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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.