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San Diego Atheist Group Looks To Spread Non-Belief

Video by Katie Schoolov

The number of people in the United States who identify themselves as atheists has been rising steadily, according to a recent Pew study. And a growing group of atheists in San Diego is mirroring that trend. A few thousand people are part of the San Diego Coalition of Reason, which supports the local atheist community and works to teach others about their non-beliefs. KPBS reporter Claire Trageser has more.

The number of people in the United States who identify themselves as atheists has been rising steadily, according to a recent Pew study. And San Diego is mirroring that trend.

Stroll through Balboa Park on a Saturday afternoon and you'll get a pretty good religious education as you pass everything from Hare Krishnas to evangelical Christians. But then you'll see another kind of group.

They've set up a booth with an awning that says, "Relax, Hell Does Not Exist." When you approach, Tommy J gives you his pitch.

"These are what we call theistic pretzels," J says, holding up a small hard pretzel. "And a theistic pretzel, as we can see, is made with actual twisted logic. But some people have a little more hunger in their souls, they're looking for maybe a little more than that, so we will save them with the power of Cheez-Its."

This pretzel-preaching gathering is put on every weekend by the atheist group San Diego Coalition of Reason.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Tommy J holds up a "theistic pretzel," which he says is "made with actual twisted logic."

"We like to have a gathering place for our members, people that want to chat, get to know each other, they can come do that on any Saturday," said Debbie Allen, one of the organizers. "But also we like to let the community know that there are groups that they may want to participate in."

The number of people in the United States who identify themselves as atheists has been rising steadily, according to a recent Pew study that found 2.4 percent of Americans now identify as atheist, up from 1.6 percent in 2007. And San Diego is mirroring that trend. A few thousand people are active in a variety of local atheist or humanist groups that fall under the umbrella group the San Diego Coalition of Reason. These organizations support the local atheist community and work to teach others about their non-beliefs.

Atheists are defined by the absence of belief, so an outreach booth for atheists might seem like a strange idea. If they don't believe anything, what can they be preaching? But organizers say they like to challenge religious people to question their beliefs.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

San Diego Coalition of Reason members argue about the existence of God with a visitor at their Balboa Park booth.

On a recent Saturday, a man walked up to the atheist booth and an argument quickly ensued.

"If there was no God, would there be atheists?" the man asked.

"Well, that's kind of a trick question," responded one of the Coalition of Reason members. "If there's no God..."

"Then people won't believe in God," the man interjected. "You exist because of God, and that's an oxymoron."

"That doesn't make any sense," another Coalition of Reason member said. "If there's no God, then you still have people believing, or having logical beliefs. The fact that there is no God or is a God doesn't really have any effect on their beliefs."

They continued on this way for several minutes. You get the idea.

The booth isn't the only outreach the atheists are doing. They recently had their first Sunday Assembly, which was actually held on a Saturday. The atheist church service had singing, games and a scientific lecture from UC San Diego dark matter researcher Kim Greist.

"We don't have to guess whether a Big Bang happened, we can take a picture of it, which has been done," Greist told the group, pointing to a projector slide showing a telescopic image of radiation.

Then, the assembly celebrated astronomer and atheist Carl Sagan's birthday with a student reading from 11-year-old Zoe Ada Fox Kuhlken.

"But enough about sixth grade. I'd love to share some good words from Carl Sagan," Kuhlken read from a paper. "He wrote, 'from this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Look again at that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us.'"

Photo by Claire Trageser

People dance and sing in the Balboa Park Club during Sunday Assembly, an atheist church service that was actually held on a Saturday.

Another Coalition of Reason organizer, Jim Eliason, says building an atheist community is important.

"There are a lot of people at the booth who have been estranged from their families or who can't tell their families, or who have lost a job because of it, or who are afraid to lose a job because people might find out," he said. "And it's one of the reasons that people are so relieved to find out that we're out there, that we exist, that they can come and join us in social activities."

The group is also fairly evangelical about its non-belief.

"We're constantly fighting to get religion out of our schools, constantly fighting to get the teaching of creationism out of our schools," Eliason said. "So if we can de-convert people away from these religious ideas that keep them stuck in this dogma that forces them to believe these things, that's a moment of pure joy for us."

Whether it's goofing around at their booth, singing, or having deep talks, it seems these atheists are often finding moments of joy.

Even without the de-conversions.

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