Freethought Today · May 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Meet a theatrical member

Sgt. Tobin Atkinson (left) and members of his Army unit at Kandahar Airport on New Year’s Day 2003.

Name: Tobin Atkinson.
Where I live: Salt Lake City, Utah, where I was born and raised.
Family: I’ve been married to northern Virginia native Marynell Hinton since 2008.
Education: B.S. in theater and history, Southern Utah University; master’s in directing, University of Utah; MBA in entrepreneurship, American Military University.
Occupation: Education specialist, Veterans Administration; artistic director, Meat & Potato Theatre (meatandpotato.org). The name Meat & Potato stems from the meaning “of fundamental importance: basic; also: concerned with or emphasizing the basic aspects of something.”
Military service: U.S. Army Infantry, 2000-04 (special assignment to Army Entertainment, where I was tasked to take a play to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea and Japan). I was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Belvoir, Virginia. One month before my separation from the Army, I joined the Atheists in Foxholes march on D.C., a small, but fun-loving group. We had a great time.
How I got where I am today: Hard work, clean living, pure heart and a winsome smile. LOL! But seriously, it’s good people that kept (and keep) me honest. This includes parents, NCOs, theater directors, teachers and an incredible wife.
A quotation I like: “There is nothing more satisfying than watching the self-righteous fall.” (My mother after watching a news story on Ted Haggard)
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall)
“You put your hand on the bible and swore to uphold the Constitution; you didn’t put your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the bible.” (Maryland lawyer/now-state Sen. Jamie Raskin, testifying on a same-sex marriage bill in 2006)
These are a few of my favorite things: I’ve always loved the theater, on which most of my education has focused. I’m a member of the actors’ union, and I co-founded Plan B Theatre and Meat & Potato Theatre in Salt Lake City.
These are not: Religious hypocrisy (seriously, if you’re going to look down your nose at me, you had better be living a better life than I am, but most aren’t).
My doubts about religion started: I grew up in a nonreligious family, so doubt started very, very early. Being a freethinker in the theocracy of the Beehive State forces you to start defending your nonbeliefs at a very early age.
Early high school was my first encounter with “I don’t have to explain why I don’t believe in god. You’re the one saying there’s an invisible man up in the sky. Explain that, Jack.”
Why I’m a freethinker: I was raised as one. My father quit the Mormons at about age 16. My mother quit even earlier. She started asking questions in Mormon Sunday school, and the next week she was ushered into the nursery to take care of babies while mothers were in sacrament meeting. It was the last time she went to church.
I grew up being taught to rely on my own cognitive abilities, so that’s the way I lived life. People have always accomplished more than god. Hard, intelligent work has done more good than a billion prayers ever will do. (“No supernatural ingredients were used in the making of this life.”) 
Ways I promote freethought: Over the years, I’ve adopted a much more subtle, almost subversive, approach to promoting freethought. Gone are the days of the toe-to-toe arguments. I let characters in the plays I write have those rants. Instead, I will usually have an exchange in private with someone. I’ve found that it gives them the opportunity to open up and really say what they’re thinking.
I try to use humor to call attention to religious hypocrisy, an illogical religious assumption or a lie. I’m surprised at how many closeted liberals there are in Utah, and when I find one, I always remind them that no one knows whom they vote for when they go into that booth.
Most of the plays we produce with Meat & Potato promote freethinking. We did a “1984” in which party members’ armbands had a Christian cross in a white circle on a field of red (akin to the Nazi armband). In a recent adaptation of “The Odyssey,” we purposely never mentioned any of the Greek gods from the original text. Odysseus and the others created and solved their problems without being able to blame them on some supernatural power.
There’s also an incredibly subtle thing we do with plays to promote freethinking. We always admit that the thing we are creating and you are watching is a play. It even states in our mission that we will create plays that are overtly theatrical: farces, musicals, dumbshows (pantomime), puppets, masks, etc. Why? Because doing so invites the audience to participate in the event on stage.
We take as our cue the idea that thousands of years ago, theater evolved from one person of the tribe sitting on that side of the fire telling a story to people sitting on this side of the fire. There is no “fourth wall” (the imaginary boundary between a fictional work and its audience).
We never ask audiences to “suspend their disbelief,” because that’s religion’s job, not ours. (Suspension of disbelief is when people know that those are actors on stage, they know it’s not real, and yet they are willing to accept that what is happening is real.) Our job in the theater has always been to entertain, to tell a good story, to watch a hero struggle so that we don’t have to. And when the play is over, we know what we saw was fantasy.
Our audiences never walk out of our theater thinking that that really, actually happened — unlike those who read certain religious texts.

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