When he calls them to the stage, hundreds go. He puts his hands on their heads, and some cry. The altar call is a moving spectacle, and even we adults, we readers of Dawkins and Harris, we practiced reasoners and sincere pilgrims on the path of nonbelief, may find something in it that makes sense. Notwithstanding the banality of the doctrine, its canned anecdotes, and its questionable fundraising, Pastor Matthew offers a gift to his flock. They sow their seeds, and he blesses them. It is a direct exchange.
The next morning, I seek to cleanse my intellectual conscience among the freethinkers. The Center for Inquiry is also a storied landmark. True, it is not as striking as the Angelus Temple, being only a bland, low structure at the far end of Hollywood Boulevard, miles away from the tourists. But this building is the West Coast branch of one of the greatest anti-supernatural organizations in the world. My favorite thing about the Center for Inquiry is that it is affiliated with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, founded 30 years ago by Isaac Asimov, Paul Kurtz and Carl Sagan and dedicated to spreading misery among every species of quack.
I have become a connoisseur of atheist groups -- there are scores of them, mostly local, linked into a few larger networks. There are some tensions, as is normal in the claustrophobia of powerless subcultures, but relations among the different branches of the movement are mostly friendly. Typical atheists are hardly the rabble-rousing evangelists that Dawkins or Harris might like. They are an older, peaceable, quietly frustrated lot, who meet partly out of idealism and partly out of loneliness. Here in Los Angeles, every fourth Sunday at 11 a.m., there is a meeting of Atheists United. More than 50 people have shown up today, which is a very good turnout for atheism. Many are approaching retirement age. The speaker this morning, a younger activist named Clark Adams, encourages them with the idea that their numbers are growing. Look at South Park, Adams urges. Look at Howard Stern. Look at Penn & Teller. These are signs of an infidel upsurge.
Still, Adams admits some marketing concerns. Atheists are predominant among the "upper 5 percent," he says. "Where we're lagging is among the lower 95 percent."
This is a true problem, and it goes beyond the difficulty of selling your ideas among those to whom you so openly condescend. The sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that the rise and fall of religions can be understood in economic terms. Believers sacrifice time and money in exchange for both spiritual and material benefits. In other words, religion is rational, but it is governed by the rationality of trade rather than of argument. Stark's theory is academically controversial, but here, in the Sunday morning meeting of Atheists United, it seems obvious that the narrow reasonableness of Adams can hardly be effective with the deal on offer at the Angelus Temple.
"We're lagging among the lower 95 percent," says Adams.
"You are kings anointed by God," says Pastor Matt.
As the tide of faith rises, atheists, who have no church to buoy them, cling to one another. That a single celebrity, say, Keanu Reeves, is known to care nothing about God is counted as a victory. This parochial and moralistic self-regard begins to inspire in me a feeling of oppression. When Adams starts to recite the names of atheists who may have contributed to the television program Mr. Show With Bob and David between 1995 and 1998, I leave. Standing in the half-empty parking lot is a relief, though I am drenched from the heat.