, okay. They like James Durbin, too. Lovely James with his Tourette’s and his crystal clear voice. I add my opinion and one woman tells me she loves my shoes. Common ground at last.

The next speaker quotes James Buchanan: “I like the voice of democracy—the cacophony of people disagreeing with each other.” Yes, individual voices, not groupthink, exactly. After I left the fundamentalism, I shied away from large groups who were all in one accord. I graduated with my MFA and joined Teach for America, an altruistic group of college graduates who were trained and placed in under-resourced schools in urban and rural America. But the six-week training in Houston left me edgy and uncomfortable. I found myself among zealots again, people with shout-outs and slogans and certainty. I could not disappear again so quickly.

I wanted my own voice. At last. I wanted to say what I thought, to express what seemed true to me. I couldn’t parrot anyone—not for one more day of my life. I received my assignment: two years in Tunica, Mississippi teaching eighth graders Language Arts. It took me a week to confess I was not going to be able to move to the deep South and pick up the required paddle for routine classroom discipline because I so wanted to save them all. God help me, I still wanted to be a missionary—that was apparent, but I was going to do it in my own way.

Still Angry about Galileo

Nancy and I eat lunch at a noodle place in the kitschy neighborhood west of the Capitol. I am starved and I eat fast and furiously. I am aware that I’m uncharacteristically not using the best manners. Am I medicating with food—am I trying to fill the God-shaped vacuum? I laugh at myself then. Will the atheists at last bring me back to the fold? I eat my red velvet cupcake knowing I am not willing to claim that I know the whole and absolute truth anymore. I am living with the questions. I can do that. I hand the bread to Nancy, psychologist and skeptic and saint and artist, all rolled up in one. She is an intellectual and spiritual at the same time and she has told me hair-raising stories that can’t be disputed, least of all by me.

When we return, the next speaker, Greta Christina, is angry at religion and says that peaceful co-existence is impossible with believers. However, she says that atheists don’t want to dig up Jesus Christ just so they can crucify him all over again. The audience laughs. “I know,” she says, “that would be awesome, wouldn’t it?”

She gives us a very long list of things she hates about religion. I concur with all of them. I too hate honor killings and the way Jerry Falwell blamed atheists and homosexuals for 9/11. She’s still angry about Galileo. Ditto. Another astronomer who long ago claimed the sun was only one of many tied to the stake and burned. The Crusades. Until 1961, atheists weren’t allowed to serve on a US jury. Women are dying of AIDS in Africa because condoms make baby Jesus sad. In Utah, 45% of homeless teenagers are Mormons. Female genital mutilation. A famous comic book artist she knows was told that he wouldn’t be able to draw in heaven.  

“I’ve touched on 1/100 of the things about religion that piss me off,” Christina says. (I wonder if she’s pissed off to have the last name Christina; that would make me very angry if I were her.) “The things that make religion unique are the things that make religion uniquely capable of causing harm. If you have a belief in invisible entities, there is no reality check. It’s so uniquely positioned against any questioning. Religion doesn’t have to prove itself true,” she says, and her frustration is palpable. 

And, she adds, believers have never encouraged atheists to be more vocal or to express themselves more wholly. (See the aforementioned astronomer with his idea that there might be more than one sun. And that dude was no doubt a Christian.)

“Anger can misfire badly. When we express anger, we get angrier,” she says. “But anger is the chief reason we know something is not okay; it motivates us to do something about it.” 

The Bible says to be angry but do not sin, I write in my notebook before quickly scribbling down her quotes by MLK Jr. and Gandhi. Isn’t it telling that I know what the Bible says more readily than I do these men? I am always arguing with myself, whether it’s the internal schism or in my notes, my fiction, even my memoirs.

“The supreme task is to organize people so that their anger is a motivating force,” claimed Martin Luther King Jr. And Gandhi: “Controlled anger can be transmitted into a power that can change the world.” So atheists do well to be angry at all the abuses religion has caused if it means these things are eradicated, but is that an atheist cause or a human cause? Everything she listed pisses off God, too. Imagine being a supreme being who has to rely on humans as your representative on Earth. I can quote Gandhi on this: “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. They are not very like your Christ.”

In parting, Christina reminds us to vote for atheists, vote for candidates who will protect secular government. Separation of church and state must trump all other issues. I’m cool with that. Jesus: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. (There I go again.)

A final reminder to show compassion for believers who will leave the church—the church-pew atheists (8% according to their figures—how is this empirical data, oh Atheists of the Atom?) and we need to assure them that we are here for them now that they live in a world without hope.

Giving Up Hope

That was the hardest part about leaving my former life, I admit. I had to give up hope. The Bible calls it the blessed hope and it is—this tidy, seemingly impenetrable package by which almost everything else is bearable. I lost my job? Well, I still have hope. I have cancer? Bummer, but check it out; I’ve got hope and it’s going to see me through. My kid’s gone missing? My heart is torn open, but look here. My hope is real. It’s solid. It weighs ten thousand pounds. It bolsters me, keeps me tethered, does whatever I need it to do. When I walked away from fundamentalism, I saw hope disappear, fading bit by bit until I was left with a lot of big talk, a whole lot of bluster. It’s painful to live without connect-the-dots faith. It takes so much courage, I can’t tell you.

The audience rises to their feet after this call to support the de-converted—the atheists are very supportive, I will say that. I lose count of the standing ovations throughout the convention. There is also much spontaneous laughter and many atheist jokes. Lot’s wife suffered a particularly cruel fate because she was on a low-sodium diet. One speaker ventures that 90% of the prayers in America consists of “Please, God, help me find my flip flops.” When a speaker screws up and apologizes to the audience, there is a chorus of “Jesus forgives you.”

Remarks from audience members who stand and take turns to speak at the mic:

“There are 435 members of Congress and almost all of them are our enemies.”  

“If we could take the brainpower of this room and pool it, it would be fantastic.”

“We have to take territory one person at a time. We need to bring people into enlightenment. Be prepared to explain why the earth is not 6000 years old. Evolution is true.”

“We don’t have to apologize for saying there is no hell anymore than the evangelists do for saying there is a hell and threatening us with it.”

The audience loves this one. And, no surprise, I love this one, too. Even at my most fervent, I found it difficult to grasp the concept of eternal damnation. The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity taught me that all men should by rights be in hell, so God is only showing incredible mercy by pulling some out and shuttling them toward heaven, but this was something I didn’t let myself dwell on too long or too often. I was heartened to read of Rob Bell, a prominent Christian pastor and writer who has caused much recent controversy with his acknowledgement that we don’t know who is in hell and who is not. Someone had scrawled graffiti suggesting Gandhi was currently burning in hell. When Bell encountered that, he had the temerity (not to mention honesty and integrity) to stop and reflect. “Do we really know that?” he asked.

Arguably the most gifted speaker, Jamila Bey, explains why African Americans are not represented in our midst, both at the conference and in the atheist community at large. The black church is a sanctuary—it’s rejecting a thug culture. It’s fun. She sings, “This little light of mine,” and claps. “It’s a place of music, food, and fashion.” Black women who leave the church are socially ostracized. But she explains black men are not in church because the church is anti-male. “Who wants to be a sheep? A black man wants to be his own shepherd. That language is not attractive to men. A man wants to hold his own staff. He doesn’t want to be a lamb. A lamb led to slaughter. Who wants to be a sweater?”

Well, that explains why black men aren’t in the church, but they aren’t exactly represented in this audience, either.

She’s got it—that connection with the audience that every speaker wants. We’re delighted with her. We don’t want her to go away and be replaced with some mumblecore scientist giving us facts and figures telling us why intelligent design is full of holes. She tells us to go into the churches and get the unconvinced Christians out, and I’m almost ready to follow her anywhere. She says that we need to go after kids who are already skeptics. We can be good role models—an honorable person who does not go to church.

“When someone says, ‘Thank God,’ I always correct them, ‘No, thank me. I’m the one who did it,’” she says with her hands on her hips.

According to Bey, being an outed African-American woman atheist is the same as committing cultural suicide. You’re rejecting a long history and everything your ancestors believed and stood for. You are telling your mothers and sisters that you think they’re stupid. For African-American women, identity comes first. “Because of us, you are.”

Enjoy Being an Atheist

At last, the speaker I had waited for is introduced. Immediately charming, a nervous Matthew Chapman, the British writer and filmmaker takes his place behind the podium. He is at the convention to premiere his film The Ledge. I had missed it at Sundance, but I knew the film was the story an atheist and a fundamentalist who face off in some tense battle involving guns, a tied-up woman, and the aforementioned ledge. Matthew Chapman is friends with Christopher Hitchens. He tells stories about their drinking bottles of wine together at which time Chapman was done under, but Hitchens went on that evening to debate Al Sharpton on TV.

Matthew Chapman says we need to enjoy being atheists. He suggests this activity: Go to a megachurch with a lie detector. Ask the congregants questions after wiring them up.

Do you really believe in hell?

Did Jesus really walk on water?

Those who fail the lie detector test will spot themselves in a Youtube video later, Chapman suggests and the audience cracks up. Yes, yes, great idea, they all nod to each other. Flush out the hypocrites.

Here is a big surprise from an industry insider. Heroes aren’t supposed to be atheists, and no one understands that better than Hollywood. According to Chapman, Hollywood is very conservative and now funded by corporations who are God and country sensitive—it’s hard to get a movie made that features a charismatic and outspoken atheist.

Nevertheless, Chapman’s movie, The Ledge, features an atheist protagonist who is attractive and charming, a guy who chills and doesn’t believe in God, but he’s cool with your belief system. You wouldn’t mind having a beer with this guy at all—or coffee as the case may be.

“I’m here to get your help,” Chapman tells us. “Help me get the word out. If enough people buy tickets to The Ledge, Hollywood will have to pay attention.”

I scribble in my notebook thinking of the war against family values we’ve had with Hollywood forever in the church. Is Hollywood our ally now? Oh, damn and damn. Who is we’ve and who is our, and why do I use those words so effortlessly? I sigh and look up, only to see a few policemen are in the room. Bomb threats? The protesters launching an invasion? Does someone know something I don’t know?

Ah, the question of the hour.

At the close of the convention, I introduce myself to Mr. Chapman. He twinkles, honestly. A warm man in blue jeans with eyes that take it all in. I tell him I was at Sundance as the screenwriter for Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, another film exploring doubt and belief. He opens his arms to me, “Ah, let’s have a hug.”

And then I am in the arms of Charles Darwin’s great-great grandson, Matthew Chapman. His intelligence and wit, his bravery and creativity, his humanity embrace me and my wobbly agnosticism. The strident voices of believers and unbelievers fade, and for a moment, all that matters is the very human act of telling our stories.  I want to stay here forever, and I am not the first to pull away.