Secular Coalition for America Summit: Day 2

Day one here

Friday, in the wee hours of the morning, right after I’d gotten to sleep, there was some sort of major commotion on the 8th floor of the Hyatt, very near to my room.  I’m not sure what it was, but I was told hotel security was called and I definitely heard a man who’d been woken up scream, “Shut the Fuck Up!”  I would have applauded, but I wasn’t so much for moving.

So, I was very tired when 7:30AM came around.  And then breakfast was disappointing.  How hard is it to have toast or oatmeal or something other than a very sketchy bready fruity thing?  Everything was cooked fruit.  How gross.  (Note: I’m far too picky for people to take my food opinions seriously.)

We, the godless horde, strode over to the Capitol to meet with some staffers.  Herb, Sharon and I first met with Tara O’Neill, who is a Legislative Aide (or LA in Hill Parlance) for Tim Scott.  Tara, a Clemson grad, was very nice and polite and listened to all we had to say about HR 1179 2011 (patient rights) and Humanist Military Chaplains.  But I’d like to give you some background on Tim Scott, so that you can understand exactly the lion’s den we three atheists were stepping into.

Godless Horde

Tim Scott is one of the mythological Black Republicans, and he’s Southern, so he’s about as common as a unicorn.  When he was on City Council he erected the 10 Commandments in the Council Office and the AU and ACLU proceeded to sue him to take them down.  He campaigned on bringing Christian Values to Washington, and was endorsed by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.  He opposes gay marriage, and probably doesn’t believe in atheists in foxholes.

HR 1135 2011

He took $117,000 in campaign ads from an anti-union group and then proceeded to sponsor legislation that would deny FOOD STAMPS to anyone who had a family member on strike.  HR 1135 2011.  It’s very clever, Sheriff of Nottingham level villainy going on.  “I want this brigand found. Starve them out, slaughter their… No, take their live stock. I want Locksley’s own people fighting to bring his head in.”

But enough about the life and legislation of Tim Scott, the staff was very nice — Tara and the UCSD student who greeted us and the gentleman in charge, who understood immediately what the SCA was doing.  We were done there by 9:30 and then headed over to meet with Lindsey Graham’s staffer Jason Brown, who is now my favorite person in DC.  On the way we walked past an armed guard who had an AK-47 — it didn’t look real, they should really make them look less like toys.

Our appointment wasn’t until 11, so we went down into the cool/creepy tunnels that run under the capitol, and went to a little coffee shop below ground.  Then we went back up to meet with Jason Brown.  The Senate offices are much, much nicer than the House offices.  Graham’s office was decorated with a bunch of pictures and paintings of and by South Carolinians.

I love this picture

Jason Brown is a lawyer working as a Legislative Aide for Lindsey Graham and he took us to a relatively swank conference room and we talked primarily about the issue of Humanist Military Chaplains.  He asked us some questions that implied an interest and definite understanding of why it was important to us.  That was reassuring.  Graham is an interesting character in terms of willingness to not toe the Republican Party Line at all times, and as someone on the Committee on Armed Services, he’s a good person to have on your side in this issue.

After that meeting, I went to Union Station, which is apparently just a large mall without a candy store, and met some others for lunch at Pizzeria Uno.  At 2, the panel discussion were set to begin.  Fred Edwords, who shall be Fredwords henceforth, the head of COR was the first to arrive.  He is working with some people in Columbia to get some buildboards here as well as some media training for locals, so it was nice to see a face I’ve seen a lot of e-mails from of late.

The panel was filled out by David Silverman (American Atheists), Jesse Galef (SSA), and Sally Quinn (editor of On Faith, Washington Post).  They spent some time talking about the rapture, which was supposed to happen Saturday, and how good it has been for the cause of Atheism.  David Silverman had been on CNN several times, and Herb Silverman was fielding media phone calls all day.

Sally Quinn then spoke for a while, and she was interesting, though I’m not sure I agree with her or where she’s coming from — it could be a generational thing.  She had some good zingers though.

You all look like you’re going to hell to me.  Tomorrow.

The world is not going to end tomorrow, keep on flossing.

Not one person in this room will be elected president of the United States.  There will be a woman, gay, and muslim president before there is an atheist president.

Effective media strategy is based on knowing more about faith than the other guy.  This is what makes Hitchens so good, he makes them just give up.  PEW says atheists are more knowledgeable about religion than the faithful.

Now, I have a little bit of a problem with the defeatist attitude towards the possibility of an atheist president.  There are, of course, quite a few who argue that we currently have one.  But an openly atheist president within my lifetime doesn’t seem like an impossibility to me.  Maybe I’ll run in however many years til I’m 35.

Then they got into a discussion of when anger was appropriate, and the consensus was it was good when other people also got angry, like when children died of neglect because their family refused medical care because of their religious beliefs.  Atheists should try to get in the news for doing community service and nice things, to help dispel the myth that Atheists are immoral or unfeeling.  Fredwords echoed things I’ve heard PZ say, which is that you need the firebrands to get attention and the nice people to negotiate change.

And then this is where Sally Quinn really went off the rails for me (and Jennifer Michael Hecht), when she started talking about what the stereotypical view of an atheist is.  Apparently Quinn thinks that the image people have in mind when they hear “atheist” is Madalyn Murray O’Hair who was fat, ugly, crazy and had a mustache and that what atheism really lacks is an ATTRACTIVE public representative.  Now, I don’t think that our current representatives like Dawkins, Faircloth, Harris, and Hitch are unattractive, I’d be more likely to put them in the generally attractive categories, so I’m just not sure if she means there are no attractive female public personalities or that no one has overcome the O’Hair legacy.

I dunno, she looks pretty hot to me...

The first doesn’t resonate with me because I’ve seen plenty of attractive women at atheist events.  The second doesn’t resonate with me because neither I nor Omar knew what O’Hair looked like.  So maybe this is an old-people-who-think-atheism-is-communism-because-they’re-old-and-stupid problem, because no one I know, and we’re people who are like into atheism so we know stuff about atheism, has any idea why anyone would care about O’Hair.  Everything I knew about her before Quinn’s comment is that she was killed before I was old enough to know anything and she was also an atheist.

Basically what I’m saying is that I don’t think we’re going to change the hearts and minds of Glenn Beck’s 70 year old audience, we just have to let them die.  Does anyone under the age of forty think that all atheist ladies have mustaches?  If so, I would like to disabuse you of this notion.  Many of us also have horns.

Then there was a lot more discussion about tone and tactics, which basically covered all the same ground over and over again, with various protests of various sorts from the panelist and audience members.  The most interesting discussion was about whether to participate in interfaith groups, which were exclusive of atheists by name and nature.

Legal Panel

The next panel was a team of legal experts, David Niose, Amanda Knief, and Mark Dunn.  Their discussion really reflected the rest of the thrust of the meeting in that it was calling for more personal stories rather than more theoretical problems.  To this end, they wanted to bring cases based on civil rights and equal protection, not on the Establishment Clause.

What it boils down to is this: when we make Tim Scott take down the 10 Commandments, we are absolutely right, but it makes us seem like assholes, but when we call someone out for violating civil liberties, like firing someone for being an atheist or refusing to allow them to form school groups or parents are denied custody because they aren’t religious, we seem like people who are just fighting to be treated equally.  And we get to tell personal stories of how the religious bias has hurt us, and people respond more to that.

And then we got a two-hour break, which I filled with caffeine, and then it was time for the reception/dinner that evening.

Paul Provenza opened with a comedic talk which was very similar to his talk at TAM.  He did have a good line, “Today we lobbied, or as I like to call it, fucked shit up.”  After dinner, JMH introduced Sean Faircloth, and she reiterated the broad theme (poetic atheism) of needing to tell human stories, we may be rational, but people need emotional connection.

Executive Director Sean Faircloth

And then Sean Faircloth spoke, and it was very State of the Union.  Lots of clapping, lots of broad, hear-hear sort of statements.  Spontaneous standing O at the end.  He thinks that Secular Americans are the next moral majority, a sleeping giant waiting to be motivated.  Then he gave a list of ten goals:

  1. Our military will serve all Americans, with no fundamentalism or religious bias or conversion
  2. Any federal/state funded program will be based on science, not belief
  3. Healthcare providers have a responsibility to their medical duties over their religious beliefs
  4. The legislature will represent the non religious
  5. There will be one consistent health standard for children, no religious exception
  6. Medical and scientific progress shall not be impeded by religious bias ever
  7. Discrimination based on religion will not happen
  8. Marriage can be defined by an individual religion however it wants, but the government cannot use religion for its definition
  9. Government zoning laws will respect all faiths and non-faiths equally
  10. Youth won’t be subjected to religious bias in schools.

Then, we were kicked out of the room because it was 9 and that was as late as they’d booked it.  I proceeded to join JMH and her husband and a few others at the bar, where she ordered a margarita, but couldn’t remember the word for salt.  This was immensely amusing.  Then there was a party in a room, and we went there.  There were all sorts of illicit activities going on (clothes all remained on) and I shan’t be more specific, but it was really fun.
JMH then did a poetry reading for the party, which was quite entertaining.  Because her poems are good, people were drinking, and it was so weird that someone would read poetry at a party in the first place.  I felt like a Beatnik, but cleaner.

PARTY!

And then, 2000 words later, I went to bed.

Secular Coalition for America Summit: Day 1

What a crazy weekend that was.  So crazy that I’m writing about it what, on Thursday?  Yeah, I was tweeting, hello, busy!  In fact, nothing I’m going to say here wasn’t said with worse grammar and lack of access to spell check earlier.

I landed at Ronald Reagan airport (DCA) and took a cab to the Hyatt on Capitol Hill, which has a view of the Capital, assuming you can stand in exactly the right place and lean as far to your left as possible.  My cab driver asked me what I was doing in town, and I was a little hesitant to say “CONQUERING THE WORLD WITH ATHEISM” because cab drivers have the power to not drive you anymore, and that would be unfun.  So I started in easy, and then discovered that my self-proclaimed religious cabbie was totally on board with secular values and gay rights!  Huzzah!

I hadn’t eaten yet, and the conference started at 1:00, which was exactly when I arrived.  In the elevator I met Liz Gaston and Omar Rashid, who would become my companions over the course of the event.  Because they were also awesome.

Sean Faircloth

Sean Faircloth

The event opened with Sean Faircloth, Woody Kaplan and Amanda Knief taking the podium in turns.  I learned a lot of stats that I will now list for you, because you’re apparently reading this:

  • Avg # of Staffers per House/Senate member: 18, split between home and DC
  • Percent of staffer time spent with constituents: 75%
  • Percent of staffers who think constituent visits are VERY persuasive: 97%

We broke down into groups after being given a rather lengthy guide to sales lobbying for people who don’t know anything about sales lobbying.  Being from SC, I got to work with Herb Silverman, who invented the SCA, and Sharon.

The issues we were planning on discussing the following day were the need for Humanist Military Chaplains and HR 1179 2011, a bill which allows medical service providers refuse to provide service if their religion demands it.  The first is an easier sell, because everyone likes to help the military, the second is one that requires reframing the debate.

The reason we need Humanist Military Chaplains is not necessarily intuitive for people on the edges of the debate: who needs an atheist chaplain?  Well, if the army is going to institutionalize having counselors on the ground and then NOT train them in how to deal with the 20%+ of armed service members with no religious preference, then that’s a problem.  Humanism is a life philosophy and not actually synonymous with atheist, there’s just a large overlap.  There aren’t any, despite the fact that there are people graduated from places like Harvard with divinity degrees focusing on Humanism.

HR 1179 2011 is more of an issue of patients rights.  Doctors, Insurance, Nurses, Pharmacists, Hospitals and so on can not only refuse care that they don’t approve of, they can not tell you that they won’t do those services and not inform you that such services exist.  This includes obvious things like abortions and birth control, but also things like living wills and DNRs.  A Catholic Hospital can say it offers comprehensive female care and then not tell you most of what’s involved with comprehensive care.

I mean, it just seems to me that if you’re a Scientologist, you don’t become a Psychiatrist; if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, you don’t become a Doctor; and if you’re someone with a political agenda that puts church in front of saving lives, you stay the hell away from medicine.  But what do I know?

Me at SCOTUS

Equal Justice Under Law

Sorry, shaking it off.  I got to walk around DC, I wanted to see if maybe I could get into SCOTUS, but I couldn’t.  Omar took this very cool picture of me at the Supreme Court.  And then it was time for dinner.

Jennifer Michael Hecht, who has been my Facebook friend for a long time, but whose books I’ve never read and who I’ve never hung out with as such but is now my new favorite person, gave a speech at the dinner.  She is a proponent of Poetic Atheism, which is like Atheism, but it rhymes.  I’ll give you some quotes, grossly paraphrased:

When you know your history, you are powerful. More people in the history of humanity have not believed in God than have. (Atheism began around 600BC)

If I enjoy every day of my life I don’t worry so much about death. I mean, we barely use the life we’ve got — I dunno about you but I walk back and forth between the fridge and the computer a lot, what, I need a thousand years of it?

We were the first country founded as a secular rationalist country but we were also the first country to give the uneducated poor the vote.  They worried that the uneducated poor would elect a poor man who would redistribute all the wealth.  The uneducated poor won’t vote in a poor man, they’ll elect a stupid rich man.  This is why we need free mandatory secular education!

Nothing in science fiction, in religion, in myths is as weird as this: (points to her head) the meat thinks.  Nothing is as weird as love.

jmh

A real actual photo of JMH and a Margarita (w/salt)

George Hrab, who is Spider Jerusalem, then performed some of his atheisty songs.

Hrab

A real actual photo of George Hrab

George Hrab is of the belief that James Randi is a garden gnome.  This is undeniable.

randi

A real actual photo of James Randi

My favorite zinger was aimed at Hitchens, when Hrab was talking about an event that Hitchens was going to be at but then wasn’t actually there.

Christopher Hitchens was supposed to be there, but I guess he had to go to a scotch festival… But at least that worked out for him.

OH SNAP!  Basically what I’m saying is that George Hrab was pretty good, but he talked about his balls a lot.

After Hrab, Sean led trivia.  I had talked a rather big game before the conference, so there was some pressure to win.  Which I did quite handily, thank you very much.  With the help of Omar for “Mumford and Sons” when all I could remember was “Little Lion Man”.  We won an extra drink ticket, which I used to buy other people’s love, because people are irrationally in love with drink tickets.

After that, I went to meet George Hrab because I have a friend, Jarrett, who is a big fan.  There are all these people who really dig on podcasts and I don’t get it.  It’s like NPR but less focused, I know, I’ve been on a podcast.  He wrote a note and let me take photos and then I ended up going down and hanging out with him and Liz and some random other people in the bar downstairs.  There was an origami velociraptor involved.

georgehrab

Where the hell were you people?