He was as blunt and mocking as he could be, arranging mock communion services and dressing up as a monk armed with a blow-dryer to de-baptize people rejecting their childhood faith.
Yet Edwin Kagin, the national legal director of American Atheists of the "in-your-face" wing of atheism, gained respected from the faithful who knew him and often opposed him.
The Kentucky attorney, who represented atheists in church-state conflicts and helped establish summer camps for disbelieving kids, died recently at age 73. My long-time colleague Andrew Wolfson writes a vivid portrait of him in the obituary here.
"I thought he was a very sincere person and a patriotic man. We we just disagreed on one big issue," said one Baptist minister and state representative whose legislation, requiring the state of Kentucky to give credit to Almighty God for its homeland security, was challenged unsuccessfully by Kagin.
Kagin, a military veteran, was as fervent an advocate for the second amendment as the first. I talked with him several times over the years. He believed strongly in the right to mock. He was fond of quoting the Treaty of Tripoli as hard evidence that the nation's founders rejected the notion of America as a Christian nation. He also regularly quoted James Madison on why he fought so doggedly against such things as the homeland security clause or a cross memorial at Ground Zero. Allow a small precedent to get established, he said, and bigger ones follow:
"... it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties," Madison said. ... "The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it."
I spoke with him a couple of years ago for a story on how the non-religious memorialize the dead. Given the growing numbers of people with no religious affiliation -- ranging from hard-core atheists to spiritual-but-not-religious types -- this is a phenomenon worth paying attention to.
Mr. Kagin had lost his wife and fellow atheist, Helen, in 2010, and he proudly talked about how he and other loved ones organized a memorial tribute service without a shred of prayer or hope for the afterlife. If anything, he said, secularists have a complete sense of closure upon the death of a loved one.
"it's been a process of grief" over the loss of Helen, he told me. "There's not been a day that goes by" without thinking of her.
But "we know nothing lasts forever," he said. "Everything ends. We don’t look for some false sense of being reunited, which is just wish-fulfillment thinking."
But disbelieving in the spiritual realm, he said, didn't preclude a sense of awe. Science, he said, shows that people are the sum total of elements that existed for eons before they were formed and will persist for eons afterward.
"We come from starstuff," Mr. Kagin said. "There's no telling where we've been. When we're dead, there's no telling where those atoms go."
In Mr. Kagin's case, they'll probably stay in close proximity to a courthouse door, vigilant against any experiment on their liberties.
Being new to the region, if not to the religion beat, many of my assignments have enabled me to discover new areas of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Earlier this week I was able to visit the Laurel Highlands for the first time -- and definitely not the last time.
I was there on a cool but beautiful afternoon for the burial of the nation's longest-serving Orthodox bishop, the Antiochian Metropolitan Philip Saliba. He was buried at Antiochian Village, the camp and conference center in Westmoreland County whose founding he oversaw as part of his mission to transplant and extend the immigrant church in American soil.
While I was there, I saw a relative rarity in these parts: the tomb of a saint. The Antiochian Orthodox honor their first American bishop, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, and after Metropolitan Saliba's burial in a small, shaded cemetery at Antiochian Village, several stopped by St. Raphael's tomb to pay respects.
St. Raphael came here in the late 19th century under the auspices of Russian Orthodox bishops to help organize the Arab Christian immigrants who were arriving in North America -- fleeing Ottoman persecution and seeking better economic opportunity.
Most of them were Orthodox. When they got here they worked hard to build churches and sacrificed. It was the Russian Orthodox Church that was trying to care for them."
Russian Orthodox prelates arranged to bring Raphael here and eventually ordained him a bishop.
"His story is remarkable because he basically set it as his mission to find every Middle Eastern Orthodox person in North America," said the Very Rev. George Kevorkian, pastor of St. Ignatius Church in Englewood, N.J., and hierarchical assistant for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. "Wherever they were, he sought them out by train, by horse carriage; he walked. There's a story that's told that when he got somewhere in the Midwest by train rather than going to sleep he went wandering asking everybody he saw are there any Arabic-speaking people in the area who are Christians, and he found three and spent the rest of the night talking to them, assisting them. That's the heart he had. We call him the shepherd of the lost sheep of North America, because without his ministry, who knows what would have happened to those people?"
By the time of his death in 1915, there were 29 Antiochian parishes in North America. There are now about 275, according to the church, many launched under the recent half-century tenure of Metropolitan Philip.
Among those visiting his tomb on Monday were the Rev. Gregory Murphy of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Geneva, N.Y. -- a parish founded by St. Raphael.
Father Murphy said St. Raphael was known not only as a "good shepherd" but also a "peacemaker."
"There are stories that he would go into a community and maybe families were not getting along with each other, and he worked out their problems," said Father Murphy, a convert to Orthodoxy. Speaking after Metropolitan Philip's burial, he said the church has long had "these great saints that came up organically. ... We see one today, maybe in the making."
Often I write obituaries about people whose remarkable lives came to my attention upon their death, -- and found myself wishing I had known them while I had the chance. Learning about the life of America's longest-service Orthodox Christian bishop -- the Antiochian Metropolitan Philip Saliba, who will be buried next week at Antiochian Village in Westmoreland County, Pa. -- was one such case.
Sadly, another Antiochian prelate, also with local connections, was taken from us last week as well, and I knew this one well enough to mourn his passing.
The Rev. Alexander Atty, a native of Johnstown, Pa., who earned a doctorate in ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, was himself ordained by Metropolitan Saliba. The influence shows. He was long pastor at St. Michael the Archangel Antiochian Orthodox Church in Louisville, Ky. I used to interview him when I was religion writer at The Courier-Journal there. Unlike Pennsylvania, there was a very small Orthodox presence in Louisville, but Rev. Atty had the same sense of mission that Metropolitan Philip had on a larger scale -- to expand beyond the Arab ethnic roots of the movement and embrace any who felt called to Orthodox spirituality. In a city with only two Orthodox churches of any type, that meant his parish drew an ethnically diverse group of worshipers.
Rev. Atty was taken too soon, at age 62, after a long battle with cancer.
To emphasize his pan-Orthodox sensibilities, Rev. Atty served more recently as dean of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pa. -- affiliated with the Orthodox Church in America -- from July 2010 until his retirement due to illness in February 2013.
In one of my stories, I interviewed him about what it's like to mark Easter on a different calendar from most other Christians in the West:
"We are not commercialized,'' he said. "Our kids know that the resurrection is primo and the Easter bunny and Easter eggs are secondary.''
The Orthodox, he said, "take the Holy Week as a microcosm of your life. You have life, suffering, death and resurrection.''
When Rev. Atty became pastor, he said in a sermon, some parishioners told him that he had "ruined'' the annual service of Holy Unction on the Wednesday before Easter because he told them they needed to go to confession before receiving the ritual anointing.
"I don't know how anybody could have believed'' that they could avoid confession, Rev. Atty said. "The church isn't instant lube. It means nothing if there's no devotion. If God isn't first, he doesn't exist.''
I had been out of touch with him after he had left Louisville, but I'm glad I got to know him when I did.