Post-conference wrap-up

I just got back from the American Atheists conference, so here’s my summary of the weekend.

  • Best talk of the conference: Lawrence Krauss wins hands-down. It was a meaty, informative, and lively lecture that summarized what we know about dark matter and dark energy so that even a non-physicist could follow it. Just that one talk alone made the whole weekend worthwhile.

  • Dawkins gave a good talk, but to be honest, it got a little unfocused in a few places — he tried to include some of the recent events at the last minute, and it lost some of its coherence as a result. Still a good lecture, though, and also worth the effort of attending the whole event.

  • The family and I got to go out to dinner with Richard Dawkins twice (and once with Lawrence Krauss), which isn’t something the average attendee got to do, so I shouldn’t brag too much.

  • The Pharyngu-Fest organized by Mike Haubrich was fun, even if I got there late and the bar was so noisy you could only hear the person immediately next to you. Maybe a coffee shop is more my style, rather than the mindlessness encouraged by a bar that puts a jackhammer in your ear. But what I did hear was engrossing.

  • Ellen Johnson’s talk was very good at inciting atheist activism, and she was very effective at getting across the message that we could be an effective voting bloc if we’d collaborate and act more. She made a little dig at blogs, though, that I (unsurprisingly) found inappropriate — online networks are absolutely essential in building up communities of activists, particularly among the younger members. Don’t disparage those, they are our future.

  • I got into a wrangle with two creationists, which was very entertaining. These guys, who did not have badges for the conference, apparently thought they could troll the halls, capturing souls for Christ with their brilliant argumentation. They could not; it’s hard to imagine a more pathetic pair. I got the usual litany of lies: there are no transitional fossils, we ought to have cat-dog intermediates (among millions of others), evolution is just a theory, the big bang is proof of genesis, they believe in microevolution but not macroevoluton, and their big one, every chance event must have a cause. They were very confused and very trite. I hammered on them for a while, and told them plainly that they were ignorant clowns who were going to get laughed at by everyone; it was extremely amusing to watch them try to keep the glazed-eyed smiles on their faces while they spluttered indignantly that I had just insulted them. Hell, yeah, I’d just insulted them. They were idiots.

    They did disappear afterwards, and I didn’t see any more of them at the conference. Maybe they were off praying for me.

  • As usual, I have a major complaint about the organization of atheist conferences. I call it Big Ballroom Syndrome. What do they do? They rent one gigantic hall for the meeting, and then what we get is a parade of speakers who lecture at us in one hour blocks, while everyone sits and listens. This is bad for conferences. Break it up more; get 4 smaller rooms instead of one big one, and schedule concurrent events. Don’t complain that that means you’d need four times as many speakers to fill them up…that’s not a problem if you actually take advantage of the talents of your membership and get them to present on their areas of expertise. Maybe you need a big room for someone like Dawkins or Krauss, but smaller venues are more congenial for less notorious speakers, who will get a smaller but more appreciative audience. It will also increase participation from the audience.

    The worst example of this problem was a session in the Big Ballroom called “Ask the Experts,” in which 6 very diverse people were seated at a panel and a moderator read submitted questions to them. One person would answer that question for 10 minutes while the other five experts twiddled their thumbs. Now if they had 6 rooms, one for each expert, and had more open questions, nobody would have been bored, more people would have been engaged, and it would have been a far more interesting set of sessions.

Still, despite my complaint at the end, it was an eminently worthwhile weekend, and I’d go again. Just please, please, please get some 20+ year olds who are familiar with science fiction conventions on the organizing committee and spiff up the format.


  1. Travis says

    I haven’t been to any atheist conventions but I know what you mean about this Big Ballroom Syndrome. Breaking it into parallel sessions seem to be the way to go. We do this in physics meetings all the time, they don’t even have to be large meetings to pull it off. You can usually find speakers and more than a few interested people to go to the session. Maybe the really well known big names can be keynotes rather than part of the main sections as well.

  2. says

    So did all the atheists get together and decide how best to kick ID supporters out of their jobs?

    I thought not.

    Sounded educational. I like Krauss. I read his book ATOM. Enjoyed it.

    Oh don’t forget

    HAPPY ZOMBIE AWARENESS DAY! Don’t let any more zombies create a religion that will try and dominate humanity. Remember, aim for the head.

  3. says

    I recently had the opportunity to see both Richard Dawkins AND Lawrence Krauss speak together at Stanford University. My husband and I drove 2 1/2 hours each way – definitely worthwhile.

  4. rmp says

    I’m still pissed that I live within driving distance and had to miss it because of Easter with my family.


  5. Don Williams says

    The creationists or others like them came back this morning for the debate. They were probably the people applauding for Dennis Prager (yes, that Dennis Prager) when he made statements that objective morality requires the god of the old testament or atheists only have chemistry and biology and can not “really” appreciate love, art, music, etc. The scare quotes were in his tone of voice when he repeatedly made those remarks.

    I agree, Lawrence Krauss was wonderful.

    Don Williams

  6. J says

    Just please, please, please get some 20+ year olds who are familiar with science fiction conventions on the organizing committee and spiff up the format.

    Yes! The larger cons are organized into “tracks” of sessions during the weekend, allowing for smaller, more focused panels in addition to the larger main programming events. For example, there is the Skeptics Track at Dragon*Con in Atlanta. This year James Randi is a guest – I’ll be there!

  7. Sam says

    I really liked the talks by Richard Dawkins, Laurence Krauss and Ellen Johnson. I think Dawkins quickly made changes in his talk to make things flow from Johnson’s talk to his. There were slides on what Ellen had said, and I think he followed her on the speaking schedule. I seem to recall a slide on the meek not inheriting the earth. It made the message more powerful hearing it from both Dawkins and Johnson. And I have to mention that the spoof video in Dawkins presentation was absolutely hilarious!

    With regard to Johnson- – her speech was well-written and inspirational. There was the small dig about blogs. She really encourages activism (e.g., writing letters to editor, running for political office, voting responsibly). It made me wonder if she thought blogs were mainly good for singing to the choir and allowing folks to vent to a fairly friendly audience. Of course, those of us who read blogs regularly know they are a lot more powerful than that. I think it is a good reminder to those of us that are out here in the blogosphere that we need to make sure we do more than just read the blogs, but actually take action (e.g, contact appropriate officials about laws and events when needed, respond to or initiate editorials, join an organization or organize people for various events).

    Also with regard to blogs, I must admit that I heard about the American Atheist conference and Minnesota Atheist radio program through Pharyngula. I probably wouldn’t have heard of them otherwise.

    It was the first time I had attended the American Atheist conference. I’m hoping to go again, and plan to recommend it to others.

  8. says

    I had a pretty good time. I have some disagreements, but I want to get this post near the top first. It was great to actually meet you and introduce myself. I saw you plenty through the conference, but you were always talking to someone and I did not want to interrupt. I, of course, would have loved to had a long conversation, but figured I should have just made it quick.

    And haha to those that missed out, I met PZ, haha! (Just kidding, sort of, ok, not really, haha)

  9. Eric says

    I thought it was OK. I mostly went for the Dawkins speech and to hear the Prager debate. Dawkins pretty much said what I’ve heard him say in his God Delusion book and numerous other lectures I’ve watched online or listened to. The best part of his speech was when he relayed what had happened at the the MOA screening of Expelled. Krauss’s lecture was very interesting and I’ll be ordering a copy of his book. I’m not a fan of Dennis Prager in the least bit. As I was driving home, I heard him on the radio cheerleading for the Iraq War and saying that all young men should go through something like that because it builds character. If he’s so gung-ho, that fuckwit should lace up his commando boots and be the next soldier on the sand dunes… I can’t stand Prager, no matter how soothing his voice may be. He said he can’t prove his god exists, but he can “detect” his existence. What about all the examples were god cannot be “detected”. What about the millions of Jews that god allowed to be slaughtered on his watch? Apparently he was to busy to find another Moses to go tell Hitler to let his people go…

  10. Todd says

    Of course, by holding this meeting in public, Ben Stein wins. The only way to counteract the horrible damage you have done to the cause of science is to become a born again Christian. Apparently, it’s our only defense against the marketing genius of Ben Stein.

  11. Don Williams says

    To Steven.
    Maybe, maybe not. There is some work that shows that there may be a selection pressure for a basic morality. I recall reading something by Matt Riddley(?) that summarized that work. My comment was that all Dennis Prager offered was the same old “no morality without god” and “there is more to the world than science can ever know” arguements as arguements that the old testament god existed. Some non-registered attendees of this morning’s debate (it was an open session) were showing their appreciation for Prager’s arguments.

    Don Williams

  12. Eric says

    One thing *new* that I did get from the conference is that maybe religion should be taught in public schools. Comparative religion that is. Expose the mythology for what it is.

  13. clarence says

    Bah on Prager! He brought the same tired points he always uses in his rants about atheists. He thinks a god is a good thing to have, so therefore god is real. I am jealous of his ability to call things into existence just by wishing.

    It is good that he was there, because it’s invigorating to have disagreements, and it does show that we’d be open to an effective argument should one ever be offered. The Q&A session after the debate, though, hurt me where my soul would be because holy crap: Asperger’s.

    At one point during the convention, I think I saw PZ blogging from the other side (of the computer; not, like, from some supernatural netherworld) which was cooler than I would have expected it to be.

  14. says

    Ok, now I got that out of the way, I will post my disagreements about how a conference should be run.

    I am a death metal/general metal guitarist and I have been in shitty bands, yet I have been generally able to get at least one of my songs in (which are actually good compared to the rest, if I may so so myself). I know what it is like to have a concert going on with 2 & 3 stages going on at the same time.

    Being in a band that generally only has one or two good songs (written by me :p), we will not get an audience because the rest of the music is sub-par and the audience will pick a different room and miss out on the good music. By splitting this off into different rooms prevents people from hearing everything. Although I did not find any of the speakers boring, I did sometimes want them to end quick, but they would always periodically say something of interest that made me happy they weren’t done quite yet.

    Finding a sci-fi nerd to conduct an event like this could be useful to many people, but not for me. I do not want to miss anything. I want to see it all. Maybe we should also realize the emotional impact on the poor bastard speaking that only has 2 people to speak to. That was sort of a joke, but should be considered.

    For any interested, I have half-ass detailed writings on the entire event. Click on my name above and see “Dirty Heathen Conference” and select which day (1, 2, or 3).

  15. clarence says

    One more thing: ‘nym notwithstanding, I’m a chick, and I was dismayed but unsurprised that the convention was such a sausage fest. There were about a hundred people who reminded me of my grandpa, who’s the best atheist I know, but still. It concerns me that there aren’t more second- or third-generation activists and that there aren’t more godless girls.

    Maybe women are more likely to self-identify as agnostic in order to seem nonthreatening?

  16. zoltan says

    Don #14:

    That’s the Virtue of Selfishness you’re thinking of. And I think what the earlier poster was trying to say was that (even if) morality can be selected, but that doesn’t make it “objective”. It might seem more reasonable than other alternatives, but that doesn’t give it a free pass at always being right like religiously “objective” morality.

    Clarence #19:

    I’ve read somewhere (really convincing I know) that women comprise the majority of church-goers and religious people in general (yet they are a very small minority in leadership). For some reason they are more likely to swallow that bullshit? Maybe for the same reason they fall for other pseudosciences: astrology, etc. Not that I’d know what that reason is.

  17. says

    I, oddly, like Dennis Prager. If all believers were like him, this conference would not have been necessary. I think he’s batshit crazy in what he believes atheists are and he has a complete lack of imagination (“I cannot imagine a world without got” type talk), but otherwise he’s pretty reasonable. Unlike other believers, he is not a bigot toward atheists. Hell, even Christopher Hitchens will talk to him time and time again.

    I’m actually quite ashamed of the atheists that asked him questions. They really seemed to prove that atheism is a religion. I was so fucking uncomfortable when people were asking questions because they were assholes. And they really appeared to be a mirror image of a fundie who has been questioned about his/her faith.

    This convention was not a church service for non-believers, but it really seemed that way today. Dennis Prager did a good thing by showing up and displaying that not all believers are a bunch of dumbasses (although I suspect I high number are).

    If you are an atheist and asked a question here (every single atheist question was an asshole question, I recorded it and re-listened, they are all asshole questions) and are reading this, you should be ashamed of yourself and it is probably best that you question yourself and re-evaluate your views before showing up to another conference like this. If you think Atheist conferences are a church gathering, stay the fuck home and re-think your life.

  18. says

    At the 2007 AAI conference they did have some smaller rooms for some of the speakers and the big speakers (Dawkins, Hitchens, etal) were shown on CCTV in the smaller rooms. Not quite perfect but a step in the right direction. But then again, that was organized by Margaret Downey.

    I see you’re on the schedule for the 2008 AAI conference. You’ll be speaking without competition, but in the morning, there’ll be plenty of competing exhibits on the Queen Mary. Again, not exactly the same, but a step in the right direction.

  19. Chris O. says

    I was there and I completely agree with all your points. (I was the one in line for Dawkins who asked you to sign my book) The expert panel thing was a total bust, I thought they were going to do the smaller session thing, but no, instead they wasted 50 minutes of each expert’s time. In fairness, if they’d broken it up Dawkins would have gotten the biggest crowd by far, so I can see that as a strike against.

    And Krauss’s lecture was awesome. I thought I was pretty well up on cosmology and some of the things he said simply amazed/awed me. Would have been totally worth it just for him, even had there been no Dawkins.

  20. Fred says

    Does anyone know how the student pizza event went? Were there mainly guys there?

    I heard there was supposed to be at least 70 students registered for the conference. I would hope at least some of them were female. Maybe we’ll have to think of a plan to attract more godless females.

  21. says

    #24 Fred, to attract females we must first destroy religion so they can finally be taken out of submission.

    In all seriousness now, I regret missing the student pizza. I’m stuck taking dumbass online classes and I had a paper due last night so I could not stay for it. If only they offered beer! Maybe that is a sign the runners of this are too old. They think students only drink pop with their pizza.

    That’s it, put me in power. The next meeting, if I am in charge, I will provide pizza and beer and Jagermeister for students!

  22. says

    As for the issue of worrying about ‘missing things’ – that’s why recording lectures is so useful! Makes for a jam-packed DVD too. :)

  23. Kausik Datta says

    I seem to be in the minority here, but whenever I have attended a conference where sessions were split up to run parallally, I have always been torn between two interesting lectures going on simultaneously in two different rooms. Therefore, for someone like me, who likes to soak it all up like a filter-feeder, a single session with appropriate breaks is the desired way…

  24. MelM says

    A little activism is needed against Senate Resolution 483, “Recognizing the first weekend of May 2008 as `Ten Commandments Weekend” introduced March 13, 2008. The resolution is here:

    We can urge our senators not to support this. The U.S. Senate is here (pick a state and continue–it’s a form so you’ll need to save a copy if you want to send the same message to both senators):

    The U.S. Senate has no business preaching religion to us; it’s outrageous. Who the hell do they think they are? It’s the citizen’s right to discuss religion and the Senate’s job to protect that right.

  25. says


    Dragon*Con has lots of great Skeptics and Freethought folks coming to the Skeptic/Freethought track this year. James Randi, Lori Lipman Brown, Phil Plait, Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, etc, etc…

    PZ you should come, I am the director, just come to the con, it is CHEAP to get in, and I’ll put you on panels, and make a slot for you to do a lecture or talk as well! :)


  26. says

    Hey Derek, Skepticality rules!!!!! However, don’t you think a simple e-mail would be more effective to invite PZ to DragonCon? Your post is a bit hidden. Anyway, I think PZ should go, geeks love to hear smart people talk. And I am jealous of everyone of you that will be there and that will be at TAM.

  27. says

    #31: You’re completely right, of course.  PZ would never waste his time reading the thirtieth comment on one of his posts.  Anything worth saying would surely have been mentioned by one of the first twenty-nine.


  28. says

    This was my first conference, and I actually enjoyed sitting at the Minnesota Atheists table a bit more than being in the big talks. I did get in for Lawrence Krauss, Eddie Tabash, David Eller and the piece by Steve Peterson and August Berkshire on the power of effective lobbying. There just wasn’t enough time for questions in this format.

    But a few other things happened that I enjoyed even more. There are many more atheists in the Twin Cities than come to our meetings. Many of them are younger than me (which isn’t hard to imagine considering that I am 47.) It was in the halls that I got to talk to Krauss, Tabash, Laurie Lippman-Brown and others who were speakers.

    The best part, though, is that being at the table I got the chance to visit with a great many atheists from all over the country and even from Canada (Hi, Neil!)

    The Pharyngula Fest went well, despite the noise. I do know of some great comfy coffee shops where it would have been easier to chat, but none downtown Minneapolis. The Black Dog Cafe in St. Paul would be ideal for a future Pharyngula fest, so when we do the next one I would like to do it there. (While beer and wine are served it is not their focus and they have larger gathering areas.)

  29. says

    I, sadly missed the Pharyngula fest. I was hoping to score free pizza then hang out with a bunch of dirty heathens and consume potentially dangerous chemicals in liquid form. But I had to write a paper. Dennis Prager is right, universities are asshole institutions for making their students do research and prove their research.

  30. RMA says

    I was sitting next to Dawkins during Ellen Johnson’s presentation and can confirm that he was busily reworking his slideshow on his laptop to include references to her talk.

    The “debate” this morning was an utter waste of time with the two sides talking past each other and never really engaging beyond a few trivial exchanges about the Hebrew in Genesis.

  31. Randy Rumley says

    About the Big Ballroom experience. I agree fully. I’ve been to conferences that try to be 100% linear in one room, and wind up being incredibly boring and tedious with the audience twiddling their thumbs waiting for something interesting to happen.
    The best ones I’ve seen had maybe one keynote speaker for the day for an hour or so, then brake up for panel discussions or smaller speaker groups. This works pretty well, and attendees have a chance for a break if they don’t want to sit and fidget.

    The organizers should take a look at, for instance, a Science Fiction convention. Many tracks, many panels on every subject you can stand and another dozen besides. A toned down version dedicated to the subjects at hand would work pretty well.
    (I was just at one this weekend and it was very well organized)

  32. says

    I’m surprised that Ellen Johnson is urging atheists to be more politically active. It certainly represents a dramatic about-turn from her recent video in which she asserted that atheists should stay home and not vote so as to force politicians not to take us for granted – which is, I have to say, one of the worst pieces of advice I’ve ever seen the president of any political activist organization deliver to its members.

  33. Fred says

    Mike H – Thanks a lot for organizing the Pharyngula Fest. It was a lot of fun even with the loud conversation/music. I was amazed with the large turnout. For those of you who weren’t there, there were groups on both sides of the pub. It would be nice to meet those other folks from nearby tables and the other side of the restaurant some time. Hopefully they’ll come to a subsequent Fest.

  34. says

    Multi-track programming can be overdone, but I agree that it’s the way to go, done in moderation. Most conferences and conventions above a certain size (say 60 delegates) use it. The really big name speakers can be reserved for plenary sessions, since (a) no one wants to be giving a talk opposite Richard Dawkins and thus get no audience and (b) no one wants to miss out on getting to a talk by Richard Dawkins by being scheduled to speak opposite him. Yeah, anyone with experience in running programming at science fiction conventions could be consulted as to how it’s done (not that they always get it right … I could tell war stories about how speakers are sometimes treated). Likewise, anyone with experience in programming for academic or business conferences. And yes, I’d be amazed if you couldn’t run up to half a dozen tracks of programming. Two or three tracks might be quite enough, but there’s plenty of talent around.

  35. Derek says

    I actually did attend the student pizza event. It was fun to interact with other students. However, I did duck out early to head over to the meetup. That was actually far more fun. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a certain type of person that will read PZ’s blog religiously, and it’s a lot of fun to get a bunch of them together. I look forward to being able to do that in the future again, though I would have also preferred a quieter environment.

    This was also my first conference. I completely agree that Dr. Krauss was the best, and I would have preferred more presentations like his. The presentations should have been far more positive and informative. Another huge problem is the people that chose to ask questions. I can understand needing to preface your question, but after 30 seconds it becomes a speech. I thought it wouldn’t be an issue in a more rational crowd.

    The “Ask the Experts” section was terrible. Like PZ points out, it would have been much better if they were split up, though most people would have just attended the Dawkins session anyway. Maybe splitting them up throughout a day would be more appropriate.

    Was I the only one that heard the traces of Intelligent Design logic in Rene Salm’s answer to a question? If you’re not peer-reviewed, there’s an easy way to solve that. The more he talked, the more I was regretting getting his book.

    As for the debate, maybe it was just because I didn’t like Zindler’s style, but I didn’t think anyone “won” the debate, and saying so in the middle only makes you look foolish. I thought I could have done a better job, which is not something I should be thinking at my age. It should have been simple and it wasn’t. When atheists fully acknowledge that you can’t prove or disprove the existence of any god, it’s intellectually dishonest to expect anyone to do either. That sort of argument means nothing to a religious person.

  36. Eric says

    Steven, what’s an example of a non-asshole question? Did time run out before you got to ask your non-asshole question? What was it?

  37. says


    I organized the student pizza thing and about 70 or so people showed up. There were people in the room from 7:00 to past 11:00 that night and lots of fun conversations, despite the back of beer, which would have been much more expensive for Minnesota Atheists to foot the bill for. People brought in their own beer from the bar, so it worked out. There were kids there too, some as young as 8th grade. I’m 26, so not exactly some old guy throwing something together. In a month or so, we’re probably going to have an atheist pub crawl in Minneapolis, which will rule.

  38. says

    One suggestion I heard about the conference, was to use unused rooms for people to hang out and talk. I know that can be tough, if the hotel wants to charge for the use of the space, but the student pizza event went on after the pizza was gone, because people had a good time talking to each other.

  39. says

    Being a – ahem – ‘veteran’ of many SCiFi conferences and get togethers- and working on organisation and security for some- I would love to volunteer to help- only thing is I live in the UK! when are we going to get our act together over here and organise a British Atheists conference!!!

  40. says

    About Dragon*Con — aren’t there some issues going on with that? I thought part of the convention center got trashed by weather recently (Damn Thor. I bet he heard that that rampant Athorist James Randi would be there . . . ).

  41. J says



    No, Thor spared the four convention hotels (Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, and Sheraton) from the tornado. The Westin and the Ritz Carlton suffered some damage, nothing too major. D*C is still on like Donkey Kong.

  42. says


    Dragon*Con and all of its hotels were completely spared from that freak tornado. Those usually never hit downtown in cities, and it is NOT a normal thing down here in the Atlanta area. We usually get one or two small ones, usually a bit south of the city. The last one of any note that hit here was back in 1997 when one hit in the northern 285 area near where my current office is. But, all four major Dragon*Con hotels are in perfect working order, and the Marriott is FINISHED with the massive renovations as of a couple weeks ago. So, we ALL of our space back and access to the good food court again! :)