Atheist plugs controversial views on TV
By MOLLY MOORHEAD
TAMPA -- They have only a few frenzied moments to get in place.
As the crew from strip club owner Joe Redner's show shuffles out of the studio, Brent Yaciw and his troupe hurry in. Lights are adjusted; coffee mugs are filled. And when the camera starts rolling, Yaciw and his co-host sit comfortably at a round, wooden table with a few papers and a telephone.
For the next hour, the nonbelievers have the floor.
They will tell viewers of The Atheist Forum on cable access Channel 20 in Tampa that faith is just another word for ignorance, that organized religion is a fraud and that God -- if he exists at all -- has repeatedly failed humanity.
Yaciw, 47, (pronounced YAH-SHOO) is an atheist, and he's active and outspoken about it. He doesn't believe in anything that can't be proved. Not miracles, supernatural gods or an afterlife. He's knowledgeable and well-versed in world religions, and even more so in the philosophical writings of Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll.
He professes tolerance of all religions. But when people use faith to explain things that happen to them, Yaciw never misses a chance to ridicule their beliefs. He's a prolific writer and has submitted at least 250 letters since 1987 to the St. Petersburg Times alone.
The Atheist Forum, which has been on the air about a year, provides him another platform.
During a recent taping, Yaciw and co-host Joe Reinhardt discussed some flashpoints of religious controversy and fielded calls from mostly hostile viewers. They're an odd-looking pair -- Reinhardt in a pin-striped suit and Yaciw, a portly guy with glasses and buzzed white hair, in jeans, one of his many pairs of suspenders and sneakers fastened with Velcro.
"If there is a God, I think he has to think more of somebody who lives an intellectually honest life," Yaciw told a caller who brought up Pascal's wager, the theory that people have nothing to lose by believing in God.
If you believe, and there is a God, you win. If you believe, and there is no God, you lose nothing, so the theory goes.
But Yaciw counters that all religions ask people to give up something -- money, control over their lives or intellectual integrity.
"Hell is going to be filled with the independent thinkers," he said. "I'd much rather go to hell."
Another caller accused him of being intolerant of Christianity, which Yaciw labels "the weed of this country." He picks on Christianity, he says, simply because it's the religion that most often encroaches on his rights.
"I'm perfectly willing to tolerate your religion as long as your religion isn't taking anything from me," he said.
But when taxpayer money goes to churches and elected officials make decisions based on their faith, Yaciw says, his constitutional rights are being violated.
Some people call in just to agree and cheerlead, but Yaciw has more fun when people attack him. Some swear into the phone and question his sexual orientation. Others flush a toilet and hang up.
And Yaciw says plenty to provoke religious sensibilities.
"Anything that the Taliban has been accused of doing has been done in the name of Christ," he said after the taping.
On abortion: "That's a government health service that should be provided (for free)."
On the afterlife: "Heaven is described as an eternal church service. That would be hell to me."
He wonders why Christians credit God when good things happen but don't blame him for tragedies, like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"If there's a God, why didn't he stop those planes?"
Yaciw, who lives in Wesley Chapel, is full of colorful contradictions. By trade, he's a wedding videographer and DJ. That usually sends him to church once a week.
"I think it makes me better in the business," he said. "I can do anyone's ceremony, and I'm not going to be sitting there objecting to anyone's particular practice."
He worked one wedding in which the bride was Hindu and the groom was a fundamentalist Christian. He remembers the horrified faces when the minister said, "And her God becomes his God."
Yaciw has been married twice -- the first time in a church to satisfy his mother, the second time by a notary public.
His current girlfriend is a practicing Catholic, a private woman who declined to be interviewed. But Yaciw said she has resolved for herself the matter of living with a non-Christian.
"Her way of seeing it is God wanted her to be happy," he said, noting they've been together "69 months" in February.
"People follow their religion until they disagree with their religion," he said.
So does his girlfriend pray to save his soul?
"She probably does," he said. "I really don't know what she prays for or why she prays."
Yaciw was raised Baptist and as a teenager decided to read the Bible cover to cover.
"I found an awful lot of things that didn't make sense," he said. Among other things, he wondered what carnivorous animals ate in the Garden of Eden, a place that was free of death.
"The more I asked questions, the more the answers came down to 'You have to have faith,' " he said. "Faith is essentially saying, 'I'll be content to remain ignorant.' "
His mother sent him to a psychologist when he wouldn't stop questioning the faith, then started paying him to go to church.
Finally, he convinced her of the hypocrisy in that and was a confirmed atheist by about age 16.
"The more I've learned about different religions -- and religion in general -- the less I've believed it," he said.
Jesus Christ, whom countless people have tried over the years to make Yaciw follow, probably lived, he said. For one thing, not much fiction was written in those days.
Yaciw guesses Jesus was a disillusioned rabbi who set out to reform Judaism.
"I don't think that even he believed he was God or the son of God," he said.
But a lack of religion in no way translates to a lack of morals in Yaciw's life.
His basic code is "do no harm."
"I try to examine everything I do," he said. "Will it hurt someone else?"
Yaciw steadfastly opposes going to war with Iraq, for several reasons.
"I think that it will be the beginning of a religious war" pitting Muslims against Christians and Jews, he said. "I think it will make terrorism worse."
A former Air Force enlistee, he's also firmly patriotic. That's due in part, he says, to his rejection of religion.
"Anyone who says their religion is more important than their country is far less of a patriot than I am," he said.
But Yaciw's view of the ideal America is a society free of religion. He says that's how the nation's founders envisioned it, too.
"This was founded as a nation to be based on secularism," he said. "I think that so many people have no clues as to the ideals of the founding fathers. They haven't read their works."
Yaciw keeps company with people who have. Most of his friends, like Reinhardt and Ed Golly, also are atheists. Golly is president of the Atheists of Florida and a frequent host of The Atheist Forum.
"An atheist viewpoint of events is almost never heard anywhere," said Golly, a lanky man with moppy hair who calls religion "the worst blemish on the whole human experience."
"It causes a distorted view of the world. We still think we can accomplish something by doing this," he said, folding his hands as though in prayer.
There's plenty of evidence of religion's damage, Golly says, right here in the United States.
"It purports to give us an elitist attitude in this country," he said. "God sees us as a favored nation . . . people in poverty don't have enough faith."
"I certainly can understand why a lot of other countries hate Americans," Yaciw said.
On a bright, sunny day three years ago, Yaciw was riding his motorcycle on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa when a car pulled in front of him. He cleared the car, but the driver swerved into his lane, throwing Yaciw from his bike.
After slamming his head into the ground at least twice, Yaciw came to rest in the median. He never lost consciousness, though the memory of the pain makes him wish he had.
The $450 helmet he was wearing absorbed most of the trauma, and he escaped with minor injuries. God didn't save him, he says, and it was no miracle.
"Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle," he said. "I believe nothing is a miracle."
Still, Yaciw understands people's need to search for meaning in their lives and explanations for what they don't understand.
"I realize the drive for religious belief is very strong," he said. "A lot of people never develop beyond needing to have a father figure."
But anyone who tells a newspaper reporter that God is the reason they survived an accident or found their lost child is probably going to elicit a response from Yaciw.
Countless letters to the editor have run in the paper in which Yaciw blasts such logic. Life experiences result from choices combined with circumstances and coincidence, he says, not intervention from above.
Nevertheless, he maintains his stand that people have the right to believe what they want. But once they bring their opinions into the public arena, he considers them fair game.
"When people make stupid or ignorant or offensive statements, I have no problem pointing it out," he said.
For the record, Yaciw is an agnostic atheist, meaning he doesn't believe in God unless he sees proof. Gnostic atheists say they can prove there is no God. But until the proof comes along, Yaciw prefers life as he is living it, on his terms, with him in the driver's seat.
"Even if I knew there was a God up there who was watching over everything I did so everything turned out okay, I wouldn't want that," he said. "I would want him to leave me alone and let me make my way in the world."
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