Hey, folks – I’m typing this from the airport in Madison, Wisconsin, waiting for my flight home from the 33rd annual convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which I attended this weekend. I’ve had a fantastic time, and I still feel happy, relaxed and full of energy. I need to go to these events more often!
The convention was held at the Concourse Hotel in central Madison. We FFRFers descended on the hotel in a freethinking horde – other than the hotel staff, I don’t think I saw a single person all weekend who wasn’t wearing a convention badge, and the hotel’s ballroom, which seated 700, was filled to capacity.
Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor officially opened the convention on Friday night (with the immortal opening line: “I’m Annie Laurie Gaylor, and I’m not a witch”), and the events began with a video address from Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton. It wasn’t exactly a pro-atheist message, but it was a genuinely friendly and welcoming statement, saying that she was glad to have us there. I was surprised and impressed: although her speech itself was nothing exceptional, even something as basic as politely acknowledging our existence and welcoming us to town is, for an elected official, a rare and commendable act of political courage.
Following the welcome, there was a talk by Linda Greenhouse, a Pulitzer-winning reporter who covered the Supreme Court for 30 years, about past and upcoming church-state cases. But the real highlight of the night was a keynote speech by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom the FFRF had awarded one of its golden “Emperor Has No Clothes” awards for public figures with the courage to tell it like it is about religion. It was an outstanding speech, discussing how she, like many young boys and especially girls in her culture, was indoctrinated to believe without asking questions, and how she finally woke up to reality and broke free. There were some great moments of humor in her talk, like her complaint that men in the Muslim heaven are promised a harem of perpetually virginal concubines, while women are promised only – get this – bunches of grapes and figs. (“Where are my hunks?” she jokingly complained.)
On Saturday morning there was breakfast (Dan Barker hosted the traditional “Moment of Bedlam”, rather than a moment of silence), and then the day’s program: a speech by 94-year-old FFRF member James Crow, a pioneering geneticist who recently had an evolutionary biology research institute at UW-Madison named after him. (“Usually those are only named after people who’ve died,” he pointed out, with a twinkle in his eye, “but I wouldn’t take the hint!”) There was a student activist award ceremony for Eric Workman, a brave and intelligent young man who halted illegal prayers at his high school graduation and then used his valedictory address to explain the importance of separating church and state! We also heard from Kirk Mefford and Aaron Blum, faculty advisors to an atheist student club at West High School in Wisconsin, and then a panel presentation by FFRF’s attorneys Rebecca Markert, Patrick Elliott, and Richard Bolton about their ongoing legal efforts to defend church-state separation across the country, including the National Day of Prayer victory.
After lunch, Julia Sweeney read from the first chapter of her upcoming book, My Beautiful Loss of Faith Story, an extremely funny personal memoir about how she became an atheist. Another Emperor Has No Clothes award was also given to Cenk Uygur, the liberal political commentator, former Muslim and host of “The Young Turks”. Uygur gave a barn-burner of a speech about how the religious right has been waging a culture war against us for a long time, and how it’s about time that we join the battle and fight back.
It was a tremendously exciting and inspiring weekend, and all the FFRF staff deserve a great deal of credit for putting it together and seeing that all the events ran so smoothly. It also made me realize the importance of these events for building the secular community. Communicating over the internet is well and good, but to really motivate and inspire, it helps a lot to meet so many fellow atheists in person. It makes a great deal of difference to see and talk to fellow freethinkers face-to-face, to meet them and shake hands, to see them and hear them in the flesh – if only because it proves in such a tangible sense that we’re not alone and that we’re united. (This was my first FFRF convention, and the first atheist convention of any sort that I’ve attended since the Secular Society conference in 2007 – but it definitely won’t be nearly as long before my next one.)
I’d also like to give special thanks to two Daylight Atheism readers, LindaJoy and hourlily, who met me at the convention and joined me for most of the events this weekend. They were both extremely friendly and gracious, and I had an immeasurably better time because of them – it’s always good to know someone in advance at events like these. LindaJoy even introduced me to Annie Laurie Gaylor, who told me – very much to my surprise – that someone had tried to plagiarize one of my posts for an FFRF scholarship essay contest! (I suppose that’s flattering, in a weird sort of way.)
To close out this post, I want to put in another plug for the Freedom from Religion Foundation. They’re the country’s largest group that explicitly represents atheists and agnostics, and they do excellent work in both educating the public about our viewpoint and defending church-state separation. If you’re not a member, I invite you to consider joining – and with luck, I’ll see you at the 2011 convention!