- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2016

OGDEN, Utah (AP) - Some Utah atheists say Christians give them anxiety.

During a weekly discussion in Ogden among a group of Utah atheists, many didn’t want to give their last names and others didn’t want to be photographed.

Those who did go on record said they’re comfortable with their non-faith but are often guarded about when and to whom they choose to reveal their views.

Some self-describe using terms such as a “humanist,” ”free thinker” or “agnostic,” because the term “atheist” occasionally causes them to feel ostracized by believers, said some in the discussion.

“Tell someone you’re nearly any brand of religion and you can expect, beyond some disagreements on theology, a mostly positive response,” said Air Force MSgt. Jesse Connerly, who lives in Layton. “Tell someone you don’t believe in any religion or deity, especially in a highly religious place such as Utah, and you can reasonably expect some kind of averse reaction.”



He said he grew up in a Baptist home and graduated from a private Christian school.

A few years ago at 32, he said he began questioning his beliefs and ultimately came to discard the idea of faith or religion.

“Growing up, the word atheist had such a negative connotation that even when I realized I was one, I could barely say the word out loud,” Connerly said. “It sometimes still feels strange using the word - even around other atheists. That’s how much baggage that word carries for me.”

Connerly said it took him a year before he was able to tell his Christian friends and family.

“A couple of friends labored to ‘reconvert’ me, one sister left several hurtful messages informing me that I had hurt the family,” he said.

GROWING QUIETLY BUT STEADILY

According to studies posted by the Pew Research Center:

The percentage of Americans who identify as atheist increased from 1.6 percent in 2007 to 2.4 percent in 2012.

A third of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated.

Men accounted for 68 percent of atheists.

The median age of atheist adults in the U.S. is 34 compared with 46 for all U.S. adults.

Caucasians accounted for 78 percent of atheists in the study.

About 43 percent of atheists have a college degree, compared with 27 percent of the general public.

Riley Westergard, an 11th grader from West Haven, said he has found comfort in education and finding a group of like-minded people at NUAMES High School in Layton.

He also said he’s found support in groups sponsored by Atheists of Utah, an independent, democratically run, non-profit membership organization with the goal of educating the community about atheism.

But Westergard also said spending time with relatives in his extended family, who are deeply religious members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has sometimes been stressful.

“Family is the biggest reason why people don’t come out (as atheist),” he said. Westergard said he’s been told by family members that his opinions are not allowed in their house.

“They associate their faith as being them,” he said. “They think I hate them.”

He said some family members have been “quite hostile,” telling him he was going to “burn in hell.”

Outside of his group of friends, Westergard said he has difficulty being around people of faith.

“You can’t get ahead,” he said. “You can’t have your voice heard without being demonized.”

Jami Haig of Salt Lake City said she gets tired of people thinking atheists don’t have a moral code and are Satan worshippers.

“How can you worship something you don’t believe exists?” she said.

Sheila Denali of Sandy said she struggles telling her Mormon friends and family about her non-belief because of the pain it causes them.

“It’s not that I’m afraid that they’ll disown me, or never speak to me again. I highly doubt that that will ever happen,” she said. “It’s because they will feel the pain of losing me in the afterlife, something that there is no proof of. But it’s their job to ‘save’ us, and bring us back to the ‘light.’”

But Denali also wants people to see her for the good she and her family have accomplished.

“People assume that we’re Mormon because my kids don’t swear, my 19-year-old daughter dresses modestly and we live a pretty quiet and simple life,” she said. “I feel that it’s important for people to know that such atheists exist. And we are not trying to ‘take down churches’ or ‘convert’ anyone to atheism.”

Christopher Reed of Clearfield said learning to speak openly about atheism is “a gradual and sometimes never ending process.”

“My transition from closeted atheist to loud-and-proud anti-theist has been invigorating at times and crushingly depressing at other times,” he said. “Not really for myself, but for feeling the full weight of being an atheist in a state where the lines between church and state are constantly blurred.”

Reed said he wants to support himself and others in sharing a non-belief message.

“I put myself out there as atheist,” he said. “I wear T-shirts that proclaim it. I wear an Atheists of Utah lanyard at work for my badges, and have a bumper sticker with my podcast “Utah Outcasts” (podhell.com) on it to let those who aren’t out yet know that it’s OK to be who you are and declare your non-belief.”

But some in the group said they’ve never felt a social punishment for their lack of faith.

Justin Jones of Layton said he was raised as a Catholic in Utah and that, culturally, being an atheist isn’t that much different.

“I always felt like an outsider,” he said, noting that most of his friends were LDS.

He said people around him became aware of his views through social media.

One conversation that started between him and an atheist friend, he said, “got pretty ugly” when his believing family members got involved. But he said he wasn’t surprised or upset by the discussion.

Jones said he’s had employers discover he’s an atheist but he doesn’t believe his career has been negatively impacted.

Joe Donovan of Salt Lake City said he’s been an atheist for 40 years, since he was 10 years old.

“I’ve been open forever in work and school,” he said. “Whenever a topic would come up, I’ve had no problem saying I’m an atheist. Some people look at you funny and get over it.”

Milt Neeley of Hooper is not an atheist but he said he’s made friends with many of them and he’s come to understand their plight.

Considering himself a “liberal, agnostic Mormon” and having been raised LDS, Neeley said he began attending an atheist discussion group about seven years ago, when it was advertised as a group of “free thinkers,” a term Neeley did not know was associated with atheists.

Weeks went by before Neeley realized his new friends were atheists. Meanwhile, he had learned to enjoy the intellectual discussions because participants were not offended by whatever was said.

“I had a lot of misconceptions about atheists,” he said. “I never really had atheist friends before. You are taught that they are all evil, out to destroy the world and mankind. The fact is a lot of them are socially minded, concerned about social issues and progress. A lot are against death penalty and a lot are against abortion because they consider life sacred because you are destroying something that can’t be replaced.”

Neeley said he learned that many atheists go by the Humanist creed, which is similar to the 10 Commandments.

Neeley said he also discovered that many of his atheist friends were deeply religious at one time.

“One of my friends, he was going to be a minister and then decided he just didn’t believe in it,” he said.

What Neeley said what he likes the most is how his atheist friends is their ability to accept the world and others how they are.

“Atheists don’t get upset about things,” he said. “They don’t agree with how I feel but they don’t get upset.”

___

Information from: Standard-Examiner, https://www.standard.net

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