I recall my first meeting with a gaggle of atheists. I was in my early twenties when, out of curiosity, I attended several meetings of American Atheists, the organization founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. About fifteen atheists were in attendance. They seemed like regular people who simply didn’t believe in God and who bitterly resented efforts by government officials to peddle religion.
I later encountered one of the atheists at a special event in a municipal park, where many organizations, such as the National Organization for Women, the Sierra Club, and American Atheists, had erected booths to distribute flyers, books, lapel pins, and miscellaneous articles of propaganda. After a brief conversation, the atheist lady asked me to cover for her while she ran to the restroom.
“But I don’t consider myself an atheist,” I objected. “I consider myself an agnostic.”
She dismissively brushed the air with her hand as though she were erasing my words as fast as I could pronounce them. She obviously did not want to get into a discussion of the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. She just wanted to pee.
“And I’m not even a member,” I added.
“That’s fine. All you have to do is let passers-by pick up some literature and maybe answer a few of their questions. Don’t pretend to be anything you’re not. Just be honest—if your beliefs even come up. I would really, really appreciate it.”
“I dunno,” I mumbled, scratching my head. Apparently in Atheistland this means yes, because I suddenly found myself sole proprietor of the booth. I found something else as well. I found that Christians don’t have any use for atheist booths or the fools who occupy them.
One of the passers-by, a preternaturally robust God-fearing pea-brained redneck thug, sporting a faded T-shirt emblazoned with the South Carolina state flag, tried to rectify my lack of religion by bludgeoning my ego with a few blunt remarks. To punctuate his insults, he swung his big, hairy fist at my face. I narrowly escaped the arc of his callused knuckles and, much to his dismay, my mandible, maxilla, and maxims all remained intact. I was relieved when the atheist lady returned, though I did point out to her that the job was not as simple as she let on.
She may not have been interested in the distinction between atheist and agnostic, but the man who assaulted me was even less interested in the distinction. I must admit that, from a practical standpoint, the distinction seemed less pressing to me than it previously had.