Atheist Street Pirates in LA

A group of three people dressed in neon vests walk up to a telephone pole on a busy Los Angeles street and stare at a sign that reads, “Jesus: The Way, The Truth, The Life.” Two hold a ladder tightly while one climbs, gracefully twists and tears the corrugated plastic and frees the sign of Jesus from the metal nails that crucified him on the pole.

“Let’s go !” one of the neon-clad people below shouts.

here are the Atheist Street Pirates, a group of volunteers who locate and remove religious signs illegally posted in public places. They first got organized last fall, and they already have more business than they can handle.

Founding Pirate Evan Clark is the first executive director of the statewide nonprofit United Atheists based in Los Angeles. Before that, he founded his college atheist group, Cal Lutheran.

“I went to a Catholic school in first grade and quickly decided that this god thing wasn’t working for me,” he says. “[In] In sixth grade, I was flipping through a dictionary and there was this word called “atheist” and I said, “Wow, there’s a word for me!

The Atheist Street Hackers display some of the signs they’ve collected from their previous looting. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

Fast forward to last fall, when he and other atheist volunteers talked about removing religious signs in public places, which they jokingly called the Atheist Religious Rubbish Removal Group, or ARRRG. The idea, and the reference to the pirate, remained. Now their website promises they will “sabotage the efforts” of “religious scallywags” who publish illegal street propaganda.

While multiple legal battles over religious displays on public property touch on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, Clark says the legality of unauthorized signs on poles and overpasses is more cut and dry.

“You can stand on top of a highway and hold a sign as loud and proud as you want. You can spend 15 hours there if you want. But the second you leave it behind, you’ve left behind. litter in the public space,” he says. “Religious signage, there are tons of laws that say secular land can’t favor one religion over the other.”

How do hackers spot the signs? Residents can report any they find to hackers, and these days they have far more reported signs than successful takedowns. Almost all are Christians.

Anya Overmann and Evan Clark plan their route through Los Angeles to spend an afternoon removing religious signs. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

In fact, getting up to a pole and removing a sign is harder than it looks, reports atheist street hack Anya Overmann on her maiden voyage. “I had no idea they would be clamped so tight and used with this heavy equipment on these poles. I mean, these people are serious. They don’t want you to take those signs down,” she said.

But the failure of an atheist pirate is the success of a Christian proselyte.

Brent Farley, founder of Jesus saves the ministry of signs, sells signs nationwide for people to display in their hometowns. “Someone who actually gets their life transferred to God in eternity…so worth the risk” of a potential fine, he says.

But more than a decade ago, Farley didn’t believe in a God either. He also used heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and painkillers.

“Every day I wouldn’t even fall asleep unless I had something on the counter next to me to wake me up. It got awful,” he says. “And that made the Lord coming into my life all the more powerful.

He says he was trying to clean up and retire over the Easter weekend. While watching the History Channel, he came across a show about the fabric that Jesus was buried in. “And in the end, I was just convinced that this Jesus character was actually the son of God,” he says.

“I go to the bathroom, I start throwing up in my toilet and… I feel like he just walked into my life,” he says. “I said, ‘Come in and help me.’ So he came and helped me.

Farley became a street preacher, until COVID hit and the streets emptied. Then he founded this national movement of people putting up road signs. According to Farley, the sign might not mean much to some people, or might even be offensive. But what if there is someone who sees the sign and it saves their life, like that History Channel TV show did for him?

This is why Farley sees the Atheist Street Pirates as purveyors of despair, interfering in his quest to find meaning in life.

“To take away one of those signs that Jesus saves…to take away that hope of eternity with our Creator…you actually take away their hope from their lives, so they have no reason to live,” says Farley. “And that cannot be tolerated.”

When a sign is too difficult to reach, Evan Clark reports it to a public works department to have it removed. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

But atheist hacker Evan Clark has enough to live for: protecting his constitutional right to a landscape free of religious signage, for example, and preventing the normalization of religious messaging in public spaces. He describes a slippery slope: “That’s how ‘In God We Trust’ makes money.”

After spending an afternoon taking down signs like these, the atheist hackers only looted a few of the nine signs they had decided to take down. There are dozens left marked on their participatory map. But Clark says taking them down isn’t the most important part of their mission.

“We are following this phenomenon. We let it be known that this is a problem,” he says. “Unchecked religious privilege and microaggressions of certain religions – we can’t even start the conversation about what this means for our society until we understand what it is.”

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