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Atheist national conference takes aim at Morman Church

By The Associated Press
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Leaders of a national atheist group say the best spot to find a nonbeliever is in a place of faith.

To that end, the American Atheists, in an effort to raise awareness and attract new members, are holding their annual conference over Easter weekend in the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They say the church's large influence in Utah has made atheists in the state reluctant to speak about religious doubts for fear of being shunned. 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, speaking against the state's ban on gay marriage.

Mormon culture dominates Utah, and the effect can be seen in the state's strict liquor laws and overwhelmingly conservative politics. About 60 percent of residents and about 4 in 5 Utah lawmakers identify as Latter-day Saints.

Many residents view the church's influence as responsible for what they consider a "pro-family" atmosphere that makes the state attractive, a University of Utah professor says.

The state prioritizes children, education and good health, said Don Herrin, who teaches family studies. He said this may help people feel "safer, more upbeat, more positive."

The expansiveness of Mormon principles can be seen as "an achievement of something that is valued in the culture," Herrin said.

The head of an LDS anti-defamation group also dismisses the atheists' criticism, saying the church doesn't publicly endorse legislative candidates. Scott Gordon, president of FairMormon, also says in an email that detractors are to be expected.

"Anytime you have an organization that has a large economic footprint in a community, there will be some who will resent it and want to push back against it," he said.

LDS officials say the church isn't responding to the atheist group.

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 casually dressed college students to people in business suits to parents carrying toddlers.

Atheist leaders say their group members comprise a spectrum of views. Those who believe for certain that God doesn't exist, those who are unsure but aren't active in their faith and those who don't give the matter much thought all could be called atheists, they say.

Wilson Bateman, a 29-year-old from Sandy, said he was glad to see events that raise the profile of atheists. "Sometimes, it's just fun to be around your own people," he said.

The group plans its gatherings for Easter weekend in part to draw attention, but also because their members are generally available and hotel and convention centers offer good deals. Atheist organizers last brought their conference to Salt Lake City in 1981.

As a warm-up, 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 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.

"We hope that they will come in droves" before Easter celebrations, he said, "and see what we're really like."
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