Atheist Action Items

• We've all been following the news about the massive earthquake and tsunami that's devastated Japan, and I won't waste your time rehashing the details. Help on an international scale is urgently needed, and the Foundation Beyond Belief has stepped in and is raising funds for the Japanese Red Cross. They've already collected almost $10,000, but that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed. Visit their ChipIn page and contribute if you can.

• On another note, my good friend and general paragon of awesomeness Greta Christina is compiling a list of living atheists who are people of color, similar to Jen McCreight's list of female atheists. The intent is to offer the completed list as a resource for conference organizers who want to diversify their lineup, but don't know or can't find any non-white atheists to invite. Go check out the comment thread, and if you know of anyone who hasn't been mentioned, please add them!

March 15, 2011, 7:36 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink0 comments

Atheism Is Breaking Out All Over

Right around the time I received James A. Haught's editorial "Fading Faith", I was working on a similar post of my own. It was motivated by the brutal murder of Salman Taseer and the other signs that religious eliminationism is growing throughout the world, which drove me to wonder if there's any reason left to hope. Although recent events argue persuasively that the liberal spirit is alive and well, I think there's still room for this post as well: evidence that atheism is breaking out all over, and that a secular spirit is rising throughout the industrialized world.

In many ways, the U.K. is at the epicenter. Even the guardians of orthodoxy have noticed, as in this article from Nick Spencer lamenting how "the overwhelming feeling [toward Christianity] is one of disinterest and disengagement" among Generation Y. This essay by Johann Hari, deploring the guaranteed seats in Parliament for clerics, expresses a more positive perspective on the same news:

Britain is one of the most blessedly irreligious societies on Earth... The British Social Attitudes Survey, the most detailed study of public opinion, found that 59 per cent of us say we are not religious.

As in Britain, so in Germany: 60% of Berlin residents are nonreligious. Even more inspiring was the news that, after the brutal 2006 "honor killing" of a Turkish woman, the city government introduced a secular ethics class to the public school curriculum. When religious interest groups pressed for a ballot initiative to add a religion class as an alternative to the ethics class, that referendum was soundly defeated by voters.

Similarly, a recent census in Melbourne, Australia found that 32% of the city's 3.6 million residents identified as nonreligious, and 13% as atheists. (The article didn't make it clear whether these were overlapping categories.)

Even in Indonesia, atheists are using the internet to find each other and organize. Although this movement is just getting off the ground and isn't as large as in Western countries, it's still an achievement worth recognizing - especially in a Muslim-majority country where every citizen is required to carry an identity card stating their religion, and for which only six officially recognized options are allowed, atheism not among them.

It was such a stigma that prompted a 35-year-old teacher from West Sumatra, known online as "XYZMan," to start an email mailing list in 2004 to allow atheists to discuss their beliefs. The list now has more than 350 members.

Despite the success of the mailing list, XYZMan said he is forced to keep his own atheism secret in the real world...

"If everyone knew that I'm an atheist, I could lose my job, my family would hate me and also some friends," he said in an email interview.

"It's also more likely that I could be physically attacked or killed because I'm a kafir (unbeliever) and my blood is halal (allowed to be spilled) according to Islam."

And last but not least, that wealthy bastion of religious fundamentalism, the U.S. The slow decline of all Christian denominations, accompanied by the steady growth of the unaffiliated, has long been noted by demographers (see the charts and graphs in the linked article). But even more pertinently, it's not just our absolute numbers that are growing, it's our electoral clout:

In every presidential election since 1988... the ranks of what pollsters call "the religiously unaffiliated" has grown. In 2008, some 12% of the electorate - or 15 million voters - identified themselves as nonbelievers. That's bigger than the Latino vote (9%), the gay vote (4%), or the Jewish vote (2%), and it's competitive with the African American vote (13%).

There's also this excellent article detailing the growth of atheist political organization, with welcome coverage of groups like the Secular Coalition for America, representing our interests in Washington, or the Secular Student Alliance, organizing the next generation of freethinkers in colleges and high schools across the country (despite resistance from bigots). This may be the most important part of the atheist movement - creating an infrastructure that can absorb our growth and make us a visible social force, rather than an amorphous collection of individuals. Such an organization could effectively speak out for the rights of nonbelievers around the world and forcefully advocate all the causes that freethinkers should care about.

March 2, 2011, 6:45 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink15 comments

Exploring the Gender Disparity on Daylight Atheism

As part of my fifth anniversary post, I included a survey where I asked readers to list their gender and their age, mainly just to satisfy my own curiosity. The results of the age poll, to my pleased surprise, formed a very neat bell curve (I have more computer-savvy older readers than I had guessed!).

This wasn't the case with the gender survey, however. I was expecting there to be a gender disparity, and there was, but it was much larger than even I had anticipated. With the poll now closed, the final results stand at 81% male and 19% female, with about 1% who don't identify as belonging to either category.

Granted, this isn't a scientific poll, and there are lots of different factors that could have biased the results. Nevertheless, I think this huge gender disparity is a result that's in need of explanation, and like any good scientist, I'd like to propose several different hypotheses to test.

Hypothesis #1. There's a large male-female disparity in atheism generally, and the poll results simply reflect that fact.

This hypothesis is almost certainly part of the truth, but it can't be all of the truth. According to the ARIS researchers, the non-religious segment of the American population is about 60% male (the percentages may be different in other countries, but I expect that a majority of my readership is American). Thus, if my visitors were a good statistical sample of the population, I'd have expected that same 60-40 split. But the gender disparity on Daylight Atheism is greater than that, which means there must be some other cause at work.

Besides, this hypothesis doesn't really explain the gender disparity as much as reiterate it. Why is it true that nonbelievers are predominantly male?

Hypothesis #2. There's a male-female disparity on the Internet generally, and the poll results simply reflect that fact.

Again, I think this hypothesis is part of the explanation, but only a small part. To further satisfy my curiosity, I cross-referenced the data for people who answered both polls, which yielded an interesting pattern:

Male Female
< 18 10 3
18-21 50 14
22-30 166 46
31-40 105 17
41-50 73 17
51-60 65 11
> 60 42 6

As you can see, although there's a gender disparity in every age group, it's substantially larger among respondents above the age of 30. Below that age, men outnumber women by about 3-to-1, while above that age, it's more like 6-to-1.

According to Pew surveys, it's true that more older men than older women are online, but this only applies to those above the age of 65. In all younger age groups, the percentages are virtually identical. Therefore, it's probably not a general, society-wide pattern in internet use that produced the discrepancy on my site.

Hypothesis #3. Men were more likely than women to vote in this poll, producing skewed results.

This possibility could be generalized to the hypothesis that women are socially conditioned to be less likely to speak up, to identify themselves, and to make their voices heard, especially when in the presence of men - something often noted by feminists. But while I think this may be a problem in general, I'm skeptical that it played a major role on this blog.

As I said, this poll wasn't scientific, and it's possible that differences in self-reporting might have further tilted the outcome. But on a blog, everyone's comments occupy an equal space; no one can interrupt, shout down or talk over anyone else. It's not even obvious what gender other commenters are, unless people deliberately comment under their real names or choose a gendered pseudonym. Whatever unequal social pressures may exist on men and women, could they really extend to something as simple as clicking a button on a poll?

Hypothesis #4. Something about the subject matter or content of this site, in general, appeals to men more than to women, or makes women feel as if they're less welcome than men.

This is the hypothesis that I find the most plausible, and the one that troubles me most. Am I doing something to make atheist women feel unwelcome or uninterested?

If so, I'd like to fix that. But I don't know what that thing might be, and I don't expect it would be easy for me to discern it. After all, it's difficult to notice your own presuppositions, except in the rare cases where circumstances are designed to bring them to the fore. But once they're pointed out to you, it's usually possible to deliberately make an effort to compensate for them.

That's why, if you have an opinion about what I should be doing differently, I'd like to hear it. I'm especially interested to hear from female readers, although - and I mean no offense by this - you're the outliers!

If we can come up with an answer to this question - if we can determine what a blogger like me should be saying or doing differently to appeal to women as well as men - this information will be beneficial not just to this site, but to the broader atheist movement, which is still struggling with issues of fairness and gender balance. By ensuring that we're framing our message to appeal to all segments of the population equally, we can make the secular community larger and more influential, and in the long run, this can only be a good thing for us.

February 19, 2011, 6:06 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink80 comments

Help Bring Freethought to Prisoners

The United States of America is the prison capital of the world, incarcerating far more people than any other nation (including China, which has over four times our population and is a repressive dictatorship). And most atheists already know that Christian proselytizing is rampant in prisons, with programs that both skirt the Constitution and blatantly trespass on it.

Given these facts, it makes sense for the atheist movement to care about what happens behind prison walls. Although atheists are known to be underrepresented in prison relative to our share of the general population, that doesn't mean that there aren't prisoners who are desperately seeking an alternative to omnipresent, coercive religious evangelism. Any real education we can offer them, as opposed to indoctrination with fundamentalist superstition and dogma, would be an extremely welcome breath of fresh air.

That's why, on suggestion from a reader (thanks, Jerry!), I want to recommend the Freethought Books Project, an effort to get atheist and freethought books to inmates and others in need. Donations of both money and books are welcomed. There are also prisoners who'd like to correspond with freethinkers on the outside, so if you'd prefer, you can volunteer to be a pen pal as well. If you have the time and the interest, please consider it!

February 8, 2011, 8:50 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments

On Taking Offense, and the Easiness Thereof

I wanted to point out this comment from an ongoing discussion, because it's such a perfect example of the kind of Christian privilege that American believers take for granted:

Well, I guess you atheists are more easily offended than me. I do not see how a statue of the Ten Commandments makes anyone a second-class citizen.

It's certainly easy, isn't it, for a Christian to proclaim that he wouldn't be offended by government-sponsored denigration of his beliefs, because he's never experienced it. I'm guessing this commenter has never had a stake in important litigation where, in order to have his case heard, he has to pass through courthouse doors beneath a massive sign reading "THOU SHALT NOT BELIEVE IN GOD". He's never had to buy and sell things using currency that reads "In Atheism We Trust", or be expected to pledge his patriotism with an affirmation containing the words "one nation under no gods". He's never had to lobby for his rights before a Congress where only one member is an outspoken Christian and most of the rest proclaim that Christians are vile radicals who are unfit for public office. He's never been told by his elected officials that he has no right to have them represent him, or told by one of the top jurists in the land that the law "permits the disregard" of his viewpoint.

But atheists do face equivalents of all these bigotries, and more besides. Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses are part of this, and are a reminder of the countless ways in which American believers consign atheists to second-class status.

And on that note, I have to comment on a related topic. There's a great, thriving atheist community on Reddit, and I've gotten a lot of hits and feedback from posting my articles there. They've even accomplished some truly great and tangible things, like raising over $40,000 for Doctors Without Borders. It's never occurred to me that any atheist would feel unwelcome there, at least until I saw these two posts on Jen McCreight's blog.

Whenever I see that I got an uptick in traffic from reddit, I'm always afraid to go check the link. Because inevitably when someone links to my blog, many of the comments will be disparaging remarks about my gender or looks. Hell, even some of the positive comments are about my gender or looks, which are still annoying - can we please comment about the content, and not my boobs, please?

As you might expect, this resulted in a flood of comments from outraged males. Quite a few of these explained that for the grievous act of having a blog which is openly female, which doesn't try to hide that the author is a woman, she should expect to be the target of sexist leering. Here's one stellar specimen from Reddit:

Author at the Presidio

Fig. 1: I will not have my opinions dismissed for posting this.

It's the equivalent of a woman dressing up like a prostitute, giving a dissertation on Lawrence Krauss's "A Universe From Nothing" while dancing on a stripping pole, and then being surprised that someone mentions something other than Krauss's speech.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Jen's picture includes the top third of her torso, and that this is equated to "dressing up like a prostitute" and "dancing on a stripping pole". There are plenty of popular male atheists who have pictures of themselves prominently featured on their blogs, but who (I'm guessing) hardly ever have this used against them as an excuse to dismiss or belittle their arguments. It's women and women alone who can expect condescension and hostility merely for making it obvious what gender they are. Or as another Reddit poster put it:

You need thicker skin. It seems like you are looking to be victimized.

What this person obviously meant to say was, "By being openly female, you are looking to be victimized." It rather puts the lie to the other commenters who said they've never noticed sexism on Reddit, doesn't it?

Of course, there will always be emotionally stunted trolls who think it's the height of wit to make sexist or racist comments and then chortle heartily if they get an outraged response. The internet, like every other human gathering place, has its troglodytes, its bigots and its yobs (which is a fantastic Britishism and I'm officially stealing it). The real issue is how the larger community responds. Does it agree that sexism is unacceptable and say so firmly? Or does it deny, minimize, or attempt to deflect responsibility? Does it belittle the woman who's targeted, tell her that it's "no big deal" and she should just "get over it", or worst of all, tell her that she brought it on herself and call her a sexist for pointing it out? (This is the kind of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I schoolyard taunting that said trolls think of as brilliant repartee.)

This is how we make the atheist community larger and stronger: when someone feels unwelcome, we take the time to find out why, and if there's something happening that makes them feel excluded, we fix it. If you instead pour scorn on the person who speaks up, if you call them thin-skinned, easily offended, a chronic troublemaker - this is the response of bigotry, and since it's something atheists have so often been on the receiving end of, we ought to understand that. If we want the atheist movement to be a coherent force that can effectively challenge theocratic intrusion and religious privilege, we need to stop pushing people away, and start making sure that anyone who's on our side feels welcome among us.

February 5, 2011, 11:21 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink55 comments

Encouraging Diversity in Atheism

I wrote last month about the importance of making non-white atheists feel welcome. I intend to continue banging that drum, and now I again have occasion to do so, thanks to this article from Religion News Service, "Atheists' Diversity Woes Have No Black-and-White Answers".

This article complements the last one I discussed. Alom Shaha's essay was about being a person of color and an atheist, looking at the community from the inside. This one is more about looking in from the outside, how the atheist movement appears to the wider world when viewed through the lens of racial diversity. It also chronicles the struggles of some minority atheists to find a face like their own in a sea of white males:

"Anytime you go to an atheist meeting, it tends to be predominantly male and white. We know that," said Blair Scott, national affiliate director for American Atheists, which has 131 affiliate groups. "We go out of our way to encourage participation by females and minorities. The problem is getting those people out (of the closet as atheists) in the first place."

...But diversity remains elusive. As of late December, American Atheist magazine hadn't been able to find enough black atheist writers to fill a special Black History Month edition for February. In another telling sign, the Council for Secular Humanism tried in vain to present a diverse array of speakers at its four-day October conference in Los Angeles. Most of the 300 attendees were white men, as were 23 of the 26 speakers.

It's important to emphasize that this is not solely an atheist problem. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Sunday at 11 A.M. was "the most segregated hour in this nation", and the evidence suggests that little has changed. According to research, only 5% of American churches are racially integrated, and half of those are in the process of becoming all-black or all-white. Still, that doesn't mean that we as atheists have no responsibility to address this issue - and at least most religious denominations have substantial black memberships, even if they don't often mingle with white churchgoers.

Why is the atheist movement so racially homogeneous? The article mentions the theory I find most plausible: that the power of religion in minority communities is a cultural legacy of racism. In the past, racial and ethnic groups that faced hatred and hostility from a deeply prejudiced larger society turned to religion to encourage social coherence as a means of protection - an attempt to evoke sympathy and fellow-feeling from those who'd otherwise be biased against them. Even today, when minorities have greater legal protection, this attitude persists and leads to intense suspicion and exclusion of anyone who doesn't conform to the community norms. (Writers such as Sikivu Hutchinson have suggested a similar explanation.)

There are two lessons that I think should be drawn here, and one is that we don't have unlimited time to get this right. Stereotypes like this have a nasty habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies; after all, if "everyone knows" that all atheists are white people, that's likely to discourage blacks, Latinos, and members of other minority groups from wanting to join us. (And if that conclusion doesn't occur to them on their own, religious apologists will be happy to suggest it.) Atheism as a movement is still in its early stages, which makes it even more important that we take the effort and pay attention to diversifying now. It's an effort that'll bear fruit in the long run.

The other is that this isn't a problem white atheists can solve on our own. We can and should do everything possible to present an inclusive and welcoming environment to atheists who are minorities, and ensure that they don't feel out of place; and when they do speak up, we should do everything in our power to support them. There's more progress to be made on all those fronts. However, the only way that religion's power in minority communities will ultimately be broken will be if people who are members of those communities come out as atheists and push back against social pressure to conform.

Fortunately, there are signs that this situation is changing. These efforts are still in their beginning steps, but existing atheist and humanist groups are realizing the value of championing diversity, and people of color are organizing themselves as well:

A new group, Black Atheists of America, drew about 25 attendees at its first national meeting in October. Also last year, the Institute for Humanist Studies was born in Washington, D.C. with a goal of helping atheism become more diverse.

...some activists like [Alix] Jules are holding to a vision of integration. He chairs a newly formed diversity council for the Dallas Coalition for Reason, which includes the area's 15 atheist groups. Last year, the coalition started targeted outreach campaigns to minority groups... Dallas' Fellowship of Free Thought used to be almost exclusively white, Jules said, but now the group counts members with black, Hispanic and Middle Eastern backgrounds, including former Muslims.

If we keep at it, these efforts will naturally blend together, leading to an atheist movement that looks more like society in general and that incorporates a broader range of backgrounds and viewpoints. And that, in turn, means we'll be able to more persuasively appeal to a larger number of people, speaking to them in the cultural language they're most familiar with and phrasing our message in a way that more strongly resonates with their own concerns. In short, encouraging diversity in atheism isn't just something we should do for the sake of political correctness, but a wise investment that will pay dividends down the line.

January 10, 2011, 7:51 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink130 comments

Making Non-White Atheists Feel Welcome

I was reading this outstanding essay by Alom Shaha, an atheist and ex-Muslim of Bangladeshi descent, who describes what it's like to come out as a nonbeliever in a tightly-knit, intensely religious community. But as he makes clear, the social and cultural pressure on people in his situation isn't just a matter of happenstance; it formed as a defensive reaction against a wider society that was bitterly prejudiced:

My family was one of a large wave of Bangladeshi families who emigrated to the UK in the early 1970s. It was a horrid time to be a young Bangladeshi in Britain – a time when pubs displayed signs saying "no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs", and violent racism was rife. We got used to the shouts of "go back home you dirty pakis", and lived in fear of physical abuse ranging from being spat at to being beaten up on the street. In these circumstances, it's not surprising that the Bangladeshi community was a close-knit and insular one.

It was not only our shared experiences as immigrants that unified us, but also our shared religion. Islam was the religion that defined many of my cultural experiences as I was growing up... For many of the people I grew up with, being a Bangladeshi is inseparable from being a Muslim.

This is, to put it bluntly, something that most white male atheists have never had to worry about. Yes, there are oppressive religious communities of every race and ethnicity which use brainwashing, peer pressure, and xenophobia to keep their members in line. But in addition to all those obstacles, which are common to every fundamentalist community, deconverts like Shaha faced the painful reality that much of the outside world genuinely was, and often still is, deeply prejudiced toward them. Under those circumstances, it's not irrational to fear that if you leave your own community and the social safety net it provides, you'll find no friends anywhere.

All this is by way of commenting on another post Shaha wrote recently, about the importance of being inclusive and welcoming to non-white atheists (HT: Jen McCreight). Typically, the comments section erupted with people - I'm going to go out on a limb and say most of them are probably white males - who angrily, defensively protested that they're not racist themselves, so this can't possibly be a problem. Here's one representative example:

Perhaps it's such a complete non-issue than only the most ardent proponents of identity politics have ever given it a second thought.

Judging by the sneer hanging over the phrase "identity politics", I can only conclude that this statement was made by someone who's never personally had to deal with racism or sexism, and from that single data point, believes that it can't possibly be an issue for anyone else either. If you want to know why non-white (and, often, non-male) people are underrepresented in the atheist community, if you want to understand why they sometimes feel unwelcome, look to comments like this.

This is why, as Shaha suggests, we need to make more of a concerted effort to "reach out to [non-white atheists] specifically, not generally" - to make a point of not overlooking them, of inviting more of them to be speakers and presenters, of making sure we give them their fair share of media attention and focus.

It has nothing to do with the fact that people who have the same skin color are privy to a secret means of communications not available to others, or that we have some kind of diversity quota to meet. It has everything to do with the fact that people who didn't grow up in a community like this, people who've never faced these kinds of social pressures, aren't likely to have much good advice for those who are still in that situation and want to escape. And on the other side of the equation, consider things from the viewpoint of people who are still a part of those communities. If they look to the atheist movement and see only white faces, they may conclude that no one else from their community has ever made it out and found a safe haven among us, and that may well discourage them from trying.

In other words, being more inclusive isn't something we should do as an act of charity. It's something we should do because it makes the atheist movement as a whole more powerful, more influential, and more able to effectively communicate with a broader range of people.

November 22, 2010, 6:49 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink108 comments

This Holiday Season, Consider Atheism!

I was happy to read that this week that atheist groups are launching a new ad blitz, with ads extolling the virtues of atheism on billboards, buses, trains and print media. Significantly, atheist ads are also hitting the airwaves for the first time ever - thanks to a $150,000 donation from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, which is underwriting a TV ad campaign by the American Humanist Association.

And the very best part of the AHA campaign is that the ads aren't just saying that atheists can be good people too. They're hitting the religious where it hurts - by quoting some of the more notoriously evil verses from the Bible and contrasting them with positive quotes from famous humanists and freethinkers. (See the quotes here - I'm pleased with their selections.)

The most important reason for advertisements like these is that we still have a lot of low-hanging fruit. Most atheist groups have membership only in the tens of thousands - not an insignificant number, to be sure, and many of them are growing rapidly. The FFRF, for example, has tripled its membership in just the past few years. But the number of Americans who explicitly identify as atheist or agnostic is in the millions, and the number who are nonreligious is in the tens of millions. Clearly, if we can reach even a fraction of these people and convince them to join up, we could be much larger and more influential - and we'd punch much harder against the incursions of the religious right.

Granted, when it comes to organizing, religious groups have a built-in advantage: they already have a hierarchy which they can use to communicate with their membership. This means we have to work harder to catch up with them, and both positive and negative ads have a place in this effort - positive, to emphasize the benefits of atheism and show our neighbors that we're good and moral people. But ads highlighting the cruelties and violence of the Bible are just as important, for the simple reason that they puncture the claim made by religious people that there's a single source of morality and that they have sole custody of it.

After all, just look at how absolutely terrified the religious right is of this campaign:

"They are trying to show that they can be good without God but that's ridiculous," said Dr. Craig Hazen, founder and director on Biola's MA program on Christian Apologetics, in an interview with The Christian Post.

...Although Hazen said humanists have no business interpreting the Bible [my emphasis], he concluded that the ads may have some resonance due to the biblical illiteracy among Christians today.

I find it vastly amusing to see religious bigots petulantly complaining that we're not allowed to be good and decent people if we don't believe in their god. Of course, they define "being a good person" as "believing in our religion", so in their eyes, atheists are immoral by definition. But that definition is what you'd call a "term of art" - a specialized meaning that's very different from the way people ordinarily understand the word.

And this is a fight we should be glad to have. I welcome the religious right's claims that they're the only moral people. After all, it will only increase the cognitive dissonance when people see our ads contrasting the vicious and bloodthirsty verses of the Bible with famous nonbelievers advocating conscience, reason, compassion, and other good things. It will make our ads that much more effective. So, to the apologists for superstition and prejudice, I say bring it on! And for everyone else, I have this friendly reminder: This holiday season, consider atheism - and if you're inclined towards our side, then please join one of these worthy groups, and help us spread the joyous and liberating message of reason.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation

The American Humanist Association

The Secular Coalition for America

November 17, 2010, 7:49 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink27 comments

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!

November 1, 2010, 8:06 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink9 comments

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.

October 31, 2010, 4:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink9 comments

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