The story of an atheist “finding God” while at the end of life is not new. Fear of death — and what may lie beyond — can prompt anyone to turn to religiosity. But not Edwin Frederick Kagin. He remained a staunch non-believer to the very end.
Born in Greenville, S.C., Kagin was the son of a Presbyterian pastor. He grew up in that faith, and spent many years reading the Bible and attending church services, but he eventually turned away from all forms of religion.
“I was born an atheist, just like you were, and every other human being who lives,” Kagin said. “The appropriate question is, ‘When did the god-talk get poured into your innocent little ear?”
Kagin served as a medic in the U.S. Air Force, then attended the College of Wooster in Ohio, Park College in Missouri and the University of Missouri–Kansas City. He earned his juris doctor from the School of Law of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, and became a self-described “lawyer poet” and secular activist.
In his professional life, Kagin championed the separation of state and church and was an outspoken advocate for atheists. Kagin won a federal court ruling in 1999 that required judges in Kentucky to let parents receive counseling from a non-sectarian agency, rather than exclusively from Catholic social services. In 2010, he convinced a federal appeals court to rule that the placement of 12-foot high crosses along Utah highways to honor fallen state troopers violated the First Amendment’s prohibition of government endorsement of religion. The Utah Highway Patrol Association had claimed the crosses were not a religious symbol.
However, his efforts in the court were not always successful. In 2008, Kagin tried and failed to block the ex-wife of his client, an atheist, from enrolling their son at a religious school. He was also unable to persuade a federal appeals court in New York to reverse a ruling allowing the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum to display a cross of two steel beams found in the wreckage of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Kagin called the inclusion of cross a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state; the judge said it was a historic relic.
Kagin will be remembered as a “legal strategist extraordinaire for the American atheist movement,” said David Silberman, president of American Atheists. “The country is a better place for him.”
Outside of the courtroom, Kagin practiced what he preached. He was the first state director for Kentucky for the American Atheists — an organization founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose lawsuit (Murray v. Curlett) prompted the Supreme Court to end daily prayer in public schools — and later served as the group’s national legal director. He was also one of the notable signers of the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifesto, which defined Humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”
“Atheism means without a belief in a god. That’s it. Within that shell are many many different points of view,” Kagin wrote.
Kagin and his wife Dr. Helen Good co-founded Camp Quest, a summer camp for children from atheist, agnostic, humanist and other freethinking families, in 1996. Camp Quest was created to counter the exclusion of nontheists from the Boy Scouts, and catered to young nonbelievers, ages 8 to 17, many of whom had been bullied for their lack of faith. Along with traditional camp activities like archery, kayaking, crafts and hiking, Camp Quest teaches campers about astronomy, biology, ethics and philosophy. Each session also includes an “invisible unicorn challenge” in which campers are encouraged to prove the existence of two fictional invisible unicorns and win a cash prize. Since the challenge began 18 years ago, the prize has yet to be claimed. The exercise is meant to teach the campers to think rationally and critically.
“He was gruff, and generous, and brilliant, and cantankerous all at once. Edwin will have the only kind of immortality that we get — his legacy will long out last him. Edwin’s legacy is thousands of happy campers who have a place to learn, laugh, and belong because of Camp Quest. We will miss him so much,” said Camp Quest executive director Amanda Metskas.
As “the candidate without a prayer,” Kagin unsuccessfully campaigned for the Kentucky Supreme Court in 1998 and the Kentucky State Senate in 2000. Kagin was also a founder and board member of Recover Resources Center, which provides an alternative addiction recovery program to the religiously-oriented Alcoholics Anonymous. In 2005, he and Helen were named “Atheists of the Year” by American Atheists. He received the honor again in 2008.
Kagin was a frequent speaker and debater, and appeared on hundreds of radio and television programs. He spoke out against fundamentalist religious education, creationism and granting preferential treatment to religious groups in tax filings.
Described by friends and fans as kind, judgmental, irreverent, intelligent, funny, passionate and thought-provoking, Kagin developed a reputation for putting on (sometimes offensive) stunts to get his message across. He often donned priest or monk costumes and began lectures by referring to his audience as “sinners.” He would describe Mary Magdalene as a deranged hooker, call the Holy Eucharist “Swallow the Leader” and have female atheists perform the song “Back In Their Burkas Again” while wearing the full-body covering. Kagin even held mock communion services and gleefully laughed as he used a blow-dryer labeled “Reason and Truth” to de-baptize people.
A prolific writer, Kagin was a contributing author of the 2003 book “The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America.” Two years later, he published a collection of essays and poems titled “Baubles of Blasphemy.” When Helen, Kagin’s wife of 25 years, died in 2010, he penned a tribute in her honor on his online journal, Blasphemous Blogging.
Kagin was previously married to Sandra Graves who gave him four children, and was a step-father to one daughter. One of his progeny, Steven, became a pastor at a Disciples of Christ church in Kansas, but Kagin maintained they had an excellent relationship. “We just understand there are certain things we really can’t, at this point, talk about,” he said.
“In a movement noted for its large personalities, Edwin Kagin was one of the largest of all,” Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, stated.
Kagin died on March 28 after suffering for several years from heart disease. He was 73. His family plans to celebrate his life with a “fun-eral.”