Atheist group holds rally in Madison

Dan Barker, co-president of the FFRF, called the weekend convention "a celebration of freedom" and said 750 attendees gathered to hear comedians and guest speakers in a religion-free weekend.,”The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the largest atheist and agnostic group in the country, hosted its 30th annual convention in Madison last weekend.

Dan Barker, co-president of the FFRF, called the weekend convention "a celebration of freedom" and said 750 attendees gathered to hear comedians and guest speakers in a religion-free weekend.

"The country is growing away from religious dominance and we're riding that wave," Barker said.

In the last three years, the atheist group has seen their numbers double, Barker said. FFRF, which was founded in 1976 and became a national organization in 1978. The group currently claims more than 10,000 members.

Highlights of the weekend's activities were improv and stand-up comedy from Julia Sweeney, who is known for her portrayal the character "Pat" on Saturday Night Live. Barker said Sweeney used comedy to speak of her struggle to find faith.

Another keynote speaker was Christopher Hitchens, an atheist author of "God is Not Great." Barker said Hitchens' spoke in favor of the Iraq war-a view that contradicts most atheists.

"Our audience does not mind controversy. We're not like the Church where you all have to think the same," Barker said.

Because FFRF is a non-profit organization, it is currently not supporting any political candidate, Barker said.

"We come down on all candidates though," he said, adding that many members of FFRF fall into all of the various political groups.

Barker said close to 20 percent of college-aged students do not believe in a higher power.

The Rev. John Laurance, chair of the theology department, said the atheist decision to not take a faith-based stance is actually a faith decision.

The atheist presence reminds Catholics that our religious decisions are a free choice, Laurance said.

"We all have to live together. We are all fish in the same water," Laurance said.

"It is a natural thing for some college students to throw (ideals) out, only to realize what they miss," Laurance said.

Barker said FFRF works with Secular Student Alliance, a national group of atheist college students. Secular Student Alliance receives sponsorship from FFRF in the form of speakers and transportation.

The Secular Student Alliance's mission, according to its Web site, is designed to help students "organize, unite, educate and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific rationality, secularism, democracy and human based ethics."

Chris Hallquist, a University of Wisconsin-Madison junior and president of the Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics organization, said starting up a secularist college group is fairly easy.

The Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics club at UW-Madison is in its second year and has a 100-person e-mail list, he said.

Barker said such student groups are growing in popularity across the country and are even in religiously affiliated universities.

According to the Office of Student Development, there is currently no recognized atheist student group.

Laurance said a sponsored atheist group would not happen at Marquette.

"Students are free to come to Marquette for religious reasons," Laurence said. "Sponsoring groups with viewpoints that are antagonistic to (the university's) nature cannot be accepted."

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