By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
"Another thing we have to understand is more than 95 percent of all species have gone extinct," he says. "More than 95 percent. That doesn't speak well for God, in my opinion."
The presentation spans the evolution of species over the course of hundreds of millions of years and takes on the feel of a high-school science class, one interrupted only by the thundering crash of a man whose chair collapses beneath him, as the brights—most of whom are white and older than 40—gasp and scurry to help him off the floor.
Richert clicks through several artists' renderings depicting what man's ancestors could've looked like, including "Lucy," a 3.2 million-year-old skeleton found in Hadar, Ethiopia, in 1974. It was the first Australopithecus afarensis skeleton ever found, but only about 40 percent of her remains are complete. For a group of self-declared skeptics, Richert's audience seems remarkably unquestioning of the parade of illustrations, many of which are based on conjecture. A religious critic might argue that they're acting no differently from the believers they often deride for having blind faith in the Bible.
Afterward, Gleason mingles with his fellow nonbelievers, at one point standing in the kitchen and discussing the mechanics of magic tricks.
Marilyn Martin, a 59-year-old Redlands resident, says she enjoys the company of skeptics because it is devoid of the God talk that informed her Mormon upbringing. "It's nice to go somewhere where you don't have to bite your tongue," she says.
She recalls her skepticism starting when she was just 3 years old and attending Vacation Bible School. It was there that she saw a frightening image of Jesus Christ on the cross. "At 3, I was severely troubled by that image," Martin says. "There was no way I was believing this guy was floating through the air."
She compares Mormonism to Grimm's Fairy Tales and Greek and Roman mythology, adding that it "actually seemed a lot more sillier." Her family would rather see her dead than an atheist, she says.
Though not an evangelizing atheist, she says, she often finds herself in agreement with many of the slogans she sees on skeptics' cars. Still, she doesn't have any bumper stickers herself.
"Some of the stuff Bruce does makes me nervous," she admits.
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A middle child with two sisters, Gleason grew up in Anaheim. He attended church more for the social opportunities it afforded than anything else. The first time he snubbed God, he was 9 years old, and it involved the money his parents regularly gave him to donate at Sunday School. "I just skipped Sunday School and . . . spent it on candy," he says. "Zero, zero guilt."
The summer when he was 15 years old, he played guitar for a touring Pentecostal church choir. "Not one time did I feel the Holy Spirit," he says. "We had a bus, and we talked in tongues in [the] bus. I opened my heart. Still no go."
As he grew older, Gleason drifted from organized religion, although he didn't abandon it completely. He even visited Calvary Chapel when the church met in a tent at Fairview Street and Sunflower Avenue. He enjoyed the music but didn't meet Jesus. He just wasn't born with the belief gene.
"And I feel sorry for those people who have it because it's them," Gleason says. "It's your internal mechanism that you can feel. In fact, a lot of atheists that have had the experience of the Holy Spirit can re-enact that on cue. . . . It's not supernatural. It's not Jesus. It's not the Holy Spirit."
According to Gleason, many atheists are born with an anti-God gene. They are driven by a curiosity that causes them to question the world around them and not accept answers based on what he calls blind faith. To wit: They don't accept that a prophet named Jonah lived in the belly of a whale for three days, much less that a Jewish rabbi rose from the dead after a similar stretch of time. And trite answers about a creator fashioning the universe don't much suffice. "Our science is so much greater than anything religion has to offer," Gleason says.
He does, however, accept studies that support an atheistic worldview and scholarship that buttresses disbelief. (There are studies that show kids raised on belief are less creative, he says.) An avid reader of the so-called "Four Horsemen of New Atheism"—Harris, Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens—Gleason says the more scholarly one becomes, the more questions one has.
And that leads many atheists to see the world through the lens of naturalism, the view that natural laws govern the universe, and if a supernatural being exists, it doesn't alter what we know of the world. Gleason is also a materialist, believing there is only matter and energy in the world and no transcendent being. "There's no logical argument [from theists] that doesn't end up with 'God did it,' and that is not an argument," Gleason argues. "It's just a position that there is no valid evidence to prove otherwise."
Gleason also believes prayer is bullshit. There's no evidence for it, he says. People might pray for something good to happen while others might just "hope" for it, and nothing more complicated than chance—a cosmic roll of the dice—determines the outcome. "You go into a hospital and pray," he explains. "I go into a hospital and hope that doctor knows his shit, right? Same thing, and it's the same outcome."