We just lost one of the truly great atheist activists.
Bobbie Kirkhart died over the weekend at her home in Los Angeles, California at the age of 78. A cause of death was not known.
If her name isn’t familiar to you, I promise you that’s not the case for just about everybody who’s worked for one of the larger atheist organizations in the country. She’s been a fixture in the broader non-theistic community for nearly four decades.
Bobbie led groups like Atheist Alliance International and Atheists United, served on the boards of Camp Quest and the Humanist Association of Nepal, helped form the Secular Coalition for America, and was an informal advisor to so many of us over the years. Even beyond that, she opened up her century-old Victorian home (affectionately dubbed “Heretic House“) to speakers and groups in the area, giving atheists a dependable and rent-free meeting space that would otherwise have been hard for any individual group to come by. (In 2020, just before the pandemic shut down most travel, I was planning to visit Los Angeles. Without any prompting whatsoever, I was told by a mutual friend that Bobbie had a room available for me as long as I needed it. That’s just the sort of person she was.)
In 2013, the Secular Student Alliance gave her a special award recognizing her lifetime of service to our shared cause. The entire video is worth listening, but I especially appreciated one part about why atheist activism was such a worthy endeavor:
… Our work in freethought is no less than an effort to save humanity. What an individual believes is not important. What a society believes is crucial.
So long as the majority of a nation believes in magic, there will be an assault on science that shortens lives and creates environmental disaster.
So long as morality comes from an unknowable God, the strong will run roughshod over the weak — in abominations such as worker exploitation and child abuse.
So long as the gods give differing commandments, humanity will suffer [factionalism] that will manifest itself, perhaps, in behavior as trivial as supercilious snobbery, but often in actions as horrific as warfare.
These are not simply problems caused by fundamentalists. Even as moderate believers ignore the edicts of their priests and scribes in favor of common sense virtue, their open belief supports these tragedies. Our job is to provide an alternative. To show the life of unbelief can be — usually is — fulfilling and productive. Our job is no less than to save the world from superstitious self-destruction.
August E. Brunsman IV, the former executive director for the Secular Student Alliance who introduced Bobbie in that video, said in a statement, “Bobbie was never one to sit around and complain. Being part of the solution was core to her identity.”
She was just as eloquent back in 2002, during the “Godless Americans March on Washington.” (A similar but much larger event called the “Reason Rally” was held a decade later in 2012.) Here she is around the 2:57:11 mark:
… We are here also to celebrate the joy of living free from the gods. We are here to show our fellow Americans that the limited power of individual effort far exceeds the imaginary power of prayer. That the relative morality of honest evaluation stands high above the absolute morality of ancient edict. And that the worldly pride and pleasure of freethought is much more satisfying that the tutored bliss of groupthink.
We will have our stall in Thomas Jefferson’s marketplace of ideas. Not because we will defeat those who would disparage us, but because we include them. Our secular world belongs to all of humanity. In it, we can make contracts, cure diseases, and settle disputes peacefully. Without a secular arena, none of these things would be possible. And if the gods truly ruled, none of these things would be necessary.
While others believe truth is a personal matter, verified by faith and emotion, we understand truth, though sometimes elusive, to be a universal standard, honestly sought by all people of goodwill. In Thomas Jefferson’s words, we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it leads us, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left to combat it.
Today, we have begun a march toward a future where responsibility replaces guilt and actions really do speak louder than words. And when we reach that secular future, America can finally claim the righteousness it has so long pursued. Because, ladies and gentlemen, morality begins with the truth.
She was as kind as she was eloquent. A number of activists who worked with her over the course of her life are mourning her loss and have weighed in since the news began traveling yesterday:
Today we mourn the death of an irreplaceable atheist icon. She was an activist, organizer, author, mentor, and mother that for almost four decades tirelessly shaped and guided Atheists United and its sister organizations around the world.
Bobbie always liked to remind us that humans do not “pass” or “go to a better place” but simply die and reach the end of a journey we call life. To rephrase a line Bobbie once wrote about another former Atheists United President after their death, “she did not have, nor wish for, a soul, and she does not now live in heaven. She lives in the hearts of many friends, and she resides in the center of Atheists United, the community she worked so hard to build.”
— Evan Clark, Executive Director at Atheists United
To know Bobbie Kirkhart is the equivalent of reading legions of literature on atheism and its historical significance. Her vast experience in the secular world was an oasis as a source for developing my understanding of a movement that has inspired my activism. But beyond the immense historical knowledge that I was able to glean from her life, her humanism shone brightly in my life as I observed her generosity towards all of us within her orbit. Her actions have inspired me to strive to always express the best of my humanity.
— Christine Jones, President at Atheists United
Our community has lost a tremendous person who was admired and adored by so many of us. Her presence and wisdom will unquestionably be missed, but her memory and the effects of her years of work will live on with all of us who knew her.
— Nick Fish, President of American Atheists
One of the most generous, most involved, and most forward thinking organizers in this movement has passed. The secular community has made many gains over the last couple decades. Bobbie, with her prolific dedication, had a hand in making many of those changes a reality. We are better and stronger because of her. In many cases organizations exist today due to her dedication.
— Neil Polzin, Former Board Chair of Camp Quest
Bobbie was a joyful, generous, courageous and fearless trailblazer for freethought and humanism. She was also a faithful faithless friend. She will be deeply missed.
— Dan Barker, Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation
She had a generosity and realness to her that was very inspiring… I am in awe of her contributions to the secular community; she leaves an amazing legacy.
— Mandisa Thomas, Founder and President of Black Nonbelievers
Bobbie was a freethought pioneer, and she helped build the movement to what it has become today… Bobbie was always generous with her time and money, always helpful to all of us in the movement. She will be missed, though her “spirit” will remain with us for many years to come.
— Herb Silverman, Founder of the Secular Coalition for America
Bobbie was a treasure to the atheist movement in America, and a treasure to each of us as well. There was no more wonderful place to be than in her home, with her guests. Bobbie left her mark on everyone she came to know, and I’m sorry she is no longer with us.
— Debbie Allen, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America
As one of the grassroots organizers that propelled the liftoff of the modern atheist movement in the United States, Bobbie Kirkhart’s tireless activism and commitment to secular values will not be forgotten.
— Roy Speckhart & Maggie Ardiente, formerly with the American Humanist Association
Sometimes one person can raise the average of the whole group. Bobbie Kirkhart was one such person. She stood out because of her caring. She stood out because she acted on it. Her reward was the friendship and respect she shared with so many of us.
— Mark Rockoff, Board Member at Atheists United
Bobbie’s surviving family members, including her daughter Monica Waggoner, have requested that anyone who can please make donations to the following charities in her honor: Atheists United, Camp Quest, and the Secular Student Alliance.
A Celebration of Life ceremony will take place sometime in early December. Anyone who is interested in further details can learn more through a memorial website created in her honor.
(Featured image via Russell Orrell)