Atheists celebrate 15th annual Freethought Day in Sacramento

Carly Beard appeared on local billboards, endorsing her atheist beliefs.
Carly Beard appeared on local billboards, endorsing her atheist beliefs. Carly Beard

Several hundred atheists from across America met in Sacramento on Sunday to support free speech, separation of church and state, the power of scientific inquiry and their right to not believe in God or religion.

“For too long, our community has feared the stigma that comes with the labels with which we self-associate,” said David Diskin, a computer science professor at the University of the Pacific and president of the 15th annual Freethought Day celebration.

The event, called #SecularPride, offered a smorgasbord of atheists, skeptics, secular humanists and nonbelievers, or “nones,” all dedicated to the ideas that there is no God and no supernatural or extraterrestrial forces at work.

“We’ve seen a significant growth in the number of folks who identify as atheist or unaffiliated with any religion,” said Diskin, referencing a Pew Research Center study showing that while only 3.1 percent of U.S. adults identify as atheist, the number of adults unaffiliated with any religion went from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014.

According to Pew, an estimated 33 percent of all Californians are now nonreligious, Diskin said, reflecting what he called the state’s more progressive ideas.

“A third of California doesn’t believe in the afterlife,” he said. As more Americans embrace gay rights and women’s rights, they are more likely to part ways with a church that doesn’t reflect those values, he added.

Many of those who gathered in an office building near Cal Expo said they had been ostracized by family, friends and employers when they shared the fact they didn’t believe in God or organized religion.

“While our religious friends proudly wear symbols of their faith and place them on their cars, many in our community hide in the closet,” said Diskin, 39, who seeks to provide a safe environment where nonbelievers “can work together to move society forward with a firm reliance on reason and humanity.”

Carly Beard, 27, a marketing professional who appeared on Sacramento-area billboards as an atheist “because I believe in myself, not a god,” said her father yelled at her and told her her late mother “would be ashamed of me.”

Amy Richardson, 30, of Citrus Heights said she was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family that expected her to convert as many people as she could and came to hate religion. Richardson said her mother now accepts the fact that she is bisexual “but still believes I’m going to hell.”

The American Humanist Association offered stickers that read “I believe in good,” while the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics offered a “Get Out of Hell Free Card” showing Mr. Monopoly jumping over a fire pit. Sunday’s event included people of all ages and professions who had been raised Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Muslim, Mormon and a range of other faiths.

Robert Ray, a Seattle electrician, attended as national director of the campaign to replace “In God We Trust” with e pluribus unum – “out of many, one” – as the national motto.

Just as there are different schools of Judaism or Christianity, atheists have their own divisions, with some not so quick to judge other beliefs, and others who insist that all religion is a lie.

“If somebody prays for me, it doesn’t upset me,” said Diskin, whose father was a cultural Jew. Diskin’s group, the Sacramento Area Coalition of Reason, welcomes people of all backgrounds to a celebration of life every Sunday with music, food and fellowship. “Instead of singing hymns, we sing Beatles songs and pop,” he said, as Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” filled the room.

On the other side of the spectrum is Dave Silverman, president of the American Atheists, described as an “uncompromising hardliner” on the jacket of his book, “Fighting God.”

“Religion is a huge scam,” Silverman declared, saying he would resign “if any religion proves anything supernatural ever.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini