by Monte Sahlin

By Ryan Bell, May 5. 2014

Ryan Bell was an Adventist pastor who shocked many people, including a number of his close friends, last year when he announced that he would spend a year trying out atheism. Adventist Today asked him to document his first attendance at a major atheist event.

I have done some research and come away with unassailable, empirical evidence for my earlier hypothesis. Atheists do gather! Some of them, anyway. Seven hundred, in fact, met over Easter weekend in Salt Lake City, under the energetic leadership of David Silverman, president and spokesperson extraordinaire for the American Atheists organization.

I was honored to meet David a month or so ago at a friend’s house and he graciously invited me to be his guest at the American Atheist Convention. It was a strange place for this former pastor to be on Easter weekend but honestly, I mostly forgot it was Easter except for the fact that most places were closed on Sunday.

I left Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon and drove to Salt Lake City. That’s a solid 10 hours of driving, plus stops, but so worth it. I love the spare and rugged beauty of the high desert. It was a fitting visual accompaniment to my personal journey this year. Plus, I had never been to Salt Lake City.

Before I comment on the Convention I have to say that I really loved Salt Lake. For a city that is the heart and soul of the Mormon church, it was remarkably—how shall I say—not-super-Mormon. On top of its unrivaled natural beauty I found Salt Lake City to be a progressive, environmentally forward-thinking, bike-riding, public-transit-oriented, fair-trade-coffee-selling, 21st-century city. I can’t wait to go back.

Envisioning a post-religious world

The convention was as eclectic and energetic as you might imagine. I am certainly no expert, but in my short four months exploring the world of skeptical and non-theist thought, American Atheists has to be one of the most activist atheist groups in the country. The key speakers and leaders speak freely of “the movement”—a movement committed, it seems to me, to three primary things:

Number one, at a minimum, the preservation of the Founding Father’s vision of the separation of church and state.

Number two, if possible, the removal altogether of religious influence in the public square (which many interpret as the original intension of the First Amendment).

Number three, if more is possible, the eradication of religion completely. I don’t get the sense that anyone is out to destroy religion by force, even if they could. Many just feel the world would be better off without religion. An idealistic wish, perhaps, but something to work for.

I’m sure not everyone in attendance is as eager about the movement aspect of atheism as, say, David Silverman, but there was a general embattled feeling in the air. It was not unlike some Christian gatherings I’ve attended: “We are the underdogs and must stand and be counted.”

I don’t say this to disparage the American Atheist movement, though some will hear my comment that way. Not at all. Inasmuch as the dominant forms of theism—American Christianity, in particular—stand for the public endorsement of Christianity through prayer in public schools, for example; tax exempt status for churches and other religious organizations; the suppression of science education; public funding for religious causes; and the general marginalization of atheists in public life, the cause has much merit and I heartily support it.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that religion is going away any time soon, given that religious life dates to before the dawn of recorded history. The socially dominant religion in America—Evangelical Christianity—is fundamentalist and proselytizing. However, this is not the only form of religious life in America. Some practice their religion privately, without proselytizing, and when their beliefs and practices do intersect with the public discourse, they are focused on the common good.

It seems to me that the atheist cause could be greatly helped by a more balanced view of religion, which recognizes that there is much common cause with progressive and liberal Christians as well as many other non-Christian and even non-theist religions like Buddhism, which are humanist at their core.

I didn’t go to Salt Lake City to critique, though. I went to learn. I went to meet people that I have come to respect. The time between the main sessions—over meals, in the hallways—was where the real learning happened for me.

It's the people

As with any convention or conference, it’s the people that make it interesting. The talks were good, but honestly I only heard three and a half of them, and there were a lot. The talks I heard were fantastic (Jeremiah Camara, Matt Dillahunty, Chris Kluwe and Barry Lynn), but the best part was meeting people I had talked or interacted with in some way in the past four months.

At the top of the list for me was meeting author and filmmaker, Jeremiah Camara. His recent documentary, Contradiction, examines the role of African American churches in the entrenched poverty that paralyzes predominantly black communities in America. You would expect a religion that focuses on Jesus and his empowerment of the poor and outcast to be a bit more empowering, but that isn’t what he has found. I have wanted to meet Camara since my friend Teri told me about him back in January. Make sure you check out his film when it’s available in your area.

I was also looking forward to meeting David Smalley, host of Dogma Debate. I was on the show in February, and David and I are speaking around Southern California together next month, but this was our first time meeting. He is a gentleman and a scholar!

Another very important voice in the atheist community is Sikivu Hutchinson and I was excited to finally meet her and hear her speak. I can’t resist sharing one quote from her that highlights, for me, why her voice is so important in this conversation: "Simply put, secular white folk have the luxury and the privilege to focus exclusively on two issues [creation and school prayer] because they do not have to worry about being criminalized, policed and dehumanized by a regime of mass incarceration which begins in elementary school for African American children. Black children are the most suspended, expelled and incarcerated youth population in the U.S. and this fact shapes their limited access to and long term prospects for a college education, professional jobs and housing."

Another speaker I’ve been following closely is Matt Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience. He and his wife Beth were among the first to reach out to me and offer to spend considerable time talking about Christianity, the Bible, atheism and all the rest—an offer I still hope to take them up on. It was a great privilege to meet both of them and hear Matt speak.