The 2007 Atheist Alliance International convention in Washington, DC did not disappoint. The biggest names were all there including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and more. The recent rise of the so called “New Atheism” was clearly evident when the convention sold out within weeks. Previous conventions attracted no more than 200 people, while this year’s event had 500 attendees with 600 people on the waiting list.
After a short fundraising event on Thursday evening, the convention got started on Friday night with hosts Margaret Downey, Herb Silverman and Bill Creasy and featured a hilarious appearance from “Pastor” Deacon Fred from the Landover Baptist Church. Next, Richard Dawkins took the stage with a very enthusiastic reception. I overheard some criticism that he didn’t seem to tailor his presentation for the all atheist audience instead pulling remarks from previous talks and writings. In his defense, he did give us an interesting glimpse of his experiences since releasing The God Delusion.
Sam Harris followed and what he said had everybody talking about it the next day. He basically started out saying that, since everyone in the audience was pretty much in agreement with his arguments, he could just throw some “red meat to the lions” or he could talk about the things where he might disagree with the audience. Of course, he chose the latter. He dedicated the first half of his talk to the idea that we shouldn’t call ourselves atheists. He claims that using the label of atheist is a liability and hinders our ability to get our message heard. The mood of the room started to shift a bit during this part. I think most people thought this point was too idealistic and that we have to have some label to organize under.
Sam’s final point concerned the exploration of meditation and contemplation that he touched on in The End of Faith. He basically tried to make his case that we should take seriously the study of meditation and critically study its possible benefits to human happiness and not simply dismiss it just because the practice has historically been pursued mainly by religious followers. At this point, the air was pretty much leaving the room. All in all, I completely respect Sam Harris even more for telling people what they may not have wanted to hear. He proved to me that he’s not in this to win a popularity contest, but instead to honestly explore the best possible solution to the negative effects of religious faith. Read the transcript of Sam Harris’ speech and see what you think.
Saturday was a whirlwind of events. After attending a session on handling the media and secular parenting, I ran into our fellow Charlotte atheist Joseph Stewart for lunch which was then followed by a 6 hour block of speakers. First up was Eddie Tabash who gave a very sobering talk about the threat of the religious right. One of the main points he stressed was the importance of the Supreme Court in the fight to maintain the separation of church and state. He also stressed that it’s important which senators we elect since they have the power to confirm Supreme Court judges.
To help lighten the mood of the room, Eugenie Scott next gave a spirited recounting of the “Intelligent Design” trial in Dover, PA. As an active participant in the trial, she was able to give us the inside details of the case. The highlight was when she led us through the “evolution” of the book Of Pandas and People used by the Creationists over the years. She clearly showed how all references to “Creation” were replaced with “Intelligent Design” after losing a landmark court case in 1987. She reminded us that the Dover trial was an even bigger victory because not only did they prove that teaching ID in school was unconstitutional (which was all they had to do to “win”), they went even further to prove that ID wasn’t science.
A surprise hit at the conference was Matthew Chapman who is the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. Matthew works in Hollywood and has written or co-written several successful movies including Consenting Adults and Runaway Jury. He’s written several articles about the Dover trial and ended up writing a book about it called 40 Days and 40 Nights – Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin and Other Oddities. He was the first person to bring up the topic of women and religion. He thinks the final step in the feminist movement is for women to change and/or renounce all remaining religious traditions that view men as dominant over women. He also made an interesting connection between how a country/government takes care of its citizens and the effect this has on how much people rely on religion. He argues that a country that provides basic needs to its people (such as universal health care, etc.) will create a more happy and healthy citizenry that will be less likely to rely on religion.
After a short break and a security sweep of the room, Ayaan Hirsi Ali took the stage and charmed everyone with her articulate and soft spoken recount of her experiences growing up as a Muslim in Somalia. After being forced to marry, she fled to the Netherlands and obtained refugee status, went to university and eventually won a seat in the Dutch Parliament. After a script she wrote called Submission (which criticizes the treatment of women in Islam) was made into a movie, the director was murdered. A note was left at the scene saying that she was next, so she now travels with security wherever she goes. Her description of life as a Muslim woman was both fascinating and frightening. When asked what can be done about it, she indicated that some women are trying to change the system from within, but, for her, the only solution was remove herself from that world. She said that the cognitive dissonance of maintaining the Muslim faith was too much for her to handle and she cites dissonance as the main tool for defeating fundamentalism of all types.
Christopher Hitchens was the last speaker and he didn’t disappoint. It was classic Hitchens. After a fairly short set of remarks, he decided (since he could “feel the solidarity”) to just open up the floor for questions. Rather than me trying to describe it for you, I would suggest watching a clip of it online if you can find it. The evening culminated with a banquet and an award ceremony for Daniel Dennett.
By Sunday morning, I think everyone was still reeling from all the previous day’s events and a certain lack of sleep. Margaret Downey presented an interesting session about the importance of secular celebrations. Margaret, in addition to being president of Atheist Alliance International and coordinator of the AAI convention, is a recognized Secular Humanist Officiant and performs non-religious unions for couples who want a ceremony without any references to God. In many states there is something called a “Self-Uniting Marriage License” which allows marriages to be recognized without a member of the clergy officiating. Apparently, many of the county clerks who issue marriage licenses don’t understand self-uniting licenses and often will deny atheists/agnostics from getting them. Margaret has taken on this issue and works with atheist couples to insure that their rights are not denied. For more information, visit secular-celebrations.com.
The last event before the closing ceremony was a Welcome to the World / Secular Naming Ceremony for the twin daughters of Matt and Shannon Cherry. PBS was on hand to film the event. Margaret Downey lead the ceremony which included a poem read by Matt, naming of the children’s mentors, readings from relatives and even some brief words from Richard Dawkins (lucky kids!).
In between the Sunday events, I was able to talk to Daniel Dennett briefly. He remembered the radio show that we did together back in January. I thanked him for all of the insights I received from his books and other writings.
I also managed to meet my hero Richard Dawkins. Of all the big names there, Richard Dawkins was one of the most visible and could be seen walking amongst the crowd throughout the convention. When I saw a good opportunity, I walked up to him, introduced myself and told him about the Charlotte Atheists group. He was kind enough to have a picture made with me. Before I let him go, I thanked him for everything he’s done and told him that he was an inspiration for so many of us.
Overall, I had a great experience at my first atheist convention and I feel that it will take some time for it to all soak in. It was quite a feeling to be surrounded by that many freethinkers and to be able to tap complete strangers on the shoulder and have an instant bond with them. Although there were many reminders of the challenges we face ahead, it was nice to enjoy this moment in the sun if only for a short time.