Portland is officially the least religious city in the country, according to a recent study. So it's fitting that the largest atheist organization in the country, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, holds its annual conference here this weekend.
Among the speakers are star atheists Richard Dawkins and Jessica Ahlquist, along with Spokane, Wash., native Julia Sweeney. Sweeney is a comedian best known for playing the character Pat on Saturday Night Live, but she's also performed a handful of autobiographical stage shows documenting the loss of her faith, including God Said Ha! and Letting Go of God. She told WW why Portland's godless residents should be more proactive.
WW: You live in Chicago, but you grew up in Washington. How are atheists in the Pacific Northwest different?
Julia Sweeney: The thing about Seattle is it's so frickin' PC that people can't even say they're atheist. They just have to say that, you know, they appreciate everyone's view of reality and no one knows what's right, but they are not religious.
Portland is sort of the same way. People here are apprehensive to offend. What do you think about that?
In one way, I feel really lucky that I became an atheist before atheism was in the popular culture.... I might not have wanted to be in that group because I would think, "Well, that seems like kind of an angry group. I'm not angry. I'm not against things. I see what's valuable in religion, so I don't want to be like that." On the other hand, I think that's the exact attitude that allows the crazy religious people to take over.
Why do atheists seem like assholes?
They're saying unpopular and different things that aren't what we've all be inculcated to hear as part of our general culture... they see how much religion—but particularly the Christian religious right—has used our government and taxes and our common will for their own ends.
So, what should I tell my mom when she tells me to hold hands and pray before dinner?
I would totally do it, because to me, I become Margaret Mead. I become an anthropologist and go, "Oh, the customs of these people! They hold hands and pray to their god!" Humans are social animals, and part of our cohesion is based in ritual.
So, an atheist should support atheist organizations?
I think they should support organizations because, this is the thing—Christians have such a fantastic business model for their churches. They promise something that they don't even have to deliver—eternal life. They have a huge amount of influence and money, and they use it in our political system. Atheist organizations are fighting off all of that.
GO: Julia Sweeney speaks at the Freedom From Religion Foundation Convention, Friday-Saturday, Oct. 12-13. Registration has closed. See ffrf.org for more info.