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.”