Wielding a blow-dryer, a leading atheist conducted a mass "de-baptism" of fellow non-believers and symbolically dried up the offending waters that were sprinkled on their foreheads as young children.
At the annual American Atheists Convention, one of atheism's premier provocateurs, Edwin Kagin, faced the crowd and raised high a hairdryer labeled "Reason and Truth."
Said one woman who travelled from Cincinnati to undergo the de-baptism, "I was baptized Catholic. I don't remember any of it at all." The woman, Cambridge Boxterman, 24, added, "According to my mother I screamed like a banshee, and those are her words, so you can see that even as a young child I didn't want to be baptized. It's not fair. I was born atheist and they were forcing me to become Catholic."
Kagin, who is American Atheists' national legal director, firmly believes that regardless of one's religious beliefs, each person has the right to say or do what he or she wants, provided it is within the law. In the past, he has reportedly called out parents who subject their children to strict fundamentalist religious education, referring to it as child abuse.
"It is teaching children that the world works in other ways than it does," he said. "This can be extremely dangerous."
"They are practicing child abuse in teaching that the world operates in ways other than it does," he told the convention crowd. "And in my opinion, they are engaged in terrorism by weakening our nation and our understanding of science and things with which we can defend ourselves and progress. If it had not been for these fools we could have been at the stars 2,000 years ago."
Kagin, author of "Baubles of Blasphemy," has a history of behaving in ways that elicit a rise from God-fearing people. He's known to have asked female atheists to dress in burqas and perform a song, "Back in their Burquas Again," he's referred to Mary Magdalene as a deranged hooker and he's called the Holy Eucharist "Swallow the Leader."
Kagin said religion should not be used to determine how people ought to live their lives. "They're doing harm to women who want to control their own bodies and their own reproductive rights," he said. "They're doing harm to a great number of people and they're saying that 'what we're doing is sacred and inviolate. We can do whatever we want to your rights, and you can not react.' That's what they're doing."
Kagin: De-Baptism is 'Spiritually Cleansing'
It is in this same spirit that Kagin performs the de-baptism.
Standing at a podium wearing a long brown monk's robe, Kagin read with the oratorical skill of a preacher from a set of pages in his hand and invited participants to come forward to be de-baptized.
He recited a few mock-Latin syllables, to the audience's amusement. An assistant produced a large hairdryer, labeled "Reason and Truth," and handed it to Kagin. The man who'd elected himself to be de-baptized stood before him. Kagin turned on the hairdryer, blowing the hot air in his face in an attempt to symbolically dry up his baptismal waters.
"Come forward now and receive the spirit of hot air that taketh away the stigma and taketh away the remnants of the stain of baptismal water," Kagin shouts.
Atheists poke fun at baptisms in this ceremony, saying they believe their waving around a hairdryer holds the same level of magical and spiritual powers as does the baptismal ceremony.
Kagin said that many people have undergone de-baptism."Many have taken it as somewhat of a joke, but some have found it truly, if you will, a spiritually cleansing experience," he said.
Kagin has said he doesn't particularly care who he's offending with his actions, and that he is acting completely within his rights. "You can mock anything you want because you have the right to," he said. "Humor is humor and what types of humor are you going to outlaw?" he said.
He conceded that although it may not be good manners to continually take a mocking stance toward religion, "in many cases, it is the only real response."
Kagin said he thought some people might get overly offended by his poking fun at religion. "If someone is so secure in their faith, why are they the least bit concerned about some little atheist mocking them?" he asked. "I think the reason they are worried and concerned is the very deep fear that if everyone doesn't believe it, maybe it isn't so."
For Kagin, this struggle between godless and god-fearing hits very close to home: his son, Steve Kagin, is a fundamentalist minister in Kansas.
He founded Camp Quest, a secular summer camp for young nonbelievers, many of whom, he says, have been harrassed or hounded for their lack of faith.
And then there's this interesting twist. His own son, Steve Kagin, is a fundamentalist minister in Kansas.
Kagin said that his son claims to have a personal revelation in Jesus Christ. "I am totally unable to say that's not true," he said. "There are examples all through history of quite sane people who have had such experiences. I don't think it is but I'm not going to say it isn't."
Kagin: 'As Much Merit as the Original Baptism'
When asked if he is pained by their opposing views on this issue, Kagin chuckled. "Oh, one wonders where they went wrong," he said. He and his son, Steven, have an excellent relationship, Kagin said, but they do have their limits.
"We just understand there are certain things we really can't, at this point, talk about," he said.
"I don't lose much sleep over [it] because everyone has the right to do what they want to do within the law," he said. "That's what I believe in."
As Cambridge completed her de-baptism, she expressed no qualms about how it might be perceived. "Sometimes you've got to have shock value," she said. "There's some times where you just have to shock people into getting attention and from there, they ask questions... And maybe they learn a bit."
Kagin said that he saw the conflict between atheists and believers as America's religious civil war. He said bad manners are a reasonable weapon in that war, but he said it was unlikely that atheists would emerge as the victors.
"Atheists have no chance whatsoever of prevailing in a direct confrontation with believers," he said. "There are far too many [believers]."