Reprinted with permission from Wired.
That week in Los Angeles it is very hot. Temperatures in the San Fernando Valley, where I'm staying, set a record at 119. Intermittent power failures kill the lights, and the region is bathed in an old-fashioned brown smog that blurs the outlines of the trees. In the evening, as it cools to 102, I decide to enter the emplacements of the adversary.
I am headed for the Angelus Temple, in Echo Park. A landmark of modern Christianity, it is one of the original churches of the surging charismatic movement. It is not the richest church, nor the most powerful, nor the most famous. But Angelus, founded by Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1920s, pioneered that combination of high production values and uplifting theology that began to purge the stain of hickdom from evangelical faith. Aside from being a historical shrine, the Angelus Temple is a case study in religious evolution. While the New Atheists are arming themselves against faith, faith itself renews its arms. Superstition, it turns out, is a moving target.
In 2001, a merger with a thriving church downtown, run by the young son of a powerful pastor in Phoenix, brought renewal -- not merely in the form of massive social outreach and volunteer programs, youth events and Bible study groups, but also, as the church explains on its website, in the form of "new cushioned theater seats, Ferrari-red carpet, modern stainless steel fixtures and acoustical absorbers hung decoratively from the ceiling similar to the Royal Albert Hall in England."
It is Saturday night, and I am greeted at the door by a blast of air-conditioning and a wave of sound. It looks like a rock concert. It is a rock concert. More than 500 teenagers are crowding the stage, hands uplifted, singing along. There is a 12-member band, four huge video screens, and a crane that allows the camera to swoop through the air, projecting images of the believers back to themselves.
Behind the lighting rigs and the acoustic panels, stained glass peeks out, a relic of McPherson's era. McPherson was personally wild and doctrinally flexible. She had visions and spoke in tongues, but she tried to put aside sectarian disputes. Even today, the charismatic movement is somewhat careless of doctrine. There is room for theistic evolutionists, for nonliteralists who hold that each of God's days in Genesis was the equivalent of a geological epoch, even for the notion that a check made out properly to the Lord can influence divine whim in the matter of a raise at work or a scholarship to college. Of course, evolutionary accommodation is controversial in the seminaries, and the idea of bribing God is rank heresy -- no trained theologian in any Christian tradition would endorse it. But such deviations are generously tolerated in practice. The forces at work in a living church have little to do with intellectual disputes over the meaning of the Lord's word. Having agreed that the Bible is inerrant, one is permitted to put it to use.
This use is supremely practical. Pastor Matthew Barnett, onstage, wears the uniform of America -- jeans with loafers, a short-sleeved knit shirt. It's one of the costumes Kanye West wore on his Touch the Sky Tour, the same costume kids put on to go fold clothes at the mall. Like Kanye, like the kids at the mall, like millions of sober alcoholics, like Jesus, Pastor Matt -- as he's called -- does not traffic in proofs. Instead he tells stories. For instance, Pastor Matt used to be fat. Every night at 10 p.m., it was off to an orgy of junk food at Jack in the Box. Two monster tacos, curly fries, a chocolate shake. He was programmed. He was helpless. He could not resist. "The devil is a lion seeking whom he may devour," Pastor Matt says. On the other hand, strength to resist temptation is an explicit promise from the Lord. Let us read from 1 Corinthians: God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.
Anybody who has ever been a teenager will recognize the relevance of Pastor Matt's sermon. These are the years of confusion, temptation, struggles with self-control. Pastor Matt openly shares with the teenagers the great humiliation he faced when trying to lose weight. The pastor is trim and handsome now. He talks intimately with the teenagers about food, about sex, about drugs. He boosts them up. He helps them cope with their shame. He tells them that they are kings anointed by God, that they simply need to pray, and have faith, and be honest, and express their vulnerability, and work hard, and if they do these things they are guaranteed their reward.
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.