Memorable Moments from the American Atheists National Convention

I have the privilege of attending the American Atheists national convention this year after the Reason Rally. Following the trend of the past couple years, AACON 2012 was the best attended AA conference yet. And, if I heard correctly, the largest atheist conference ever! It was too much for me to give a comprehensive report, but below I have posted my favorite parts of the conference with pictures where I was able to get them.

  • Taslima Nasrin describing her story of exile from her native country of Bangladesh for daring to speak out and write about the oppression of women due to religious customs there.
  • Keynote by Richard Dawkins, where he discusses (among other things) the fine line between being too strident and not strident enough.
Richard Dawkins at AACON 2012
  • Christina Rad was totally impressive, and also managed to sneak in two different topics: the state of and importance of religious liberty around the world, and a statistical demonstration of why US criminalization of drug use is failing compared to other countries that do not criminalize drug use.
  • The coming out of the pastors from the Clergy Project, including one on the panel who came out for the first time at the convention. The female pastor pictured below made a surprise coming out as an atheist for the first time using her real name rather than the pseudonym she had been using with the Clergy Project.
  • Impromptu breakout sessions at the last session to help coach anyone desiring to come out as an atheist to their friends and family and painlessly as possible.
  • Lawrence Krauss explaining why it is plausible that our universe came from nothing, because the more we learn about the universe “nothing” is a lot more interesting and dynamic than always we thought it was.

Lawrence Krauss at AACON2012

  • Sam Singleton comedy night!
  • Costume party! And I got to get my picture with Thor (aka AronRa)

  • Poetry by Victor Harris.
  • On the way home: Airport security officer in the DC Airport stopped me briefly to read my convention t-shirt. He approved 100% and was pleased to find out that atheists have conventions.

These are my top 10 favorite memories from  the American Atheists national convention. I am looking forward to next year in Austin, TX!

The Reason Rally: No Fair-weather Atheists Here!

Despite the cool temperatures and intermittent rain, a crowd numbering from 20,000-25,000 gathered on the National Mall to celebrate reason, science, and godlessness. And I was very pleased and proud to be there among them.

My husband and I at the Reason Rally.

It was quite an experience to be at the largest freethought gathering of all time, and I can only imagine what it was like for those who had never come to an atheist gathering. The first time I met another person that I could speak with about atheism, I was thrilled beyond belief. Walking into a room with a few hundred atheists at my first American Atheists convention three years ago was like a dream. But this was an experience beyond all of that.

The speakers were of a variety from scientists and professors like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers to singers like Shelly Segal and comedians like Eddie Izzard and Tim Minchin. This was a Rally for Reason, but not a dry intellectual unfeeling type of reason. It marks a landmark in a trend I have seen in the atheist movement. We are continuing to move beyond the intellectual halls and into the experience of everyday life. This movement is about reason and intellectualism, but also about community and life and emotion. The life of reason includes all of these things too. This is the “New Atheism.”

Bad Religion rocking the Reason Rally

You can find more information about the Reason Rally, and pictures of the speakers, performers, and massive crowd at ReasonRally.org.

Atheists in Religious Communities

American Atheists has had series of billboards in the past year that has been targeted to the members inside of religious communities that do not really believe the things that their religion claims. These billboards usually contain the words “You know it’s a myth” and have caused a media stir wherever AA has erected them. For the most part, these billboards have been targeted to the Christian population of the United States, but now the Muslim and Jewish communities have been explicitly targeted with two new billboards in Arabic and Hebrew.

I have a couple of comments on these. First, I am glad that they did away with all use of ALL CAPS on these. In general, the billboard design is a step up from other billboards that AA has promoted, from a purely aesthetic point of view. My favorite part of these billboards is the phrase “you have a choice.” Not only in Jewish and Muslim communities, but also in many Christian communities, any unbelievers (open or not) in their midst may get the message that they really do not have a choice.

From personal experience, when I was invited back to church after coming out as an atheist I had little doubt that the people in the church (at least some of them) genuinely loved and cared about me. I was not worried that I would be shunned or anything like that, like in the personal stories I have heard from those who were raised in stricter religious environments. However, there was a very strong sense that within the church community I would have to not only keep my mouth shut about what I really thought, but willingly expose myself to constant messages that the way I thought was wrong and evil and sinful. That I was sinful and at least somewhat evil. It was as if the church people were saying to me “We understand if you are having trouble believing, but your disbelief is a bad thing and something you must overcome. At least keep your mouth shut about it and be properly ashamed about your inability to believe.” It was not a message I could live with. I’m not saying that the message was necessarily intended that way, but there was always a strong sense of “we love you and we know what is best for you, even if you don’t agree with our judgment.”

American Atheists has been criticized about these billboards as if being exposed to such a message as “God is a myth” is going to take away all faith and comfort from believers who see it. I would say that if a billboard was enough to take away a person’s faith then that person’s faith was very weak to start with. What seems to be the really offensive thing to the religious is that  the atheists are saying that people don’t need God or god, and they don’t need religion to be good people. The religious leaders in particular will rail against this message, as it would make their role insignificant. But when you are the lonely atheist in a religious community, the notion that you have the ability to choose not to go along with the religious message is a powerful idea. That there could be others in your own community who think like you but only fear to speak up is an amazing thought. And the thrill of finding community with others among whom you can speak freely without fear and judgement is the best prize of them all.

 

For more information on the billboard campaign, visit You know it’s a myth — 2012 Billboards.

reasonrallybanner

See you at the Reason Rally!

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It is now only two weeks until the Reason Rally, and I am getting excited. At last year’s American Atheist convention, when Dave Silverman first announced the big plans, it seemed like the day would never arrive. One of my favorite things about this rally is that it is a movement rally, not just an event for a single organization. In fact, every major freethought and atheist organization is participating in this event. Given the rocky history among some of the atheist organizations in the past, this really is a big deal. The putting aside of differences and focusing on common goals is vital to show how many of us there really are in favor of the Separation of Church and State and rights for the non-religious. We are no longer scattered to and fro, separated from one another and keeping a low and silent profile to avoid being marked by the prejudices of religious friends, family, and employers. Yes, many people still face that situation, but it is changing. We are coming together and showing our numbers and will no longer tolerate being merely tolerated at the will of a religious majority.

Especially after the record-breaking turnout to the American Atheists convention last year, I am looking forward to seeing how many secular Americans come to the Reason Rally!

For more information on the Reason Rally including speakers, musical acts, and information on ride shares, please visit http://www.ReasonRally.org.

More on the danger of faith

I just now found this post though The Atheist Experience blog, and it is so beautiful that I just have to share it. The post is from “Sincerely, Natalie Reed” and is called God Does Not Love Trans People. In this post she discusses the issue within the transgender community regarding religion. Since transgender people have been so victimized by religion, why do so many still cling to it so tightly? This same discussion is also relevant to women, racial minorities, and other groups who have been victimized so often in the name of faith.

Faith is the opposite of skepticism. Faith is “just knowing”. Under ideal circumstances, a person derives their conclusions from observations, facts and thinking things through. If new perspectives, new ideas, new considerations, new arguments, new observations or new facts come along, we adapt the conclusion. Faith asks us instead to work backwards. We have the conclusion already. Thought, perspectives, observations, facts and interpretations are structured to support the conclusion. Facts that contradict it are either denied, or re-interpreted and re-framed until they can fit with the original conclusion. For instance, if the initial conclusion is that God created man and woman, and for a man to don a woman’s clothing is a sin, then suddenly finding yourself trans puts you in conflict with the conclusion your faith states MUST be the case. So instead of reconsidering the initial conclusion, and accepting that maybe the whole God thing isn’t quite right, you either adapt the facts (suppressing your trans identity and attempting to conform) or you re-interpret and contort your perspective until it all fits together somehow. He made you this way because He loves you. He made you this way to test your strength. He made you this way because suffering brings you closer to Him. Etc.

I recommend that you read the entire post. It is long, but worth it.

In particular the stories of transgender people fascinate me, because I was so ingrained with the ideas of binary sexuality (you must be a man or woman, period!). It was even harder for me to drop the cis-sexism than it was to walk away from religion, since the idea is so engrained in all aspects of our culture. It’s an assumption taken on faith that few people even consider the possibility of questioning. It was only though my contact with the feminist movement and through reading the blogs and stories of transgender people that the assumption began to crack. When you do some reading about sex, and the development of sexuality and the development of sexual identity and preferences, it becomes clear that human sexuality exists on a spectrum and is definitely not binary. (I recommend Darrel Ray’s Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality for more information.)

We need to always question our assumptions and not merely take things on faith. Particular when taking things on faith causes so much suffering for good people.

Richard Dawkins is good for the Reason Rally

I have noticed something in the attitudes of atheists and other freethinkers toward religion, that it is strongly influenced by the experiences that person has had with religion in the past. Those with a fundamentalist or evangelical background have experienced the suppression of thought and fear of external ideas that goes with fundamentalist indoctrination, and may have seen families, possibly even their own, torn apart by religious differences. They are more likely to be strongly anti-religious, even if they self-censor at times to keep the peace. In fact, the perceived need for self-censorship leads to a great deal of resentment towards the very thought of religion. Religion as they have experienced it is thought-suppressing, guilt-inducing, fanaticism filled bunk. And they rage against it. Understandably.

On the other hand, those from a more liberal and open religious background seem to not quite understand what these former fundamentalists are all worked up about. Or those who have never been religious, but have had lots of experience with reasonable, accepting religious people who you can tell you are an atheist without them making faces at you like they are going to be sick or faint or go berserk on you. Lucky for them.

Somehow, I get the idea that Barbara J. King is likely to fall into the later description, even though I’m not sure what her background is. She is the author of a recent article on the NPR blog titled “Will Richard Dawkins Drive A Stake Through The Heart Of The ‘Reason Rally’?

She seems to think that Richard Dawkins’s outspoken criticism of religion is going to somehow work against the goals of the Reason Rally to combat negative stereotypes of atheists. I, probably the same as Richard Dawkins, does not think that the way for us to combat negative ideas of atheism is for the atheists to make ourselves quieter on the subject of religion, as if it were actually superior to be a religionist (of whatever kind) than to be an atheist as so many apparently assume.

From the article:

In a 2006 interview with Steve Paulson at Salon (during his tenure as professor of public understanding of science), Dawkins suggested that greater intelligence is correlated with atheism. He also said that when it encourages belief in the absence of evidence, “there’s something very evil about faith.”

Slam. That noise you hear is the sound of thousands of minds closing down and turning away from anything that Dawkins might go on to say about science.

By choosing words hurtful and harsh, Dawkins closes off a potential channel of communication about science with people who hold faith dear in their lives.

What does she think Dawkins means by faith, I wonder? She makes clear elsewhere in the article that she is a science-minded person herself and just as frustrated as anyone by the antics of the creationists to sell pseudoscientific crap to children. (My words, not hers.) Surely she does not consider it virtuous to believe claims that have not been proven, or that have been shown to be out of step with modern knowledge of the world? Once again, I think, the problem comes down to “tone.” Saying things like “faith is evil” is going to turn off religious people who have a very rosy view of the virtue of believing unquestioningly in things that one has not seen (see John 20:29). Nevermind that the belief in the virtue of such “faith” is exactly what is at the heart of the harm done in the world in the name of religion, from suicide bombers to Catholic parents who believe the word of the religious authority over that of their hurt child. This is the sort of thing that leads Dawkins and others like him to make such “hurtful and harsh” statements about faith. The hurt that has been perpetuated in the name of faith has been much worse.

I think I know where she is coming from. Sure, there are plenty of people out there who consider themselves believers in a religious tradition but are at the same time pro-science, pro-reason people. At the same time, these are the people who use their reason and learning to reject or reinterpret portions of their religious tradition to make it compatible with a rational life in the modern world. Their traditions have been influenced by secular thought in the direction of progress. Surely we should not isolate ourselves from those who follow the nicer parts of religious tradition and still hold common cause with us secular people.

On the other hand, we are not going to improve the cause of secularism and acceptance of atheists by muzzling the atheist’s criticism of religion. That does not lead to any progress at all, in fact, that just keeps us where we are right now. We will never have an equal place for atheists in society until we get rid of the fear of blasphemy and offense of the religious and lay out all these ideas on the table for open discussion.

Richard Dawkins has given the secular community a great boost, being the first (as far as I know) to stick out his neck and publish a book about atheism with a major publishing company. He’s not going to damage our cause by speaking his mind at the Reason Rally.

Me at a book signing with Dawkins on his tour for The Greatest Show on Earth.