We’ve survived fire and flood! The Reason Rally in March was a day of gusty cold and battering rain. This July 4 weekend we went to the opposite extreme, as secular students and atheist movers and shakers from all over the country converged on Columbus, Ohio for the 2012 Secular Student Alliance Leadership Conference. And the summer was merciless, as Columbus broiled under 100-degree temperatures all weekend. (There had been a violent storm across the Midwest the previous week, and some areas still didn’t have electricity restored. Fortunately, the Ohio State University, where the conference was held, wasn’t one of them.) But it takes more than a little heat to slow down the juggernaut of secular awesome that is the atheist movement.
If I sound more ebullient than usual, there’s a very good reason for that. The SSA conference brought together a small army of freethinking students from colleges and even high schools across the country, giving me a chance to see the future of the movement in person, and I was thrilled by what I saw. When it comes to passion, dedication, and enthusiasm, these students are unbeatable, and their numbers are booming. If the people who were at this conference are any indication, the rising generation of atheist activists is going to be a formidable political and social force.
On Friday afternoon, prior to the official start of the conference, the SSA set up the basement of the student union as a game room where SSA staff and early arrivals could hang out and play tabletop games. This was a great way to meet people in a friendly, low-pressure environment. (I ended up playing a round of Munchkin Cthulhu. As usual, the Cthulhu cultists won.)
SSA staffers Gordon Maples and Sam Jackson compete in a hat-off.
My friend Sarah Moglia of the SSA. Despite being their event specialist, she was just recovering from a nasty flareup of Crohn’s disease and was under doctor’s orders not to work during the convention. On the plus side, this meant we got to monopolize her time without guilt. (I love that tattoo. Bonus points if you know what it is.)
The opening night’s talk by Evan Clark of the SSA board had this slide showing the meteoric growth of secular student groups.
The SSA staff take the stage for some well-deserved recognition.
As an opening-night icebreaker, the audience divided into teams for two rousing rounds of SSA Jeopardy, capably hosted by JT Eberhard. Since my team had Jen McCreight (an SSA board member, which probably wasn’t fair!), we won our round handily. My name was the answer to one of the questions, and I’d like to thank JT for putting it in there, but I’d especially like to thank the person who got it right. Thanks, whoever you are!
But JT had a nasty trick to play: he took all the speakers in the room and made us play individually in one more round. I love the SSA, but I have to admit to not knowing much about the minutiae of their history or the nuts-and-bolts of what they offer to campus student groups. I adopted a devious “pick the easy questions” strategy, which stood me in fairly good stead until the Final Jeopardy round, when I whiffed on the name of the law that allows secular student groups to form at schools. (I knew what the law said, just not what it was called! For the record, it’s the Federal Equal Access Act.) In the end it turned out not to matter, since Amanda Knief of American Atheists beat the rest of us with embarrassing ease.
Next, the SSA Best awards recognized achievements by students and faculty. Here was one award presented to the Secular Student Alliance at UNLV, which sent an impressively large delegation to the conference.
She’s small on the outside, but don’t let that fool you: Jessica Ahlquist has the heart of a lion. To finish off the first night, she gave the keynote speech, in which she talked about the aftermath of her now-famous court case in Cranston, Rhode Island and her future plans. She said she has no plans to enter law or politics, but very much intends to continue her career in secular activism. During the Q&A, one person asked her, “How does it feel to be an atheist celebrity?”, to which she immediately responded, “Don’t call me the C-word!”