I had a great time at the convention yesterday. I was a bit of a lightweight, only putting about six hours into it and not sticking around for the keynote speech (Sorry, PZ! I’m sure it was great!) or the pub crawl afterwards.
Picked up PZ Myers at the airport at 12:30 on Monday and got him to his hotel by 1. After that I slept in and then Lynnea and I drifted to the capitol steps around 11, just missing a speech by the head of Camp Quest Texas.
There were some protesters there. We got pictures!
On arriving, we heard speeches by Kathleen Johnson, Jessica Ahlquist, Matt Dillahunty, PZ Myers, Sean Faircloth, and Richard Dawkins. With all respect for those other speakers, sixteen year old Jessica Ahlquist stole the show. Her story about standing up to bullies at her school, both among the staff and students, never gets old for me. Especially after hearing about all the students who wrote to thank her for speaking for them when they were too afraid to speak for themselves.
Richard Dawkins’ speech was… a little strange to me. Along with a lot of other speakers, Dawkins spoke rather urgently about the upcoming election. He spoke in a lot of cutesy hypotheticals such as “Imagine we have one candidate who thinks X, but another candidate who thinks Y…”, but he was giving an incredibly unsubtle endorsement of Barack Obama.
Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with that; the ACA has no official position but I personally am a Democrat. However, Dawkins’ argument against Mitt Romney was frankly not that good. Essentially, he said “Suppose one candidate believes that” and then proceeded to list all the ridiculous qualities of Mormonism. The golden tablets, the racist history, the shady background of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, etc… if you’ve ever seen South Park or Book of Mormon then you probably can’t resist singing “dum dum dum dum dum” along with it.
So the argument was… Mitt Romney believes all this incredibly stupid stuff, therefore he’s an idiot with bad judgment, and that’s why you shouldn’t vote for him. But what about Christianity? Well, first of all, Dawkins (along with, I would assume, most Fox News viewers) thinks that Barack Obama is probably not really a Christian. And second of all, even if he is, this is excusable because it’s not quite as silly to believe in Christianity. See, that religion is… well, OLD. Since the events behind the creation of Mormonism were so recent, it should be much easier for anyone to see through it.
Basically, I don’t buy this. Mormons have tons of irrational, unsupported beliefs. Christians have tons of irrational, unsupported beliefs. A large part of the reason anyone accepts this stuff is cultural. You grow up with something, people tell you that it’s right, you have enormous support groups encouraging you to stick to the path. For most religious people, I would say that the specifics of the belief are much less important than the show you put on to convince others that you believe it.
I do have a serious problem with fundamentalists — your Bachmanns, Santorums, and Huckabees — who explicitly state that their policies will be based on the more dangerous aspects of their religious convictions. To some extent, Mitt Romney has claimed to share those convictions this cycle, getting behind policies that would restrict birth control, ban gay marriage, and so on. But to the extent that he expresses those views, they are virtually indistinguishable from the hardcore Christian right element of the Republican party. I’ve seen no reason to think that Romney might enact policies that would stem from the specific details of Mormonism that aren’t shared with similar religions. I think his base would revolt if he tried to.
So, I disagree with Dawkins in that I don’t see any point in highlighting the nonsensical beliefs of any particular religion. I would recommend that we leave it to the competitors for the One True Faith to hash out whether the disappearing golden plates are more or less ridiculous than the ancient reports of an empty tomb. I think we should encourage rationality among all candidates everywhere we can.
In the afternoon, I went to the hotel convention room for a packed debate between Matt Dillahunty and Kristine Kruszelnicki on whether secularists should support abortion rights.
I’m biased on this issue, and clearly so was the rest of the room. To me it seemed like no contest. I think I’ll save the description of the debate for a later post, and maybe Matt should be the one to write it. But having heard the apparent best secular case for banning abortion, I’m still left thinking it’s largely emotionally driven, and not a good case.
I then heard Sean Faircloth give a very excellent pep talk about why atheists should be politically active, and how they can be good at it. Learning how to approach lobbyists is very unlikely to be information I’ll use in the future, but it’s good to know that we have competent leaders who are doing it. Sean painted an optimistic picture of atheists, saying that by 2020 he expects us to be a serious force in the election.
I got tired and left before getting to hear Darrel Ray speak, so I did my best to make up for it by buying his book, Sex & God, on the way out. I’ve heard good things about it and look forward to the read.
Jen Matt and I will be doing a live two hour episode of The Atheist Experience with all the convention stragglers in attendance. Matt and someone else may switch out after the first hour, I’m not sure yet. Anyway, looking forward to more fun.
Update: PZ Myers has done the best summary of the debate. Go read it.