A Church for the Nonbelievers 

"I was passing myself off as agnostic," said a woman dressed all in turquoise at Rossmoor's weekly agnostic/atheist meeting. "I'm happy now to say I am an atheist."

Inside the main gate of Rossmoor, the vast retirement community nestled in the hills of Walnut Creek, visitors are greeted by a sign that alphabetically lists the religious congregations within its boundaries: Catholic, Congregational, Episcopal, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Unitarian.

Among those not listed is None of the Above. To find that elusive sect, you must come at 3:00 p.m. each first or third Thursday, then make your way to the Del Valle Clubhouse, where you'll encounter the Rossmoor Atheists and Agnostics Group. A recent afternoon found about fifty men and women in their golden years at the clubhouse, quietly waiting for the program to begin.

Given the prominent roles of religious fundamentalism in recent world affairs, some kind of godless backlash seemed inevitable. And so it came to pass that a group of a dozen Rossmoor nonbelievers has expanded, within the past couple of years, into an active group of eighty-plus residents indignant over prayer in schools and religiously motivated war.

Although atheism trends are not well documented, the number of people who say they follow no religion appears to be growing. In 2001, the American Religious Identification Survey asked more than fifty thousand Americans, "What is your religion, if any?" The responses suggested that the number of US adults unaffiliated with any religion had more than doubled, from 14.3 million in 1990 to 29.4 million in 2001. Moreover, the no-religion contingent grew from 8 percent of the overall population in 1990 to more than 14 percent in 2001. Although the researchers did not ask people to elaborate further, about 3 percent of the no-religion group volunteered that they were atheists, while roughly the same percentage said they were agnostic.

More recently, in 2003, the Barna Research Group, a Christian polling firm based in Ventura, compared its numbers with previous polling results to conclude that the number of atheists and agnostics had remained largely stable over the prior decade, and weighed in at 11 percent of the general population.

While pro-atheism groups have popped up here and there, nonbelievers have yet to be harnessed into any cohesive national movement. Ellen Johnson, president of the New Jersey-based American Atheists, dreams of a future in which her group might "be the NRA" and have "the clout of the evangelicals." But with only 2,300 dues-paying members, she has far to go. Atheists are not known to be joiners by temperament.

Much to Johnson's frustration, many religious doubters spend much of their time together debating what God means, rather than working to keep his adherents from telling them what do to. "I'm way past a lot of these discussions about God," she says.

Rossmoor's atheists and agnostics are not. Their October 5 meeting launched with a few minutes of "sharing time" — among the topics raised were the new Jesus Camp documentary, and the debate over when military chaplains can invoke Jesus.

Then a man with poofy blond hair and an authoritative voice kicked off the day's main topic: atheism versus agnosticism. The speaker was member Larry Hicok, a take-no-prisoners atheist who heads an outside group called East Bay Atheists that meets monthly in Berkeley's main library. He began by reading from a handout, a polemical essay arguing that agnostics should quit playing coy and simply confess that they don't believe in God.

As people took turns responding, one woman began to explain why she still, despite it all, considered herself agnostic. Hicok interrupted. "If you were presented proof of a Judeo-Christian God, would you worship him?" he asked.

"I would," she replied.

"Wouldn't you?" another participant shot back at Hicok.

"No," Hicok said. "He is a tyrant. He is a horrible, horrible person modeled after a bronze-era tyrant."

If only for a moment, Hicok had silenced his audience, overcoming what is often cited as the biggest challenge to organizing nonbelievers: their tendency to question and rebel.

As Hicok resumed, a silver-haired woman asked, for a second time, if he would point out the paragraph from which he was reading. He turned to face her. "Why can't you just listen?" he asked, voice rising. "Why do you need to follow along as I read?"

The woman rose. "I don't have to put up with that," she muttered, and headed for the exit. Another woman called after her: "Pat, come back." It was too late. Pat was gone.

This unpleasantness past, Hicok soon found himself a convert. Trudy Johnson, a soft-spoken woman wearing a turquoise necklace over a turquoise blouse and turquoise pants, stood to testify. "I was a little Caspar Milquetoast about saying I was an atheist," she began. "I was passing myself off as an agnostic because it sounded more polite. But I don't believe there is a God. I'm happy now to say I am an atheist."

Then followed a counterrevelation by Ron Ermini, a large man with a white mustache and red suspenders. "I just had an idea that I hate," he said. "I am a militant atheist. But reading this, until I can prove there is no God, I am an agnostic."

Applause for Ermini was cut short by a woman who sought to put things in context. "The whole Earth is a tiny speck of dust," she said. "Imagine what that makes us."

Standing toward the back and taking it all in was a short man with a gray beard and thick glasses. Richard Golden, 81, the group's founder, has been an atheist since he read a book on astronomy seventy years ago. He's more action-oriented than many here: In a conversation prior to the meeting, Golden said he coauthored "A Declaration Against Silence," an open letter challenging Americans to stand up to the religious right. He also said he plans to set up a table on a busy street in Walnut Creek under the banner "It's okay to be an atheist." Still, he doesn't mind his group's roving discussions.

Indeed, the forum is the point here. he was inspired to start the atheist/agnostic group after a friend, a lifelong churchgoer in a family of believers, revealed to Golden what he hadn't the heart to tell his own family: He didn't believe in God.

Golden decided he would create a place where nonbelievers stuck in similar situations could feel comfortable revealing themselves. "People have come up to me after their first meeting with tears in their eyes, thanking me," he says.

As its latest ninety-minute meeting wound down, Golden's group stood roughly divided along agnostic/atheist lines. Robert Frankel, a man in the back who'd been listening without comment, rose to speak. "I think we are all together in that we are for the separation of church and state," he said. "We should spend more time talking about that."

"That could be the subject of another session," Hicok said, a bit wearily.

The seniors adjourned shortly thereafter. As they filed slowly out of the room, Hicok lingered to speak with a few stragglers. "You can see how hard it is to lead one of these things," he said. "The woman that got angry and left — she's actually a pretty good friend."

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