SAN FRANCISCO – To the uninformed, this weekend gathering here may have seemed like a church revival, full of zeal and fervor. But worshipping God was most decidedly not part of the agenda.
The attendees of the “All Atheists Weekend” gathered to discuss what they call the rise of fundamentalism in the U.S. and the blurring of lines between church and state.
Attendees also took time to view documentaries that question the historical accuracy of the Bible – and to hear lectures about the dangers of religious icons on public property and problems with President Bush’s so-called “faith-based initiative,” which seeks to give religious groups equal footing in seeking federal grants to provide social services.
Organizers said they expected more than 250 people to take part in the event, which featured a lecture by Ellen Johnson, the president of American Atheists. The gathering began Friday and continued through Sunday at various spots throughout the city.
The religious right’s increasing involvement in U.S. politics has triggered an angry backlash among the godless, say Bay area atheist groups, five of which organized the weekend event.
“It’s time for us to push back,” said psychologist Jaime Arcila, 52, of San Francisco, who was accompanied by his two children, Javier, 15, and Amanda, 12, in a tiny theater Saturday night just south of downtown.
Arcila, who is not an official member of any atheist group, said he was prompted to attend Saturday’s showing of “The God Who Wasn’t There,” along with about 100 other people, because of what he sees as a growing intolerance in the U.S. for people with alternative views and lifestyles.
Arcila, who was raised by Catholic parents, said the nation needs more dialogue about “peace, tolerance, justice, and love,” not exclusion based on a difference of ideas.
Ali, a 36-year-old native Iranian, agreed. He declined to give his last name because he said he wants to return to his Muslim-dominated homeland someday and fears that he could be persecuted should he be identified as an atheist.
Ali said he knows all too well the effects of religious fundamentalism on a society from his own experiences in his native country.
Nations that accept only one set of values or beliefs are “restrictive and stifling,” Ali said.
“I was a Muslim but stopped believing after a lot of pain and after a lot of thought,” he said. “Being here at this event is encouraging me not to be afraid. It strengthens me and helps me stand up for what I believe.”
But just how tolerant of Christianity and other religions are the atheists?
“We don’t hate Christians,” said David Fitzgerald, 40, an insurance broker and member of San Francisco Atheists. “People in this country are free to believe in whatever they want.”
Nonetheless, during the Saturday night movie, the crowd booed and hissed when a photo of Pat Robertson was displayed on the screen.
Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and a former U.S. presidential candidate, is a leader in the efforts by some religious groups to return America and its government to Christian values.
Fitzgerald offered no apologies.
“Robertson and other Theocrats scare the hell out of us,” Fitzgerald said. “They want to turn a democracy into a theocracy. Even Christians are afraid of that.”