Beyond Belief: Atheists and the Burden of Proof

Bill Maher has the nonbelievers laughing. “You know what they do with these stem cells, mostly? They freeze them. You can’t do that with a baby.”

Maher pauses, knowingly. “I know you can’t, because if you could, Americans would do it in a minute.” The laughter gives way to applause from this capacity crowd of atheists in the high-ceilinged hotel conference room.

Maher’s point was serious. Religious conservatives say stem cells are life and thus should not be allowed for use in research. Maher’s argument before the recent Atheist Alliance International convention in Burbank is that if you can freeze stem cells, they are not the same as a child.

Point made.

Out in the hallway, a man identifying himself as Cody, 21, from Texas, discusses the act of debating with creationists. “A lot of times the tactic I use is asking them to read Ken Miller at first, rather than, say, Richard Dawkins, because it involves steps toward accepting evolution. Ken Miller, who believes in God, also believes in evolution.”

For the thousand-plus people attending this annual gathering of nonbelievers, logic and science — and laughter — are the ideal tools for debunking beliefs in God. “I don’t believe there is anything but tangible reality,” explains a 25-year-old man from Temecula, who gives his name only as Saher.

Yet as fiercely as they cling to that stricture, many here know that it doesn’t matter in their timeless debate with believers. Even as speaker after speaker offer proof that atheists are right, frustration lingers.

“You have the most scientists alive today than in any point in human history,” says Federico, an L.A. native and volunteer at Revolution Books downtown. “You also have a rise in fundamentalism. There are a lot of changes going on with capitalism, globally. People are searching, and in these crazy times, are seeking very absolutist, black-and-white answers.”

In Federico’s view, the overwhelming majority of hard-core believers isn’t receptive to arguments based on logic, fact or consistency. While there is a breed of well-educated and eloquent religious fundamentalists on the scene today, willing to engage intellectually, their discussions with nonbelievers almost never end with: “You proved that X does not equal Y. I’m putting down my Bible and discarding my faith.”

And atheists do go to great lengths to disprove the existence of God, which Saher’s friend Leif says is exactly backward. “Essentially, the burden of proof is on somebody claiming that something is there. If it’s a murder case, the burden is on the state, and no one’s ever able to offer up proof.”

This is an interesting point, because society’s handling of the religion discussion definitely hasn’t worked that way. Those who do not believe in “sacred scripture” carry the greater stigma and more defensive posture in large swaths of the world, especially in the U.S. While the mood at the convention cannot be described as fearful or weary — more often ebullient — there is a strong sense that these folks know they can easily become a persecuted minority outside of this very special atheist bubble.

So they enjoy this time inside it. Besides the opportunity for morale-boosting, social “fellowship” and intellectual enrichment, atheists here are fueled by stories of rock-hard religious belief suddenly obliterated, with one form of strong psychic commitment being exchanged for another.

“I only wish that someone had dispelled all my religious beliefs when I was younger,” says James Kirk Buchanan, a tall, hearty 70-year-old former Capuchin Franciscan monk and Catholic priest from Yucca Valley. “My goal now is to live to be 108 so I can learn all about this stuff.”

Cody, only a few years ago a creationist and missionary in Venezuela, recently held a “Sell Your Soul For a Cookie” day with friends at Texas Tech University, in Bible-belt Lubbock, as part of International Blasphemy Day. Sixty-six people took a cookie and signed a simple contract, handing over possession of their souls.

Former Kentucky Bible salesman–turned-atheist-comedian Troy Conrad mimics a preacher from his youth at the late-night standup show. “You know what ACDC stands for? Against Christ, Devil’s Children. And Green Day? Take out some letters and you got ... gay!”

“I really have found freethinking and searching for actual, verifiable truth to be incredibly freeing,” says Claire, a late-20something, from La Crescenta. “I feel like I’ve grown so much and have become a much healthier person.”

Also, she says with a giggle, “My sex life has gotten better.”