By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
President Barack Obama, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast this year, said the Holy Spirit spoke through him as he prayed for the Reverend Billy Graham at the iconic evangelist's North Carolina home. "Before I left, Reverend Graham started praying for me, as he had prayed for so many presidents before me. And when he finished praying, I felt the urge to pray for him. I didn't really know what to say," he recalled. "What do you pray for when it comes to the man who has prayed for so many? But like that verse in Romans, the Holy Spirit interceded when I didn't know quite what to say."
Locally, Villa Park City Councilwoman Deborah Pauly, who describes herself as a "servant of the Lord" on Twitter, told those outside a Yorba Linda Muslim charity event last year that "sheer, unadulterated evil" was happening inside.
It's rhetoric like that, Gleason says, that motivates him to keep atheism in the limelight—or at least in a tiny corner of it. Besides his billboards and TV show, he isn't afraid to engage in a bit of street theater to get his message across. Last year, he led his merry band of nonbelievers to the Huntington Beach pier, where Gleason tore up passages of the Bible.
During a lively chat on a patio behind his house, Gleason accepts a challenge to a friendly game of "word association."
Islam: "Violent bunk."
Judaism: "Less bunk."
Buddhism: "One of the coolest religions around."
Wicca: "Cool religion."
Scientology: "Evil religion, nutcase sci-fi-authored . . . financially drain- ing organization."
Roman Catholicism: "In support of hiding pedophiles."
Jehovah's Witness:"Blood transfusions."
Atheism: "The most peaceful ideology in the world because you will never see anybody raising an atheist flag to harm anybody."
When asked why Backyard Skeptics doesn't pour more resources into attacking Islam, Gleason chuckles. "We're not stupid," he says. "We're not going to put up pictures of Mohammad. . . . The Muslims to the Christians are like the Russian secret police to the FBI. You don't fuck with the Russian police; they'll cut off your fuckin' balls. Literally, that does happen. Christians or the FBI are not going to do that. They might waterboard you."
* * *
On a February night, the perimeter of Gleason's property is softly lit as a cool breeze sweeps along Santiago Boulevard. Two palm trees, illuminated by glowing lights below, stand tall above the driveway and between a pair of gates. A sign points visitors in the direction of a Backyard Skeptics meeting.
The scent of Gleason's orange trees accompanies those who walk down a long driveway, toward a breezeway with his house on one side and a garage on the other. A table outside the garage holds several books on science and atheism, including some written by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. The Kurt Henry Band's CD From Our Religions We'll Be Free is on sale.
A Chinese man wearing a dinner jacket and jeans, the word "Cash" written on his nametag, peruses the table. He pauses to look at one book in particular: The Holey BiBull, a Gideon's Bible with a hole drilled through it and tagged with the words "International Blasphemers Day Sept. 30, 2010."
Having just arrived in the United States, Yinjie Qian, a 40-year-old manager for a Chinese travel-services company, apologizes for his broken English and introduces himself with his Americanized name: "Bill Cash."
"I really appreciate this group," Cash says eagerly. "In China, a lot of people are Buddhists. But I don't think so because I believe in nature, so I believe in evolution. . . . I think this group can help me understand more about nature."
Inside the garage, a group of about 25 atheists and agnostics gathers in a rather church-like setting: rows of chairs face a podium so that the sanctuary for skeptics resembles a storefront congregation. The friendly fellowship of "brights," as skeptics are apt to call themselves, enjoys a buffet-style dinner. On a counter along one wall, a plate of pastries rests near an uncorked bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, like an unsanctified eucharist. A camera set up in one corner is aimed at the podium. The evening's proceedings are filmed for Gleason's The Orange County Atheist TV Show.
Dressed in dark trousers, a black T-shirt and a jacket with his scarlet "A," Gleason takes the podium and makes some announcements, including how much traffic spiked on the group's website after the Thomas Jefferson billboard gaffe. To the howling delight of those gathered, he mentions a new billboard will soon debut, with an image of an angry God and the words "Worship me, or I'll put you in fiery Hell for eternity. Have a nice day, God."
He then introduces landscape artist Robert A. Richert, who grew up in Southern California and served as an Army infantryman in the Vietnam War, earning the Army Commendation Medal, with a valor device. (He was an atheist in a foxhole, Gleason helpfully explains.) Richert majored in scientific illustration at Cal State Long Beach.
With the lights turned off and heat lamps turned on, Richert gives a PowerPoint presentation on the fossil evidence for evolution, peppering his lecture with atheist humor; one slide features a photograph of a famous actor representing the personification of the most highly evolved species: "Bradicus pitticus." Another slide depicts coprolites, fossilized dinosaur feces highly sought by collectors, which Richert refers to as "dino doo-doo."