Reflections on the PA atheist conference

Last weekend’s conference in Pittsburgh of the PA atheists and humanists was a lot of fun. I have mentioned before that I am somewhat asocial but whenever I do get out to events like this, I have a good time. I met several readers of this blog who introduced themselves to me and I enjoyed talking with them during the breaks and over meals. I knew they were regular readers of my blog because as my talk slides were being readied for projection on the screen, my computer wallpaper that consists of a picture of my dog appeared briefly and they could identify him as Baxter the Wonder Dog!

The talks were of four kinds. There were the academic-type talks. John Loftus presented his Outsider Test for Faith that asks people to apply the same criteria they use to judge the believability of other faiths to their own. Jerry Coyne talked about the incompatibility of science and religion, the theme of his forthcoming book. Dan Finke spoke about morality and said that when we talk of objective morality, the key question is whether there is a good reason for me to do what I don’t want to do. Andy Norman quoted Rebecca Goldstein that a fundamental need of people is to feel that they matter, and religions are successful in filling that need by creating a sense of community so that they feel that other people need them and that they matter to god. ACLU attorney Jon Pushinsky spoke about the implications of the Hobby Lobby case and where things might go from there. He was asked whether he felt that RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) should be repealed but he said no, that it was a good law but that the Supreme Court had misinterpreted it in this case. Dave Lampe and David Templeton spoke about the ongoing efforts to sneak creationist teaching into PA schools. Laurie Lebo and Ed Brayton spoke about the aftermath of the Dover intelligent design case. My talk fitted into this category and was about how the logic of science prevented religious apologists from using logical loopholes to create an opening for inserting god beliefs. This is going to be the basis of a book that I am writing.

There were talks by members of larger national organizations. Annie Lurie Gaylor spoke about the work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation that she co-founded long ago with her mother. Fred Edwords of the United Coalition of Reason spoke about how the current time is a sweet spot for atheists media-wise because we have moved on from being ignored or reviled and have arrived at the stage of being fascinating and have not yet become banal. So it is relatively easy to get positive media attention and he spoke about the various billboard and other campaigns they have run. He also conducted a workshop on how to more effectively promote our message in the media.

Another group talked about their books. Novelist James Morrow spoke about his new book that is based on the premise that Charles Darwin had a menagerie and the woman who looked after the animals became interested in the natural origin of animals and got involved in a conflict with Mormons over her beliefs. Chris Johnson spoke about his coffee-table photo book A Better Life.about various atheists and their search for meaning. Luis Granados talked about his book about twenty rebels who challenged the powers of their time. His talk focused on just one person, Manuel Azana, who helped create a secular republic in Spain before he was overthrown by the fascists led by General Franco who was aided by Mussolini and Hitler.

Another set of talks were by activists. Sarah Haider talked about her work with the new group called Ex-Muslims of North America and the terrible situation of women in Muslim-majority countries. She is originally from Pakistan and spoke regretfully about how that country was born as a secular nation but has been steadily regressing into theocracy. Amanda Brown is the co-founder of We Are Atheism and spoke about her escape from her family’s Mormon faith and her group’s efforts to engage atheists in philanthropic efforts. Jamila Bey of the Secular Student Alliance gave her personal story of growing up in Pittsburgh with a Muslim father and Christian mother and how she evolved into an atheist and feminist. Vyckie Garrison spoke abut her escape from the Quiverfull movement in Christianity that encourages families to have as many children as possible and for women to be subservient to their husbands. She explained why at the time it seemed quite normal and natural to think this way if you loved god and if Jesus died for you. She eventually left and started the No Longer Qivering movement and says that none of her seven children are Christians anymore. Mark and Shannon Nebo co-founded Be Secular that tries to connect nonbelievers with religious groups in worthwhile activities. Monette Richards of the group Secular Woman spoke about organizing people at the grass-roots level in Ohio to petition legislators and create public awareness. Rich Hess and Allison Reed spoke about how to raise families in a secular humanist environment.

I was especially moved by the talks of the activists, many of whom wove their personal stories into their presentations and some of them have gone through some truly horrific times and yet emerged strong and active, determined to use their experience to help others. I was also impressed with the organizers of the conference. They were all volunteers with no paid staff and they had clearly worked hard to put it together. These things take a lot of planning and it was clearly a labor of love for them and I am grateful to them for inviting me.

On an amusing minor note, this event marked my first encounter with the rapidly exploding phenomenon of ‘selfies’. A few people asked me if I minded if they took a photograph with me. Of course, I said I would not mind. In the past, the person would ask someone nearby to take the photo but with the advent of cellphone cameras, people take photos with themselves and others in it by just holding it at arm’s length.

One of the things I noted was that while the gender mix at the meeting was good, the fraction of people of color at the meeting was very small.


  1. says

    Dear Mano,

    Thank you so much for blogging your thoughts about the conference! The reports that we have received from others who attended in Pittsburgh have also been positive, and I’ve enjoyed reading each email and Tweet.

    Ensuring that diversity reaches and includes everyone is certainly something we are interested in, and I appreciate it that you have not only been sensitive to this, but have relayed this message in a constructive way. One way to help ensure that diversity is celebrated is to check with the Secular Directory: to help reach multi-ethnic nontheist communities. For instance, the Black FreeThinkers ( or Hispanic American Freethinkers ( are great resources to help all voices and perspectives are represented. If there isn’t a local group like these in your area, please speak with others in the nontheist community to find out how to establish a group there and let the good times roll, because diversity is what we’re all about!


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