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

Morehead, whose efforts to stage a roundtable discussion of commonalities between atheists and people of faith weren't accepted by organizers, said the American Atheists' confrontational stance would likely "make themselves feel good, but probably won't persuade Mormons or evangelicals in Utah to consider abandoning their faith commitment."

Chris Steadman, assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University and a former evangelical Christian, suggests the confrontational approach could backfire for atheists.

"To me, it's very clear that building positive relationships, where you have an opportunity to demonstrate … that you have similarities, to acknowledge that the differences are there, to share in the experience of being human, should be more of a priority of the atheist movement," he said. "I do not see the confrontational approach as achieving this. In fact, it's entirely possible a more confrontational approach does more harm than good, in that respect."

Reaching out

As many as 13 million adults identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center, or 2.4 percent of the U.S. population. A 2007 Barna Group survey pegged the number of Americans who are atheist at 5 million. In 2009, a Gallup survey reported 34 percent of Americans don't believe religion "is an important part" of their daily lives, though that number may not signify the total number of atheists in the country.

The face of atheism is changing with some groups taking a softer approach than the militancy manifested by the American Atheists, founded 51 years ago by the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair. She had won notoriety for being a plaintiff in one of two cases that led the Supreme Court to declare school-sponsored Bible readings in public schools to be unconstitutional.

Today, the American Atheist group is joined by organizations such as the American Humanist Association, Recovering from Religion and the Secular Student Alliance, among others. Some of these groups have adopted the trappings of organized religion to better serve the needs of the nonbelieving community.

Amanda Metzkas of CampQuest.org, which operates 17 weeklong "free-thought" summer camps across the U.S. and in Europe, told a 2013 Religion Newswriters Association convention panel that her goal is to serve atheist families "who need those things that religion has traditionally provided, but didn't know where to get them."

Metzkas said the camps teach kids "how to think, not what to think. … They go home knowing their family isn't the only family that doesn't go to church."

Some of these new groups also hold "secular community" meetings similar to Sunday worship services, minus the religious content, where like-minded humanists and their families can gather weekly, Religion News Service recently reported.

Although atheists make up a fraction of America's overall religious landscape, Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance contends young adult nonbelievers are on the rise.

"Millennials increasingly doubt the existence of God, " he told the RNA event. "Younger generations are starting out less religious than any generation before (them)." He said the "driving factor" in the growth of nonbelievers "is generational churn and replacement; old people are dying, young people are replacing them, and they are less religious."

The Pew survey said nearly one-third of religiously unaffiliated said they don't believe in God.

But, Galef said, that doesn't mean these young adults are less service oriented or caring than their religious counterparts. The secular student group at Ohio State University joined with a Christian fellowship to travel to New Orleans and help rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina, he said.

No counter-demonstration

Despite the gibes at religion in their promotional materials, local atheists hope the conference will spur some growth of their own ranks even in a community as religious as Salt Lake City. "I think all of us on the board are hoping to get a little bit more outreach to try and reach closeted atheist people who aren't comfortable talking about their nonbelief to family and friends," said Davidson.

No one's stepped up to announce a counter-demonstration or evangelistic outreach to the atheist gathering. Cody Craynor, an LDS Church spokesman, said the church would not issue a statement regarding the event.

But elements of Mormonism will be discussed among atheists.

On Wednesday evening, a panel discussion at the Salt Lake City Public Library will explore public perception of atheists and Mormons. Silverman and Joanne Hanks, who left a Mormon splinter group, will sit down with Brigham Young University professors Richard Holzapfel and J.B. Haws to "tackle common stereotypes of both groups, dispel myths, and answer audience questions," according to an announcement of the event.

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner

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