American Atheists Convention 2013 recap: Saturday

I know everybody’s expecting to be fooled today, but no kidding, we’re all pretty tired. So instead of doing that, here’s more American Atheists convention goodness.

Saturday morning I arrived in time to catch most of a panel discussion by Kelly Mochel, Dale McGowan, and Sarah Morehead about parenting. I know Dale as the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, a book which I haven’t read but recommend to parents in our audience based on its reputation. I went and chatted with Dale about my thoughts on parenting, Santa Claus, and the appropriate context to introduce Bible stories, which I’ve discussed in previous blog posts. Dale is promoting a new book, and we’re hoping to get him on some shows in the near future.

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I met Matt Dillahunty before his speech, in time to help him pour some unidentified green fluid into a fancy vial. “Magic tricks today?” I asked. “Nah, just a visual aide.”

2013-03-30 11.04.22The green stuff was apparently some sort of “skeptical snake oil,” which Matt expertly hawked as the answer to all your worldly troubles. Matt discussed the notion that not all skeptics are atheists (but if they apply skepticism properly, they should be!) and conversely, not all atheists are skeptics. This is a problem. Atheists come to the movement with some notion that they are brilliant because they have solved this incredibly hard problem — is there a God? — that most other people don’t get. As Matt said, “That’s the easiest problem in the world!” But because atheists assume their own brilliance, they confer a lot of automatic authority to themselves regarding other non-God problems, and often get cranky when challenged on their own irrational beliefs. So atheists, be more skeptical.

Matt’s speech is now available on YouTube, so check it out!

Matt was followed by Abby Hafer, a biologist who taught us all about unintelligent design. Like balls. Frogs have their testicles inside their bodies, where they can’t be kicked and messed up. Clearly God loves frogs more than men. A reoccurring theme of her talk was that the bar for explaining something with evolution is much lower than the bar for explaining something with intelligent design. The perfect, omnipotent creator of the universe, if one existed, could be assumed to create optimal design patterns. Evolution only needs to produce body parts that are “good enough to not kill you… MOST of the time.”

A group of us gathered for lunch: Tracie, Don, Jen, Steve, and two AE fans. We walked up the bridge and had sandwiches at Austin Java, then headed back to see Greta Christina speak.

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Greta repeated a routine that JT Eberhard had already referenced the previous night: Show of hands, how many people here used to be religious? Now how many here had their mind changed by logical arguments? Most hands stayed up, implying that, yes, it is very much worth making arguments to Christians, and not a waste of time. She went on to say that it is good to publicly criticize religion, since religion gets a “free ride in an armored tank” way too often in society and that gives it untouchable public opinion when we’re too timid to speak up. And finally, atheists need to do a good job of building communities that people can fall back on when they lose their churches.

After Greta’s speech I was feeling a little tired of sitting around just listening, so I took the opportunity to socialize with people around me. I swung by Surly Amy’s booth for a second time, having recently written a guest post on her blog. Some advance warning for readers: On Sunday Amy gave me a bit of a pep talk about speaking out against hateful social interaction within the community, and since some of that was on display during the mostly delightful convention, I was persuaded enough to probably devote an entire fourth post to this topic after I finish my Sunday recap. Just so you know it’s coming.

Philosopher Dan Fincke caught my attention at the ACA booth. Dan’s a former participant here at Freethought Blogs, and I’ve done a Google Hangout with him, and I had also messaged him privately last year about his pet subject — why atheists should better promote the idea that morality must be solidly considered as objective and factual. I asked him to join me in a quieter area so we could continue this conversation. I don’t know if he completely won me to his side, but it was a really fascinating discussion and I enjoyed the chance to argue about it. We were rudely interrupted once during this chat, but I managed to wave the guy off after a minute… I’ll be discussing this incident more in my extra post.

Happily, we were interrupted much less rudely by Rich and Deanna Lyons, who let us know they were headed out to the patio to have beers by the river. We joined them, also meeting up with Beth Presswood. I also met Adam Lee, of Daylight Atheism, for the first time. Cool guy, who has also done some blogging of his own about the convention. I finished my conversation with Dan; Rich, Deanna, Beth and I swapped wedding stories; and I gave Rich and Deanna some new movie recommendations. (As a Pentecostal minister for 20 years, Rich believed secular media to be sinful, and has a lot of catching up to do as he integrates into our foreign culture.)

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After I’d been sitting there for a while, a camera crew from New York dropped by and asked to interview me about The Atheist Experience. Had a fun time telling them all about atheist activism in the most liberal part of Texas, and they bought me a Shiner Bock.

I grabbed Matt away from another camera crew and we rushed back in to see his wife on a panel with Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, and “Surly” Amy Davis Roth, moderated by Jamila Bey.

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The four of them did a discussion about women in atheism. The first question was about how they feel about the state of the community in terms of welcoming women and racial diversity. The four of them agreed: Based on this particular convention… pretty damn good. The organizers had done a great job to include a solid mix of speakers from various backgrounds, an effective anti-harassment was in place, and this was reflected by the diversity of the audience. Not one of them had had a bad experience at this conference and it should be a model for anyone trying to host future events. One of the themes touched on was that the way to get more participation from women and minorities is to just ask them to join in. And also, to ask them about their particular concerns if they don’t feel welcome.

This is important, because as Greta said, there are people who object that this represents some kind of “affirmative action” or “tokenism” initiative, and claim that the result will be that excellent, top tier white men will speak at conventions, followed by second-rate diversity picks. On the contrary, she said, the result has been that we’re meeting more and more awesome people that nobody had ever heard about before, and they are becoming regulars.

It was 5:45, and that was about all I had the stamina for that day. I wanted to pace myself for the other speakers who would be closing out the convention on Sunday. There were other parties and events to join; however, one of the advantages of attending a convention locally is that you get to go home, relax, and sleep in your own bed. So after packing up a few ACA products and shaking hands with a few more people, that’s what I did.

TUNE IN NEXT TIME for the exciting conclusion of #AAcon13!


  1. says

    This is important, because as Greta said, many people object that this represents some kind of “affirmative action” or “tokenism” initiative

    I personally don’t see it that way. It’s more like we’re all on a boat, with women on one side, and men on the other. The boat is about ready to capsize because of the imbalance. It’s an actual real problem that needs to be balanced out, even if we have to specifically go out of our way to add women, as opposed to men.

    Yes, sometimes we need to focus on one category to bring everyone into a balance.

  2. Clio says

    Sounds like the convention was a success, so sad that I found out about it too late to attend. =^(

    I’m looking forward to when/if Abby Hafer’s Unintelligent Design talk is/will be posted to youtube as I’m in the middle of my very first debate with an intelligent-design believing theist and I’m afraid I find the notion of intelligent design so ridiculous that I have never bothered to learn much about it. Hopefully her talk will be informative for me.

    I just finished watching Matt’s Skepticism and Atheism talk which was great!