Why “Plain Old Atheist”?

One: Because I’m just one of millions, possibly even billions of people who live ordinary, everyday lives in which God, the supernatural and religion have no significant role.

Two: Because of a fellow named John Joseph who, without realizing it, was a big helper on my path out of belief. John was also kind of a hero, but I didn’t find that out until after he died. I’ll tell the story here, but I have to warn you, it’s long and I’m not sure it’s particularly interesting to anyone but me.

John was a guy I knew when I worked at a software company in the early 2000s. The company was run by Scientologists, and paid exorbitant fees to use Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s system of management (some of which was quite brilliant, and much of which was hogwash).

I was the company’s advertising copywriter and John was a programmer. I’d visit his office to ask questions—I wanted to make sure that the near-miraculous claims I was making for our products (which, to be fair, were pretty darn good—go, John!) were accurate and truthful. John was a ridiculously smart guy and was always willing to make time for me. I really liked him.

Like many of the employees at that company, John was a devout Scientologist, and his knowledge of it was encyclopedic. Scientology basically revolves around everything Hubbard ever said or wrote on the subject, and John could recall single sentences from the hundreds of hours of taped lectures and tens of thousands of pages of Hubbard’s drivel. I saw him do it this once. Some conversation sparked some memory of some line in a sixty-two-hour series of lectures. The transcript was just over a thousand pages spread across several bound volumes, and he plucked one off the shelf and found the reference in about twenty seconds. It takes me longer to find my car keys.

John, without realizing it, helped me to realize something that was key to my letting go of my belief in God: Highly intelligent people can believe highly implausible things. This was right around the time I was teetering on the brink of atheism, and it was an important epiphany. One of the reasons for my lingering belief in God was that I knew a lot of very smart people, for whom I had a lot of respect, who believed in God. And how could those smart people be wrong?

In my time at the company, I met a lot of very bright people who believed unquestioningly in everything Hubbard wrote or said. I also read enough of Hubbard’s management “technology” to see that he was largely full of crap (even before I started reading up on this so-called religion and understood what a scoundrel and a con artist Hubbard was). Some of his ideas were good, some were silly, some were stolen, and many showed a stunning lack of basic business sense. Still, my Scientologist co-workers believed that whatever Hubbard decreed was true and would work.

From this, I came to the vitally important realization that belief has nothing to do with intelligence.

John left the company during my tenure, and I never heard or thought much about him. (I left the company shortly thereafter.) What I didn’t know was that he also left the official Church of Scientology, though he still believed in Hubbard and Scientology. John was one of many people convinced that Scientology was being screwed up by the guy who took over when Hubbard bought the farm in 1986. (From what I’ve learned, it seems Scientology was just as awful and abusive in Hubbard’s days, but back then there was no Internet to spread the warnings.)

Anyway, unbeknownst to me (or, I imagine, any of our co-workers), John began speaking out against the Church of Scientology, writing under the pseudonym Plain Old Thetan. (In Scientology, a thetan is basically the spirit, the essence of who a being really is.)

This was extraordinarily brave of John. In Scientology, speaking out against the Church is about the worst thing you can do. It’s likely to get you declared a suppressive person, which is basically Scientology excommunication. Once you’ve been “declared”, you’re shunned. No Scientologist in good standing with the Church can have anything to do with you, because doing so might get them declared. Because Scientology is such a tight-knit inward-facing group, being declared can mean loss of friends, family, and business contacts. (Lucky for John he was the only Scientologist in his family.)

Of course, I didn’t find out what John had been doing until 2014, when I read this article saying that Plain Old Thetan had passed away and revealing his previously-confidential identity. I was as surprised as could be. Following Scientology drama had become something of a hobby for me. I knew of Plain Old Thetan and probably interacted with him in a comment or message somewhere. I had no idea it was John, the guy whose office I used to visit.

John had passed away at the young age of 59. He never struck me as someone who took great care of himself, which is no surprise—Scientologists don’t seem to take physical health too seriously. Hubbard convinced them that most health problems are psychosomatic and can be cured with Scientology counseling, and in any case it doesn’t matter because once you’ve studied the “upper levels” (as John had) you can just drop your decaying body and pick up a newborn one. (Yet another example of the harm that religious belief can do—had John not had these beliefs, might he be alive today?)

So when it came time to find a name for this blog, I wanted something that identified me as just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill atheist, and I thought of John, the Plain Old Thetan. First, because John was so helpful (even if he didn’t realize it) in my journey away from faith, and second, because of the guts it took for him to speak out as he did.

Speaking out as an atheist carries far fewer risks, though it’s true that many Americans don’t trust atheists—and that’s part of the reason I started this blog, to increase that understanding. If I can channel a little of John’s bravery and a lot of his willingness to teach and bring about understanding, I believe the Plain Old Atheist blog will be a success.

P.S. If you want, you can read some of John Joseph’s anti-Church writings here, though good luck following the jargon. I used to be fairly fluent in “Scientologese” (at least by non-Scientologist standards) and I only understand about 85% of it.