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."
* * *
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."
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."
"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.
* * *
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."
* * *
Gleason isn't an angry man. He's just against the bad fruit that religion often produces. "Why am I doing this?" he asks. "Because I see all around me religion causes harm for society."
He blames organized religion for psychological harm—telling folks they are experiencing problems because of sin or a lack of faith in a god—as well as emotional and financial harm. Gleason doesn't believe churches should be tax exempt or that ministers should receive a housing allowance. Faith-based programs such as abstinence education are dangerous, Gleason says, and his tax dollars shouldn't be funding them.
Indeed, while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops bemoaned President Obama's mandate—later reversed—that employers with religious affiliations, such as Catholic hospitals, cover contraceptives in health-insurance plans, the bishops gave no hint of sending back the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars that Catholic religious charities receive from the government. Mother Jones reported in February that under the Obama administration, Catholic religious charities have received more than $650 million. That includes money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to the tune of $81.2 million—up from $71.8 million during the last three years of the Bush administration—to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has repeatedly blasted Obama over the contraception controversy.
Gleason's concern about religion infecting public life extends to foreign policy, especially when it comes to some conservative politicians whose support of Israel often seems to flow from an apocalyptic vision based on a particular view of the Bible. Politicians such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who, on June 8, 2008, informed the congregation at Wasilla Assembly of God that "our national leaders" are sending "our military men and women . . out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that plan is God's plan."
Gleason says he likes to ask Christians if they support Israel because they believe Jesus will return there, and if Israel ceases to exist, that means He can't come back. He doesn't hesitate to bring up the n-word at the end of his lectures and debates: nukes. "If there is going to be a nuclear war, who do you think is going to push that button: a reasonable person that's the president? Or a theological president that's going to start the apocalypse?"
He takes his argument a step further—to the boundaries of polite discussion: Atheists are actually more moral than religious people. "Atheists examine their world to become atheists," Gleason argues. "Most atheists are not like the guy who says, 'My mom died. I prayed like hell, so there must be no God, and I'm a goddam atheist.' We're not like that. Atheists are people who have a philosophical bent to them. We want to find out what makes us tick. We want to find out the truth of the world through natural means, and when you do that, you come to the conclusion, I'd say, 100 percent of the time, the Golden Rule rules, that the goal of lowering suffering in the world is more moral."
When it comes to the concept of salvation, he claims to have nothing to worry about. "My actions, I own," Gleason says. "I do not have to cleanse them."
As for the 10 Commandments? You can toss out almost half of them. "Look at the first four," he suggests. "God pushing his weight around—that has nothing to do with morality."
Don't even get Gleason started on the question of how a supposedly all-powerful creator can allow people to suffer so much pain and suffering. "The problem of evil is one of the hardest things apologists have to contend with because it's very difficult to say why people that are truly innocent, little kids, or even babies, for that matter, are killed so easily," he says.
Gleason agrees with people who argue that various secular regimes—particularly those of Hitler and Stalin—were responsible for more slaughter in the 20th Century than anyone else. "They are actually right," he says. "Political systems have killed more people than Christians [did] in the way of the Crusades and the Inquisitions and everything else before that."
Of course, it's not for lack of trying. "Being second," Gleason says, at least when it comes to murder, "is not something to brag about."
* * *
Ray Comfort is a street evangelist who has preached all over the world, from the shores of New Zealand to the piers of Southern California. A doppelganger for the late actor Peter Sellers, Comfort's The Way of the Master TV ministry often features actor Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame, who recently told CNN's Piers Morgan that he thinks homosexuality is "unnatural" and "detrimental and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization."
The pair teaches Christians how to evangelize. Comfort regularly preaches at the Huntington Beach pier, where he sometimes finds Gleason and the gang holding up signs: "Don't believe in God? Join the club."
He and Gleason have become friends. They have lunch together at least once a year.
"I met Bruce at Huntington Beach," Comfort says. "He was there to film for his atheist church, and he came across and heckled me, and I enjoy crossing swords with any atheist, and I particularly like Bruce."
At the same time, Comfort says, he feels sorry for atheists because "they've got nothing to live for, nothing to die for and no reason to be here"—except in Gleason's case, in which that atheist's reason to get out of bed in the morning is to battle God and those who believe in Him, Comfort says. "Bruce thinks he's a primate, as most atheists do."
Comfort claims he can make an atheist backslide in a matter of seconds by asking how "nothing" can create "everything," given that it's a scientific impossibility. "And when they're confronted with that thought, they begin to think, 'No, I don't believe that,'" Comfort says. "'That's crazy.'"
Comfort lumps Gleason in with a category of atheists that seemingly approaches non-faith with the zeal of a newly born-again saint. "Bruce is what I call a cut-and-paste atheist," Comfort says. "They go onto an atheist [website] and become an expert in seconds."
Asked about Gleason's take on the 10 Commandments, Comfort sees a similarity between what Gleason accuses God of doing and what Gleason himself does, especially with his sarcastic billboards. "That's what Bruce does," he says. "He throws his weight around."
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As for the question of who has caused more evil in the world, believers or nonbelievers? "The problem isn't religion or atheism; it's the wickedness of man's heart to use it for his own agenda," Comfort says. "The Bible says we live in a fallen creation. Hurricanes, famines, tornadoes, disease: all these things are the result of a fallen creation. It doesn't shake my faith in the Scriptures. It strengthens it, that they are right."
Atheists such as Gleason mock believers for their faith at the same time they blindly place their trust in professors and others who indoctrinate them with unbelief, Comfort says. While he admires Gleason's tenacity in taking on the awesome task of trying to disprove the divine, Comfort figures his friend is going to die a disappointed man. "I would say Bruce is actually trying to fight the God he doesn't believe in," Comfort says. "And a blind, weak-kneed, anemic flea on crutches has more of a chance of defeating a herd of a thousand wild, stampeding elephants."
This article appeared in print as "Noexist: Bruce Gleason wants to kill your god, one joke at a time."