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Utahns grace Mormon-inspired 'We're Atheists' billboard

Published January 3, 2014 8:30 pm

Religion • Northbound I-15 ad is a spinoff of "I'm a Mormon" campaign; mother of teen girl is "not very happy."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's a man, a woman, two boys and a girl. None bears tattoos. If they harbor demonic intentions, each has an excellent poker face. And they're atheists.

The latest billboard for the American Atheists lacks the shock value of the organization's past Mormon-targeted campaigns, which include a billboard at the 2012 Democratic National Convention that read, "God Is A Space Alien. Baptizes Dead People. Big Money, Big Bigotry."

The message of this ad — that atheists can be normal people — is not particularly revelatory. But rather than simply announce that its national convention is slated for April 17-20 at Salt Lake City's downtown Hilton, the group elected to spoof the LDS Church's ubiquitous "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign. And for that, the group chose the Monnetts.

Southbound motorists can spot the Denver-based CBS Outdoor billboard on the east side of Interstate 15, just past the 3300 South exit. It reads: "We're the Monnett family, and we're (strike-through) Mormons. ... (strike-through) ex-Mormons. ... We're Atheists. Come explore your doubt with us."

Although the text had been written by October (when the American Atheists complained that available Utah billboards were scarce because local companies were unwilling to antagonize the LDS Church), West Monnett says it describes them accurately.

"We used to identify as being ex-Mormon, and we are atheists now," says the stay-at-home dad of him and his wife, Lennie, a finance director at HSBC. They are joined in the photo by their sons, Tallen (10) and Bentley (13), and their niece, McKayla (16) — a former Mormon for whom they are temporary guardians.

McKayla's mother, Melinda Dayley, says she's "not very happy" that her daughter is in the shot. West is generally "a good guy," she says, but what he and these atheist groups espouse can be "hurtful stuff."

"I have friends that are atheists … but they're not out there knocking our beliefs," says Dayley, who lives in Syracuse and is an active member of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "West is the type that has to go out and prove a point. He's always been that kind of person."

Monnett is originally from Oregon, reared Mormon with seven siblings (six of whom are no longer in the church). He says he found "a lot of holes" in the doctrine at age 23, and when he left the faith, it created a "void" in his life that becoming an atheist helped him fill.

University of Utah professor of religious studies Colleen McDannell says it's a quintessential human attribute, evidenced throughout our nation's history, to want to be a part of something.

"It doesn't do in America just to be an individual nonbeliever," she says. "We're a country of joiners."

In other words, organized nonreligion. American Atheists President David Silverman explained in a news release, "Our message is this: If you don't believe anymore, don't continue to base your identity in Mormonism. You're so much more than an 'ex-Mormon'; you're an atheist."

The three children were on board with the ad, Monnett says. He says people have accused him of brainwashing, but he allows them to draw their own conclusions.

"The lack of pushing a belief system is not pushing a belief system," he says.

As for invoking the LDS Church, Utah State University chair of Mormon History and Culture Philip Barlow says it's only natural that the American Atheists would mention the elephant in the room.

"It will certainly make some Latter-day Saints feel uneasy, but I think that's just a natural outcome of where we are," he says. "The sign certainly wouldn't look like that if we were in Dallas or Chicago."

And the "I'm a Mormon" campaign is not unique to the church, he points out, having seemingly been based on the "I'm a PC" campaign. The point, as he sees it, is the same: "Don't stereotype us."

"Atheists really have been painted with that brush, too, that if you're an atheist, you're a menace to society, or 'What's going to make you a moral person if you don't believe in God?' " he says. "They're trying to say, 'We're not necessarily so weird.' "

West says there are "no hard feelings" with worshippers of any religion. Theism simply wasn't for him.

"It's rare to find somebody that doesn't want to be a good person," he says. "We understand that the bulk of the world is just doing the best they can with their understanding."

The LDS Church declined a request for comment.

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper —

'How this atheist family talks about theism'

Editor's note: The following is an unedited post from West Monnett's Facebook page that explains, he writes, "how my kids ended up on a billboard, and why it's okay."

We have raised our kids, for the most part, without teaching them about theism. We never felt the need to teach them those sorts of things so, our children have learned about theism and religion in a different way than most do. To give you an idea, our older son first found out about Jesus in the second grade. It was when a friend of his was telling him, at the bus stop, about heaven. He had reached the ripe old age of eight, the age in which some people think you should have this sort of thing all figured out, without knowingly hearing about Jesus Christ, and it wasn't from us. Our children have been raised without any emphasis on religion, or the importance of believing things. As parents, our focus has been more on teaching life skills and treating others as you would like to be treated.

Though it's not often, there are times when theistic beliefs are brought up. For instance, our children asked us about the rapture and wanted to know what it was. We gave them a Mormon and Born Again perspective, and did this in as neutral a way as we could. We often shoot for this neutrality because we're curious to see what our children will think on their own. This is not to say we don't offer up our opinions from time to time, but we always wait to see what our children think on their own first. We like to see the wheels spinning and the exercise in critical thinking. In this case one of our sons seemed a bit confused and said, "So, the prince of peace is going to come down and burn everyone that doesn't believe in him?" That's verbatim. He said this recognizing that he didn't believe in Jesus, and to him, he couldn't see how that would be very fair. Our children were equally confused with why people believe in Christianity. We explained to them that it was because Christians feel that everyone that has ever lived in this world, with the exception of Jesus, naturally had, or has had, a little too much evil in them and that evil qualifies them to be punished for eternity. We explained that many believed Jesus was the only one without evil so he was the only one able enough to get into heaven, and since he could get into heaven, he could get others into heaven, but only if they believed in him. Our children could not get past the "everyone is evil part" and thought the story sounded ridiculous after that. They simply know too many people that have rejected Christianity that they think are good people and they don't see why those people would deserve to be punished eternally over a belief, especially when so many different opinions on what people should believe exist. They have learned about the universe and evolution and have realized on their own how those two things contradict most theistic viewpoints. The pattern you're seeing here, is that, on their own, they don't buy into theism, and nobody is telling them they should.

So, to the point. Children, in a broad sense, are born atheists. They are born without a belief in god. For them to not be, they would have to obtain this belief in a deity in some way; either through their own doing, or through the influence of another. We haven't been that influence, nor have our children come to this belief on their own. Out of curiosity, we asked our son the other day if he believed in God. We did this just to see what he'd say. We've probably asked him before, but it's nothing we could recall. We knew he identified as being an atheist, but that could be for a number of reasons, including that, as our child, it's what he has learned to identify with, which we see nothing wrong with. He responded with a, "No" and followed that up with, "It sounds like a fairy tale for crazy people." It was a bit more harsh than we were expecting. He really doesn't think religious people are crazy. Some of his, and our, best friends are people of faith. We see no discrimination in him when making friends. He recognizes that religious people, like all people, are generally good. It's the beliefs that he finds crazy. They seem illogical to him and he rejects them as theories as to why we're on this earth. Again, we don't sit our children down for hours every week and talk to them about what they should believe like religious theists do. They are being raised without this pressure and as of yet, this freedom has led them to identify themselves as atheists and we're perfectly fine with that.