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ISSUE 121 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/21/2008

American Atheists will convene

By Lyndel Owens
News Editor

Friday, March 21, 2008

It's Easter weekend and people nationwide are searching. Children in dressy frocks crouch for candy-filled, fake plastic eggs while adults lament that meaning is harder to find without a pocketable, neon shell. Some will pass the weekend like any other, doing a laundry load between "Matlock" re-runs before errands to the video store and supermarket. Still, others on this holy weekend will be trying to find the room for professor Richard Dawkin's speech on his hit book "The God Delusion," a seminar focusing on how "Religion Works without Belief or Meaning to Colonize Experience" or a lecture on the lack of archeological evidence establishing the existence of Nazareth, Jesus' birthplace. There is no Easter service reception like this. These people will be at the 34th annual American Atheists Conference held in Minneapolis March 21 -- 23 because, in the name of rationality, Easter weekend is when hotel rates are lowest. So, is this proudly god-less gathering a pagan's wet dream? Not at all. In fact, the conference offers diverse, intellectual sessions kicking off Friday morning and ending with a debate considering the existence of a Jewish God on Sunday afternoon. The above-mentioned sessions are a sample of what Minnesota Atheists President August Berkshire believes will draw 400 -- 500 attendees. "We want to raise awareness of atheism," said Berkshire. "Atheists are beginning to get a seat at the table. There is much greater visibility to atheism now," added Greg Kane, public relations officer with the Minnesota Atheists. Berkshire estimates about one-third of the people will be from Minnesota, another third will be regulars who attend the conference every year, while the final third are newcomers. Atheism is quite widespread. Members work closely with humanist and secular groups to ensure good governance such as the separation of church and state and responsible science curriculum unassociated with creationism. "We don't really encounter hostility, but we don't try to encounter hostility," Kane said. This group isn't interested in silencing believers, just in widening religious dialogue to include those who question belief in supernatural powers. "Motivating greater levels of critical and skeptical thinking," said blogger and University of Minnesota-Morris biology professor PZ Myers. "That's really the basis of atheism. Simply, we don't accept the word of authority. We have to have the evidence to support huge grand claims of the existence of a god," Myers delivers talks at public schools to promote religious plurality, reach out to young atheists and clarify the perception of atheism. "Most people are familiar with the concept of church, and having particular obligations cast upon them by their religious belief," he said. "Atheists also have obligations. One of our obligations is to speak out. Really, we have an awful reputation as people who believe in nothing, and it's not true. I like to tell people we believe in everything that is." There is ample crossover between the atheist agenda and larger social goals. Atheists lobby to regulate religious postings on public property, lobby against religious exceptions for mistreating children and maintain the separation between church and state, especially in relation to science curriculum. Never ones to burn bridges, the Minnesota Atheists have hosted religious representatives at meetings and collaborated with them to protest a promise-seekers convention. They keep close ties with legislators and received former St. Olaf interim president, senior regent and religious scholar Martin Marty at a recent meeting. Marty detailed issues the legislature would consider an establishment clause issue. Relying on reason and rationality, atheists seek to establish fair, humane societal standards. "Faith is, let's say, the opposite of skepticism," Kane said to frame the debate. "Faith and skepticism are directly opposed. If it's a question of which is a sounder base on which to base claims of knowledge, I certainly think skepticism is." Kane asserted that atheists, humanists and secularists are interrelated and the differences people assign them are largely individual. He says humanists deal more broadly with cultural issues. Myers digressed and states that while atheism is the disbelief in god, and secularism is for those who, regardless of religious orientation, believe government ought to be unrelated to faith, "humanism is the idea that everything we're interested in is wrapped up with human values. Someone can be all these things at once. No problem." Berkshire trusts the 34th annual conference will raise national and state membership rates for atheist groups. Minnesota has one of the most active atheist scenes in the country. Minnesota Atheists work in connection with four other groups: Atheists Alliance International, American Atheists, the Center for Inquiry and the American Humanist Associate. In addition to their cooperation, many members of the Minnesota Atheists group are involved in regional freethinker groups based in Rochester, Duluth and Fargo/Moorhead. This year's conference aims to foster atheist visibility, friendship and education. Berkshire acknowledges that some atheists have felt isolated, and the conference is an excellent outlet to hone their ideas and network. In addition to hosting best-selling author Richard Dawkins, the conference offers workshops, such as "How to run a local group," "When is something unconstitutional?" and "What are my rights?" to help atheists in their daily lives. There is even a college hip-hop artist from California flying in to drop a beat about rationality and clear thinking. The conference's events and dialogue are designed to be inclusive of people intensely curious about religious belief, even those with faith. So if you're tired of stuffing Easter eggs that weekend, or if you'd rather not watch Matlock, the conference will be bustling.

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