Russell here. Lucky me, the 2013 American Atheists convention was held in Austin this year, which meant that all I had to do was shell out money for a ticket and no travel or lodging fees. I’d be crazy to pass up such an opportunity! I’m a couple of days behind on blogging the experience, but trying to catch up now before Jerry DeWitt begins his “Easter Service.”
I took a day off of work on Friday so I could arrive at the Hyatt early in the morning and help my friend / our product guy Mark Vandebrake to set up the Atheist Community of Austin’s table with t-shirts, keychains, and bumper stickers. Lots of credit to Mark for creating and ordering our new polo and t-shirts.
Mark’s been manning the table all weekend, joined here and there by other members.
Some of these items aren’t available from our website yet, but will be up very soon.
We had prime real estate, our table was directly in the path of everyone heading towards the ballroom where most of the speeches took place. We set up a laptop all day looping an episode of The Atheist Experience towards the entrance, although judging by the number of people who recognized us, we didn’t need it that much. Our table is across from Compass 120 apparel and Black Nonbelievers, hailing from Atlanta.
I was greeting people from the booth and only caught the tail end of opening ceremonies with Aron Ra. Aron is the Texas Director of American Atheists, and of course good friend of the show, and had some words to say about kickin’ ass and spreadin’ logic!
Dave Silverman, AA president, came up and gave a speech about firebrand atheism, which was in equal parts focused on being unabashed about standing up for atheism, and showing off graphs with data and stuff. As a software geek, I made sure to let him know I appreciate that second thing.
Bill O’Reilly. Tides. Get it?
What Dave says is that although we get a lot of negative press for doing things like posting billboards and filing lawsuits, every time we do it, the level of national conversation about atheists goes up. And furthermore, it stays up after the incident has passed. And while American Atheists gets mocked on The Daily Show and vilified by Fox News, you know what happens next? They turn to organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance, and they say “American Atheists are the bad atheists, but here are some good atheists who are doing positive things. Contrast!” So Dave says, “You know what that means? Because of us, the press is letting people know that there are good atheists!” And then he went on to talk more about the symbiosis of firebrand, in-your-face atheism, with outreach and do-gooding atheism.
I wasn’t able to listen to talks all day, and frankly it was very energizing to sit at the table and mill around the hall greeting our fans. I have heard many, many stories about how our show has affected people, many of them having just learned about atheism for the first time, and discovering our show helped to cement the idea that atheism is a rational position that can be intelligently defended. That’s exactly what we want!
I sat in on a speech by former Congressman Pete Stark, who finished his term in December. He talked about the desire of the electorate to be represented by more secular politicians, and the fact that those needs are not being filled by the disproportionate number of openly religious members of Congress.
There were several options available for lunch, but I opted to grab an overpriced sandwich from the hotel and sit in on a talk about how to argue for atheism in the media with radio veteran Jamila Bey. Needless to say, this is a topic of particular interest to me.
With all respect due to the many excellent speakers I heard, I am tempted to say that Jamila Bey’s talk was the best. She discussed how to handle yourself in interviews, how to talk to call-in radio shows, and perhaps most importantly, what tricks to anticipate when the deck is stacked against you. I sat next to Matt Dillahunty near the front, and Jamila called out Matt several times with effusive praise.
The most fun part of the talk was when she invited some audience interactivity and offered to “debate” a particular issue with a volunteer — in this case, “You can’t be moral without the Bible!” Jamila offered to take either side, so when it became clear that the volunteer wasn’t really comfortable playing the Christian, Jamila very convincingly turned into a fiery preacher. At some point I shouted “Amen!” and almost instantly, Jamila transformed herself into a handwaving, sing-songy revival preacher. The audience was in stitches.
Schmoozing with the crowd some more later, I met Greta Christina and her wife Ingrid; Rich and Deanna from Living After Faith; Ophelia Benson, and Amy Davis Roth from Skepchick. Many ACA contributors showed up, and I also ran into other friends and speaker like Aron Ra.
A few hours later, I decided to sit in on a talk by Edwina Rogers, the controversial new executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. I was interested to see if she’s improved her rapport with my fellow atheist activists. I was kind of hoping for a chance to ask Edwina for some insights from her time with the Republican party, and ask if she thinks there’s any chance that Republicans will ever be viable atheist allies. But disappointingly, while she said some reasonable things about fighting against religious encroachment in politics and education, she was brief and left the stage without fielding any questions.
In late afternoon, historian Richard Carrier gave a very savvy talk entitled “Atheism Plus… what?” about the concept of Atheism Plus in particular, and the issues of spreading diversity and acceptance within the atheist movement in general
He started off talking about the young girl who was inundated with sexist remarks and rape jokes on the atheism subreddit, simply for posting a picture of herself with a Carl Sagan book. Went on to discuss online harassment and attacks on numerous women, including women who were present and speaking on panels later (Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, Amy Davis Roth, and about a dozen others). Then talked about how great it was that the atheist community is getting more diverse, and convention leaders are basically “getting it” about the need to appeal to a broader audience, and he encouraged further improvements.
Richard’s talk is now online. Watch it here.
Our usual haunt of Threadgill’s is only a couple of blocks from the hotel, so we rounded up a group of locals, including Jen, Tracie, Mark, and Don. We were joined by two visiting show fans, and we all went and killed a naturally delightful few hours at dinner.
Late that evening I was joined by my wife Lynnea to see an atheist comedy show. There were three performers: a rap group called Greydon Square, followed by Blair Scott (former Director of Outreach for American Atheists, recently turned comic), and then experience comedian Keith Lowell Jensen.
Greydon Square was an unusual act that was fun to watch… made more fun by the fact that there was a woman in front of us dancing along, recording the whole thing on her iPad, and clearly having the greatest time of her life.
I’m just going to abridge my review of Blair Scott for now and note that he received a mixed reception. There were laughs, and there were also walk-outs. Neither Lynnea nor I was crazy about his act. I had been alerted by Matt that Keith Lowell Jensen should not be missed, so we stuck it out, but we had some thoughts about stepping out ourselves.
Matt spoke the truth however… seeing Keith in action was a great experience. He is a very funny comic, and Lynnea wound up buying his DVD before we left. Keith was really letting loose with the atheist material, and he told a story at the end that was both hilarious and inspiring. I hope he will forgive me if I skip to the story at the end, spoil the punchline and reveal the lesson.
Keith closed his set with a story I assume he doesn’t tell in front of most audiences. He was a teenager when he became a full-on atheist. He went to a “church lockdown” event with a girl he was trying to impress. Everything went great until he mentioned a shaky part of theology to the minister running the thing, and got in a full on argument in which he was clearly owning the adult hard (from his point of view). Instead of getting the admiration he expected, the kids all started shunning him. He was in for a long night, and it was still pretty early.
He calls his dad to pick him up, the dad says “I thought the church was totally locked down.” So he goes to the door and just… unlocks it. As Keith tells it, “All the kids ran to and stared out the window, trapped inside but inches from the unlocked door. And I realized… You have to REALLY BELIEVE that you’re locked inside.”
We got home after 11 PM, although some people were undoubtedly still out drinking together. Honestly, as much fun as I had on Friday, Saturday may have been even better. I’d continue uploading pictures and blogging if I had the time, but I have to get ready to go hear Jerry DeWitt.
If you’re at the convention now, please stop by our table and say hi! And don’t miss the live broadcast of Godless Bitches at the end of the day, with Beth, Tracie, Jen, and Lynnea. See you there!
Update: There’s more! Check out my recap of Saturday!