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Atheists, Mormon scholars talk religion

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 12:26 p.m. MDT

Two groups of roughly 300 came together Wednesday night to create understanding between groups commonly seen at odds at Salt Lake City Main Library's Nancy Tessman Auditorium. (, Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV Chopper 5) Two groups of roughly 300 came together Wednesday night to create understanding between groups commonly seen at odds at Salt Lake City Main Library's Nancy Tessman Auditorium. (, Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV Chopper 5)

SALT LAKE CITY — Two groups came together Wednesday night to create understanding between groups commonly seen at odds.

Two professors of history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sat on a panel with two atheist experts for a discussion to dispel misconceptions and seek understanding.

A debate seeks a winner, where discussions seek understanding, explained panel moderator Paul Reeve, a University of Utah history professor.

“We are seeking understanding tonight, and that is the purpose for our panel here,” Reeve told a crowd of roughly 300 at Salt Lake City Main Library's Nancy Tessman Auditorium.

American Atheists hosted the panel as a lead-in to its national convention that begins Thursday in Salt Lake City.

“We’re hoping that we can use this as a stepping stone to reach a healthier Salt Lake City,” American Atheists President David Silverman said.

The panelists addressed questions about the biggest misconceptions about Mormons and atheists, the future of religion and how the LDS Church teaches its history.

BYU church history professor J.B. Haws said he believes the biggest misconception about the LDS Church is that it’s exclusionary.

“I think what gets missed is just how expansive the salvation model is in Mormonism,” Haws said.

Silverman disagreed, saying he has heard many stories of exclusion in his position with the American Atheists.

Richard Holzapfel, an author and LDS Church history professor at BYU, said the actions of a few people do not reflect the LDS Church’s doctrine.

Reeve said one of the main tenets of the LDS Church is to let people worship how they feel is best. He suggested that Silverman may not have heard about some of the more positive, inclusive situations.

The most common misconception about atheists struck a similar chord.

“I think the greatest misconception of atheism is that we’re not nice and/or immoral,” Silverman said.

Atheists choose their morality, where religious people say they are moral because of their faith, he said.

Silverman said he believes information available on the Internet will lead more people to abandon their faith, making religion a “nonissue” in the future.

He described religious people as “victims of brainwashing” and said he sees a humanitarian need to spread atheism.

The panel also included Joanna Hanks, an author, ex-Mormon and former polygamist.

Reeve said he thought the night's discussion went well — “for the most part.”

“There were times in which I think the atheists perpetuated stereotypes rather than tore them down,” he said.

Haws expressed gratitude for the panel and said he hoped to convey that many Mormon beliefs are rooted in compassion.

“Deep-seated beliefs are hard to capture in short quotes and media pieces, and that’s what makes this (panel) valuable,” he said.

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