St. Paul hosts atheists at conference, Saints game

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH
  • Star Tribune
  • August 11, 2012 - 9:35 PM

After the international attention their sponsorship of the St. Paul Saints -- dubbed the 'Aints last Friday -- garnered the Minnesota Atheists, the group is hoping to continue to boost its visibility and spread the message that they're "just your neighbors."

The unexpected attention of the unique sponsorship drew a couple dozen more people among about 200 attendees to the group's regional conference on Saturday in St. Paul. The event, sponsored by the Minnesota group and American Atheists, brought authors and speakers from across the country -- a quieter event than the extra buzz Friday's baseball game attracted.

"Who thought anybody would notice?" said August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists. "We were surprised how it suddenly became a national event."

Even media overseas caught wind of the "night of unbelievable fun" that Berkshire and others had organized with the help of the Saints to create awareness of the group and show the community the normalcy, he said, of atheism. He said the group had a positive reaction from baseball fans, even Christians in the crowd, and sold more than 250 tickets to the game -- their biggest public event to date.

"The atheists are trying to be cool," said PZ Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris and one of Saturday's speakers, adding of atheism: "It's gotten bigger and more assertive. We're seeing more and more of it outstate."

Organizers said they plan to put together similar events that continue that message: "We're just like everyone else ... doing all these things other churches do," said Eric Jayne, the group's associate president.

The group's members, who didn't shy from poking fun at themselves at Friday's baseball game, wrapped up the 12-hour conference with a pub crawl in St. Paul. The conference drew residents like Nualle Schallenberger and her partner, Sorcha Keepers, of Minneapolis not just for the information but for the fellowship.

David Silverman, president of the national group, said atheism is growing both in membership and respect nationwide, increasing from about 2,600 members a year ago to 4,000 this year. Minnesota is one of the largest partners of the American Atheists and has about 350 members, though Berkshire estimates a quarter million Minnesotans identify as atheists.

"We're not wicked people," Myers said. "We're just your neighbors."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib

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