When asked to write this history, I consulted my diary, my scrapbook of newspaper
clippings, and some old newsletters I had saved.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair wrote a rave review of my recently published Lucifer’s Handbook
in 1977, and began distributing it through American Atheists. There was no local chapter
at that time. I saw an item in the newspaper which mentioned that her radio program was
being broadcast on Sunday mornings from an FM station in Orange County. I was living
in the San Fernando Valley, so I drove all the way up to Mulholland Drive in order to pick
up the station on my car radio. That’s when I learned that a local chapter was being
formed in L.A. My certificate of membership in American Atheists is dated July, 1977.
The oldest newsletter I have is dated March, 1978, written by Don Latimer, who was the
chapter director; Queen Silver was secretary.
At first, there were only about a dozen of us who met at Queen Silver’s house in
Hollywood. Don Latimer was chapter director for about five years altogether, for which he
was honored as Atheist of the Year and had his picture on the cover of American Atheist
magazine. Meetings were closed to the public, for fear of possible violence, so the
newsletters had no announcements about where the meetings would be held. Only paid-
up members received an insert with the date and location. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep
any of those. I guess when the membership got too large for Queen’s house, we must
have moved down to Manhattan Beach where we met in the public library. I think we
changed locations rather frequently.
In the September, 1978, issue there was a report on our lawsuit against the city,
regarding the Hollywood Hills cross.
After Manhattan Beach we eventually found a more centralized place on Wilshire Blvd.
The January, 1979, issue reports on the solstice banquet held at the Hollywood
Roosevelt Hotel, with George Smith as guest speaker. About 90 people attended. It says
the newsletter mailing list had grown to about 300.
The February, 1979, issue reported that George Smith was now broadcasting a series
on KPFK called Atheist Commentary twice a month. That apparently lasted a few months.
The January 20, 1980, issue says that hundreds of people responded to our ad, paid for
by Dick James, “Why We Sued the Pope.” Therefore a public meeting would be held for
the first time, on February 10, 1980, in the gymnasium of West Hollywood Park, across
from the Pacific Design Center. I remember that when Ronald Reagan was elected, our
membership increased dramatically. The newsletter reported on the planning of the next
solstice banquet which would feature Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Jon Garth Murray.
In June of 1980, John Edwards became director, with Sally Janes Perkins as vice
director. Ron Nelson was treasurer, and Elaine Stansfield was secretary. The newsletter
changed formats to become Atheist About Town, simulating the graphic style of New
Yorker Magazine. All meetings would henceforth be open to the public, and the first
would be held at the Troupers Club, in Hollywood. Jon Garth Murray would be guest
The 1980 solstice party was again held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, which was
very successful. Madalyn and Garth both made excellent speeches; there was a large
turnout, and I sold and signed many copies of Lucifer’s Handbook.
During the spring of 1981, the chapter began planning a solstice display to be put up in
Pacific Palisades Park; this would contrast our scholarly and sophisticated view of life,
as opposed to the adjacent tacky manikins illustrating the Christian Nativity fairy tale. So
as people drove by to look at the Nativity display, they would then be confronted with our
booth that explained what really happened. I volunteered to help with the research. I
wrote a pamphlet called “How the Calendar Got That Way,” a booklet called “Origins of
Christianity: The True Story,” and another one called “A Brief Survey of Resurrected
Savior Gods.” Then I made a factor analysis of the Christ myth and laid it out in a matrix,
showing the 46 some-odd saviors that contributed to the composite myth of “Christ.” I
made a big poster of the matrix to mount outside our booth, along with photographs of
paintings and statues of all these gods. To illustrate the history of Christianity I drew a
tree, with the roots showing where various elements came from. Then it branches into the
major denominations, etc. This was another large poster for the display. I also designed
and built the booth itself, made from aluminum tubing and blue nylon cloth, laced to the
tubing with white nylon cords. It had a slanted roof which rose to about eight feet in front
and sloped down to about five feet in the rear. There were three walls which could be
laced on if the weather required it. On each side of the booth were racks for the posters,
made from aluminum tubing, which opened out to the street like wings or open arms, to
invite in the public. John Edwards’ brother painted pictures of several atheist heroes
from the past to mount on the display rack. The booth looked very stylish. While I was
doing all this, Arde Athean (nee Ardo Kasbian), who was in charge of Dial-an-Atheist,
asked me to write and record some short speeches to help recruit members. I recorded
a dozen of those – and sent copies to Austin to distribute to other chapters.
John Edwards asked me to give a lecture on the history of Christmas, scheduled for the
December meeting. So I spent another week or two researching and writing that.
I guess in June, elections were held, and Dick James became director, with Al Seckel as
vice director. John Edwards became state director.
Unfortunately, on November 22, 1981, something happened. Here is an article from the
Los Angeles Times which explains it.
Religion Notes, by John Dart, Times Religion Writer
Dec. 12, 1981
All 5 L.A. Atheist Leaders Quit in Dispute
All five officers of the American Atheists Los Angeles chapter have resigned in a
personality dispute with national president Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her son Jon
Garth Murray. The disarray in the Los Angeles chapter, with 800 persons on its
active mailing list, making it the largest of 47 American Atheists chapters, prompted
cancellation of its Winter Solstice dinner party set for Sunday. O’Hair and Murray,
national director of the Austin, Texas, based organization, were to be speakers at
the event. Jon Murray is younger brother of Bill Murray, who broke more than a
year ago with his mother and said that he had become a believer. Los Angeles
director Richard James of Marina Del Rey said he resigned at the chapter’s Nov.
22nd meeting because of “abusive letters he had received from Jon Murray and lack
of support from O’Hair.” Vice director Al Seckel and three other Los Angeles
chapter officers then also resigned. The mother and son leadership of American
Atheists criticized the Los Angeles chapter, in part, for agreeing to a compromise
with the city of Santa Monica on the latter’s annual nativity displays in the city-
owned Palisades Park. John R. Edwards, then the Los Angeles chapter director, and
now state director, had taken up the city’s offer to allow American Atheists to have
its own display in Palisades Park this Christmas.
‘Can Ruin Everything’
“California can ruin everything for atheists,” O’Hair said by telephone. She said
American Atheists have court cases in Rhode Island and Denver, where Christmas
displays on public land are being challenged as unconstitutional. “If we go in as part
of the Santa Monica display, we only add to their right to be there,” said O’Hair,
who holds a law degree.
The controversy over Nativity displays in Santa Monica began two years ago when
O’Hair cited the city’s financial report and involvement as violating church/state
separation. After the city withdrew its support, the city attorney ruled the city could
permit the Nativity display on parkland if space was made available to all users. The
atheist chapter was given approval for its display last June. Edwards said the exhibit,
which would describe the pagan origins of the December 25th holiday and would
quote religious skeptics in history, is being readied for installation Thursday of next
week. But, he added, a final decision is being delayed in view of the objections from
Austin. O’Hair maintained that she had been urging the Los Angeles chapter to sue
the city but could not make that position clear to the chapter. O’Hair said that she
believed that the organizational dispute would not hurt the Los Angeles chapter, but
James said he was not so sure.
If I remember that November 22nd incident correctly, we had been meeting in the
Community Room of Columbia Savings and Loan, on Wilshire Blvd., in Santa Monica.
Gerald Tholen, chapter coordinator for AA was sent to LA to try to make us “behave.” He
gave us a thorough tongue lashing for not obeying orders and suggested that we
Hollywood types were all a bunch of fruits and nuts. Dick James said he would not
tolerate being treated like a naughty child and resigned on the spot. Vice director Al
Seckel joined him, and the other officers then followed suit.
The chapter had created a very successful operation and we were loathe to simply let it
dissolve. A plea was made for some member to assume control and at least to take
possession of the official records. One man who identified himself as a carpenter, with
no experience at this sort of thing, and no leisure time to devote to it, said he would
temporarily take possession of the records and try to revive the chapter – but that was
the last we ever heard from him.
After the meeting adjourned, some of the former leaders were milling around in the
parking lot, talking about starting an independent group. So a yellow legal pad was
passed around, asking for names, addresses and phone numbers of anyone who was
interested. Some signed up, others left the meeting in disgust, never to return.
The solstice display was cancelled for the year, as was the banquet. Later, some of the
leaders arranged for us to meet at Burton Chase Park in Marina Del Rey. At the first
meeting we elected a new group of officers. Herb Livingston became president, Ed
Peters was vice president, and Ken Bonnell was secretary. The second order of
business was to select a name. There was a lot of discussion about whether the word
“atheist” should be part of the name, since it held such a negative connotation for many
people. But the majority insisted that we should not be ashamed of the word, and indeed
should proudly flaunt it. Many names were suggested. I’m not sure if I was the one who
suggested Atheists United, but I might have been.
After spending all that effort and money in preparing the solstice display, the new group
decided to go ahead and finish it so we could put it up in Palisades Park next year, and
also use it at trade shows and other places.
My speech on the History of Christmas was delivered on December 1st at the Manhattan
Beach Library. It went very well. But because of the political split in the organization there
was virtually no publicity, and only about a dozen people showed up.
There was a desperate plea for someone to come up with a program for the next
meeting. So on January 5th, 1982 I held a sneak preview of my feature film “Ghosts
Never Die” for Atheists United. But because we were still getting reorganized, there was
virtually no publicity. Only ten people showed up at the Manhattan Beach Library.
However, they all seemed to like it very much. It was an updated version of “Ghosts” by
Henrik Ibsen, about how Christian doctrines help perpetuate venereal disease.
The first newsletter of Atheists United was dated September, 1982. Herb Livingston was
president; Ed Peters was vice president; Ken Bonnell was secretary and newsletter
editor; Marge Nelson was treasurer; John Edwards, Dick James, Arde Athean (nee
Ardo Kasbrian), Ron Nelson, and Queen Silver were on the board of directors. Board
meetings were held in various people’s houses. The newsletter says the upcoming
solstice banquet was planned for the L.A. Press Club. The September issue included
minutes from the last meeting in August, 1982. It says we were still discussing our new
name, and whether the incorporation papers should say only Atheists United, or whether
there should also be a second name, a kind of extension with a descriptive phrase, like
the subtitle of a book. I suggested “The Rational Minority” in order to position ourselves
in opposition to “The Moral Majority.” Queen Silver said that adding an extension to the
name would complicate the incorporation process, so the motion was tabled. Also at the
August meeting, a representative from People for the American Way showed a film
produced by that organization and gave a talk on the dangers we all face from the radical
religious right. The September issue, which was mailed in August, says the next meeting
would be held on September 26th at the Community Room of Western Federal Savings
and Loan, 101 N. Larchmont Blvd. The agenda would include more organizational
matters, including suggestions for a logo. There would also be a pitch for our
cooperation in a psychological survey by a PhD candidate, and I would show three short
films that I made. The September issue goes on to say that the following meeting will be
held in Burton Chase Park, and that we were making plans for putting up our booth at
Pacific Palisades Park. Volunteers were solicited for mounting the display and staffing it
for the duration of the Nativity display.
Around October of 1982 I had printed up some stickers advertising AU, so people could
paste them on walls, light poles, etc. These were given away at the meeting. We began
holding a contest for a logo. Many ideas were suggested, including my idea for the sine-
wave that we presently use.
The October issue says that in September I showed three short films that I had made. I
think that would have been “Heritage,” “City of Glass,” and a public service
announcement for Planned Parenthood. That issue also says the upcoming solstice
banquet is again planned for the L.A. Press Club. It says that more recordings are
needed for the AU answering machine. Presently, they were just reading excerpts from
My diary entry on November 28, 1982 says that the new atheist club was up and running.
In October, Al Seckel and I both made speeches at a high school in Orange County as
representatives of AU – which I thought went very well. I guess it was around this time that
I designed and made a banner with the sine-wave logo on the face of an oscilloscope.
The arrow through the wave, dividing the wave into an A and a U, represents a vector line
pointing forward. The sine wave is a fairly universal symbol of modern communication.
Beneath the sine-wave and the name Atheists United, was the slogan, “Wave of the
Future.” When I finished the banner I made a pitch for my design and got permission to
begin hanging it on the wall behind the lectern at each meeting.
The January, 1983 issue says that the solstice party in December was the first annual
AU banquet. George Smith was again guest speaker, and a magician also performed.
One of my stickers apparently caught the eye of a reporter because there was an article
about the new organization in The Daily News, August 21, 1983.
In August, 1983, I began the Atheist United Commentary on KPFK. I recorded about a
dozen of them before turning the work over to Ed Peters. Ed produced it for several
years before turning it over to Stan Kohls. Altogether the series ran for about 13 years, at
which time there was a change in management at the station.
On December 13, 1983, Al Seckel and I were invited by the Philosophy Club to be guest
speakers at Cyprus College. The speeches were held in a large auditorium, which was
packed – including many faculty members. There were even people sitting in the aisles. I
estimated about 200 people. In spite of Christian groups which tore down all of the
campus posters, the crowd was very polite, and afterwards we received many
After many months of debate and submissions of numerous logos, members finally got
used to seeing my banner hanging on the wall and voted to use it as the official logo.
That was the beginning of Atheists United.
When I retired from L.A. Valley College at the end of 1992, Lee Baker (who was co-
president of AU at that time) and I began producing the Atheists United television
program on public access cable. We eventually got a $120,000 grant from the James
Hervey Johnson Foundation for video equipment and production expenses. Each
program was half an hour in length, and we produced two new programs a month, which
were then submitted to the board of directors of the Johnson Foundation. David Stepsay
(the other co-president) was our accountant and coordinator with the Foundation. He
reported that they were very pleased with our shows. After we got the portable
equipment, we always went on location and shot speeches, debates, interviews, and
dramatic skits. These programs were “bicycled” around to various cable stations
throughout Southern California. Altogether we produced about 120 shows before the
foundation money ran out in 1997. AU turned the equipment over to another production
crew, but nothing more was ever done with it. Lee and I went back to the public access
studios and used their equipment to produce a series of simple interview programs with
a more broadly humanistic theme. The new series was called “Food for Thought.” We
continued producing this series until my failing eyesight ended it in 2004, after more than
100 more programs. Much of the literary material mentioned in this report is now
available on my website at www.miltontimmons.com.
Thank you for your attention.
|25 Years of Atheists United
How it All Began
A Personal Perspective
|This was a speech delivered at the Steve Allen
Theater on September 23, 2007, celebrating
the 25th anniversary of Atheists United