I’m writing this in the airport, on my way home from a weekend in Austin, Texas for the 50th anniversary convention of American Atheists. New York is all bare gray branches, still; it’s too early in the season even for buds. By comparison, Austin was a startling riot of green, with tree-lined streets and forested riverbanks that bloomed explosively in the perfect, gorgeous warm weather. The branches were thronged with big, sleek black birds (grackles, according to a thread on B&W) that kept up a noisy, musical racket day and night. I had to leave the conference early, sadly, but here are my impressions and highlights from the parts I did get to see.
It was a big convention, with attendance (I’m told) around 900, which made me especially happy to see the evidence that we’re improving the balance of gender and racial diversity. Women were a major presence, and black nonbelievers were well-represented and had at least two separate booths in the tabling area. It’s much too soon to declare this problem fixed, but there are definite signs of progress. Here’s me with the very warm and friendly Bridgett Crutchfield, founder of Minority Atheists of Michigan:
And on that note, it’s worth emphasizing that this progress is only happening because we’re talking about it. Richard Carrier gave a talk explaining Atheism Plus, and Jamila Bey moderated a panel with Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, Beth Presswood and Amy Davis Roth about women in atheism, with special attention paid to the problem of online harassment and what we can do about it. Even I wasn’t sure at first how these would go over, but both talks were very well-received and got rousing applause and cheers from the audience. This is, again, a reminder that most atheists are good and decent people, and the outright misogynist trolls are an isolated and impotent minority, which goes to the point of my recent tiff about whether mainstream movement atheism is welcoming to women. (Several of these trolls helped prove the point for us by spamming the conference hashtag with whining petulance.)
On Friday night there was a dinner and costume party. Dave Silverman, the American Atheists president, showed up in a Zombie Jesus costume. There was also one fellow in full Mayan regalia, including a tall headdress that must have been a headache to travel with, and someone else dressed in papal robes who gave out real communion wafers from a golden dish. But I think the prize for the evening rightfully belongs to Greta Christina, her wife Ingrid and their mutual friend Rebecca Hensler, who came dressed as Pussy Riot:
Some of my other favorite talks were Katherine Stewart, who shone a light on the “Good News Club” – a fundamentalist Christian group devoted to stealth indoctrination of children in public schools – and ex-preacher Jerry DeWitt, who gave a rollicking Easter Sunday atheist sermon. Stewart read from a Good News Club study guide which recounts the Old Testament story in which Saul was punished for failing to completely exterminate the Amalekite people as Yahweh commanded, which they teach to young children as a lesson about how we ought to ask God for the strength to obey all his commands to the full. I also learned the term “contemptus mundi” from A.C. Grayling on a panel discussing atheism vs. humanism, and Dale McGowan taught us about the “clandestina”, anonymous medieval pamphlets that attacked religion in straightforwardly atheistic terms.
As always, I go to atheist conventions for the socializing and the conversation as much as for the speeches, and I had a marvelous time with more old friends and new acquaintances than I can list. But I have to give special attention to a wonderful woman named Gayle, who recognized me and told me she keeps a copy of my New Ten Commandments on her refrigerator (!). She did say that she slightly altered one or two of them, and of course I wouldn’t have it any other way – I would never want anyone to treat my writings as sacred dogma.