The Beehive State will be swarming with atheists this week as their national convention gets underway in Salt Lake City.
As many as 700 nonbelievers will be on hand for the gathering, which runs Thursday through Sunday.
As a “warm-up event,” the group is featuring a panel discussion at Salt Lake City’s Main Library with two Mormon professors from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and two atheist experts.
The discussion, moderated by University of Utah history professor Paul Reeve, will address “public perceptions of atheists and Mormons,” according to a news release. “The panelists will tackle common stereotypes of both groups, dispel myths and answer audience questions.”
One of the panelists, American Atheists President David Silverman, who spoke at a post-march rally in Salt Lake City after LDS General Conference earlier this month, answered questions from The Salt Lake Tribune during a phone interview this week.
When did you become an atheist?
When I was 6 years old, I had my first independent thought and have been asking questions ever since. I never got a good answer. I was raised as a Reform Jew. My parents made me go to Hebrew school and pretended I believed. They hoped the pretending would stick, but it didn’t. It was not until I was 30 that my father came out to me as an atheist. I wish he would have come out sooner.
How did you get involved with American Atheists?
For most of my career, I worked as a professional inventor for Bell Labs in New Jersey. (I have 74 patents.) Around 1996, the Promise Keepers came into vogue and were doing very big rallies all over the country. They held a big one in Washington, D.C., and I wanted to find an atheist group that might be protesting it. I found this cool organization called the American Atheists and fell in love with atheist activism ever since. A year later, I was the group’s director for New Jersey. In 2006, I became its national spokesman. In 2008, I was named national vice president and, in 2010, I became president. None of the positions was full time before president. My contract expires in 2017.
How do you define atheist?
An atheist is someone who doesn’t have an active belief in deity — and it doesn’t matter why. You can be an atheist and empathetic to theists. You can say, “I am sure there is no God.” You can believe maybe there is, and maybe there isn’t, but you don’t have an active faith. You can say, “I’ve never given it much thought.” It’s a misnomer to say that you have to be 100 percent sure there is no God.
What’s the difference between an agnostic and an atheist?
Agnostic is a confusing word. An agnostic is an atheist and an atheist is an agnostic. The overlap between the two is 99 percent.
How do you create a community based on mutual disbelief?
A lack of belief in God is not a small thing. It’s a unifying factor. We’ve all felt the sting of prejudice and bigotry. There’s a lot to talk about and build around that. Some atheists have created “Sunday assemblies,” but others revile against that and I am one of them. I don’t want anything to do with a service on Sunday. It’s not my happy place, but lots of people do want that. An atheist organization is very encouraging and endearing. When a believer wants to get together with other believers, he just has to go to church. For an atheist to get together with another atheist, that’s a lot more difficult and challenging. One of the big draws of the convention is that you get to walk into a roomful of several hundred atheists. There is a lot of camaraderie.
What do you think of Mormonism?
Mormonism demonstrates the power of indoctrination. Unlike older religions, we know much about how Mormonism was created. ... Mormonism has been proven wrong beyond reasonable doubt, yet it persists, due to the power of indoctrination. From this we can learn how strong childhood indoctrination (let’s just call it brainwashing) must be, and can only imagine the power of such indoctrination for the older religions, where such data as criminal records and plagiarized texts cannot be obtained.
Why did you stage a march around Temple Square during LDS conference?
We tried to get billboards, but were unable to find a single Salt Lake City-based company that would take our billboards. Then we tried to put them in a mall, any mall. They were not offensive, but happy, friendly, saying, “Hey, we’re atheists. Come party with us.” But no one would take them. It’s not right and it’s not American. People were angry. We decided to take that anger and show the Mormon church that atheists will not be squelched. We wanted our message to be public and vocal, to be an example to other atheists in the Mormon ranks that they have a place to land when they leave the church.
What’s your overall strategy?
We use billboards to get out our message, then the press picks it up, and preachers talk about them over the pulpit. Our targeted market is the closeted atheists in the pews, calling themselves Christians, Jews, Muslims and Mormons. It is an effective means to reach our target audience. It works well. That’s the reason I make regular appearances on Fox News and went to CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference], where I found a lot of atheists. People don’t understand how common and how ubiquitous atheism is.
What do you hope to accomplish at the convention?
The No. 1 thing is to have so much fun that they leave with sore faces from laughing so much. There will be a lot of comedy, good solid education, camaraderie — lots and lots of it. If we leave behind Atheists of Utah with an energized base, and maybe an extra couple of people, that would be good.
American Atheists will stage a panel discussion with two Mormon professors and two atheist experts Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Salt Lake City’s Main Library, 210 E. 400 South. The public is invited to this free event.
The four-day 2014 American Atheists National Convention runs Thursday through Sunday at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center, 255 S. West Temple. For details, go to www.atheists.org.