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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Even atheists marvel ‘why are we right here?’ Inside an awe-inspiring journey for L.A.’s non-believers Specific Instances

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Within the chilly darkish of a November evening, beneath the jagged cliffs of Zion Nationwide Park, Dani Hsia posed a query that mystics and spiritual thinkers have contemplated for millenniums.

“Why are we right here?” she requested, a headlamp illuminating her handwritten notes as the primary stars started to emerge within the sky. “Why are any of us right here? Why does the universe exist as an alternative of nothing?”

Seated in a circle round her, their faces lit by a crackling campfire, 20 nonbelievers listened with reverent consideration. Like Hsia, they’d signed up for this yr’s Atheist Journey tenting journey to ponder humanity’s deepest questions and expertise awe and marvel in one of the vital lovely landscapes within the West — all with out the specter of anybody bringing God into the dialog.

Dani Hsia, heart, a headlamp illuminating her handwritten notes, speaks to a bunch sitting round a campfire as the primary stars start to emerge within the sky throughout Atheist Journey.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Instances)

“These are the individuals who I can overtly speak to about who I’m and what I consider in,” mentioned Frances Aragon, who made the seven-hour drive from Boyle Heights to Springdale, Utah, along with her 9-year-old son. “I don’t really feel like I’m an outsider, and I don’t really feel like my non secular views need to be hidden.”

Hsia, who was wearing a purple and pink polka dot monster costume that had the good thing about being each a bit of foolish and really heat, mentioned communal atheist experiences like this tenting journey assist her create a ethical and moral framework for her 3-year-old son.

After rising up in a religious Bahai family, she felt that her very basis was swept away when she misplaced religion in God eight years in the past. When her son was born, she fearful how you can dad or mum within the absence of the faith of her youth.

“I need him to really feel all this stuff — to really feel humble and awe and connection,” she mentioned. “These sorts of occasions are vital to me as a result of they form how I speak to him and assist him perceive how you can be a very good human.”

Craving existential marvel and neighborhood — sans God

Atheist Adventures, now in its third yr, was conceived and arranged by Evan Clark, govt director of Atheists United. Based in Los Angeles in 1982, Atheists United has lengthy supplied nonbelievers in Southern California a welcoming house to attach with like-minded of us — a type of non secular neighborhood for individuals who eschew faith.

 View of the Virgin River flowing through Zion Canyon

View of the Virgin River flowing via Zion Canyon from the Kayenta Path.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Instances)

At this time, the group gives grocery kits every month to 150 households in want; sharp-eyed motorists will spot indicators alongside the ten and a couple of freeways touting its roadside cleanup efforts.

The group additionally organizes three Science Sundays a yr for its 200 members — all-ages guided excursions of scientifically important locations just like the La Brea Tar Pits or Mt. Wilson Observatory. It additionally sponsors 4 secular-community events, an occasional speaker sequence and a singalong each different month at “Heretic Home,” a six-bedroom Victorian in Echo Park the place the group’s longtime president Bobbie Kirkhart lived earlier than her loss of life in 2021.

Since turning into the group’s first paid govt director in 2019, Clark has pushed it to create communal experiences for its members, which is the place Atheist Adventures is available in.

“We began asking, ‘What are the wants in atheist communities?’” he mentioned. “We wish to have deep existential experiences and we crave neighborhood after we do it. And culturally, let’s make it ours.”

About 4% of individuals within the L.A. metro space described themselves as atheist in 2014 in contrast with 3% who recognized as Jewish and a couple of% who recognized as Muslim, in response to the Pew Analysis Heart. However most don’t see atheism as an identification to hunt neighborhood round.

Clark desires to vary that.

“I all the time say that you could find neighborhood in your child’s soccer league, however will they go to you within the hospital? Set up with you politically?” he mentioned. “And would you need them to?”

I Coronary heart Rationality

For a secular activist, Clark, 35, offers off critical youth pastor vibes — good-looking, pleasant, excessive power and all the time on message. He doesn’t drink espresso or alcohol as a result of, “I really like rationality and I don’t wish to [mess] with it.”

Clark, who additionally led atheist tenting journeys to Demise Valley and Anza Borrego, tipped again in a camp chair one morning as he laid out plans for the subsequent few days. He defined Atheists United’s no-tolerance coverage on sexual harassment and let everybody know that he’d positioned showers a brief stroll from camp. “As a result of this princess wants a bathe each day,” he mentioned, gesturing towards himself.

There could be group hikes and loads of time to hang around across the campground and peer via a 17.5-inch telescope introduced by Dave Hasenauer — an agnostic, not an atheist — who was invited to facilitate stargazing.

Dave Hasenauer hikes along the Watchman Trail during Atheist Adventure.

Dave Hasenauer hikes alongside the Watchman Path throughout Atheist Journey.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Instances)

 Christie Swords of Las Vegas peers at the moon through a 17.5-inch telescope

Christie Swords of Las Vegas friends on the moon via a 17.5-inch telescope introduced by Dave Hasenauer — an agnostic, not an atheist — who was invited to facilitate stargazing on the Atheist Journey.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Instances)

In fact, no exercise was obligatory.

“One of many values in atheist communities is freedom, so you’ll be able to have as a lot as you need,” Clark mentioned.

Zion Canyon was named by Mormons within the late nineteenth century, and different landmarks bearing non secular names abound — Corridor of the Patriarchs, Tabernacle Dome, Cathedral Mountain. However as Clark reminded the group, the historical past of the panorama dates again a lot additional than these names.

The crimson and white sandstone cliffs towering a whole bunch of ft above a slender inexperienced canyon had been carved by the Virgin River during the last million years. The river is mild and sluggish most days, however when it floods it turns into a strong agent of change, ripping cottonwood timber out of the bottom and tossing giant boulders via the park.

Cliffs glow orange as the sun sets on The Watchman

Cliffs glow orange because the solar units on a summit referred to as The Watchman in Zion Nationwide Park.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Instances)

 Members and friends of Atheists United take in the view while resting along the Watchman Trail

Members and mates of Atheists United take within the view whereas resting alongside the Watchman Path in the course of the group’s Atheist Journey 2023

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Instances)

That morning it was meandering quietly via a rocky riverbed because the Atheists United group disembarked from a shuttle bus that deposited them on the first mountaineering website, the 1.9-mile Riverside Path. The sky was clear and the surroundings staggering. Each jiffy somebody stopped to take an image as they talked about what introduced them to Zion.

Rick Leff, a retired firefighter from Upland, mentioned this was his fourth go to to the park and his first with Atheists United. He used to take an everyday tenting journey with a bunch of household and mates, however now he and his spouse are now not invited. Though he’s been questioning faith since he was 10 years previous, he thinks that over time his standing as a nonbeliever turned an excessive amount of of a barrier for some members of that group.

“Hear,” he mentioned, his blue eyes stern. “I used to be within the army and I’ll stand with you if you happen to’re non secular, however don’t inform me what I can and might’t do due to faith.”

This journey to Zion was an experiment to see what tenting with different nonbelievers was like, he mentioned. To this point, it was going nicely.

For Christine Jones, a semiretired music trainer from Los Angeles, this was her third Atheist Journey. She turned concerned with Atheists United in 2011 after becoming a member of its choir — Voices of Cause. She was residing in Orange County on the time however usually made the drive to Los Angeles to be with others, who like her, had been upset by the rise of Christian nationalism . At this time, she sees constructing an atheist neighborhood as core to Atheists United’s mission.

“Group is just not the unique area of faith,” she mentioned. “All people have the proper to neighborhood, whether or not or not one believes in God.”

Because the group returned to the shuttle, Dan Feldman, a software program developer in Ladera Heights, recalled the second he realized in 2008 that he was a nonbeliever. Raised Jewish, he hadn’t questioned faith till he started studying “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, a beloved prophet for a lot of atheists. “I used to be on Web page 26 and I mentioned out loud, ‘Oh my God! I’m an atheist!’ ” he mentioned.

Even so, Feldman nonetheless seeks out non secular experiences.

“I’d outline spirituality as one thing that’s emotionally overwhelming and that touches a deep spot in me,” he mentioned. “Once I noticed Victoria Falls in Zambia, this huge, straight present of water …”

He trailed off as his eyes stuffed with tears.

“It’s taking place to me once more,” he mentioned.

Tents glow as dusk settles in on Watchman Campground during gathering of atheists and friends

Tents glow as nightfall settles in on Watchman Campground throughout gathering of atheists and mates at Atheist Journey.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Instances)

Later that evening, the group gathered across the campfire beneath a glittering sky. The dialog touched on relationship whereas secular, the psychological foundation of demonic possession, the rise of astrology-loving atheists (“You’re kidding!” “Oh my God, I’m not!”) and the way to reply to non secular of us who insist that their morality is tied to their perception in God.

“Every time anyone tells me, ‘If I didn’t have God I’d rape and kill individuals,’ I’m all the time like, ‘then NEVER LEAVE GOD!’” Clark mentioned. The others laughed loudly.

Aragon, who has been attending Atheists United’s secular Latino group for the previous yr, pulled a blanket round her shoulders as she shared with the group her battle to not fall again on her Catholic upbringing when speaking to her son after their cat died.

“I simply needed to inform him so unhealthy, ‘You’re going to see your cat once more someday,’ as a result of I felt that may ease the ache,” she mentioned. “However as an alternative I simply needed to speak to him and have a dialog about how the cat was lovely and he was liked, and he’s going to remain in our hearts ceaselessly.”

“Don’t you suppose that was higher?” requested Katie Mandel, a piano and voice trainer sitting to Aragon’s proper.

Aragon nodded. “I do really feel it was higher,” she mentioned. “However then he was asking, ‘What’s going to occur once you die?’”

Adam Tapia, 9, roasts a marshmallow

Adam Tapia, 9, roasts a marshmallow as members and mates of Atheists United convene round a campfire in the course of the Atheist Journey.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Instances)

Towards the top of the night, one other query got here up: whether or not thriller and the unknown are a vital a part of the expertise of awe.

“I take concern with the concept that marvel can solely come from the unknown,” mentioned Duncan Mandel, Katie’s husband and chairperson of Santa Clarita Atheists and Freethinkers, after taking a sip from a flask of whiskey. “Is it actually all that stunning {that a} group of atheists might come to a spot like this and simply be flabbergasted and amazed and extremely moved by what they see? I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t we?”

Carly Turro, an actress and author and Clark’s girlfriend, nodded emphatically. It was lovely to look via Hausenaur’s telescope and see the celebs up shut, she mentioned, however much more unbelievable is the data that the objects are 100 million light-years away.

“I bought chills,” she mentioned. “The truth that now we have the flexibility to determine that out made it extra significant. The science added to the marvel.”

‘In Cindy We Belief’

The following day, Feldman and Kelly McCauley, a retired engineer initially from Alabama, had been sitting at a picnic desk, gazing on the mountains glowing orange within the morning solar.

McCauley, who now lives in Las Vegas, was raised in a reasonably conservative Lutheran church and saved his atheism to himself for many years. “I couldn’t speak to anybody about it,” he mentioned.

Feldman nodded knowingly. “It’s very isolating once you first de-convert,” he mentioned.

In Alabama, faith was throughout him, McCauley mentioned. “You be part of a working membership and earlier than you realize it, somebody is saying a prayer or saying God bought them via a marathon,” he mentioned. “I simply don’t wish to hear that.”

A glowing curtain of water flows off a cliff into Lower Emerald Pool

A glowing curtain of water flows off a cliff into Decrease Emerald Pool

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Instances)

Members and friends of Atheists United take in stunning views at the Weeping Rock

Members and mates of Atheists United absorb beautiful views on the Weeping Rock on Atheist Journey.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Instances)

Ultimately he joined a Myspace group for atheists in Huntsville the place he met his future spouse, Christie Swords. “There you might be in search of mutual help in comparison with different locations the place [atheism] is a extra common factor,” he mentioned. Now he and Swords have breakfast with different atheists in Vegas not less than as soon as per week. “We take pleasure in socializing with different nonbelievers,” he mentioned.

Clark deliberate the hardest, and maybe most lovely hike for Saturday — the two.4-mile Kayenta Path to the Emerald Swimming pools. The rocky sandstone path gives expansive views of the principle Zion Canyon and the Virgin River gleaming within the daylight. At its apex, guests arrive at a flat outcropping with small swimming pools of water surrounded by sheer crimson cliffs.

On the shuttle bus to the path head, the group was delighted to as soon as once more have a driver named Cindy, who talked merrily about rockslides, river floods and tarantulas.

“The all-knowing, all-powerful Cindy,” Clark mentioned, grinning.

“Cindy, our new God,” joked Turro.

“In Cindy we belief,” added Swords. “I’m going to start out placing her on my cash.”

That evening Clark had organized for Hasenauer, who volunteers at Mt. Wilson Observatory, to speak in regards to the evolution of the telescope earlier than pointing his personal telescope towards the heavens. Hsia was tasked with introducing him.

The setting suns casts a colorful palette in the skies above Zion Canyon at the end of the Canyon Overlook trail

The setting suns casts a colourful palette within the skies above Zion Canyon on the finish of the Canyon Overlook path.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Instances)

Standing earlier than the group in her unlikely costume of Sulley, the enormous furry creature from “Monsters, Inc.,” Hsia spoke in regards to the perennially human act of peering into the infinite and searching for solace within the cosmos. She described stargazing as a approach of shaking arms with the universe — a deep encounter with one thing huge and historical and shared by all humanity.

“As members of Atheists United we might not collect in church buildings, however we perceive the importance of experiencing awe, and tonight we’re right here to do exactly that,” she mentioned. “We stand beneath a moonless evening within the coronary heart of this pure wonderland to really feel into the infinite and really feel awe that binds us collectively.”

No person mentioned “Amen,” however the silence conveyed a palpable sense of assent.

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