The Great Atheist Invasion by Catherine Fahringer (April 1999)

The first wave of the 1999 Atheist Invasion of Comfort, Texas, swept through the town on February 20th!

On Thursday, February 17th, an ominous article appeared in the San Antonio Express-News, reporting on a Comfort Chamber of Commerce directors’ meeting, at which time these leaders voted unanimously to erect a Freethinker memorial. They voted to use stones left over from the earlier Treu der Union monument (erected and dedicated in 1866; restored and rededicated in 1996) to replace the present 32-ton rock.

That may not sound at all alarming to anyone who doesn’t know that it was Freethinkers who, two years ago, had begun raising money for a memorial to those very settlers! Permission for this had been obtained from this same Chamber of Commerce and the Comfort Historical Society. The now-rejected 32-ton limestone monolith was selected, delivered and installed in Comfort Park in July of 1998. The problem began with one agitator and two cronies who drew up and circulated a petition against the memorial on the claim that it was a “monument to atheism.” The Chamber and the Heritage Foundation usurped the project. The Freethinker contributors were left with nothing.

Hill Country newspapers which covered the controversy never attempted to interview any of us contributors as to how we felt about our money and our project being confiscated. Instead, remarks were made, such as the project being “tainted with the miasma of atheism.” It was printed that the Comfort residents feared their town would become a “mecca for atheists.” There were rude remarks made about atheist money funding the project and fears expressed of an “atheist invasion.”

Sharing some of this complimentary press with my son activated his inspiration button, and on Christmas (yes, we still have an event, but there’s nothing Christ-ly or mass-ly about it!) he surprised me with a gift of three T-shirts bearing the message: The Great Atheist Invasion Of Comfort, Texas, 1999! When I opened the box and shrieked with joy, Steve said, “Well, they’re afraid of an invasion, so let’s give ’em one!” With that, the wheels started turning. Let’s do plan an invasion! And, surely, everyone will want a T-shirt!!! I consulted my checkbook, took a deep breath and ordered a batch of invasion shirts.

A date for the Invasion had never been set; it was going to be sometime in March or April. Until, of course, the article about a new memorial replacing the atheists’ rock. That meant the rock could go at any time, I feared. So, after a quick consultation with the two top invasion “generals,” Julie Fisher and Sally Chizek, the three of us manned our battle stations –computers, word-processors, phones and faxes–and started spreading the word: Sunday, 11:00 a.m. At The Rock In Comfort, Texas!

It’s amazing how quickly we organized. In fact, this was one of the best turn-outs we’ve ever had! There were at least a dozen people from San Antonio. Others drove from Kerrville, Boerne, Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas (!), Pipe Creek, and there was a surprise contingent of students (at least eight) from Texas A&M at College Station. Texas is a big state, and several of the places mentioned represent many miles and hours of driving time.

We had no preparation time for a ceremony, but I threw a bunch of literature in the car–and the shirts, of course. Everyone thought of something. Molly Fahrenschon from San Antonio brought her video camera, as well as a still camera, and photographed the proceedings from start to finish. Rodney Florence (a professional photographer!) from Austin also documented the event. This was our most photographed gathering ever! Normally, it’s me with my Brownie, taking bad pictures of the backs of people’s heads.

In spite of all the press releases, the only response in San Antonio was from WOAI radio which called me as soon as my fax was received. I know the interview aired because when I went to the dentist on Friday afternoon, he greeted me with, “Guess who I heard on the radio?” Other than that we got zap. Not one TV station covered the event, and although I had spoken with Zeke MacCormack at the Express-News who said they’d send a photographer up, nothing happened. But three Hill Country reporters were there from Boerne and Kerrville, and I gave them each the most recent issue of Freethought Today. Comfort didn’t bother to cover its own invasion!

We winged the ceremony from beginning to end, starting with some quotes from Mencken, Jefferson, Inger soll and Darrow, interspersed with comments about the event and this monumental experience by those who wished to speak. There were even a couple of freethought jokes told and, at Julie Fisher’s insistence, an ad hoc choir was formed to sing “Rock of Sages.”

For the more somber aspects of saying good-bye to our dream of free think ers commemorating free think ers, Don Rhoades from Austin, and Jason Romero of A&M both spoke extemporaneously and eloquently. In conclusion, Howard Thompson read a moving tribute he had written to those early freethinker settlers. All participants were by turns brilliant, witty, and profound, and rose to the short-notice occasion with such élan that I nearly burst with pride in the knowledge that these brilliant people are my friends and colleagues.

After the ceremony, the attendees scattered in small groups to have lunch and browse the shops. We were pleasantly surprised by the friendliness and courtesy which we encountered. People stopped us in the streets to chat, ask questions, and some to commiserate about the opposition to our cenotaph.

At different times, most of us stopped at the Ingenhuett General Store, the oldest continuously operating store in Texas, established in 1867. We said hello to our Comfort supporter and fellow freethinker, Greg Krauter, the proprietor, after which we trooped out behind the store to see the old opera house which is being renovated. In the 1800’s, Comfort had three opera houses! We wandered from there across the street to browse some of the antique shops with which Comfort is amply endowed.

We seemed not to attract undue alarm at the first store we entered, but as we were milling around and admiring the merchandise, one of the assistants, or perhaps the owner, attached himself to us. As we conversed with him about various articles, he continued to move right along with us with a persistence that gave me the impression that he was concerned that we, as atheists, might be some sort of shop-lifting gang! But all went well, and we bade him adieu and sashayed out and down the street to yet another antique shop.

I think it was the fourth one where hostility reared its head. The woman behind the counter asked me where I’d got my T-shirt. I began to tell her about it and, thinking she might be a prospective customer, I volunteered that I had a bunch of them in the back of my car. “Well, I don’t like it,” she said, “And I hope you keep all of them there! I don’t like your shirt.” I said, “That’s too bad because we like your store; it’s very pretty.” We had been through the store at this point and were on our way out the door. As I passed through it, I heard her once again say, “I don’t like your shirt!” From the other side of the doorway, I replied calmly, “You’ve made your point.”

On the lawn in front of her shop, two Girl Scouts and their mother/ chaperone were selling cookies. They seemed receptive to us so we went over and started looking at this year’s selection. All the while, of course, we were chatting away. The mother and I discovered that we were both mentors, which brought us to the subject of field trips and what the girls were planning to do with their cookie money. It was a warm and friendly visit, and of course Steve and I bought cookies.

At that point it was time to head for home. As we walked back to the car, we encountered another strolling couple who engaged us in conversation about our shirts and the invasion. I told them the invasion part was a sort of joke, and briefly sketched an outline of the project and the ensuing events that had resulted in the shirts and the visit to Comfort. The man asked, “But are you atheists?” I said, “Oh, yes.” With those two words, their attitude changed and they huffily moved away from us, the man turning his head in my direction for the parting riposte, “I feel sorry for you. You’re never going to meet Jesus.”

“Give him my regards,” I replied.

Now that the First Wave Invasion is over, what are my impressions? The first one is that freethinkers must become more visible. To identify ourselves is not life-threatening. What if two or three people here and there with teeny brains and no manners say something rude to us? So what! And perhaps when we turn the other cheek and reply in soft voices we will turneth away Christian wrath! Hey, it works!

I know that many atheists are reluctant to wear their philosophy across their chests, but what else do we have? The Christians clank around in crosses (with and without bodies affixed) and WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets, etc. They’re photogenic because they clasp their hands and bow their heads in prayer. Or they close their eyes, tilt back their heads and raise their arms heavenward. And of course they are forever clutching that hideous book they so revere. Can we compete with that? Hardly! Being sweet and charming and engaged in good works as a “civilian” will avail us naught. Of course people like us because we’re nice people. And that’s the point: we are nice people who happen to be atheists. Certainly, we’re not ashamed of our minds, are we? We really should begin to identify ourselves more often and let our fellow human beings get used to the idea that atheists are people too . . . just like them, but with better manners!

I used to think, because I was brain-washed to do so, that “flaunting” my nonbelief in any way was tacky, common, lower class and crude. But why is it called “flaunting” when freethinkers identify themselves in some way, and not called flaunting when Christians are revealing themselves all over the place? Wouldn’t you say they are “flaunting” their religion when they are wearing it all over their bodies and imposing their rituals on the rest of us in the public arena? If T-shirts and bumperstickers are all we’ve got, I say take full advantage of them! Now, I wouldn’t wear a message T-shirt to a formal sit-down dinner, but what’s wrong with such apparel for errand-running at grocery stores, the cleaners and the post office?

Those of us who possess good atheist spines are going to don our invasion shirts sometime in April and visit the local media–the three TV stations who ignored us, as well as The Express-News and KTSA Radio who did likewise. If it was too much trouble for them to come to our Comfort In vasion, we’ll bring the invasion to them! Next year our navy blue T-shirts will proclaim, “I Am A Veteran Of The Comfort, Texas Invasion Of 1999.”

Catherine Fahringer is a Foundation officer and activist from San Antonio.

Freedom From Religion Foundation