God is in the Pamphlets

08/29/2007 12:00 AM |

“To you, I’m an atheist. To God, I’m the loyal opposition.” –Woody Allen

A built-in aquarium lines the walls of Ken Bronstein’s unexpectedly large apartment on the Upper East Side. I had been wondering. I know people with sensibilities antithetical to Mr. Bronstein’s, and their walls are covered with crosses and quotes from the Bible stitched into fabric. I’d been curious to see if the president of New York City Atheists (NYCA) decorated in a way that gave insight into his beliefs — an atheistic equivalent to a crucifix, maybe — but except for a “Separate Church and State” sign leaning against a wall, he does not.

This may not be surprising, given the nature of those beliefs and the means by which he reached his position. As Bronstein tells it, he was on the path to becoming a rabbi before he became an atheist. His parents were what he called “three-day Jews,” meaning they weren’t especially devout, and only attended temple on major holidays.

“The first thing was,” he said, “I knew Santa Claus didn’t exist. I became a skeptic. I said, ‘Society and my parents are lying to me. This is not true.’ I went to Hebrew school. That’s where it started. I didn’t buy the thing about Noah, I didn’t buy Moses and the Egyptians. I asked for evidence, but they couldn’t give it to me.”

The doubts grew, until they reached their zenith when Bronstein was giving a speech during his bar mitzvah.

“I was in a beautiful synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts, and as I was speaking I was thinking, ‘Religion is damaged material, you’re lying to me.’ It was during that ceremony that I became an atheist.” He completed the ritual part of the celebration but not the spiritual part.

If this seems a commonplace story of contemporary disillusionment, consider that it took place in the 1950s, when there was little deviation from the religious norm. Of course, there’s not much dissent now, either: though there are more self-identified atheists today than ever before, a recent Newsweek poll showed that 91 percent of the population say they believe in God.

Bronstein’s conversion led him to search online for like-minded people, and found an NYCA meeting he could attend.

“There were about seven or eight people there,” he said. “That’s it. I expected to see 500. I asked why there weren’t more members and was told there’s an expression: ‘Atheism is like herding cats. They don’t want to get involved in anything.’”

NYCA is the third major attempt at an atheist group in the city. Other groups were started in the 1970s and 80s but quickly dissolved, due partly to lack of enthusiasm. It was this absence of passion that upset Bronstein when he first attended a meeting, prompting him to stand up after 20 minutes and declare the situation “Unacceptable!”
Bronstein met with then-president Josh Karph, and outlined ways the group might increase its membership, including street tables and a newsletter. Karph had tried tabling before, with limited success, due mostly to members not wanting to man the booths. Bronstein ran the project, buying equipment and scheduling weekly meet-ups.

The tabling successfully attracted new members, and when Karph stepped down from his position to focus on his career, he asked Bronstein to take over. He agreed, and made two fundamental changes. The first was to focus the group on a single issue — the separation of church and state (making the “Atheist” name a little misleading).

“We’re not trying to make people atheists,” Bronstein said. “That’s not our objective. We’re pushing for church and state [separation], because if we don’t have that, we’re going to be wiped out.”

This means NYCA does not have an official position on issues like Iraq, though it can host a discussion about it. The views tend to be fairly homogenous, though Bronstein swears it’s diverse to the point where some members actually believe in God.

The second change was to charge membership fees, starting at $25 a year, on the theory that people will be more motivated to participate in a group they’re paying to be in. (Bronstein declined to say the exact membership, but said it was “in the hundreds.”) He registered NYCA as a 501(c), a nonprofit group exempt from federal taxes. This prohibits them from endorsing candidates, even in a race where three candidates won’t raise their hands when asked who believes in evolution. They can (and do), however, have lobbyists pushing for them.

The growing membership has resulted in more money and more enthusiasm about furthering their cause. There are monthly meetings, with an average attendance of around 30, and regular events like brunches and movie nights, during which such films as like Inherit the Wind are shown. They have three cable TV shows, all filmed in Bronstein’s apartment, with Bronstein operating the camera. Special events are done in conjunction with groups across the country. To counter the National Day of Prayer, the NYCA hosted a nationwide blood drive, with more than 1,000 donating, on the argument that their action helped mankind more than prayer did.

I went to an early-summer street tabling to see for myself how atheists seek converts. It was cold and rainy. Members arrived late and few passersby seemed willing to stop and get information. These tabling events usually begin, weather permitting, at around 10am on Saturdays (“every Sabbath,” Bronstein jokes) between May and October, in front of the Time Warner building at Columbus Circle.

Bronstein arrived with Josh Treiber, a 29-year-old volunteer wearing a sweatshirt with the words “God Free” across the chest. His story parallels Bronstein’s. He grew up in a religious family, sought proof of God’s existence, and ended up finding the NYCA instead.

Set-up involved the construction of a white plastic tent and two folding tables. A faded blue “New York City Atheists” sign hung in back, and two yellow “Total Separation of Church and State” banners were latched to the sides.

Even if they didn’t stop, people commented on the signs, even before set-up was completed. A few were supportive, shouting “I’m with you!” and, of all things, “Amen, brother!” They were encouraged to sign up for the mailing list, and maybe five did while I was there. Bronstein says a hundred will on a busy day, though not all become due-paying members.

Inevitably, opponents saw the stand and came to debate. One man stayed for more than an hour and had a conversation in which I heard Treiber explain a few times that he’s not anti-religion and that separation of church and state doesn’t inhibit anyone from practicing their beliefs. I missed much of the conversation, but I heard the man ask what Treiber’s morals were based on if not religion (“What do you think of murder?”), after which he gave a list of scientists who believe in God.

“He was cool,” Treiber said later on. He compared him to another man who had made comments earlier, dressed in a hunting jacket with camouflage pants, who told Treiber he was going to hell for his (non)beliefs, and said if he objected to the phrase “In God We Trust” on currency, he should give all his money away.

This believer had two children with him, who he deployed to distribute “My Best Friend” pamphlets to people nearby. In them, a cartoon bully finds God and is inspired to stop taking people’s lunch money. After the bully befriends his former victims, the final panel depicts all of them being saved through Christ.

Many accepted it when it was offered, but I saw a few throw it away when they saw what it was. NYCA used to have similar mailing programs, Bronstein said, but never found them to net more than a “one or two percent” return rate. At the table, nearly everyone who is interested enough to approach signs up.

I asked Treiber how he deals with people damning him without losing his temper. Members are told to not yell back or engage with hecklers, but when one man suggests that separation of church and state is racist against religious black communities, it takes a lot of restraint for Treiber to hold back.

“I don’t take them seriously,” he said. “I respect their passion, but I think what they believe is a fairy tale, like believing in DC Comics.”

A frequent line on NYCA literature is “Atheism is a Conclusion, Not a Belief.” Of course, many religious people have concluded that their beliefs are fact, and some, in the face of scientific evidence, posit arguments such as that an all-powerful God put evolutionary fossils into the world to test our faith. In contrast, NYCA prides itself on being rational — on having conclusions, rather than beliefs.

The thing that upset Bronstein about religion wasn’t the idea that people were being ostracized for not attending prayer groups, or that they felt the need to keep their atheism a secret, but how religious groups used their proximity to God as leverage.

Take, for example, the distributed leaflets. Through religion, you are saved. Through atheism, you are, what? Rational? Hardly equivalent, or as comforting as the idea that an all-powerful and loving God is protecting you, especially when you feel alone or in need of protection.

Ironically, the past few years have seen a leap in both atheism and religious influence, a polarity resulting in many ways from a president who is not shy about his beliefs. This has led to more college-aged believers, but also an impassioned counter-attack from those who dislike his rhetoric and its implications. The past few years alone have seen a flurry of books that don’t toe the religious line, from scientific studies like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion to teen-fiction like Beckie Weinheimer’s Converting Kate.

The difference between those works (and their religious counterparts) and Bronstein’s NYCA is that the former are arguing whether God exists, while NYCA is focused more on the creation of a society free from belief-based prejudices.

At least, that’s their official line. No doubt Bronstein would love it if the world woke up skeptic tomorrow, in the same way the Pope wants more Catholics.

The idea is funny: atheism as religion. But that might be the way it’s headed. Bronstein is attempting to turn NYCA meetings into ceremonies, like Sunday mass, on the theory that people respond positively to ceremony and ritual, and that a sense of tradition and continuity from one week to the next will increase membership.

Bronstein couldn’t tell me what such a ceremony might involve, but I wonder if atheists will grow less interested the more it smacks of a religious service (even without God), if religion is what they’re trying to avoid. At one point during the street-tabling, a man who came to get information was invited to the meetings. He was visibly taken aback. “Atheists attend meetings?” he asked. A problem of herding cats.