The Bay Area has no shortage of God-fearing people. Evidence can be found weekly wherever worship services are held. What might come as a surprise -- at least, it did to me -- is the number of God-denying residents who are just as religious in practicing their non-beliefs.
I came upon this discovery inadvertently the other day while spending some time with my good friends Google and Bing.
My findings so far include the San Francisco Atheists, Atheist Advocates of San Francisco, Bay Area Atheists, East Bay Atheists, Contra Costa Atheists & Freethinkers, Atheists of Silicon Valley, Reason for Reason and Rossmoor Atheists.
God knows, there probably are more.
At first brush, a shared aversion to a deity wouldn't seem to be a terribly compelling reason to convene for regular meetings.
"Do you believe in God?"
"Nope, do you?"
"No. What else shall we talk about?"
It turns out, though, that different atheist organizations have different goals and activities. Some discuss the meaning of life. Some listen to scholars expound on the origin of the cosmos. Some campaign for secular change. Some attend film festivals.
No, that's not a joke.
The Atheist Film Festival, held just last week at the Roxie Theater in the San Francisco's Mission district, featured a double bill of "God is My Co-Pilot" and "The Ten Commandments."
OK, the part about the movie titles is a joke. (The showings were
Larry Hicok, state director of American Atheists and the coordinator of the Bay Area Coalition of Reason (oops, I missed one), said the motivation for atheist groups is so "like-minded people can get together and have stimulating discussions and socialize."
That sounds like a book club, only with an anti-God theme.
"The groups that I'm most into are heavily into activism," he added.
If you envision Hicok erasing "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, you are on the right track. He also wants "In God We Trust" removed from U.S. currency.
"That's totally inappropriate," he said.
Hicok, a 61-year-old Pinole resident, said he was raised a Presbyterian, but religion never clicked for him.
The more he studied history, the more he became convinced that Christianity is "an amalgamation of prior religious thoughts" that also made no sense.
By the time he was a high school junior in Albany, Ore., he was so resolute that he sought ACLU support to stop a chaplain from giving invocations at school assemblies and games.
His hope, like that of many atheists -- he estimates 14 percent of the population doubts the existence of God -- is that religion be separate from government. He cites the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as an example why.
"9/11 was the ultimate faith-based initiative," he said, "and the response to it in this country was awfully religious and absolutist. It was a mirror-image of the attack by the Muslim extremists."
He will get no argument from Richard Golden, an 85-year-old former high school science teacher who founded Rossmoor Atheists. He, too, faults President George W. Bush for inappropriately infusing his war on terror with Christian fervor.
Rossmoor, a senior living community, might seem an unlikely recruiting ground for the anti-God cause. When folks are strolling down life's backstretch, you'd expect them to be searching for a shining light at the finish line, not a yawning abyss.
Nonsense, Golden says.
"I began this organization because a friend of mine, a retired Berkeley professor, recognized he was an atheist," Golden said. "His wife and family were religious fundamentalists, but he never said a word to them. When I found that out, I wondered how many more people in Rossmoor might be in a similar position."
Eight years later, the organization has 110 dues-paying members and 145 names on its email list.
"Atheism for us is more than the denial of the existence of God," he said. "It's the affirmation that we can live a life without theism, that there is no heaven and hell and the supernatural doesn't exist."
He said the idea of living a good life to escape the wrath of hell is a "terrible way to justify moral actions."
Personally, I'm fine with anything that motivates morality.
Golden claims he has been an atheist since he was 11 years old, when he fell in love with astronomy, looked deep into space and decided there couldn't be a single entity in charge of all that.
He understands that more people believe than not, that it's human nature to pray to the almighty. But he's not wasting any time on an entity he can't see or touch.
What if it turns out he's wrong?
God only knows.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.