Hanging Out with the Godless

Nancy Friedman
6 min readNov 13, 2018

Outside the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, in downtown San Francisco, it was 72° and sunny on a Friday afternoon in early November, four days before the midterm elections. Three conservatively dressed Jehovah’s Witnesses were standing next to a sidewalk display of pamphlets, waiting patiently to offer “Help for Those Who Grieve” and to give you their answer to “Was Life Created?” Inside the Hyatt Regency were 1,000 of the Witnesses’ least likely customers. They wore T-shirts that said UNABASHED ATHEIST and ASK AN ATHEIST and ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES and CREDULITY IS NOT A VIRTUE. They had removed the Gideon Bibles from their hotel-room nightstands and placed them outside their doors, in the hallways. They were mostly, but not exclusively, white and mostly, but not exclusively, gray haired. (One man wore a cap identifying him as a World War II veteran.) They had come to San Francisco from Las Cruces, New Mexico; Mobile, Alabama; Waco, Texas; and Eugene, Oregon; from Kentucky, Iowa, Montana, and Nebraska; and from Canada and the U.K. They were here for the 41st annual conference of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and which calls itself a “nonprophet nonprofit” dedicated to “protecting the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.” It was the biggest gathering ever for the FFRF convention, whose last appearance in San Francisco — one of the three “most godless” cities in America, according to a 2017 survey — had been in 1999, when only about 150 people attended, prompting the Christian Courier to snark: “How would you like to throw a party and have nobody show up?”

T-shirts for sale at FFRF’s San Francisco convention

Well, they showed up this year. And they were glad to be here! Despite the threats of Trump and his Dominionist hangers-on, despite the anxiety surrounding the upcoming election, this was a buoyant crowd. Strangers struck up cheerful conversations in the Hyatt’s glass elevators and at the “non-prayer breakfast” Saturday morning. Prayer breakfasts sometimes start with a moment of silence, FFRF co-president Dan Barker told the gathering, but this meal would begin with a “moment of bedlam.” Whooping, table-thumping, and cutlery-clanking ensued.

In the conference sessions, which featured First Amendment lawyers, a 12-year-old freethinking author from Utah, the winner of the “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” award for the best secular invocation…

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Nancy Friedman

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist, ex-journalist. @fritinancy on Mastodon, Instagram, Bluesky, Threads, and elsewhere.