By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
They definitely aren't signs from God:
"Atheists make better lovers. (After all, nobody is watching.)"
"Make this a better world. Reject all religious superstitions."
"'Tis the Season to Celebrate Reason—Happy Solstice, Non-Believers."
Such unholy hilarity has graced billboards all over this God-soaked county for months now, to the delight of nonbelievers and the disdain of motoring saints. The man behind the message describes himself as "the most-outed atheist in Orange County."
Bruce Gleason, a 57-year-old Villa Park resident, has become something of a legend in the community of godless Orange Countians who read his quotes in news reports, devour his writing on his website and watch his public-access, cable-TV show on atheism. But while his method may be satire, his message is as serious as sin, he says: defending the skeptic community in Orange County, which is known for exporting faith around the world and boasts its own Mount Rushmore of American Christianity in Robert Schuller, Chuck Smith, Paul Crouch and Rick Warren.
In fact, Gleason believes that, perhaps particularly in Orange County, atheists remain the one societal group that remains in the closet, now that the gay-rights movement has gone mainstream. Employers prefer to hire believers, Gleason argues, or at least quiet nonbelievers, as opposed to outspoken critics of faith. In his mind, discrimination against atheists is the latest in the long line of American bigotry, from slavery to homophobia.
"It's becoming less and less how you look and how you behave," he says. "But now the last vestige of civil rights is going to be atheism."
But those who monitor discrimination say anti-atheist bias may not be as widespread as Gleason suggests.
"I don't get many calls about anti-atheist discrimination, but I am aware of it," says Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission. "In many terrific interfaith efforts that OC Human Relations participates [in], there is little mention of those who do not believe in God."
Gleason may disagree with religious people of all stripes about everything under the sun, but there's one thing he admits they have in common: Just like them, he's actively evangelizing on behalf of his own beliefs. "Everybody's vying for those fence-sitters," he says. "If I can make them think a little bit about the ridiculousness of superstitions brought upon by harmful religions, I might be able to sway them to become nonbelievers."
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At home in Villa Park, Gleason—who has short brown hair and a mostly gray, thick mustache that stretches down from the sides to his chin—is dressed in a pair of jean shorts and a T-shirt decorated with the world "pastafarian," instead of his more formal attire, which typically includes a scarlet "A" pin on his jacket. Get it? For atheist?
"This is the ghetto part of Villa Park," he jokes, adding that he's a step away from being trailer trash. In fact, Gleason recently sank six figures into renovating his sprawling property, which includes a one-story main residence, a workshop, and a separate building that doubles as a bed-and-breakfast surrounded by 100 orange trees.
Around four years ago, Gleason formed the Backyard Skeptics with seven other members he met through various atheist and agnostic groups. The events of 9/11 caused him to rigorously examine his beliefs, as well as those of others, and the group, now at 550 members, is the culmination of Gleason's studies. He says it's the largest atheist/agnostic group in Orange County.
Last October, Gleason suffered a highly public fumble when he put up a billboard that falsely attributed the following quote to Thomas Jefferson: "I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology." Unfortunately, the Jefferson Library in Monticello, Virginia, includes the misquote on a list of several such humdingers.
In 2011, the group spent $46,000 in donations on various billboards. After seeing one put up locally by the United Coalition of Reason group, a donor approached the group, offering to pay for them. "We didn't believe it," he recalls. "We thought it was some Christian playing a joke on us."
According to a Pew Research Center survey, 5 percent of American adults say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit, but only about 24 percent of them actually call themselves atheists. Pew also found that 14 percent of Americans who do not believe in God self-identify as Christian, with 4 percent saying they are Jewish. Of the nonbelievers, 15 percent claim to be agnostic.
That means Gleason has to lift his voice over the din of a never-ending religious discourse that permeates American society. The Republican primary often turns into a "God-off," with the candidates invoking the deity to score points with disciples. Last year in Florida, Michele Bachmann (although campaign officials later claimed she was joking), said God was sending a message to the political establishment through Hurricane Irene. "I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians," she said. "We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?'"
A campaign aide for Mitt Romney, a Mormon, told reporters after Super Tuesday, when he pulled farther ahead from the Republican pack, that it would take "some sort of act of God" for his competitors to win the nomination, which prompted Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic, to fire back, "If the governor thinks he's now ordained by God to win, then let's just have it out."