Snapshots from the 2010 FFRF Convention
Welcome to the convention!
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton addresses the convention on the first night.
The FFRF also gave an Emperor Has No Clothes award to Rep. Pete Stark, the only openly nontheist U.S. congressperson, who accepted in a pretaped message.
Linda Greenhouse discusses the Supreme Court.
Dan Barker presents the Emperor Has No Clothes award to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who signed copies of her books after her acceptance speech.
Pioneering geneticist James F. Crow speaks on evolution and creationism.
Eric Workman accepts the Thomas Jefferson Student Activist award for successfully halting state-sponsored prayer at his high school graduation.
Kirk Mefford (R.) and Aaron Blum (L.) discuss their role as advisors to a nontheist student group at West High School. They brought one of their students with them as well.
FFRF staff attorneys Rebecca Markert, Patrick Elliott and Richard Bolton discuss legal challenges.
One theocratic judge put this copy of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom to show how pious he was. See anything wrong with it? Notice which one is missing?
During the lunch break, we toured this street fair in downtown Madison. You can see the impressive dome of the state capitol building.
Julia Sweeney reads from her new book, My Beautiful Loss of Faith Story.
Madison cartoonist Mike Konopacki gave a graphical (and graphic) presentation on religiously inspired violence in American history.
Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks rallies freethinkers to action.
A wide shot to get a sense of the size of the convention. This was about half the ballroom; the other half, equally packed, was behind me.
Julia Sweeney signs books and DVDs after the convention (with Annie Laurie Gaylor looking on, right). Did you know she had a small role in Pulp Fiction? She was much amused when one conventiongoer presented her with this large poster...
Did someone order a large ham? The last event of the night was ex-Mormon cartoonist Steve Benson, who presented a gallery of his most infamous political cartoons with musical accompaniment by Dan Barker.
Freethought Hall, the FFRF's historic headquarters, was just down the road.
I have to admit, as inspiring as it was to see Freethought Hall, it was dwarfed by this Episcopal cathedral down the block - and that's just one church, in one city. It's a reminder of how much work we have left to do in organizing and advocacy. Of course, to be fair, churches enjoy a smorgasbord of tax benefits and legal privileges not available to groups like FFRF. We've only just begun to fight!
Report from the 2010 FFRF Convention
Hey, folks - I'm typing this from the airport in Madison, Wisconsin, waiting for my flight home from the 33rd annual convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which I attended this weekend. I've had a fantastic time, and I still feel happy, relaxed and full of energy. I need to go to these events more often!
The convention was held at the Concourse Hotel in central Madison. We FFRFers descended on the hotel in a freethinking horde - other than the hotel staff, I don't think I saw a single person all weekend who wasn't wearing a convention badge, and the hotel's ballroom, which seated 700, was filled to capacity.
Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor officially opened the convention on Friday night (with the immortal opening line: "I'm Annie Laurie Gaylor, and I'm not a witch"), and the events began with a video address from Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton. It wasn't exactly a pro-atheist message, but it was a genuinely friendly and welcoming statement, saying that she was glad to have us there. I was surprised and impressed: although her speech itself was nothing exceptional, even something as basic as politely acknowledging our existence and welcoming us to town is, for an elected official, a rare and commendable act of political courage.
Following the welcome, there was a talk by Linda Greenhouse, a Pulitzer-winning reporter who covered the Supreme Court for 30 years, about past and upcoming church-state cases. But the real highlight of the night was a keynote speech by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom the FFRF had awarded one of its golden "Emperor Has No Clothes" awards for public figures with the courage to tell it like it is about religion. It was an outstanding speech, discussing how she, like many young boys and especially girls in her culture, was indoctrinated to believe without asking questions, and how she finally woke up to reality and broke free. There were some great moments of humor in her talk, like her complaint that men in the Muslim heaven are promised a harem of perpetually virginal concubines, while women are promised only - get this - bunches of grapes and figs. ("Where are my hunks?" she jokingly complained.)
On Saturday morning there was breakfast (Dan Barker hosted the traditional "Moment of Bedlam", rather than a moment of silence), and then the day's program: a speech by 94-year-old FFRF member James Crow, a pioneering geneticist who recently had an evolutionary biology research institute at UW-Madison named after him. ("Usually those are only named after people who've died," he pointed out, with a twinkle in his eye, "but I wouldn't take the hint!") There was a student activist award ceremony for Eric Workman, a brave and intelligent young man who halted illegal prayers at his high school graduation and then used his valedictory address to explain the importance of separating church and state! We also heard from Kirk Mefford and Aaron Blum, faculty advisors to an atheist student club at West High School in Wisconsin, and then a panel presentation by FFRF's attorneys Rebecca Markert, Patrick Elliott, and Richard Bolton about their ongoing legal efforts to defend church-state separation across the country, including the National Day of Prayer victory.
After lunch, Julia Sweeney read from the first chapter of her upcoming book, My Beautiful Loss of Faith Story, an extremely funny personal memoir about how she became an atheist. Another Emperor Has No Clothes award was also given to Cenk Uygur, the liberal political commentator, former Muslim and host of "The Young Turks". Uygur gave a barn-burner of a speech about how the religious right has been waging a culture war against us for a long time, and how it's about time that we join the battle and fight back.
It was a tremendously exciting and inspiring weekend, and all the FFRF staff deserve a great deal of credit for putting it together and seeing that all the events ran so smoothly. It also made me realize the importance of these events for building the secular community. Communicating over the internet is well and good, but to really motivate and inspire, it helps a lot to meet so many fellow atheists in person. It makes a great deal of difference to see and talk to fellow freethinkers face-to-face, to meet them and shake hands, to see them and hear them in the flesh - if only because it proves in such a tangible sense that we're not alone and that we're united. (This was my first FFRF convention, and the first atheist convention of any sort that I've attended since the Secular Society conference in 2007 - but it definitely won't be nearly as long before my next one.)
I'd also like to give special thanks to two Daylight Atheism readers, LindaJoy and hourlily, who met me at the convention and joined me for most of the events this weekend. They were both extremely friendly and gracious, and I had an immeasurably better time because of them - it's always good to know someone in advance at events like these. LindaJoy even introduced me to Annie Laurie Gaylor, who told me - very much to my surprise - that someone had tried to plagiarize one of my posts for an FFRF scholarship essay contest! (I suppose that's flattering, in a weird sort of way.)
To close out this post, I want to put in another plug for the Freedom from Religion Foundation. They're the country's largest group that explicitly represents atheists and agnostics, and they do excellent work in both educating the public about our viewpoint and defending church-state separation. If you're not a member, I invite you to consider joining - and with luck, I'll see you at the 2011 convention!
Editor's Note: I'll post some pictures as soon as I've had time to process and upload them.
Reminder: Find Me at the FFRF Convention
As I mentioned previously, I'll be attending the 33rd annual convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin on the weekend of October 29-31. Yes, I know that's also the date of the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies; I made my hotel reservation and booked my flight long before those were scheduled. Their loss!
If you're also planning to attend (or if you just live near Madison) and would like to meet up sometime over the weekend, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail. The past few meetups I've planned have gone well, and I'm always interested in meeting readers in person...
Find Me at the FFRF Convention
So, let it be known to all that I plan to attend the 2010 annual convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which will be in Madison, Wisconsin the weekend of October 29-31. Ayaan Hirsi Ali will be the featured speaker, and since it's Halloween, I'm sure she'll have some scary stories to tell us all...
If you're an FFRF member (and if you're not, why aren't you?) and you're also planning to attend the convention, let me know - I'd be happy to meet up at some point during the weekend. If you're just a godless person who lives in or near Madison, we can probably arrange a meetup too - but see my earlier parenthesis about supporting the FFRF!
Report from the Secular Society Conference: Day Three
The final day of The Secular Society and Its Enemies had three programs. The first, a panel titled "Secularism: The Next Generation", was moderated by Derek Araujo and featured several young freethinkers: Matt LaClair, whom I discussed previously; Sarah Stone, a student freethought organizer from Indiana; Mark Antony Smith, a CFI intern from Arizona; Justin Trotter, the director of CFI Ontario; as well as Nica Lalli, the author of Nothing: Something to Believe In.
The panelists discussed several topics, including coming out as an atheist on a personal level, how to deal with religious relatives, and organizing efforts among young freethinkers. Surprisingly, despite polls indicating rising rates of secularism and nonbelief, three of the four panelists spoke of hostility and even, in one case, violence initiated by religious peers. Matt LaClair insightfully noted, "The nicer you are, the more they hate you." And there was a valuable reminder to American atheists that, battered as it may be, the First Amendment is still a precious bulwark against religious encroachment: Justin Trotter discussed how, in some parts of Canada, religious schools are legally funded by tax money from the state.
Mark Antony Smith, Sarah Stone and Nica Lalli.
After the panel, there was an address by Alan Dershowitz, who spoke about America's founders and the way the religious right has sought to pervert the principles of separation of church and state which they laid down. The talk discussed many of the usual important pieces of evidence, including the Treaty of Tripoli, the Jefferson Bible, and the delegates' refusal to add Christian or religious language to the Constitution. Prof. Dershowitz also pointed out that the Constitutional Convention considered a draft of the First Amendment that would simply have forbidden the government from preferentially aiding one religious sect over others (while not prohibiting the government from supporting religion in general), but rejected it in favor of the current, stronger wording. He also spoke of how the "courts are not trustworthy", and why we must engage in grassroots organizing and not simply trust in favorable court rulings to preserve our rights as Americans.
Alan Dershowitz speaks on state-church separation.
Afterward, there was a book signing. I was chatting nearby and witnessed an ugly scene. A conference attendee who had wanted to ask Prof. Dershowitz a question during the Q&A session after the talk, but didn't get the chance, instead confronted him at the signing. The man had printed out a CNN article which quoted Dershowitz as supporting the torture of terrorist suspects, and immediately confronted him and started yelling at the top of his voice, berating him for advocating such a thing.
Dershowitz replied heatedly (I'm sure he's faced far more hostile questioning than this), but stood his ground. He vehemently claimed that the article had badly distorted his position, and offered to pay his interrogator a thousand dollars if he could find any other source that showed Dershowitz expressing sentiments similar to those in the CNN article. The man obviously didn't want to believe this, but the mood of the crowd was against him, and he finally backed down.
A note to this gentleman: This is not how you handle disagreement. What would have been wrong with putting the article down on the table and saying calmly, "Professor Dershowitz, I'm very disturbed by some of the views this story attributes to you. Can you clarify what your position is on this issue?" That would have served much better than blowing your stack at the first opportunity and disrupting the entire conference only to embarrass yourself. It's good to be passionate and willing to challenge authority, but passion does no good if it is not coupled to knowledge.
The day's final event was a panel on Islam and secularism, featuring the scholar Paul Berman and the Islamic dissent Tawfik Hamid. Dr. Hamid, who's been on Point of Inquiry previously, had a fascinating story. Born in Egypt, the son of secular parents, in his youth he was seduced by Islamic radicalism and joined the terrorist group Jamaat al-Islamiya. During that time, he was a personal associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri - now one of the leaders of al-Qaeda. Fortunately, Dr. Hamid heard the call of reason and renounced the group's violent ideology before actually committing any acts of bloodshed. Today he's a secular Muslim working to oppose the spread of Islamism and terrorism and promote a new, more peaceful interpretation of the Qur'an.
During the talk, Paul Berman drew some insightful connections between extremist Islam and European totalitarian movements such as fascism, Nazism and communism. The connections were often literal - many of the forerunners of today's jihadists studied and were educated in Europe, and consciously adopted the vocabulary and concepts of the European totalitarian leaders. Likewise, each of these movements has a mythology that portrays true believers as an intrinsically superior people, unjustly oppressed by the rest of the world, who will rise up and overthrow the oppressors in a glorious, apocalyptic struggle.
Dr. Hamid (who came to the talk with security present), offered a counterpoint to this argument. He spoke of the violent teachings in the Qur'an and the hadith, and of the historical misfortune that the strictest, most intolerant brand of Salafist Islam took root in Saudi Arabia. When oil was discovered there, many Muslims decided that petro-wealth was Allah's blessing for the Saudis' obedience and resolved to do likewise. He also said that education can counteract the teachings of radical mullahs, but that, like other totalitarian movements, Islamism's ideologues are beyond rational debate and need to be confronted and defeated militarily before a new generation can be made receptive to a more tolerant and liberal strain of thought.
After the talks, I got a few more pictures:
Me with Margaret Downey, the charming and friendly president of Atheist Alliance International.
Nica Lalli up close and personal.
All in all, the conference was an amazing experience. The Center for Inquiry did a bang-up job in getting some of the secular movement's most renowned representatives together under the same roof, and all the events were well-planned, entertaining and highly informative. (By way of gratitude, it's worth mentioning their ongoing capital campaign to build a new headquarters in New York City - I encourage you to consider donating.) If this event is held again next year, I'll gladly attend. If secularists and freethinkers can organize to the degree that religious groups are organized, I believe we'd be a political and cultural force to be reckoned with, and events like this one are valuable steps both in building that community, in reinforcing our ideals and principles, and in getting the word out to people who might be persuaded to join us.
Report from the Secular Society Conference: Day Two
The second day of The Secular Society and Its Enemies was largely devoted to panel discussions. I mentioned yesterday that the conference site at the New York Academy of Sciences had some spectacular views of Ground Zero and lower Manhattan; here are a few of them I took that morning:
Looking down on Ground Zero.
Looking east across the river into Brooklyn.
The morning opened with a panel titled "Secularism Through History: From Spinoza to JFK", with participants Susan Jacoby (author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism), Rebecca Goldstein (Betraying Spinoza), and Jennifer Michael Hecht (Doubt: A History). There was also a panel named "The Age of American Unreason: Religion & Politics in America", which included Wendy Kaminer (Sleeping with Extraterrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety), Edward Tabash of CFI Los Angeles, Michelle Goldberg (Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism), and Damon Linker (The Theocons). Both were good, but for my money, the morning's most interesting event was a panel on science and the public, which featured Richard Dawkins, Ann Druyan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis).
Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan. (Sorry for the obstructed view.)
The panelists discussed why we need science, how learning science pays off (Richard Dawkins: saying science has only practical applications is like saying that "a symphony is exercise for the violinist's right arm"), and how we can best teach scientific principles to children. Dr. Tyson said that science's primary value is to "remove our own urges to delude ourselves", while Ann Druyan poetically spoke of how it has "wean[ed] us of our need to be at the center of the universe". They spoke of the obstacles to science, including postmodernism, religious fundamentalism, and the inability of the human mind to grasp the time scales of many natural processes. Richard Dawkins insightfully pointed out that human beings are an artifact-creating species and tend to attribute agency when we see natural mechanisms, like the eye, that perform similarly to made artifacts.
On the topic of science and religion, Ann Druyan and Richard Dawkins had a gentle clash. Ann Druyan, following in Carl Sagan's footsteps, said that we should strive to be more patient and more gentle in dealing with religious claims (although she did say that "science has a better story to tell" and we should point that out). Happily, all four panelists were unanimous in their rejection of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA principle, holding that it was "a cop-out" and that science most certainly can address supernatural claims.
There was a book signing after the morning's panels, and Jennifer Michael Hecht and Michelle Goldberg (in that order below) graciously consented to photos:
I didn't get a picture of Susan Jacoby, but she did autograph my copy of Freethinkers (with a message reading, "To Adam, Constitutionally yours, Susan Jacoby.")
After lunch, there were addresses by Christopher Hitchens (pre-taped), Peter Singer, and Richard Dawkins. Hitchens, interviewed by Derek Araujo of CFI, was his usual firebrand self. He spoke of the threat posed by Islamic extremists, of the resurgent Orthodox church in Russia and its dangerous alignment with the state, and Christian evangelicals in America, whom he considers the least serious of those three dangers. He spoke of how, on his book tour through the South, he found many supportive audience members and sensed a change in the national zeitgeist, a greater willingness to criticize religious ideas. He spoke of Mother Teresa and the recent revelation of her doubts, which he said she "overcompensated" for through hysterical fundamentalism, with the consent of male church superiors who exploited her. (Apparently her Nobel Peace Prize money went straight into founding a convent and was not used to help the poor.) On the subject of politics, he pointed out that he, as a new U.S. citizen, was a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit against warrantless wiretapping; but he also defended the view that we don't necessarily know that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction before the war. Finally, he spoke of European totalitarianism's link to religious traditions, and how Stalin exploited a culture, created and promoted by the tsars, that purposely sought to deify Russian leaders in the eyes of the populace.
Next was Peter Singer, who spoke about the ethics of euthanasia, abortion, stem-cell research, and the use of animals for meat and medical research. I'd had my doubts about Singer before, but after hearing him speak, I feel I've misjudged him. As usual, I should have known not to trust the inflammatory falsehoods thrown around by the religious right. His most controversial position, the support of active euthanasia for severely disabled infants (the Groningen Protocol), is a far more reasonable and merciful position than the gross distortions that religious anti-humanists make of it.
Finally, the evening ended with Richard Dawkins interviewed by D.J. Grothe, with the interview taped for a future episode of Point of Inquiry. (I'll post the link when it's available.) In this candid and fascinating interview, Dawkins spoke of the positive side of atheism and humanism. He also admitted that his unstinting critiques of religion, and his belief that evolution logically implies atheism, might drive some religious people away from considering evolutionary theory. As an evolutionary biologist tasked with improving the public understanding of science, he admits that he has "divided loyalties" on this matter. However, he also feels that he's fighting a somewhat different battle, one that doesn't just defend the teaching of science at the flashpoints but seeks to defeat faith and unreason itself in the long run.
As a postscript: There was one final book signing after the evening's last event, courtesy of Richard Dawkins. I'm still extremely proud and humbled to say that he agreed to sign my copy of The God Delusion on the page where he mentions my website!
Coming up: A report from the third and final day of the Secular Society conference.
Report from the Secular Society Conference: Day One
I mentioned back in October that this weekend I'd be attending The Secular Society and Its Enemies, the 2007 conference of the Center for Inquiry. I didn't get to post my report on the first day of the conference yesterday (since it finished rather late), so I'll do that now. My report on today's events will be up tomorrow, and Sunday's report will be posted on Monday.
The conference was held at the New York Academy of Sciences in lower Manhattan, which is on the 40th floor of World Trade Center 7. The conference center's windows held a stunning panorama of New York City, and - not coincidentally - a breathtaking perspective on Ground Zero. That place, in the shadows of the absent World Trade Center, was a fitting site to discuss our secular society and the threat it faces today from the forces of fundamentalist zealotry.
The conference opened with a cocktail hour and informal reception. Quite a few of the leading lights of freethought, renowned intellectuals who would be speaking at later events, were there that night. While circulating through the room and chatting, I had the opportunity and the privilege to meet and speak with some of them, and many graciously consented to pose for pictures.
First, here's me with Lori Lipman-Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America. (When I greeted her with "Hi, Lori!", she said cheerily back, "Hi, Adam!" - and I was stunned until I belatedly remembered my name tag.) We spoke briefly about church-state issues, and she had good news: Republican Senator David Vitter's disgraceful earmark to a creationist group was defeated. (Unfortunately, she also said Senator Tom Harkin backed off on an earlier pledge to oppose federal funding for abstinence-only sex education. Can't win them all, I suppose.) When I asked if the SCA had turned up any new nontheist congresspeople since Pete Stark, she said that there was at least one other known to her, and that she was trying to get that one to come out of the closet. Of course, the SCA doesn't out anyone against their will, so that congressperson's identity is still a secret for now.
This next picture is going to make a friend of mine very jealous, which is all I'll say about it - other than to add, if you were ever curious, that Neil deGrasse Tyson has an iPhone. :)
Here's one of me with Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow and a superb author and speaker in her own right - more on that later.
And finally, the piece de resistance. I'm afraid I was a bit of a starry-eyed fan - I couldn't not be, he mentioned me in his book! - but Dr. Dawkins was extremely polite and gracious in consenting to be photographed with me.
Finally, one of just me at the conference entrance:
I should note that I also met D.J. Grothe, host of Point of Inquiry - don't have a picture of that, sorry. But it was a civil meeting, and despite our past differences, we got along well. And yes, I still do listen to Point of Inquiry and encourage others to do so.
After opening remarks by Paul Kurtz, chairman of CFI, the major event of the first night was a birthday tribute to Carl Sagan (November 9 was his birthday), presided over by Ann Druyan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Dr. Tyson led off with an astonishing story.
Even as a high-school student, he dreamed of pursuing a career in astronomy. Upon graduation he applied to Cornell University, and his entrance essay referenced the Cosmos TV series. One of Cornell's admissions counselors passed the essay to Carl Sagan - who read it and then wrote the 17-year-old Tyson a letter inviting him to come to Cornell for a personal tour of the campus!
After the visit, it was snowing heavily. Sagan dropped Tyson off at the bus stop, but the arrival of further buses seemed in doubt. So, Sagan wrote his home phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to Tyson, leaving him with the advice that if the bus didn't come, he could call and spend the night at Sagan's house. After recounting this story, Dr. Tyson said that ever since, he's always tried to treat students who came to him as he was once treated by Carl Sagan.
There were more than a few damp eyes in the house, and I can say without any shame that mine were among them.
The conference organizers next played a rare audio recording of Sagan reading the famous passage, Reflections on a Mote of Dust, from his book Pale Blue Dot. Afterward, Ann Druyan (who was more than a little choked-up herself, and who could blame her?) took the stand to speak of Sagan's legacy. She said, in a speech I hope always to remember, that the word "supernatural" is a terrible misnomer. Instead, she said passionately, we should call it the "subnatural", because even the most elaborate imaginings of humans pale beside the majestic glory of the cosmos as it is revealed to us, and that communicating that sense of awe and wonder was what Carl Sagan did so well. Even today, over ten years after his death and over twenty years after Cosmos was first broadcast, it's never gone off the air, and it's still one of the most beautiful and compelling scientific documentaries of all time.
The event closed with CFI presenting the 2007 James Madison Award for Religious Liberty to Matt LaClair, the New Jersey high school student who adeptly exposed the outrageous religious bullying of a popular public school teacher. Matt, who was in attendance with his parents, was a wonderful speaker, and delivered a well-written and gracious acceptance speech with humility and poise. As I've said previously, I think we can expect great things from him.
All in all, the conference so far has been a fantastic event and a wonderful opportunity for freethinkers to meet and work together. Much gratitude is due to CFI for organizing and sponsoring it. More to come tomorrow - stay tuned!
The Secular Society and Its Enemies
Just a quick note to announce that I'll be attending The Secular Society and Its Enemies, a conference sponsored by the Center for Inquiry that will take place in New York City the weekend of November 9. I'm already looking forward to the event - CFI has lined up a top-notch slate of speakers, including Christopher Hitchens, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, Susan Jacoby, Michelle Goldberg, Eugenie Scott, and more. If any of my readers happen to live in the New York metropolitan area and are interested in attending the conference with me, send me an e-mail and we can make arrangements.