Atheists worship pork at the self-proclaimed Church of Bacon

For some eating bacon is a religious experience. But in Las Vegas, there’s a group dedicated to the worship of the cured pork.

Founded in 2010, the United Church of Bacon now claims nearly 10,000 members worldwide and is based on beliefs that include its followers must love the smell of bacon.

"...we say bacon is real therefore it’s our god."

“Bacon is a way to bring people together, even if you are religious, there’s no discrimination. You can have a god before bacon,” said church founder and ex-Marine John Whiteside. “I like pigs in a blanket, that’s great, I like donuts and bacon, any type of bacon is great.”

The organization uses bacon's popularity to bring together a “church” of non-believers. But, it was really formed to promote the rights of atheists and religious skeptics. One of its founding members is Whiteside’s longtime friend, Penn Jillette --from the illusionist team Penn and Teller.

“We’re not immoral, we’re not un-American. We are aethists, we are skeptics but shouldn’t be a reason to lose family, friends and possibly even your job,” Whiteside said.

The group's clergy are called friars and they consider donuts "holey" (puns intended). There isn’t a physical house of worship and there aren’t meetings or sermons to attend-- Whiteside encourages members to listen to atheist podcasts, such as Jillette’s ‘Penn’s Sunday School.

Unlike religious groups, the group doesn't claim tax-exempt status or take donations. Members say its mission is to raise money for secular charities and, according to Whiteside, it has donated hundreds of thousands dollars to groups, including Las Vegas Sunday Assembly, a non-religious congregation that ‘celebrates life through social, educational and charity events.’

The Church of Bacon even performs weddings and funerals, and last year had a "revival" and the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert.

“We do mock ourselves -- there’s no doubt about it-- because we say bacon is real therefore it’s our god, we’re just saying that we believe in things that we can prove to exist because we’re skeptics, atheists, free-thinkers,” Whiteside said.

Jeff Ledold, a Canadian member, tells most of the church members are legitimate bacon lovers—but there is a serious message behind the name.

“I’m an atheist and the Church of Bacon is one of those groups you can join where atheists join together to promote good,” said Ledold. “Instead of worshiping a god, we’re substituting something in there that has ideals that we hold important.”

But not everyone is taking the group seriously. Whiteside says a Wells Fargo Bank clerk recently declined to notarize one of the church’s wedding documents because he says she was discriminating against the group. As a result he emptied his personal account and later staged a protest against the bank. Wells Fargo denies the allegations.

Most religious groups in the Vegas area, including the Catholic diocese, tell that they view the Church of Bacon with a “live and let live attitude” and don’t take offense to the group.

But, one Rabbi says the name could be insulting to certain religions.

“I don’t know much about them so I can’t really make a judgment whether they’re anti-sematic or anti-religion, I don’t know,” said Rabbi Shea Harley, of the Chabad of Southern Nevada. “I just think they should have been more sensitive to people, maybe pick yourself any other name.

Whiteside says the Church of Bacon fills a certain need in Sin City.

“A meeting place for the secular community, we don’t really have one here in Las Vegas,” Whiteside said.

He said the church is considering purchasing a building where followers can gather and he's eyeing Penn Jillette’s vacant million dollar mansion in the desert dubbed the “slammer”.  He says the Church of Bacon may consider making the switch to a non-profit status to pay for it through donations and loans.

Until then, church members continue to gather online in the name of non-discrimination, even, when it comes down to the type of bacon that’s worshiped.

“We take people that love turkey bacon, we take people that love vegetarian bacon, we’re just trying to get everybody together,” Whiteside.