American Atheists, in an effort to raise awareness and attract new members, are holding their national conference over Easter weekend in the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The group touts that the best spot to find a nonbeliever is in a place of faith.
The American Atheists contests that the church’s large influence in Utah has made atheists in the state unwilling to speak about religious misgivings for fear of being rejected by friends and family members in the church’s vast circle. Atheist group leaders also criticize the LDS influence as having overstepped its boundaries in areas of public policy.
“Religious morality is dictating the Legislature. That’s unconstitutional, and that’s why we’re fighting this fight,” atheist spokesman Dave Muscato said to Yahoo News, speaking against the state’s ban on gay marriage.
Mormon culture is steeped in the state’s politics, which is right-winged and heavily conservative, and can be seen in the state’s strict liquor laws and “pro-family” atmosphere. About 60 percent of residents and about 4 in 5 Utah lawmakers identify as Latter-day Saints whose political and legislative views are backed by their religious beliefs.
The expansiveness of Mormon principles can be seen as “an achievement of something that is valued in the culture,” said Don Herrin, who teaches family studies at the University of Utah.
Although faith and religious principals, right or wrong, are in the fabric of this country, not everyone agrees with Herrin. Twice a year, tens of thousands of Mormons arrive in Salt Lake City for the church’s general conference. Early this month, attendees heard LDS church officials denounce gay marriage. A group of a few dozen demonstrators, led by Atheists of Utah along with the American Atheists, protested outside the conference.
About 700 attendees came Friday to listen to atheist speakers and discuss their beliefs. The visitors ranged from college students to people in business professionals, and even parents toting toddlers.
Dave Muscato, the public relations director for the American Atheists, admitted to The Daily Beast that the timing is “kind of a poke in the eye to religion that makes us laugh a little bit.” He noted that holding the convention on Easter weekend is also practical because “Atheists tend to have little else to do…on Easter weekend.” As for the location, “We generally go for cities where there’s a good religious population, because those are the places where people tend to be the most oppressed by religion.” Muscato explained that the AA’s goal of the convention is to reach suppressed atheists in Salt Lake City, not to convert Mormons. Atheist organizers last brought their conference to Salt Lake City in 1981.
As a precursor to the informational secessions and hardcore discussions about Atheist beliefs, conference officials hosted a panel discussion Wednesday featuring Mormon and atheist experts speaking about negative public perceptions and stereotypes about their respective groups.
Atheist speakers aimed to dispel notions that members of their community are immoral or unfriendly. LDS panel members, meanwhile, said their faith is neither unwelcoming nor exclusionary.
The American Atheists president, David Silverman, said Friday to the Star Tribute that his group wants to make sure people of all faiths who have doubts, especially disillusioned Mormons in Utah, come to learn more and realize they have allies.
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