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."
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."
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.
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.
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