Edwin Kagin was one of the first atheist leaders I ever had a chance to meet in person. When I was running a Secular Student Alliance group in college, we were very excited that Edwin, the Kentucky State Director of American Atheists at the time, agreed to come to Chicago to debate a Catholic professor about the existence of God. The event drew several hundred audience members to our mostly-commuter school and gave our group a lot of energy, momentum, and additional members. That was well over a decade ago and Edwin has been a friend to me ever since, most recently giving me permission to include his essay “Thoughts for Atheists at Graduation” in my book The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide.
On Friday, American Atheists confirmed that Edwin had died at the age of 73.
More details are still forthcoming, but this is a tough loss to take as Edwin did so much behind the scenes.
While his biggest claim to fame on paper may be his role as AA’s legal director for many years, his most important role was arguably founding a summer camp for children of atheist parents along with his late wife Helen. Camp Quest now has well over a dozen sites across the U.S. and overseas, hosts hundreds of kids each summer, and continues to grow in popularity every year.
I’ve asked a number of people close to him for their thoughts and will update this post when I hear back from them.
***Update***: The responses are pouring in.
Herb Silverman, founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America (via email):
Edwin Kagin and I had a lot in common. Many people asked his wonderful wife Helen (now deceased) how she had the patience to put up with Edwin’s many idiosyncrasies and sometimes inappropriate sense of humor. Some people now ask my wife Sharon the same question about me.
But even I thought Edwin was eccentric. He and Helen stayed at our house when he spoke to our Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry group in South Carolina. He arrived with enough luggage to stay with us permanently, and the first thing he did was to pull an imposing sword out of his cane. Helen immediately told an alarmed Sharon not to worry because Edwin was harmless.
Edwin was not harmless, at least not to the religious right. His brilliant and satirical writings showed that his pen was far mightier than his sword. Edwin’s talk to our group in 1995 was “On the Coming American Religious Civil War.” The audience enjoyed the talk, but thought Edwin was overstating the dangers. Sadly, some now view him as prescient.
In 2004 he asked me to write a blurb for his delightfully irreverent book Baubles of Blasphemy, and here’s what I said:
“Is Edwin Kagin another Mark Twain? Not really. Mark Twain would have considered these writings blasphemous. Will this book win Edwin Kagin a Nobel Prize for literature or poetry? Probably not. But we would be living in a much better world if it did.”
Despite his gruff exterior, Edwin was always kind and willing to volunteer his efforts whenever needed to enhance secular causes. It was a better world when Edwin was with us.
Amanda Metskas, Executive Director of Camp Quest:
“Edwin was larger than life, as anyone who met him can attest. We’ll be telling stories about him for a long time — his antics and his achievements. 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 [outlast] 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.“
Amanda asks that, in Edwin’s honor, you consider sponsoring a child to attend Camp Quest.
Livia Edwords, Camp Quest camper and volunteer (via Facebook):
Edwin founded Camp Quest, a secular summer camp that I’ve been going to since I was about 12. After I aged out, I have volunteered as a cabin counselor there for most of my adult life.
Edwin was absolutely larger than life. As a kid he was just this funny old man who would yell at you, crack a bullwhip in your general direction and then try to make you prove invisible unicorns didn’t exist as a metaphor for god. He was equal parts terrifying and hilarious, and we loved him for his particular brand of crazy.
As an atheist, Edwin would surely balk at the idea of his “spirit” living on through CQ, but for lack of a better term, it will. Every time a child fails miserably at getting that godless $100 bill [for proving that invisible unicorns don't exist], I’ll think of him.
Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists (via Facebook):
I don’t remember when I met Edwin. He’s been with me as a friend, a confidant, and adviser for a very important decade in my life. He urged me to attend Camp Quest, where he later urged me to run for President. He was the father of our Legal Strategy, our WTC lawsuit, our Bench in Stark Florida, the new Oklahoma City bench lawsuit, and the Kentucky Homeland Security lawsuit. He was lead counsel for the current IRS fair taxation case and the winning Utah Cross and Smalkowski cases.
After a while, he became so famous for his work with American Atheists, Inc… that he lost almost all of his other clients. In the end, he made a huge sacrifice — his career — for this movement. This fact will not be forgotten.
But he was more than just the lawyer who fought cases. He was a shrewd legal strategist who gleefully taught me all I would learn. He was a teacher and a friend, and he made one hell of a cobbler.