There are at least three themes which are utterly taboo: incest; a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life and dies in his sleep at the age of 106. — Vladimir Nabokov (“On a Book Entitled Lolita”)
James Hervey Johnson is a total atheist. But I cannot tell whether he is a happy man. He’s not the type of person who wears his emotions on his face, but rather he bears himself with an almost military restraint, sharing only a shallow layer of himself with strangers. Once could certainly argue that his life has been useful, filled as it has been with hard work and public service. And at seventy-seven, he looks healthy enough to make it through another thirty years. Should he do so, one can imagine him quietly passing away in the night, after another day of calm labors against the Lord.
Johnson boasts that he has been battling God and all he stands for for fifty years, all of that time in San Diego. These days, he carries out the crusade at a conspicuous Fifth Avenue address, a combination house and office sheltered behind a wall of handmade billboards which scream out Johnson’s varied causes: “Democrat politicians are Guilty — Tax-gouging Inflation — High Gas Prices — Bussing Insanity — Softness on Crime.” So go the signs. And then this: “The Truth Seeker Co. Established 1873. BOOKS.” Similar but invisible banners drape Johnson himself: president of the National League of Separation of Church and State as well as of the American Atheist Association; editor of the “Truthseeker” and “Atheist” magazines; and head of the local Freethinkers Society.
Physically, Johnson resembles Governor Tarkin of the Death Star, thin and aristocratic with a head shaped like an inverted pyramid, marked by an aquiline nose and receding gray hair. The skin of his face looks unwrinkled but paper-thin; it indicates his age more clearly than anything else about him. His bearing, however, is almost ignorantly erect. He dresses in dark colors: baggy navy pants, a dirty old jacket, a black shirt. He smiles rarely, but when he does it stretches his face into a giant “V”.
He is smiling now, in front of a small assembly of San Diego “freethinkers” who have gathered for a dinner meeting in North park. Johnson founded the Freethinkers Society about twenty years ago, along with an ex-priest named George Knott who Johnson says doffed his collar when “he decided purgatory was a fake and everything the church was doing was a money-making racket.” Although organized freethinkers may be almost extinct today, the tradition to which they belong is a venerable one, extending back to Voltaire and Rousseau, Johnson explains; not all are atheists but all agree belief should be based on rational thought rather than faith of revelation. In more glorious days, the San Diego society met weekly, but these days, gatherings are infrequent. Last January 13 (a Friday) the group met with a local humanist organization to listen to a round of anti-superstition speeches; tonight members are gathered to celebrate Thomas Paine’s birthday.
Before an audience, Johnson launches into his talk (part homage to Paine, part anti-Bible tirade). “Much of the Bible is contrary to history and the only evidence available shows it to have been written a great many years ago after the alleged events recounted,” he says vigorously. The gathering looks for all the world like some Sunday evening church group. Johnson’s predominantly white-haired listeners nod and smile benevolently at his words, and the smell of pot-luck casseroles lingers in the air. Johnsons himself could pass for some stern Calvinist preacher. Yet he is telling the group, “There is no authentic contemporary history or record of Jesus Christ, his miraculous birth, miracles performed, trial and crucifixion. Even the Gospels are so conflicting and contradictory that their mythical character is obvious. No intelligent person could believe the incredible miracles and supernatural events related in the New Testament as being factual!”
Johnson’s writings are even more inflammatory than his podium style.
“The clergy, ignorant or hypocritical parasites, preach and impose their twisted doctrines on ignorant children…Religion is almost entirely contrary to science, to intelligence,” he lashes out in one venomous tract entitled “Twisted Minds.” The atheist’s Fifth Avenue office is stuffed with similar pamphlets; you can almost hear the mountain of literature and swollen files shrieking with anti-God outrage. In contrast, Johnson in the flesh, the man away from the soapbox, seems tame, almost meek.
He doesn’t volunteer much information about himself, but he answers questions patiently. The grandson of a preacher, he nonetheless was exposed to an early free-thought influence through an activist uncle, who prompted Johnson to read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, the fiery patriot’s famous polemic against revealed religion. The tract wetted Johnson’s appetite, and when he graduated from high school at fifteen he plunged into a study of religion and the occult. He says “it all confirmed my belief that there is no God and religion is a money-making hoax.”
Although Johnson’s accumulated writings bulge with reasons for his rejection of the Deity, the atheist summarizes his case with remarkable succinctness. “It’s a very simple matter. There’s no evidence of a God. That’s all,” he says stolidly. “We don’t see a God or hear a God. We have no evidence, and so the basis of most people’s belief in a God is the Bible. That’s one of the most garbled-up messes of writing that has ever been put together. We don’t accept what somebody is supposed to have written several thousand years ago with no scientific evidence.”
Johnson chuckles when challenged by religionists to prove his assertions. “We don’t have to prove there is nothing.” His laugh is dry, bemused. “That’s a silly thing, to prove there is nothing. It’s like a man telling you, ‘Why there’s a prehistoric animal out there. See him?’ Well, they can’t show him. It’s all in their mind.”
Johnson had formally debated the issue of God’s existence for years (recently he flew up to Concord, for example, to take the No side of “Is there a God?” to a Church of God minister’s empathetic Yes) and the experience shows up when he talks. He brushes aside the standard barrage of theistic arguments as complacently as a farmer flicking away flies. “The universe is self-operating.” He says. “It doesn’t require any intelligence to operate. It all operates according to natural law; it isn’t a natural law if it’s supernatural. The scientists simply say they find no need and no evidence of a super intelligence. They say—and it’s reasonable, of course—that man is the only intelligent being that is known. The rest of it is all conjecture, and usually it is based upon faith in superstitions that originated thousands of years ago. The preachers seek to anchor our intelligence to the superstition of several thousand years ago.”
Preachers are the “sheep-shearers,” in Johnson’s scheme of things, and individuals who believe in God are “sheep,” he elaborates, “Religion is all just a gigantic fraud, perpetuated primarily because there is an enormous profit in it. They take $20 billion a year in the United States; and they have fat, easy living and tax exemptions by promoting irrationality.”
Without the slightest trace of rancor, he asserts that religious people are stupid. And since more people believe, most fit the bill. Some individuals are merely ignorant and can be enlightened, Johnson explains. Others are genetically incapable of accepting the truth. Religious leaders over the centuries killed off many atheists and independent thinkers, in effect producing a strain of congenital believers, he claims. Yet the merely ignorant give him hope, and he says they account for his personal commitment.
“The purpose of promoting atheism is to improve the intellectual background of the people so that we are not hindered by following religious beliefs,” he says, “It is to improve the happiness of mankind! Instead of spending billions of dollars promoting superstations, the money could be used to promote science and knowledge that would improve people’s health. The time that is spent on religion, which amounts to billions of hours, would be spent on something that would be constructive.”
Although Johnson was an early believer, he didn’t get into active promotion of atheism as a young man. A career in real estate (his lifelong business) occupied his first years out of school. Then in the 1930s he leapt into another controversial arena, politics. Johnson’s political tenure as county tax assessor was stormier than the average: early in the course of it, he and a revival publisher both were arrested and arraigned on counter charges of libel. After sensational trials the revival was acquitted, but a jury convicted Johnson of criminal libel. He managed to hold onto his office then, but in 1935 he was charged with 154 felonies involving misuses of public funds and misconduct in office, and pronounced guilty after a quick trial. Even though the conviction eventually was set aside, the incident cost him his job.
He ran for office again in 1938(but lost), and in 1942 he took an unsuccessful swing at a Congressional seat. He was drafted into the war a little later that year, and the military experience seemed to quash his political aspirations. While they lasted, however, Johnson said he never hide his atheism. “The preachers always opposed me as a public figure but I never denied my beliefs. In those days the preachers really tried to make atheists out as being bad men. But I was like Governor Olson of California, who also was an atheist. When they asked him about it, he never denied it, but in a campaign he wouldn’t go around boldly proclaiming it.”
Johnson had begun boldly proclaiming his atheism by the early 1960s, however, and in 1964, with the death of an Arkansas atheist named Charles Smith, he assumed editorial control of both the “Truthseeker” and “Atheist” magazines. Smith was a flamboyant character who in 1935 had been arrested for blasphemy, tossed into jail, and prevented from testifying in his own behalf because of his beliefs. (Compared to such incidents, Johnson’s life in San Diego has been laughably tame. Asked about harassment, the most dramatic experience he can dredge up involves some Youth for Christ members rattling the doorknobs of a former headquarter building.) Under Smith’s control, the “Truthseeker” had declined from its earlier peak of intellectual respectability, when luminaries like freethinker Robert Ingersoil had published in its pages. Under Johnson, the mimeographed magazine seems to have lost even more intellectual credibility. Now circulation stands at a mere 500 or so, a fraction of the followers claimed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s Texas-based organization (with which Johnson and his organizations maintain only the loosest contact). While the intellectual essays in the “Truthseeker” may be less than scholarly, another complaint about it surfaces more frequently, namely Johnson’s inclusion in it of blatantly racist material.
February’s issue, for example, blends standard atheist pieces like “How Man Made God” with other items suspiciously tinged with racial hatred. The issue also contains a booklist of selected “race, conservative, and patriotic” material (“from the files recently deceased interested subscriber”) including titles such as “Jewish and Negro breeding defined” and “Negro Related to Apes, Not White People!” Yet confronted with his promotion of such things, Johnson bristles. “It’s purely a matter of information. We make it possible for anyone to have anything they want to find out.” He stated flatly. “And any effort to suppress any information arouses our antagonism because we say we’re not going to sensor it. Let people read it and find out for themselves.”
When pressed, asked point blank if he himself is racist, Johnson clams up. “I don’t think that enters into the question about atheism. And I don’t want to get into it.” He had agreed only to talk about atheism and he is adamant. He also protests that atheism and racism aren’t necessarily related. “It’s simple. You have some atheists who are racists and some atheists who are not racists.”
If he shies away from publicizing his thoughts on racism, he hops confidently onto his soapbox when the topic switches back to religion. Times are grim he warns. If fewer people attend church, more than ever are exposed “religious propaganda” through television and the mass media. Yet he still is optimistic about the future. “I expect atheism to become more widely accepted. As knowledge increases I expect more people to discard religion and I hope to do my share to make this knowledge available.”
It is one thing to make information available and quite another to change men’s minds and hearts. And I want to know if Johnson believes that people read his tracts, evaluate them rationally, then toss out the God they’ve worshipped from childhood.
“If a man is an intelligent man, then the idea planted in his mind with some of our literature will bear fruit ad he will change,” he says self-assuredly, “I have had hundreds of letters from people who changed as a result of the literature they have seen.” Johnson loves these anti-God testimonials, and he eagerly fishes out a letter file. “Sometimes they have had doubts from childhood on. For example, they have been told that prayers are answered, and that there’s a good God looking after people. But when they found that they’re prayers weren’t answered, they had doubts. Not knowing of the atheist background, their ideas didn’t jell. But the minute that they get a piece of our literature, they say, “Sure, that’s just what I’ve been thinking’.”
Atheist “conversions” can occur even more abruptly, he says, “I remember one old man. He said, ‘I’m eighty-two years old. My eyes have been opened. Kittens’ eyes open sooner’.” Johnson smiles with a memory of pure delight. The letter reminds him of another letter, one which recalls Nabokov’s third and last taboo theme. “I had a man write me who was sort of a half-baked Theosophist and believes in reincarnation. He wrote me and asked, “Do atheists fear death?” and I wrote him that we don’t fear death; it’s just like going to sleep.”
The old man is silent a moment, thinking. This subject seems to touch him more deeply than others, “I’ve seen and I’ve been with a number of atheists who’ve died and I probably have known more atheists than any other man in the nation. As a rule, they wish for death sooner, to avoid the pain. Usually people who are dying don’t consider anything philosophical. They are suffering and they are hoping for some kind of relief. The suffering that comes with most death takes up their thinking. But I have never known an atheist that was afraid of dying.”