Texas Freethought Convention / Atheist Alliance America Convention

This is going to be a fairly quick and dirty review of the weekend. I’ve got work to catch up on, a wedding to plan and there are a number of things that have fallen through the cracks (the winners of the wig and dress will have their items soon, I promise)… I’m sticking with first names (with some exceptions) as I don’t want to out anyone . This is probably the worst event write-up in history, and I don’t plan to edit it. This is stream-of-memory brain dump, so that I don’t forget the event.

Thursday, Beth and I packed up the car and made the 3-hour trek to the convention in Houston. While we were checking in to the hotel, Natalie spotted Beth and came over to talk about Godless Bitches…and that kick-started both of our weekends. Beth went upstairs to wash her hair and change and I headed directly to the hotel bar where some convention attendees and speakers had already started to congregate. Had a chance to talk to Karen and Jimmy and a few dozen other people while drinking and laughing and speculating about the fun that was about to commence. PZ Myers arrived around 11pm and despite claiming that he wouldn’t have time to drink with us on Thursday, he quickly succumbed to peer pressure.

Friday morning started in the basement with a quick welcome from Nick Lee (AAA) and Paul Mitchel (TFC) and then PZ Myers took the stage to start the convention off with an entertaining and informative talk on mutants. Yes, there were a couple of scary “science” slides but they were tempered by great explanations and humor. It turns out that comic book superhero tales have it all wrong about mutations, how they work and what they do…and that we’re all mutants!

After lunch, I did a quick 30 minutes with the Secular Student Alliance. I don’t recall what I said, but it must have been acceptable, as I’m still on their Speakers Bureau list. I then ran downstairs to sit in on the last half of “The Magic Sandwich Show” with AronRa and Thunderfoot. While I was running around to these events, Michael Shermer explained “Why People Believe in God” in one room while a panel of speakers talked about “Diversity” in another. I wish I could tell you what they said, but we have yet to figure out a way for me to be everywhere. (I’m working on it, though.)

After a quick break, I sat in on a panel discussion on “Growing Local Organizations” with Jim Parker, Terry McDonald and Staise Gonzales. Staise gave some great information and talked about the amazing growth that Houston group has enjoyed. Terry and Jim also had lots of great advice. I pretty much just encouraged people to let their group be whatever the membership needed it to be. Our group is so unique that I really wasn’t the right person for that panel, but I enjoyed it, shared what I could – and took away a few ideas that might help our local group.

While that panel was going on, Beth was in the main room listening to Sikivu Hutchinson talk. I’ll see if I can coax her to offer a quick summary of that talk. As I was on a panel and Beth was at Sikivu’s talk, we both missed the exceptional Margaret Downey (who was absolutely charming the entire weekend). One of the problems with these simultaneous break-out sessions is that you are going to miss some events. Fortunately, we knew that Margaret would be on a second panel on Saturday – so Beth took the only opportunity to hear Sikivu speak.

After a quick break, Michael Shermer was supposed to give a talk about “The Believing Brain” but it was too similar to his previous talk, so he shifted focus and gave a different talk. I really wish that I could tell you what it was called, but I honestly can’t recall. It culminated in a video of a reworking of the famous Milgram experiment.

I ran into Matthew Chapman just prior to dinner and told him we were looking forward to his screening of “The Ledge“. He went on to have dinner with Christopher Hitchens while Beth and I trotted off to the local Hard Rock with some old and new friends from the convention.

We watched “The Ledge” when we returned, but there was a bit of confusion over the time that the film would start. As it happens, the film started early which means that it ended early. This wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that Chapman had been misinformed about the times and wasn’t around to start the Q&A session after it ended. Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with him and he scrambled downstairs to answer questions.

There was much drinking and partying on Friday evening. It’s absolutely surreal to be sitting in the hotel bar visiting with so many attendees and speakers. One minute I might be  meeting someone new, the next I’m talking to Myers/Chapman/Dawkins, the next I’m talking to people I met at a previous event and then we’re all jostling about taking pictures, laughing, drinking and generally having an exceptionally good time.

Unfortunately, Beth became ill and was confined to bed for most of the rest of the weekend. We were both sad that she missed so many of the events that she’d been looking forward to and this will easily go down as the “worst convention ever”, for her. Had she not come down with a bug, this would have probably been her favorite.

Saturday was fairly crazy for me. I started with Dale McGowan‘s talk on “Humanity at Work” and then had to scramble over to my own room for the next break-out session. I honestly didn’t think we’d have much turnout for my talk. First of all, I’d already spoken for the SCA, AronRa’s “Magic Sandwich Show” and a panel discussion…so I figured most of the people who might want to hear me speak had already done so. Secondly, it was billed as ‘Matt Dillahunty “Atheist Experience” (Podcast?)’. This caused quite a bit of confusion, as many people thought I was going to a live version of the show. It’s pretty difficult to do a live, call-in show, driven by theistic calls…when you don’t have a phone and aren’t on at the regular time/channel/stream. And finally, I was up against Darrel Ray (talking about Sex and Religion, in the main room) and a panel discussion with Margaret Downey, Sunsara Taylor and Staise Gonzales talking about women in the movement.

Despite my concerns that I’d be talking to a handful of people, we filled the room to overflowing! Our audiences are absolutely amazing and they made this one of my favorite convention moments from any convention. Jen Peeples had arrived Friday evening and we decided that in order to make this meet as many people’s expectations as possible, she’d join me on the stage and we’d do a ‘mock’ show. We played the theme song, I spoke for a few minutes and then we had a lot of fun passing the mic around to “callers” in the audience while Jen and I answered questions.

After lunch, I went to the main room to hear Eugenie Scott talk about “The Rise and Fall of Evolution Education in Texas”. While I was familiar with the content of her talk (having lived through much of this fight), I thoroughly enjoyed her summary of the problems, failures and successes that occurred.

I skipped the SCA talk in order to check in on Beth…and then I had to make a very difficult decision. The original plan had been for me to go to Vic Stenger‘s talk, “Faster than Light? The theological implications” while Beth went to the panel discussion on “Secular Family” (Kendall, Haynes and  McGowan). This meant that we’d miss Sunsara Taylor’s talk (“The Emancipation of Humanity and a World without Gods: A Revolutionary Perspective”), but we’d have covered more ground. With her sick, and cloning still illegal, I opted to go to the Secular Family panel. As it turns out, Beth was feeling slightly better and managed to join me for this discussion.

All three speakers offered good information for secular families – but the Q&A portion was one of the best of the weekend. Why? Because there were real people in the crowd, with real issues – and they were looking for help. How do we build our community to better support families? How do we help our kids deal with bullying? How should we deal with religious family members proselytizing? How do we best teach our kids to handle grief? The questions kept rolling and while I can’t speak for anyone else, I got a lot out of it. We definitely need more panels like this one.

We then went to the “National Activism” panel with Sean Faircloth, Margaret Downey and Richard Haynes. This occurred at the same time as the “Science Education” panel with Barbara Forest, Eugenie Scott, Vic Stenger and PZ Myers as well as Todd Steifel‘s “Adopt-a-School Campaign” program. We had originally planned to split up for these, but when your wife is sick, you stick close by.

As this panel was about to start, we noticed that attendance for all of the panels had dropped off rather sharply and that the 4th floor balcony was full of people standing in line. Christopher Hitchens had arrived and agreed to spend some time signing books. This wasn’t part of the schedule but the word had spread quickly. The “National Activism” panel was pretty straight forward and while I greatly admire all 3 speakers, I was a bit pre-occupied. I sat near one of the two doors to the room and every few minutes someone would open the door, peak in and then close the door. It was a frustrating distraction.

The keynote address and banquet pretty much deserve their own post, which I probably won’t have time to write. Briefly, though:

This is an evening I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Dawkins and Hitchens arrived together to a thunderous standing ovation. Hitchens was thin and appeared weak – but only at first glance. There’s just something indescribable about the man. Beyond that first glance there is strength. Beyond that first glance there is a fighter who demonstrated grace, strength and courage. After a beautiful introduction and keynote from Dawkins, Hitch came up to accept the “Richard Dawkins Award”…

One might have expected a brief acceptance speech, but he spoke at length and as beautifully as ever (despite problems with his voice) – and then he took questions from the audience. When I say he took questions, I mean the man sat there and answered queries about his thoughts on everything from the situation in Turkey to his thoughts on the misogyny of patriarchal systems. And then, when his time was up, he continued answering questions. Much has been written about his response to an 8-year-old girl who asked for a suggested reading list…I highly recommend that you check it out.

Hitch was, well, Hitch. For a brief moment during the entrance he was unrecognizable…but that doesn’t last. I certainly hope this wasn’t his final speaking engagement and I’m saddened by the fact that he and I have never had an opportunity to speak, but this was a night to remember and I’m thrilled that I was present.

I skipped the final two events of the evening in order to try to spend some time with Beth before heading out to socialize.

I wound up drinking until about 2:30am – at which time, Paul Mitchell informed me that I needed to be at the “Celebreakfast” at 8. I’d say he ‘reminded’ me, but I missed the initial e-mail notification. So Sunday started off with Beth and I eating breakfast with some of the convention’s VIP guests. I had a great time, despite being tired, but Beth was still sick and went back to bed right after breakfast.

I missed part of Barbara Forrest‘s talk, “They Call it Academic Freedom” but what I saw was exceptionally informative. Her work with the Wedge document and the Dover trial is legendary, but this talk chronicled the shifting language that creationists have used to try to weasel their views into science education.

At this point, the event transformed into the “Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason – Superfestival!!!!”. They didn’t actually call it that, but that’s what it was. Elisabeth Cornwell spoke first, explaining the need for reason and science…which lead into Sean Faircloth’s call-to-action which never fails to excite and motivate the crowd….which lead into Richard Dawkins’ wonderful talk about his new book, “The Magic of Reality”.

It may have been written with 12-year-olds in mind, but I’m not going to wait until I have a 12-year-old to read it. I’m reading it now…and if we have kids, it’ll be something they grow up reading. I was very jealous of the CampQuest youth who were invited on stage to play with the app for the book. 🙂

The convention was over, but there was one more thing I needed to do. I’d been invited to an SCA dinner event on Sunday evening and Beth was feeling well enough to go with me – and I’m very glad that she did. It was a great way to close out the weekend, especially as she had spent so much of it in bed.

In all, this was a successful weekend. There were a number of mistakes, but we’ll chalk them up to “lessons learned” and I’m optimistic that next year’s Texas Freethought Convention will be even more successful. While it’s doubtful that we’ll have Dawkins or Hitchens, I’m sure that the speakers and events will make for a great convention – while we wait for the Mayan calendar to wind down…




  1. says

    Yes, quick and dirty means that I’m not going to edit it or make it look pretty….but I had to make sure I covered everything.
    And I forgot to mention that I finally got to meet Thunderf00t, though that is implied.

  2. tsimpson1991 says

    It was an awesome convention, and it was my first. As a fan, I am glad I got to meet you Beth, and Jen(and of course all the other talent) It’s nice that you guys take the time to take pictures with fans and talk to them.

  3. says

    Why are there no youtube videos linked to this post? I’ve seen parts of the Dawkins/Hitchens speech, but not a professional one. Is that in the works?

    Keep up the good work!

  4. says

    Ask Beth if she had the fruit cup from Einstein Bros.
    I took a nose dive that pulled me back into the room early each eve. I’m just now coming out of it.

    But the convention was a great one. I think everyone was very pleased. Good synopsis, Matt, on what I saw–wish I’d bought the DVD for $50 before I left for the parts I missed.

    I’d like to lik from my blog to yours–as soon as I figure out how to do it.

    The convention just sort of popped out at me as being the right time to go. (I was trying to start a little advanced buzz for a pending book–it’s a lot like my comment on the most recent post).

    I had already seen your show on the web and slowly connected it all together over the convention.

    Keep up the good work!

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