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.