Nick Fish, national program director of American Atheists Inc., grew up in a household absent of religion. He says that makes him a minority in the community of nonbelievers to which he belongs. There is no one kind of atheist, Fish notes. “We have folks who are white, black, Asian, Latino, gay, straight, trans,” he explains, to say nothing of the diverse religious backgrounds. While in some ways the polar opposite of faith-based groups, American Atheists, too, are united in their belief (of lack thereof) about God. A new University of Kentucky study suggests 26 percent of Americans are atheists; though Fish says that number may be generous.
Indeed, many nonbelievers look to the sky for answers just as their religious counterparts do. They don’t turn toward the Heavens, however, but gravitate to the stars. At this year’s American Atheists National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, the sun was the real star (pun intended) for the 450 attendees. Fish and company moved the event from its customary Easter weekend date to August and chose Charleston so the conference could conclude with a solar eclipse viewing. “We had a pretty good view of things until 90 seconds before totality, when a cloud moved in,” he laments.
Part political, part altruistic and all thought-provoking, the annual convention fills a need within the atheist community. Fish says it’s a place for like-minded people to gather, rekindle friendships and work to make the world a better place. Sound familiar? Often, Fish says, American Atheists puts aside its differing beliefs over God to find unlikely partners (in groups like Catholics for Choice) to work toward a common goal. Connect Faith spoke to Fish about the atheist movement and finding a purpose through a community and meeting.
Typically, your conference is over Easter weekend. Why move it this year?
We wanted to celebrate the eclipse. For millennia, people have been frightened of eclipses or seen them as a religious symbol. We wanted to play on that a bit. But strictly from our community’s perspective, our [group] is a lot of science nerds—they love space in particular. We figured we would lose some people because of the timing but [give them] an exciting, once-in-a generation [experience].
So you did lose some attendance?
We had about 450 people, which is smaller than we’ve had in the past but on target for what we planned for. We knew a number of people who are fixtures at our event had already made plans a year or two in advance for this eclipse because it was the first one in the mainland United States since 1979.
Is there counterprogramming planning around religious holidays and symbols?
I don’t think many religious groups do much with the eclipse anymore, but the reason we usually have [our conference] on Easter is because, what else is an Atheist group or family going to be doing then? A simpler reason is we do it then because hotel rooms are cheaper, as not of lot of people are attending conferences. It’s also a time when many people have vacation and freedom to travel to our event, and we want to make it accessible to as many people as possible.
Why meet in a city like Charleston in the country’s unofficial Bible Belt?
When we go to South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah or Texas, we do that because, too often, the narrative put out by those communities is that everybody is part of the dominant religion. We know that’s simply not the case. We go places where there is a local community of atheists
to support them and to add some visibility in the community.
American Atheists has an interesting past with next year’s host city, doesn’t it?
Our next convention is in Oklahoma City in 2018. In 2015, [American Atheists] sued the city in federal court, and the American Civil Liberties Union sued them in state court, to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Capitol grounds. The ACLU won their case and rendered ours moot. [Oklahoma City lawmakers] tried to amend the state constitution to allow the monument, but that failed. So there is a lot going in Oklahoma City, and there is already a vibrant atheist community in the area. We’re going there to send a message that it’s not only Christians who live in Oklahoma City.
How big is the atheist population in the U.S.?
Between 10 and 25 percent of the U.S. population is nonreligious or atheist—and that’s a charitable estimate. We are very much in the minority, and the number of people who will admit they are atheist is even fewer than that, so we have a lot of work to do.
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