SALT LAKE CITY — The sign “Atheists meet here” looked out of place with the tall administrative buildings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints visible in the distance. A few dozen people milled around in the park nearby and chatted while some of their children sat cross-legged in the grass. A couple pointed and smiled at a quite different sign hanging from an apartment across the street: “We sustain the prophet.”
Dan Ellis, president of Atheists of Utah, reminded the crowd to remain cordial and friendly during the march. “When will we be eating babies?” someone from the crowd shouted facetiously, to laughs.
Despite the humor, the gathering represents a genuine clash of belief and nonbelief. The atheists were rallying during the national convention of the American Atheists organization, taking place over Easter weekend this year in Salt Lake City — which was also playing host to the Mormon general conference, one of the largest gatherings of the church. During the conference, local atheists assembled to march around the Temple Square walls. Former Mormons in the group signed official letters of resignation from the church, which they planned to hand deliver.
It was a strange scene in one of the most religious and conservative states in the country — and a level of activism that speaks to a new and more open outreach strategy by organized atheists. While the number of atheists in the country is hard to measure, there is no doubt it has risen. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who identify as atheist increased from 1.6 percent in 2007 to 2.4 percent in 2012. A third of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated.
The normalization of atheism has moved the topic of nonbelief from the dinner table to billboards and the street. Groups like American Atheists and countless online meet-ups and student groups across the country have begun reaching out more publicly, especially to members of a religious culture — like the Mormon Church.
The city was chosen for a couple of reasons, explained Dave Muscato, public-relations director for American Atheists. The nonprofit, whose members work for the separation of church and state through law and outreach, generally chooses heavily religious communities for hosting events. Utah was especially attractive this year because of the legal challenge to gay marriage from the state, which American Atheists saw as religiously motivated.
But according to Muscato, it was also to show support for the growing number of nonbelievers in Utah, 30 years after the organization last gathered there. “The religious landscape in that amount of time has changed so much,” he said.
His organization refers to those atheists who still attend church as “closeted.” Since the mid-2000s, with the publication of some popular pro-atheism books — Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great” — the New Atheists have brought the subject, as well as supporters, more into the open, explained Muscato. He wants people to know that “there are atheists” even in Utah.
The normalization of atheism has moved the topic of nonbelief from the dinner table to billboards and the street. Groups like American Atheists, and countless online meet-ups and student groups across the country, have begun reaching out more publicly.
In the downtown Salt Lake City library a day before the convention, there was standing room only for a discussion between the president of American Atheists, David Silverman, and two Mormon professors from Brigham Young University. In the crowd there were T-shirts that read, “Ask an atheist,” “You were born an atheist, you have to be taught religion” and “Religions are cults with more members.” When the moderator asked the crowd how many in the room were atheists, almost everyone raised a hand.
“Look, you guys are in the minority,” said Silverman, turning to the table with the professors.
The point of the discussion — not a debate, the moderator made clear — was to address mischaracterizations of both Mormons and atheists.
“I’m what’s known as a firebrand atheist … Some call us new atheists, but there is nothing new about us,” said Silverman. Wearing a suit, he had the look of a young D.C. think-tank pundit, with the blunt articulations — honed by Fox News appearances — to match. He laughed when the Mormon speakers cracked jokes, clapped when they made good points and was quick to scold hecklers in the audience.
One of the professors, J.B. Haws, a religious history teacher at BYU, said he thought the benefits of the exchange outweighed the negatives, especially when the conversation moved toward the complex and often mischaracterized Mormon theology.
“I think the American Atheists intend for their strategy to be aggressive and explicitly so,” he said. “And as David Silverman himself pointed out, he only represents one brand of atheism. My sense is that not every atheist that attended the panel agreed with the American Atheists agenda.”
Broadly speaking, there are the accommodationists and the confrontationists within the atheist community, explained Muscato, and American Atheists are comfortably in the latter camp.
‘Who needs Christ ...?’
Last year at the American Atheists convention, held in Austin, Texas, workshops were included for the first time to help train members in activism. The sessions, including one on lobbying from the Secular Coalition for America, were so popular they were included again this year in Salt Lake City.
Although there is only one openly atheist member of Congress, Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., there is now an atheist advocacy group at the Center for Humanist Activism called the Freethought Equality Fund PAC.
American Atheists this year even had a booth paid for at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference before it was pulled after comments by Silverman.
Edwina Rogers, the executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, has taken popular atheist author Dawkins to Congress for a day to meet creationist legislators. When the members met the author, they often had his book to be signed for their children or staff, said Rogers. While she’s not optimistic about the effect that meeting an atheist has on legislation, it’s enough to put friendly faces in front of the movement, she said.
American Atheists this year even had a booth paid for at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference before it was pulled after comments by their president.
Drivers headed south from downtown Salt Lake City on Interstate 15 in January saw a billboard showing an attractive, smiling family from the suburb of South Jordan.
It read, “We’re the Monnett family, and we’re” — here “Mormons” is crossed out — “ex-Mormons ... We’re atheists. Come explore your doubt with us.” The billboard, playing on the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign, was part of a campaign by American Atheists, which rents billboard space in cities year round.
“American Atheists is known for our billboards, which have a reputation of being harsh against religion,” said Muscato. For example, one billboard read, “You know it’s a myth … and you have a choice” with accompanying Arabic and Hebrew translations. And there was a billboard in New York’s Times Square — “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody” — which caused Republican state Sen. Andrew Lanza to call for the revocation of American Atheists’ 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
It was a struggle for the group to find space in Utah for its marketing this year. The one Utah-based billboard company that returned their inquiries eventually decided to pass, even after multiple drafts of the advertisement. It had recommended that the word “Mormon” be changed to “religious.”
Eventually American Atheists found a company based in Denver that was open to the advertisements and happened to have billboards in Salt Lake City.
American Atheists is careful to note it is not trying to draw people away from religion, although Silverman didn’t mince words when he stated, “Religion must die” at the Salt Lake City library panel. The group says it just wants to help those who have already begun questioning their faith.
Muscato now believes atheists are getting their message through. “Atheism has become something you can talk about now … It has become a mainstream topic,” he said.