Deep in the Bible belt, Cartersville resident Brandon Lee knows atheism is about as appetizing to the masses as an unbuttered biscuit.
But much to the chagrin of his grandmother — who couldn't fathom why her grandson would request a flaky homemade treat sans the extra dairy product — Lee is hedging his bets that there's just enough non-believers out there to make his "The Atheist Officiant" services a sleeper success.
In fact, he's been offering non-religious wedding services for three years now in the metro Atlanta area, averaging about 10 ceremonies annually.
It's a natural fit for long-time actor Lee, who said he's been fascinated by the great speech-makers of history since he was in grade school.
"The power of oratory has always been something that's just thrilled me," he said. "I loved how oratory could lift the doors off buildings, lift the roof ... it could make people stand up."
Nor was the process of becoming an officiant that burdensome. "It is just as easy as going to The Universal Life Church on their website and getting one of their certificates," he added.
At about $300 a gig, Lee admits his side business isn't that lucrative. But with apologies to the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, he said he never really expected such a venture to lure in the almighty dollar.
"There is not a lot of money in atheism," Lee said. "I have earned thousands, and as far as I know I'm one of the higher earning atheists in the world."
Still, Lee said he sees nothing but upswing for his sole proprietorship enterprise. Having recently gotten his business listed on The Knot — one of the largest online directories for wedding services — he looks to tap into a demographic that's not only historically underserved, but virtually unrecognized as a matrimonial market.
And as fate would have it, that includes quite a bit of overlap with the information technology (I.T.) sector.
"We've been working our [search engine optimizations] on that to really focus on the I.T. crowd," Lee said. "That is where I'm noticing just time and time again one of my couples is in I.T. The other one is a nurse, a doctor, a lawyer, something in other degrees — but one of them is always in I.T."
Name: Brandon Lee
Current City: Cartersville
Hometown: Atlanta (but grew up in Southern California)
Profession: "Officiant to those without a god"
College: San Diego State University (Bachelor's in sociology); Kennesaw State University (Bachelor's in history teacher education)
Daily Tribune News (DTN): Before you became The Atheist Officiant, what were some of your previous professional experiences?
BL: I worked for about 20 years in the hospitality industry — front-desk management and general management — so we did a lot of weddings during that time. Weddings would come in every weekend of the year, and I got to see a lot of weddings from that side.
DTN: Where did the idea for The Atheist Officiant come from?
BL: When I was first marrying my wife, we couldn't find anybody who would give us a wedding without some mention of God in it ... everyone we talked to said "What do you mean you don't want God in your wedding? Who are you doing this for?" So many people cannot conceive of an idea of a marriage without a god that, just like me asking for a biscuit without butter, it was something that my grandmother could not conceive. So for a lot of the same people that are willing to offer their services to marry people, they still just cannot understand doing it without any notion to a god. So they often tell the couple "Well, OK, we'll just have one prayer or I'll just say one little thing about God." And the bride and groom are saying "No, we're atheists, we don't believe in a god. We put God with Narnia." That's when I came up with the idea, talking to my wife, that we should offer this service.
DTN: Was there ever a specific moment where you decided to go all-in on the concept?
BL: The idea sat in my own mind for a long time. We also photograph weddings on the side, that's how I first got into it. One day, talking with the bride and groom at their wedding, their officiant who gave the sermon went into a whole, long piece about their political and religious viewpoints, and the bride and groom were rolling their eyes at him. I'm photographing it and looking at my wife and she's looking at me and I could tell her eyes were saying "It's time, Brandon, you need to be there for couples like this who don't want to roll their eyes at their own wedding."
DTN: What sort of services do you offer as The Atheist Officiant?
BL: Weddings and funerals are the most likely services that I'm going to offer. So much of our Western culture is steeped in Christianity. Christianity first made its way into England in 597, so since then we have been well-bred in Christianity. So we see all of our rituals from the Christian perspective. But rituals exist in all sorts of sub-societies and have existed well before Christianity was even a thought ... so I'm trying to offer ritualizations for those who do not have a god.
DTN: How does an "atheist" wedding differ the most from a traditional "Christian" wedding?
BL: It's going to follow most of the same traditions that a Western Christian wedding has. About 80 percent of what an orator does is what the audience perceives. I actually listen to very few of the words, it's how the words are presented. So I build my weddings up to follow a standard Christian wedding, but change the wording around. So when I'm saying "Let's talk about this bride and groom," if you've been to 100 Christian weddings and you're used to hearing a man who looks like me stand up there and say "Let's have a prayer," you're going to hear "Let's have a prayer now." I won't say those words, I'll say nothing like it, but you've been to so many weddings before that you just hear what you want to hear ... so it's going to be a very traditional wedding and if you're not really paying attention, you're just going to find it lovely and you're not even going to notice that there was no call to a god, no special arrangement for a god or a promise to a god between the bride and groom. You're just going to find it welcoming.
DTN: And what's an "atheist" funeral ceremony like?
BL: That is much the same way. It's different in that you start an atheist funeral by saying "this [expletive] sucks." I'm not Christian, there is no hell for me to go to for saying that, and in what other situation would our most extreme bad word come to light than when you're burying somebody, when you're laying someone into the ground, that is when you call for extremes in our language. Then you call to attention the person. It's fun being a Christian, because you get to think about an afterlife. You get to think "I miss them now, but in a little bit of time I'll be able to hug my mother again." You don't get that as an atheist. Death is final and it is brutal. So what I try to pass on to them is a Cherokee Indian idea that we get two lives. The first one, when your heart stops beating. The second one, the last time your name is said out loud ... so it's up to you to let their life go on. You must say their name in the future, you must remember stories about them so their life doesn't end right here.
DTN: Are there any particular requests your customers ask for at their ceremonies?
BL: Mostly it's not to offend their religious family. Almost all of my customers tell me "Yes, I have a very religious aunt/mother/grandfather," whatever it is. I do not like conflict, I avoid it at almost all costs. I'm not an atheist who's just going to tell you all your views are wrong or just use facts and just jump on somebody. I like nice, amicable conversations, so when people tell me they don't want their grandmother to be offended, I don't want my grandmother to be offended. She's 95, she doesn't have many ticks left in her heart — finding out I'm an atheist might end those ticks. So I try to treat everybody's grandmother like mine, where you just treat her gingerly and don't give them any reason to think anything is different from what they expect.
DTN: Do you have any insights into the atheist "market" here in Bartow?
BL: It is larger than most people would assume. I like to call it 3 percent. Gallop has us at about 7 percent nationally, another one has us at about 10 percent — 3 percent to 5 percent is the standard national one that I see. For the Bible belt, I'd put us at about 3 percent. That puts me at a low enough percent that no one could probably argue me down or undercut my next point by diminishing my number. Every year I get about 6.9 percent of the population of 1,000 gets married ... the greater Atlanta area is 5.8 million, that's about 13,000. So you imagine 6,900 weddings in Bartow every year, so if I can get 3 percent of those that are atheists, that's the number that I'm looking for. It's an extremely fine arc of all the people that's out there. I'm not just hitting angles, degrees — [but] seconds. Very few people want what I offer. But what I offer, the people who want it don't want anything else. It's an odd situation where I kind of have a monopoly on it.
DTN: What are your future plans as The Atheist Officiant?
BL: We're creating a platform right now so when a person comes into my website, we can ask them a slight series of questions. Not an annoying 100 questions, but 10 questions. In the realm of atheism, where do you kind of realm? Are you more of a STEM person, do you like the mathematics, or are you more spiritual? That way, I can have different weddings that plug in for different people's different personalities. Once we're able to get that together and hopefully get the name "The Atheist Officiant" launched, we'll be able to create a wedding platform that other people can take in and just franchise themselves out, already having the wedding package built, someone in the northeast can just say "Yes, I'm the wedding officiant for the northeast franchise for The Atheist Officiant" ... so just like any normal franchise they would use the marketing that I've created, the web platform that I've created and the training that I've created here and go back to their own home markets and branch out to do atheist weddings — franchising out would be the ultimate dream.