Where Atheists Meet to Evangelize

By | April 14, 2014

Look out unbelief—atheism is on a roll, or so proclaims American Atheists, whose annual convention kicks off Thursday in Salt Lake City. “This has been an excellent year for atheism,” says Dave Muscato, public-relations director for the deity-dissing group. “Between 2005 and 2012 there was a fivefold increase in the number of people who use the word atheist when asked to identify their religion.”

That’s still not a lot. While 20% of Americans profess no particular religious faith, according to the Pew Research Center, only 6% identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. Still, one hates to toss cold water on the affable Mr. Muscato, a musician, who says he went atheist five years ago after a stint playing Christian worship music (the kind of songs that, let’s face it, can make you pray they’ll stop).

But why Salt Lake City? “We haven’t had a convention there since 1981,” says Mr. Muscato. “A lot of Mormons who have become atheists call themselves ex-Mormon and part of our campaign is to get them to move away from ex-Mormon” and simply call themselves atheists, thus taking pride “in their non-belief.”

The keynote speaker for the four-day gathering will be Chris Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings, who says he was fired for advocating same-sex marriage. Mr. Kluwe, author of “Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities,” will be joined by speakers including Denise Stapley, winner of “Survivor: Philippines” and Iowa’s “only certified sex therapist” (according to convention publicity); Mark White, bassist from the Spin Doctors; and gay-rights activist Marsha Botzer.

Workshop topics will include starting your own atheist group, how to lobby politicians, and how to debate Christians and “other religious apologists.” The contact page at the American Atheists website states: “Please note: we are not interested in debating or being preached at,” which to some ears might sound a tad hypocritical and closed-minded, qualities often used to describe the organization’s adversaries.

There seems to be no lack of evangelical enthusiasm in the American Atheist flock, and with 94% of the U.S. population still either in the grips of God or just not sure about Him, the potential for conversions is vast. But organized atheism lags far behind Mormonism in evangelizing. Getting people to enter the godless fold (or abyss, depending on your perspective) appears to be a pretty tough sell.

Mr. Muscato says modern technology is a powerful ally. “Any 7-year-old with an iPhone can go to Wikipedia” to check out religious claims made by their parents, he explains. “They’re harder to indoctrinate”—at least until the kids realize that the words “infallible” and “Wikipedia” rarely appear in the same sentence.

Older seekers, and even reasonably skeptical bystanders, might easily be put off by the tone of American Atheists’ advertising around the country. “Celebrate Reality” one pre-convention billboard proclaims in Salt Lake City, echoing admonitions elsewhere: “Nobody Needs the Christ in Christmas” (Times Square); “Enjoy Life Now. There Is No Afterlife” (Jamesville, Wis.); “Relax, Hell does not exist. Heaven either. Enjoy your life” (San Diego). In other words: “Hey Rube—Wise Up!”

It is the rare philosophy that doesn’t consider itself superior to the alternatives, but suggesting that the uninitiated are delusional and feeble-minded might not be the wisest way to expand your brand. The absolutism underlying the atheist pitch also seems out of step with the spirit of our “tolerant” times. Even John Lennon, whose “Imagine” is something of a hymn to non-belief, led a heterodox spiritual life, including a fascination with the Rev. Billy Graham. Similarly, surveys by Barna Research in 2003 found that half of atheists believe in a soul and the possibility of life after death. Does that qualify as a heresy?

Greater minds will decide that question, and perhaps ponder whether Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Bible-verse reference on his official Facebook FB -1.06% and Twitter TWTR -3.12% accounts really promotes religion via “the machinery of the state,” as atheist activists contend.

Back in Salt Lake, Mormons may bristle at the godless gathering, but they have little reason to fear an atheist army descending. Mr. Muscato estimates that convention attendance will probably be south of 1,000—roughly the number of new members the Latter Day Saints sign up every day.

Mr. Shiflett posts his writing and original music at Daveshiflett.com.

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