National Edition

Zeroing in on religious hubs, atheists to gather in Salt Lake City for Easter

Published: Tuesday, April 15 2014 9:00 p.m. MDT

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, poses for photos during the unveiling of an Atheist monument outside the Bradford County Courthouse on Saturday, June 29, 2013 in Stark, Fla. Between 600 and 900 members of the American Atheists are expected in Salt Lake City this coming Easter weekend for a three-day celebration of nonbelief. Current members of the atheist group also hope they can recruit new members.

Matt Stamey, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — Religious gatherings have been the norm here since Mormon settlers arrived in 1847.

Along with the biannual conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is headquartered downtown, the Presbyterian Church (USA) brought 4,000 delegates to town for its annual convention in 1990; six years later, the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual gathering here. In 2015, an estimated 8,000 delegates and visitors to the Episcopal Church's triennial General Convention will take over the Salt Palace Convention Center for nine days.

But this Easter weekend, the anti-religionists will be in town. As Christians observe Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, some 600 to 900 members of American Atheists are anticipated downtown, a first here for the nonbelievers.

"We like to bring our conventions to what is commonly referred to as 'the belly of the beast' — religious cities," said David Silverman, president of American Atheists. "Lots of atheists feel repressed by religion in (such) cities," he said, citing an earlier convention in Des Moines, Iowa, which he dubbed "a Christian city."

The celebration of nonbelief comes at a time when atheism is evolving. An increasingly diverse spectrum of humanist organizations are employing the trappings of organized religion to attract a larger segment of what surveys find is a growing population of religiously unaffiliated Americans, some of whom don't share Silverman's hardcore stance against religion.

Even some of those affiliated with this week's gathering put a positive spin on their differences with believers. "We're not the old scary atheists who are trying to destroy religion," said Sarah Davidson, events coordinator for Atheists of Utah, which is hosting the national group's event. "We want to be a positive thing in the life of people who don't turn to religion."

Confrontation or common ground

A longtime practitioner of religious diplomacy, John W. Morehead of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies in Salt Lake doesn't anticipate atheists will harvest many converts here, but will largely end up preaching to their own.

"I think they're very small, but they can have a major impact," Morehead said. "It's no surprise they chose Salt Lake City. This is the place to come to make an issue and a point, and they can use the Mormon Church as a punching bag."

Silverman said the convention is "not just about bashing Mormonism, (but also) about being an atheist and being ubiquitous."

A former Bell Labs inventor who has been a nonbeliever since he was 6 years old, Silverman said the group's attacks on religion (billboards along I-15 in advance of the event have called out Mormonism, and a promotional image superimposes the American Atheist logo on an outline of the landmark LDS temple in Salt Lake) are aimed against the faith and not its adherents.

"It's not toward people, it's toward religion," he asserted of the atheists' barbs. "The reason we have animosity (towards) religion is it's a lie, a scam, it hurts people. (Religion) makes them act in a bad way."

As to holding the annual gathering during one of Christianity's holiest observances, Silverman said his group gets good prices for accommodations over Easter weekend.

"It's not because we want to snub our faces at someone else's religion; it's purely a business decision," he said. "We're not going to avoid a weekend because of someone else's religion."

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