December 21, 2007

When God’s got no answer: An upstart Internet broadcast from Union, Ky., tries to bring atheism to the masses

BY KATHLEEN ADAMSMany of the houses in the Northern Kentucky subdivision where Edwin Kagin lives are illuminated by brightly lit reindeer, icicles and other symbols of the Christmas season. But not the two-story home Kagin shares with his wife Helen. That’s because Kagin isn’t a believer. He is an atheist who professes no belief in God or gods. Rather, the 67-year-old’s faith lies in the World Wide Web. Earlier this fall, he and a handful of volunteers launched a new Internet call-in show, AnswersinAtheism.net. With few exceptions, the show is broadcast live from Kagin’s home office in Union, Ky., a 10-minute drive from the flashy new Creation Museum, operated by “Answers in Genesis.”On this particular Sunday afternoon, Kagin holds an informal reception in his dining room for the week’s special guest, Conrad Goeringer, director of public policy for the group American Atheists. Outfitted in black Wrangler jeans, a white pirate-style blouse (think of the Seinfeld “puffy shirt” episode) and a black leather vest, Kagin, who provides legal counsel to the New Jersey-based American Atheists, directs a visitor down the green carpeted stairs to his makeshift studio, also a repository for his collection of replica swords and walking sticks.“I had nursed the idea of hosting a radio program on atheism for some time,” Kagin explains, sitting on a burgundy leather couch near a bookshelf holding multiple copies of the Bible, as well as “Who’s Who in Hell” and “The Koran for Dummies.” “But (I) did not think it was feasible to do so. We would need a radio station and FCC licenses, and that was beyond the reach of people who are not rich from using religion to become so,” Kagin says.The son of a Presbyterian minister, Kagin embraced atheism at an early age. He recalled that for many years, his parents thought he was simply going through a phase and would eventually renounce his non-belief — humble beginnings for a provocative Internet show. “It is enjoyable,” Kagin says of the fledgling Internet broadcast. “It should prove educational for many people who know little or nothing about atheism, and it may help strengthen atheists who feel all alone among people who are hostile to them without reason.” While the popularity of books such as Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” helps redefine how the mainstream perceives atheism, a 2006 survey by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that atheists are the least accepted social group in the United States. More recently, a February 2007 USA Today/Gallup Poll survey showed that 53 percent of Americans would be reluctant to vote for an atheist candidate for president. Nonetheless, James Beverley, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., and professor of Christian Thought and Ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, said there are strong indications that New Atheism is attracting a greater number of people. He pointed out the Atheist Alliance annual convention was sold out this year. “Two things explain the increased interest in atheism,” Beverley says. “First, atheist leaders like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are doing an effective sales pitch. These evangelists for atheism have a take-no-prisoners approach, and this creates its own success, even if it only lasts until individual atheists tire of its dogmatism. Second, the God hypothesis has taken a beating lately because of all the evils done in the name of God.”It takes five people — Kagin, Helen and three members of FIG, the Free Inquiry Group of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky — to produce the weekly broadcast.Frank Bicknel, a broadcast engineer, is the self-described “geek” who first approached Kagin with the idea of transmitting the show over the Web.“He explained that it could all be done on the Internet without licensing and without other problems that would prevent broadcasting over conventional radio,” Kagin says.Bicknel is also responsible for securing the technology used during the show, which takes surprisingly few gadgets to produce: a computer, some inexpensive software, a server and microphone.Husband and wife John and Fran Welte are the show’s producers. John, 54, a photographer, said no one involved with the production has a background in broadcasting. Instead, they make things up as they go.“I was shy about asking people to appear (on the show) at first,” he says. “But I found if you ask someone to talk about themselves and what they are interested in, they are happy to do it.” So far, the biggest challenge facing AnswersinAtheism.net is keeping Kagin on track as host.“He is the personality that makes the show, but he tends to charge ahead with or without regard to our format,” John Welte says.Kagin admits he’d be thrilled if the production was eventually picked up by so-called regular radio, maybe even National Public Radio. In the meantime, he’s content with the Internet designation.“When one has only one life, they should try to avoid deliberately doing unpleasant things,” he says. “Atheists live for life before death, not life after death.” Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com