Atheist Community of Austin featured on “Hidden City”

Recently a bunch of our members got together with a TV crew at El Arroyo and had a chat for a couple of hours about what we do.  We have received confirmation that the episode will be airing on the Travel Channel on January 31.  They seemed like a good group of people with an interesting show concept, so I’m going to go ahead and encourage you to start watching it now and see what it’s like.

It premieres tonight on the Travel Channel.  This is the message we received from the crew:

Just wanted to say hello and thank you for being a part of our first season of “Hidden City.”  The show has received great feedback so far, and we’re looking forward to sharing it with you in the coming weeks.

The first episode (Chicago) premieres next Tuesday, December 6th at 10pm EST/9pm Central.  We will then be showing a new episode every Tuesday night through February in that same time slot.  The AUSTIN EPISODE is on the schedule for JANUARY 31st.

Thanks again for all of your time, pictures, and signed releases! It’s been so great working together with you guys over the past few months to tell these incredible stories.
The topic of the show was kind of tangentially related to what we do.   Apparently they intend to visit one city a week and discuss a major event that occurred there, in order to explore broader issues.  For Austin, they chose the murder of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
The ACA has never been directly associated with Ms. O’Hair, and we’re only recently affiliated in a loose sense with American Atheists.  However, we are of course the most prominent atheist group in her home city, so we got to spend a lot of time over margaritas discussing issues of concern to us.  Here’s hoping we come out looking good. :)

AustinCOR Billboard Campaign Starts!


This is what potentially millions of people will see over the next month as they travel south on I-35. The Austin Coalition of Reason, of which ACA is a member, officially kicked off its billboard campaign this morning. The billboard is located on I-35 north of Grand Avenue Parkway facing north. It’s a message of inclusion, designed to let other atheists, secularists, and freethinkers in the area know they are not alone.

It’s already been picked up by local news media, although KVUE is currently the only channel with the story posted. ACA Board Member and AustinCOR Coordinator, Don Rhoades, has done some heavy lifting today with news interviews. Check Don out on KVUE:

The disappointing thing about the campaign so far – the reporter here just couldn’t report the story without putting an overtly religious spin on the whole thing. The title of this story was part of a quote from a local pastor, “Atheist billboard a great advertisement for God.”

I guess if you think your god created a planet in a vast universe just for you, you just can’t help thinking a billboard is all about you too.


Addendum: Hello, Squid Hordes, and thanks to PZed for the linkage. Feel free to follow us if you enjoy what you read here, gang.

Kathleen Johnson: “A Place at the Table”

Here’s the video from a recent ACA Lecture Series lecture with Kathleen Johnson, titled “A Place at the Table.”

On February 26th, 2010, Kathleen Johnson, American Atheists Vice President and Military Director and the founder of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, spoke at a historic meeting with the Obama administration at the nation’s capital. The event, organized by the Secular Coalition for America, focused on three issues: faith based medical neglect, proselytizing in the military, and administration support for faith based initiatives. This occasion was a prime example of how a variety of different secular groups can unite for a common cause and accomplish significant political actions. Ms. Johnson will speak about her experiences with “having a seat at the table” and the importance of effectively setting aside political and positional differences to effectively advocate for common causes.

“A Place at the Table”

Mp3 audio is available here.

Fred Edwords: Sailing the Rising Tide of Reason

Since some people may be missing The Atheist Experience this week, I’m posting the video from a recent ACA Lecture Series lecture.

Fred Edwords from the United Coalition of Reason on “Sailing the Rising Tide of Reason”.

Over the past few years, with the rise of the “New Atheism,” interest in Freethought and humanism is growing. And the more recent billboard and bus campaigns have stoked the fires of enthusiasm. How can Freethought and humanist groups benefit from this secular “coming out”? How can they capture this interest to help their memberships grow? Fred Edwords, a former executive director of the American Humanist Association, is now the national director of the United Coalition of Reason. Over his thirty-year career as a humanist leader he has lectured, debated, and taught on humanist philosophical issues and effective outreach techniques. He has appeared on national and local television in the United States and Canada, has been interviewed on radio and for newspapers around the world, and has lectured in North America, Europe, and India.

“Sailing the Rising Tide of Reason”

Mp3 audio is available here.

Last night at Threadgill’s

All right all right, I hyped up the surprise at dinner after the show, so I feel like I should just get it out and not wait on pictures to surface.

The Everything Else Atheist and I are now engaged. There, I said it. In a highly unconventional move, since we are godless heretics who scoff at tradition, she proposed to me.

Obviously none of this was a surprise to me since I announced it in advance. We had discussed marriage already and I already knew that she was planning to pull this off at dinner. What I was not expecting, though, was that she enlisted three of her coworkers at Texas Campaign for the Environment to show up dressed as the Bad Horse chorus from Doctor Horrible’s Singalong Blog. They sang the song, but the lyrics were, er… modified, to warn me of dire consequences unless I said yes.

I said yes.

The turnout was great, with about 30 people in total showing up. Among those attending were my son Ben, and a rare appearance by my sister Keryn and her husband Michael, and of course the usual crew along with numerous show cohosts.

Thanks everyone, for being there! And to everyone who knew exactly what was about to happen, thanks for keeping the secret.

Watch found on bat cruise

Sorry for taking up space with this announcement. I mentioned this on the Atheist Experience yesterday, but I know a lot of people skip past the announcements.

Someone left a watch on the boat after the bat cruise ended on Saturday. I have it. If you think it may be yours, email tv@atheist-community.org with a description, and we’ll figure out how to get it back to you.

I’m sure this needn’t be said, but please don’t waste time trying to be funny and pretend the watch is yours when you know it isn’t. Also don’t claim it in the comments on this message, as it is more likely to be noticed via email.

Hell House trip, continued

Continued from the previous post

Room 3
Synopsis: Perils of drunk driving. Two cars are smashed up in an obvious wreck. Very happy demon hops around on both cars like a monkey. Paramedics remove one person from one car, who is horribly disfigured, while the passenger is dead. The driver stumbles out of the other car, obviously dead drunk and ranting about how unfair it is. He stumbles away. Demon continues to feel gleeful.
Most disturbing moment: Actually I thought it was a little weird that the car driven by the drunk was the one that got HIT, rather than the one doing the hitting. But it was plausibly pointed out that he could have run a red light and been at fault. Still, I find it hard to believe that he is the only one completely unscathed.
Ambiguous moral message: God will sort out the bodies, but most people are hell-bound anyway, so the guy in the passenger seat probably belongs to the demons now. Police are pretty useless, though, as they didn’t make any effort to stop the idiot driver.

Room 4
Synopsis: Part 1 of the abortion drama. Girl and boy love each other very much, but the idiots do it without protection. Boy assumed girl was using birth control; girl of course was not. Girl announces that she’s pregnant, and also that she will have an abortion. Boy is distraught, not wanting her to kill his baby. Girl browbeats boy into going along with her to the abortion clinic for moral support.
Most disturbing moment: Actually this one wasn’t particularly disturbing to many of us, as none of us heathens are particularly opposed to a little good old-fashioned lust. I’d assume that these kids are victims of an abstinence-only curriculum, although that’s not they angle the actors put on it. Their message is that no amount of precaution can save you if you decide to have sex.
Ambiguous moral message: Women are bitches. Not all that ambiguous, actually.

Room 5
Synopsis: The abortion drama continues, as the hapless boy attempts to sit with his girlfriend in the operating room waiting to kill their baby. The boy freaks out and runs from the room, unable to live with himself. The girl, realizing that she’s all alone, has second thoughts about this. However, the doctors won’t let her leave, and forcibly perform and botch an abortion on her, causing her to bleed to death. The everpresent demons, of course, enjoy this immensely. Throughout the scene, a tape loops on some overhead monitors, showing some of those scary post-abortion videos with little fetus arms and legs.
Most disturbing moment: Obviously I was most bothered by the portrayal of how abortion doctors act. Because, you know, they’re not there to satisfy their customers or anything… you came in for an abortion, and damn it, YOU. WILL. GET ONE. Oh, and as the patient dies the doctors say “Oh well, we lost another one. We’ve got lots more to get to today!” Too bad there’s no such thing as malpractice in the Christian universe, or they could stop abortions easily!
Ambiguous moral message: In case the idea of killing your baby doesn’t put you off abortion, we now guarantee that you’ll be dead too. Abortion is almost certainly riskier than child birth in that regard.

Room 6
Synopsis: I may have forgotten some by now, but for my recollection the next one is a two part molestation drama. One girl is distraught that her sister died. A friend is trying to console the survivor. The girl reads a suicide note stating that her sister was molested to death by their creepy uncle. It is implied that the mother was never present because she’s always spending time with her lesbian lover, so we get a twofer here. At that moment, the creepy uncle himself walks in. The fair-weather friend immediately leaves, despite the next potential victim begging her to stay. The creepy uncle begins making advances. Then the boyfriend barges in on them, and in a fit of rage, shoots the uncle. Fade to black.
Most disturbing moment: Did I mention that the other girl just decided to walk out, leaving her so-called friend alone with a known molester? Who the hell DOES that? She wasn’t acting scared or anything, just a fairly cold “I’m uncomfortable with this situation, I have to go.”
Ambiguous moral message: So wait a minute, a molesting uncle is a bad thing, that’s not much of a stretch. What’s up with the boyfriend? Are they applauding his actions? Or is he dancing to the demons’ tune too? I don’t get it.

Room 7
Synopsis: In part 2, the girl goes to her sister’s funeral. She’s distraught, so another friend (not from the last scene) offers her sleeping pills to help her relax. Next, dear old lesbo mom shows up, and the girl tries to embrace her mother, only to be snapped at for telling lies about her brother and trying to break up the family. Mom leaves, girl cries. She takes some sleeping pills… AND THEN DIES. (Well, I assume.)
Most disturbing moment: Um, well, dear old mom was kind of a ringer for Hillary Clinton, I guess.
Ambiguous moral message: It doesn’t matter how much pain you are in… if you attempt to seek help through medical prescription, YOU WILL DIE.

Room 8
Synopsis: We got herded into “coffins”: little narrow rooms in a line of four each. They locked the doors and told us what happens when you die.
Most disturbing moment: Some of our members are particularly uncomfortable with small spaces, and others are averse to being touched much. I didn’t have much of a problem.
Ambiguous moral message: None yet, but it’s obvious where this is going.

Room 9
Synopsis: It’s heaven! Yay! We made it! The room is brightly lit and covered in cotton. TV monitors play happy messages interspersed with graphic scenes from “The Passion of the Christ” to show who made it possible for us to get here.
Most disturbing moment: Well, it’s the Passion of the Christ. I mean, seriously.
Ambiguous moral message: Heaven is kind of boring and plays bad movies.

Room 10
Synopsis: Hell! Oh noez! A very dark dungeon with demons banging on bars! One of them freaked out some kids by coming out of the dungeon and getting up in their face.
Most disturbing moment: The message is, of course, that all the dea
d people from the previous scenes ought to be here. That includes the girl who got shot by the rampaging kid, and the one who was molested by her uncle, and the victim of the car crash.
Ambiguous moral message: In case you haven’t noticed by now, Christianity is all about buying the religion and has nothing to do with whether you’re innocent or guilty of anything in particular. In fact, the molested girl deserves hell no less than the creepy uncle.

The final room

Okay, so finally we get to The Conversion Room™ so we can all make “The Choice.” A spunky twenty-something woman was on hand to tell us all about the opportunity of Christianity. There were two doors, one unmarked door on the left, and one in front of us that said EXIT. Spunky McCurlyhair told us that if we wanted to accept Christ as our savior now, we could go through the door on our left and sign pledges.

Unfortunately, Spunky didn’t have very good crowd control skills. For starters, there were seven very rude people in the back who kept on quietly cracking jokes. Be quiet, you people! I’m trying to learn about Jesus! But never mind about us, few people were paying very close attention, which prompted Spunky to tell us all, “Ok, it’s really important to focus, people!” IMHO, when you get to that point you’ve already lost the battle. I felt kind of bad for her.

We were, of course, really hoping that we seven would be the only ones standing on our own. Sadly, though, fewer than half of our group of fifty went in the door on the left. Undaunted, Spunky said, “Okay, now you people are still left here for one of two reasons. Maybe you’re already secure in your faith in Christ and don’t think you need another affirmation. But let me tell you, it’s important to go out and spread the gospel…” She droned on like this, and by the time she was finished explaining possibility A, she either forgot or was too rushed to acknowledge possibility B: “Or you’re all hellbound heretics! What is WRONG with you people?” That remained unsaid.

I had heard that in previous years, ACA members have wound up getting in arguments with members of the cast after the show, and I for one was really looking forward to that… only it never happened either. With the ginormous crowd, the girl was forced to keep herding us along after our time was up. As a result, we wound up having to go through the door on the left anyway, rather than approaching the one marked EXIT. It made no sense to me… surely it would be symbolically powerful if us heretics got unceremoniously dumped outside and separated from everyone else. But no, there was a big guy standing right in front of the exit, and we just decided to leave quietly on the left. Mustn’t slow down the conveyer belt.

As we went out, we of course got to march right past all the deer-eyed people who were busy signing commitments to Christ. (“By accepting this agreement, you are explicitly granting the right to 10% of your lifelong income… offer not valid in California and Norway.”) It was kind of goofy, really… they’re sitting there trying to recommit to their god, and all the rest of us are filing past staring at them, as if they were the last skit for the evening.

Final ambiguous moral message, which sums up Hell House neatly:

No matter how much you might be terrified of hell, no matter what they may have in store for you, just rest assured that being there can’t be nearly as bad as the long wait to get there.

Hell House XVIII, The Revenge: Welcome to Eternity

With the very best of intentions, seven intrepid atheists took a trip yesterday to Cedar Hill, TX last night, to attend the Hell House made famous by a 2000 documentary from George Ratliff. Despite flawless planning and good attitudes all around, this excursion was a strong candidate to be the very worst ACA event ever. Be warned, mortals, for the tale which follows is not for the faint of heart, and shall surely imprint terror and foreboding in the minds of all who may dare to attend this piece of unredeemable crap in any future year.

Five people met near the Lake Creek Alamo Drafthouse at 2:00 on a Saturday: John, Tammy, Arran, Shilling, and Russell (that’s me). We knew we had a three hour drive ahead of us, but we feared not the trip, for all had heard the tales of amusement from previous attendees. We figured we’d get there around 6:00 after stopping for food, then wait for maybe an hour in line, be out of there by 8, and get home by 10.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…

In fact we arrived closer to 6:30, and took a while to get everyone ticketed ($10) and initial bathroom breaks taken care of, but in reality there is no amount of fortitude that could have prepared us for the bone-chilling terror that was…

THE LINE

Yes, THE LINE was enough to reduce any strong man or woman to a quivering mass of leg-cramping, soul-crushing madness. It lasted four and a half hours from the time we entered to the time that we finally set foot inside of Hell House to lean gratefully against the wall and watch… a cheesy movie trailer.

The event took place at an ultra-maxi-megachurch, the kind where you see it over the horizon and you expect John Williams’ “Imperial March” to start playing. I was more than a little intimidated by the place at first, and nervous about getting singled out. Shilling was wearing his Godless Pub Crawl shirt. Arran wore some rather obvious liberal political statements. I wore a fairly garish Spider-Man shirt — I like Spider-Man, okay, and the fact that New York exists proves that Spidey exists. :) In fairness, I should say that no one ever hassled us in the 6 or so hours we were present.

Anyway, within the confines of THE LINE were thousands of people, the vast majority of them being teenagers. And not just any teenagers. There’s no way to put this delicately… they were teenagers from deep in the heart of Texas. Redneck kids. Dumb jocks who went around aggressively slapping each other in the ass. (Several of us discussed how much homoeroticism there was for such a Christian group, particularly when we some some teenager massaging another one.) Then there were peroxide blondes with way too much makeup, girls having conversations at 150 decibels right near our ears, large bearded men joking loudly about shooting cutters in line.

Meanwhile, Shilling was doing his best to make sure that everyone around us was offended by reminiscing about blasphemous stand-up routines by Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais. After an hour, we were joined by Brian and Amy, the last two members of our party, who were coming from somewhere local.

THE LINE did not appear to be as long initially, because although it stretched out a pretty long way, it also weaved back and forth… conveniently making the most twists right near the overpriced concession stand. For bathrooms, there were three port-a-potties that were lacking toilet paper for the majority of the night. Once we got up to the front of the line the people started to be divided up into large groups to go on a hay ride together in order to reach the site where the actual house was. Little did we know that THE LINE would continued for over an hour once we reached the house.

The exterior of hell house was extremely cheap and not at all interesting. It looked like a temporary building in some places, and others had black fabric for a wall, so we could periodically see people walking behind it when they lit up. Also, every once in a while there would be a loud “bang” sounding like a fairly unconvincing prop gun. After about 60 seconds, a second shot always followed the first. A few of us started trying to time the second shot by singing the “Jeopardy” theme song… much to Shilling’s consternation.

So we finally made it inside. We were herded in a group of 50, whereas I’m told that last year it was only 35. In keeping with the expansion that caused much longer lines, they are cramming people more tightly on the conveyer belt. Each room after the preview screens contained some sort of poorly acted skit that seemed to have an oddly twisted moral message. Most skits involve demons — guys in dark robes and skull masks — who both comment on the scene as a Greek Chorus, and serve to herd the audience through to the next room when the performance is over. I’ll try to remember the rooms more or less in order.

Room 1
Synopsis: Girl goes on MySpace. Girl meets boy. Girl invites boy over to her place. Boy rapes girl. Invisible demons in the room laugh. The end.
Most disturbing moment: The rapist was black. That didn’t necessarily appear to be a racist message, until the girl went out of her way to draw attention to his race: “Hey, you don’t look like the way you described yourself! I thought you were blonde and blue eyed!”
Ambiguous moral message: If you meet people on the internet, you deserve to be raped. It’s not like the girl actually did anything particularly forward or sinful, other than letting him come inside.

Room 2
Synopsis: Angry loner in high school holds his “friends” hostage at gunpoint. Tells them that he’s mad for they way they bullied or ignored him. “Friends” are very sorry. Demons whisper mean things in the boy’s ear. He shoots one of them, and then after some more threatening, shoots himself. Demons laugh. The end.
Most disturbing moment: The boy asked each one of the friends if they were Christians, so this was clearly an angle on the Cassie Bernall myth. Unlike the story of Cassie, he shot the one who claimed not to be a Christian. Then when somebody DID claim to be a Christian, the demons told him to leave her alone because they still have work to do on her. So here’s a guy who shoots atheists and doesn’t shoot Christians. And that says WHAT about the shooter, exactly?
Ambiguous moral message: If you pick on your friends in school, you’re bad. If you get picked on in school, you’re probably bad too.

This story is continued in part 2.

ACA Publishes Voters’ Guide

The ACA has completed its 2008 Voters’ Guide project this week. The Voters’ Guide is meant to provide information to voters in Texas from state and national candidates on issues that atheists care about. We posed 23 statements to 482 candidates and asked their level of agreement or disagreement with the statements. We got 50 responses, which is better than we expected.

Here are some related links:

  • Our press release on the guide (a good introduction). This was sent out Wednesday.
  • The main Web page (if you forward a link, use this one).
  • The questions (my favorite is #3 concerning conflict of interest).
  • The results (there are a handful of different formats).

Our press release has caused a little buzz already:

We would appreciate help in spreading the word about this resource–especially to people in Texas. The questions should be of interest to many people besides just atheists. Also, if people see additional links about the effort, I’d appreciate knowing about them.

If you have any feedback on the effort, that would be helpful, too, though it’s too late to change most things. We will likely attempt this again in future elections.