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Elderly Members Of Atheist Group Face Jeers, Fears From Peers

— It’s just before 4 p.m. at La Costa Glen retirement community in Carlsbad, and a group of residents are gathering in one of the meeting rooms. But these seniors aren’t here to play Bingo.

As Brigit Clarke-Smith takes the microphone, it quickly becomes clear that this is not your usual retirement center activity.

A group of retirement center residents in Carlsbad have started a group called Atheists Anonymous. But the group's leader says their reception hasn't been positive.

“Gay marriage and marijuana have been OK'd in a couple of the states now," she tells the crowd. "So Leviticus, 20th chapter, 13th verse says when two men lay together, they should be stoned. We’ve just all misinterpreted it before.”

Clarke-Smith, 84, is a La Costa Glen resident who started a group called Atheists Anonymous two years ago. Clarke-Smith was raised as a Christian, but said she quickly decided it wasn’t for her.

“When I was 8 years of age, I used to play the piano for the Sunday school," she said. "I’d play ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to Him belong, he is weak and I am strong.’ And this poet who was the superintendent of the Sunday School would come over and say, that isn’t how you sing it, and then she’d tell me how to sing it. So when I’d get to that part again, I would just go 'hmmm hmmm hmm' because I said, 'I’m not weak, I’m strong. And I don’t even know who He is!' ”

Clarke-Smith started Atheists Anonymous after a fellow La Costa resident asked if she was a Christian.

“I thought, that’s a strange thing to say, and I said, ‘no,’ just like that," Clarke-Smith said. "And she said, ‘well, what are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m an atheist!’ And she was angry, and she walked right out.”

A woman overheard Clarke-Smith and shared some advice.

“She said, 'oh, we’re atheists, but we want to remain anonymous,'“ she said.

Clarke-Smith decided to start a group for atheists like that woman. She named it Atheists Anonymous in her honor.

“They couldn’t be free in the United States of America to say they are atheists, and I thought that’s just terrible,” Clarke-Smith said.

There were 16 members at the group's first meeting two years ago. Meetings showcase speakers who talk about atheism and religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Some recent meetings have attracted more than 90 people.

But despite the increase in popularity, Clarke-Smith said some residents of La Costa Glen don’t appreciate her efforts.

“I’ve been called anti-Christ, I have been called a Jew lover, and one day I was standing in our mail room, and two ladies were looking at a poster that said ‘Brigit Clarke-Smith, Questions? Call Me,’" Clarke-Smith said. "And one of them said, 'you see this woman’s name? She’s a sinner, she’s going to Hell, and she’s going to burn forever.' ”

Roy Whitaker, a religion professor at San Diego State University who studies atheism, said it’s not surprising that La Costa’s Atheists Anonymous members have faced hostility.

“There have been various surveys done that atheists are considered the most hated minority in North America,” he said.

Whitaker said the word “atheist” can be heard as confrontational to religious people.

“If an individual today has a type of atheistic ‘A’ on their chest, then they will possibly have some negative repercussions,” he said.

But that might be changing. A PEW study released last month shows the number of Americans who say they don’t have any religious affiliation has more than doubled since 1972. Today, 19 percent of the U.S. population say they aren’t affiliated with any religion.

Whitaker said atheism is least common among the 65-and-older age group, which makes women like Clarke-Smith especially unusual. It also might explain some of the resistance her group has encountered among the residents of La Costa Glen.

Eliane Pepper, another La Costa Glenner, was raised as an atheist. She said she sees far less acceptance of atheists among her generation.

“I think that with the younger group, 20s, 30s, it is highly acceptable, nobody really cares if you’re Catholic or atheist, a Jew, whatever," she said. "It’s never talked about. I think it’s us, the older generation, that continue to label it.”

Clarke-Smith said she appreciates La Costa Glen for allowing her group to meet. But she has some complaints. She wants her meetings to be listed on the center’s events calendar and she says she was asked to only put event fliers in the mailboxes for current members of the group.

“There were too many complaints," she said. "And I understand them, I understand complaints. I mean, I get complaints.”

La Costa Glen is not affiliated with any religion, and says on its website it is welcoming of all religions. Michele Chafee, the activities director at La Costa Glen, responded to an interview request with an email.

“We try to keep clear of sponsored political or religious clubs, since we are not a faith-based community,” she wrote. “The term ‘Atheists Anonymous’ was really sort of a joke. It would be better called ‘Exploring Religions.’”

Some of Clarke-Smith’s friends agree that naming the group something other than ‘atheist’ would be less controversial. But Clarke-Smith said the name is part of the point. She thinks the word "atheist" is like poison to some people, and frightens them.

“I just don’t want it to be poisonous," she said. "I just don’t think that it’s right that it’s poisonous.”

Franz Burkholder, another La Costa resident and Atheists Anonymous member, said he feels people in the retirement center accept every religion, but not the absence of faith.

“The issue is we are priding ourselves on being tolerant of other beliefs and religions, still we do not tolerate the beliefs of atheism,” he said.

For that reason, most of the Atheist Anonymous members agree they should not change the group's name. They plan to continue holding meetings and fighting for acceptance from their peers.

"It makes a statement," the Atheist Anonymous member Pepper said. "We have to accept who we are, how we think, and not sugar coat it."

"And we’re not bad people!" Clarke-Smith added. "We’re not bad people. We’re good people."

"We’ve got to put faces to the word," Pepper said.

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