The Banality of Hartford's Atheism

Why let a little thing like religion divide us?

That’s what Mitt Romney said last weekend. The Republican presidential candidate asked that his party kindly ignore his Mormon faith and instead embrace universal values like “decency and civility.”

Romney’s appeal would surely resonate with a group that also holds such values above religion -- the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist lobbying group based in Wisconsin. About 400 of its 17,000 members gathered for its annual conference last weekend at the Marriott Hartford Downtown and Mark Twain House. Members listened to guest speakers, gave out awards and discussed the importance of the separation between church and state.

For such a small gathering, the Freedom from Religion Foundation got a lot of attention. The Guardian newspaper saw the occasion as a benchmark in the growing secularization of America, especially among the young. A local NBC affiliate decided that billboards advertising the conference -- quoting Mark Twain and Katharine Hepburn -- were far enough removed from the norm as to warrant this opening line: “Atheists are heading to Connecticut.”

Glenn Beck’s news site, The Blaze, sounded the most conspiratorial alarm when it noted that the FFRF is “consistently working to rid society of references to God.” Perhaps concerned by the idea of atheism growing in the U.S., the Blaze article said: “While the proportion of Americans who call themselves atheists is still relatively small, the numbers are growing, as groups like FFRC dig their heels in and fight incessantly against religious institutions.”

In keeping with the spirit of The Blaze's founder, such claims are almost true.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation doesn’t want to rid society of God. Just government. It’s indifferent to "religious institutions," known as churches et al., insofar as they don’t get mixed up with electoral politics and public policy.

The Blaze also speculated that the event “will likely cause some angst among the religious.”

What kind of angst?

Were there protests? Letters to the editor? Outraged commentary?

Nope.

A Google search reveals nothing happened. If there’s angst, it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

In fact, ordinary is how Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF, describes the process of planning the conference. The nonprofit chose Hartford “out of respect to our members,” Barker says. “Not everyone can fly, so we try to plan them in different places in the country every year.”

Courtesy isn’t enough, however. Democracy matters too.

“Our members voted on Hartford,” Barker said, in part because of the Mark Twain House & Museum.

Barker says future plans include establishing local chapters, more events and -- yes -- more of those newsworthy billboards. “The northeast is a home to free thinking and liberalism,” Barker says. “But all that might take a couple of years or more. It’s going to take time.”

Like decency and civility, patience is also a universal value.

And as Mitt Romney said, such values (should) trump religion.