Members of UTSA’s Atheist Agenda are just like everybody else, except for the sticky issue of God
The Atheist Agenda is braced for trouble. Members of the group, UTSA’s newly formed contingent of non-believers, anxiously sit behind a wide table in the middle of the university’s Humanities and Social Sciences building. A large banner proclaiming “Smut for Smut” hangs from the front of the table. It’s the third day of the Atheist Agenda’s campaign inviting students to turn in in their Bibles in exchange for porn. They’ve even gone to the trouble of providing an eclectic buffet of porn—everything from Playboy to Hustler—to suit individual tastes.
A female student dressed in blue warmups approaches the table with a smile, apparently oblivious to the prominent “Smut for Smut” message that greets her. Initially, she assumes that the group is issuing Bibles in exchange for porn. When she’s informed that they’re actually doing the opposite, she says, in a low voice, “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.” She pauses for a moment, and adds, “There’s a high price to pay, people.”
The members of the Atheist Agenda know all about the high price to be paid for their views. In their first semester on the UTSA campus, they’ve had their bulletin board vandalized weekly. During their Bibles-for-porn campaign, November 29-December 1, they were lambasted by a professor who accused them of commodifying women and stormed off before they could respond.
For many young atheists, opening up about their religious skepticism is akin to a homosexual coming out of the closet. Not surprisingly, many atheists wait until they reach the safe distance of college to express their views.
One such student is Ryan Walker, 18, who grew up in a devout Catholic family in a Houston suburb. “My mother made a vow to raise her children Catholic. Up until about 14 or 15, I believed it,” he says. “But religious education wasn’t really doing it for me. So I started studying on my own and I came to realizations that the claims made by religions were huge leaps of logic and that the concept of faith didn’t figure into any other facet of our lives.”
“It never made sense to me. I remember being 6 years old and the idea of the Adam and Eve story was ludicrous. But it was all I knew. I didn’t even know what an atheist was until I was 11. Over the course of two years, I went from Catholic to general Christian to Deist to agnostic to atheist.”
Walker acknowledges that his mother doesn’t know he’s an atheist and reveals “it would devastate her.” So it’s ironic that he ended up representing the Atheist Agenda on local television when WOAI came to cover the “Smut for Smut” campaign on Wednesday, December 1. He says he was prodded to face the cameras by organization president Thomas Jackson, because Walker happened to be wearing a suit that day.
“I just worry about alienating people that I like,” Walker says. “There have been girls who were interested in me and then I told them I was an atheist and they never talked to me again.”
Walker’s TV appearance encouraged Kris Hochart to meet with the campus atheists. Hochart, a dapper, eloquent 28-year-old real-estate agent and UTSA alumnus, is a devout Christian, and he quickly engaged Atheist Agenda members in profound, if circular, philosophical debates.
“Is Gandhi going to hell?” one student atheist asks pointedly. Hochart says he doesn’t know, but adds that for him the recognition of the atonement supersedes such considerations. Along the way, he asks a group member to explain where he derives his sense of morality. The student atheist says he doesn’t get it from anywhere. Hochart responds, “I don’t understand that.”
The members of the Atheist Agenda realize they’re outnumbered. Among more than 180 student organizations at UTSA, including 15 religious groups, they’re the only one representing the so-called Free Thought movement. And even by the most generous estimates, atheists only represent about 10 percent of the United States’ population.
The group’s members also know that people of faith often perceive atheists as cold, cynical, dour, and most damningly, immoral. Before they can prove these stereotypes false, they have to get the public’s attention. By that measuring stick, “Smut for Smut” was a success.
On Monday, December 5, Jackson represented the Atheist Agenda on Tucker Carlson’s MSNBC show The Situation. The following morning, he received an e-mail from Fox News, inviting him to be grilled on Bill O’Reilly’s nightly show, The O’Reilly Factor.
On the night of December 6, more than 30 Atheist Agenda members crowd into a University Center meeting room to plan for the O’Reilly appearance. They earnestly debate whether or not to defend pornography, what to say about Christmas, and how to define their platform.
At a certain point, Jackson can’t resist puncturing the serious mood. Pretending that he’s talking to O’Reilly, he looks at his fellow atheists and comes clean: “We’re a D&D `Dungeons & Dragons` cult trying to revive the flying spaghetti monster. We admit it.”
Thomas Jackson and Richard Knight are complete physical and temperamental opposites. Jackson is tall and skinny, with short, spiky hair and a piercing on his left eyebrow. He’s affable, chatty, and unmistakably brash. Knight is stocky and bookish, with features that suggest a young John Goodman. He speaks softly, chooses his words carefully, and shows no interest in the limelight. When asked about the Atheist Agenda’s avowed desire to be more militant than other Free Thought groups, Knight turns to Jackson and says, “You talk. You’re the militant one.”
But Jackson and Knight share some crucial similarities. They’re both scientists (Jackson is a triple-major, while Knight is a graduate student in physics) and they both defer to logic and empirical evidence when confronted with a question. Both Jackson and Knight felt frustrated by the lack of campus representation for atheists, so they joined forces to form the Atheist Agenda in the summer of 2005.
“I got tired of all the religious organizations on campus,” Knight says. “The university, to me, is a place for research and to be intellectual. Religion is anti-intellectual and has very little to do with science.”
| “I was afraid, until now,
to express my personal beliefs
because people will immediately distort
it and say I’m Satan himself.”
– Adam Flott
Jackson, 25, grew up in San Antonio and came to question religion at a young age. The product of a Baptist father and Catholic mother, he found his religion in the writing of Isaac Asimov, which spurred him to contemplate the universe in purely scientific terms.
“I had a summer Bible school with the Baptists and a catechism with the Catholics,” Jackson recalls. “In catechism, I was reading a book by Asimov when a nun brought up the topic of where the universe came from. Her explanation was that God made it and he was always here. Little kids know when they’re being lied to and I saw right throught that. I was like, ‘If the universe needs a beginning, so does God.’”
At Floresville High School, Jackson fumed while a teacher devoted class time to a defense of creationism. He responded by writing a paper supporting evolution. When she bashed the paper in class, he says he got up and yelled at her, initiating a 10-minute verbal fracas that ended when he was sent to the principal’s office.
If Jackson represents a militant wing of the Free Thought community, it’s because he defines himself as a “positive atheist.” Agnostics sit on the fence, uncertain of whether God does or does not exist. Negative atheists argue that there’s no evidence of God’s existence. Positive atheists, however, don’t bother with niceties or half-measures. They positively assert that God does not—and could not—exist.
“Most atheists are negative atheists,” Jackson says. “Being a positive atheist puts you at the extreme end, so there’s no way you can be as moderate as some other people.”
While Jackson has rarely hesitated to flaunt his atheism, other members of the Athiest Agenda have struggled with the ramifications of being a non-believer in a predominantly Christian society.
Adam Flott, 21, grew up in Arizona and moved to Austin when he started 6th grade. He says he was not raised with religion and by the time he reached his early teens, he concluded that God did not exist. Nonetheless, he kept his atheism under wraps until a few months ago, when he joined the Atheist Agenda.
“I was a little afraid, until now, to express my personal beliefs because people will immediately distort it, and say I’m Satan himself,” Flott says. “It was bad enough being into computers and quirky things in high school, without being labeled an atheist.”
Flott says he was amazed to find even one atheist on the UTSA campus. “It was kind of relieving to see other people with the same beliefs I did,” he says. “They weren’t ashamed of it, and I realized I shouldn’t be embarrassed to speak about it.”
Flott concocted the “Smut for Smut” campaign, based on a similar stunt executed at the University of Texas-Austin campus by a prankster group called the Knighthood of Buh. While the Knighthood of Buh’s sole motivation was to get a rise out of people, Flott believed the Atheist Agenda could use the strategy to make a genuine point.
“It’s a two-fold thing: On one hand we want to be goofy but we also want to show that most religious scriptures, in the way they instill brainwashing, we find to be basically smut,” he says.
Flott and his cohorts point to countless depictions of rape and murder in the Old and New Testaments, and argue that, unlike pornography, religion can’t simply be avoided by consumers because it’s embedded in our culture and political system.
|Thomas Jackson, left, and Richard Knight are UTSA science students who formed the Atheist Agenda to counter the religious organizations on campus. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)|
“I’d like to see a president who was atheist and not afraid to say so,” Ryan Walker says. “We’ll have a gay black president before we have an atheist president. It’s scary that people are still persecuted and can’t be who they are.”
The Atheist Agenda’s willingness to stir up hostility sets them apart from the recent activities of American Atheists, the national organization founded in 1963 by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Under O’Hair’s leadership, the group established itself as a relentless advocate for the separation of church and state, but it also established a reputation for stridency that continues to cling to the atheist community. In recent years, the organization has attempted to combat that image.
“We’re using a much more logical side and a much calmer side,” says David Silverman, national spokesman for American Atheists. “We’ve always been a logical organization, but I think now we’re more of a rationalist watchdog organization than a Madalyn Murray O’Hair organization where we’d do more screaming. We’ve found that a sharper tongue is better than a heavier tongue.”
Silverman emphasizes that American Atheists does not attempt to convert religious believers into atheists. It merely encourages closeted atheists to come out of the closet, while protecting their civil rights and attempting to enhance their reputation in society.
“As an organization, in general, we do not proselytize,” he says. “That’s a big misconception, because people think we’re the exact opposite of Christians and try to proselytize from the opposite direction.”
Proselytizing is precisely what Tucker Carlson accused UTSA’s group of doing when Jackson appeared on The Situation for a combative interview on December 5. Jackson responded: “We were sitting at a table and people came to us. We didn’t knock door-to-door. We don’t have a church on every corner in our country to push this on people. You know, we’re just a bunch of college students down at UTSA.”
While Silverman understands what Jackson and his fellow students attempted to express, he doesn’t exactly defend the “Smut for Smut” campaign.
“I think they were trying to make a statement that kind of blew up in their face,” he says. “I think they were trying to make the statement that one man’s pleasure is another man’s porn. They were trying to equate the two. It was something they were doing to raise awareness. It’s not something that American Atheists would do.”
As he contemplates his television interview with Bill O’Reilly, Jackson looks enthused but slightly nervous. With O’Reilly’s recent rant against the so-called “War on Christmas,” (promising to use his media power to “bring horror into the world” of “totalitarian, anti-Christian forces in this country”), Jackson knows he’ll be held up as a sacrificial lamb for all non-believers.
“He’s a filthy, filthy man, and he fights dirty,” Jackson says to his group members.
Joining Jackson on the The Factor will be Pepper Finley, one of the group’s relatively few female members. During the group meeting, she describes the two responses she received from feminists over “Smut for Smut.” Some feminists Finley spoke to didn’t understand the event and wanted an explanation. The others resented the fact that pornography was equated with religion—because they considered the association insulting to pornography.
Despite the ongoing backlash sure to be felt by the Atheist Agenda over “Smut for Smut,” Adam Flott, its mastermind, voices no regrets.
“One of the reasons I thought this would be a good idea is that this campus is a little boring compared to a lot of other campuses,” Flott says. “I thought, ‘If we can mix things up, I don’t see the harm in that, and it’s fun to do.’ I’ve met a lot of interesting people.” •