(RNS) — Bobbie Kirkhart was known for being an atheist, but the owner and host of Heretic House in Los Angeles, who died at age 78 on Oct. 31, was a pioneer who championed atheism not as merely nonbelief but a force in its own right and a critique of religion’s sway over society.
More than denying claims of faith, Kirkhart could often be heard singing from one of the dozen hymnals she owned, sometimes with a word or two changed to render theistic verses into godless goodwill. Heretic House was a center for atheist and free-thought groups, and guests who came for a discussion might stay on for months.
“Bobbie was my hero,” said Darrel Ray, president and founder of Recovering From Religion. “Her early efforts in the secular world set the stage for we who now follow in her footsteps. People who don’t even know who she was will reap the benefits of her life and efforts for years to come.”
Kirkhart had served as president of both the Atheist Alliance International and Atheists United, served on the board of Camp Quest and the advisory board for Humanist Association of Nepal and helped form the Secular Coalition for America. She spoke to groups throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Germany, France, India, Ireland, Nigeria and Cameroon. In 2013, she received the Freethought Backbone Award from the Secular Student Alliance.
But most importantly, she took time to get to know many individuals.
“I called her a mentor,” said Evan Clark, executive director of Atheists United, who met Kirkhart in 2009 while heading the Secular Student Alliance at California Lutheran University, the only religious university in the country with an atheist club at the time. “But what I’ve been finding out this past week is how many other people have called her mentor. She’s counseled or supported or guided dozens, if not hundreds of leaders.
“The thing that stands out most is that she was 100% dedicated to collaboration and the larger ideals of the cause, which is religious equity, separation of church and state and promoting atheist values,” Clark said.
Kevin Bolling, executive director of Secular Student Alliance, remembers the day he knocked on the door of Heretic House for the first time.
“She comes to the door and she’s like, ‘Next time just come in. The door is usually unlocked.’ Which was true,” Bolling said. “Her door was usually open in the middle of Los Angeles. But that’s just the way Bobbie was.”
The only requirement was to sign the guest book, which was filled with the names of all who had visited.
Kirkhart realized that religion has the great advantage of offering community to its adherents, and she set out to give atheists a community of their own. “We have less opportunity for community, for resources with each other than people in the churches,” she told Religion News Service in 2019.
Kirkhart grew up in a devout liberal Protestant family in Enid, Oklahoma. She attended church services, potlucks and even taught Sunday school while attending the University of Oklahoma, where she majored in journalism.
“My happiest times in the church I think as a child were family nights and the potlucks,” she told RNS. “That has nothing to do with being religious or irreligious; it has to do with needing to be with other people.”
In 2009, Kirkhart bought a Victorian in Angelino Heights for the express purpose of hosting other atheists — “kind of like the old church fellowship hall,” but without the sanctuary, she said. She named it Heretic House.
When Christine Jones came to Los Angeles in 2015, she was going through a breakup and career change. During a time of much turmoil, Jones turned to Kirkhart and Heretic House, hoping to rent a room.
“And she goes, ‘Well, I don’t rent my rooms out but you can certainly stay,’” Jones recalled. “Which is totally Bobbie. … My story is typical.”
Jones remembers sitting down in the evenings at the piano Kirkhart owned to play music for the two of them to enjoy. Then they would just talk, with Kirkhart sometimes displaying her deep knowledge of atheist history.
“It was natural to be there with her, spending evenings with her and talking and learning as much as I could about secular activism in Los Angeles and beyond,” Jones said.
But Kirkhart was also very direct, even when it came to Santa Claus.
Daughter Monica Waggoner remembers her mother telling her early on that Santa wasn’t real. “It was kind of a source of tension because I wanted to believe in Santa Claus,” she said, laughing. “She kept trying to explain it’s not real.”
As Waggoner grew older, she appreciated what those moments taught her. “I have valued so much in my life those opportunities to not just accept the default, but really think about what you believe,” she said.
Kirkhart first began asking questions about her faith in high school, but, as everyone she knew was religious, there were few answers that satisfied her. When her father got cancer, she found herself wanting to pray but didn’t believe a god would listen to her prayers.
She happened to be on vacation in Mazatlan, Mexico, at the time. “I went to the beach in the morning and said I’m going to know what I believe when I come home,” Kirkhart recounted. She wrestled with all her thoughts, beliefs and feelings for six hours.
“Then I came back an atheist,” she said.
Kirkhart never discouraged her daughter to explore religion, said Waggoner, who remembers going to church with her mother’s family.
“It was World Communion Day. So, very quickly, while we’re sitting there in the pews, she’s whispering an explanation to me of what Communion is, what it represents to these people and asked me if I want to go up and do it,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I need this.’”
Heretic House has been passed down to Kirkhart’s grandchildren, and the family plans to continue running it as a space for atheists and freethinkers. Friends reject the kinds of platitudes often offered after a death — Kirkhart won’t be “looking down on them,” they say — but she’ll surely be remembered.
“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,” Clark wrote in an email.
“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.’”
Building that type of community, Waggoner said, was always her mother’s goal.
“It’s obvious she succeeded,” she said.