#AAcon14 Wrapup

I’ve just gotten home from Salt Lake City, where I was at the 2014 annual convention of American Atheists. AA always has their convention on Easter weekend (and after all, what better weekend would there be for an atheist not to have other plans?), and this year gave us a double dose of cheekiness by putting it on in the heart of Mormon country.

AA’s president Dave Silverman took some heat (rightfully so, in my opinion) for his ill-judged comments at CPAC about abortion last month. I didn’t get into town early enough to see his opening remarks for myself, but I’m told they included a line about how defending choice is and should be a part of the atheist political program, which seems like at least an implicit retraction.

One thing I can say is that American Atheists has consistently showed leadership in making their conventions diverse and accessible, and this year was no exception. All the bathrooms outside the hotel ballroom were designated gender-neutral for the duration of the convention. They also had ASL interpreters, a good, strong code of conduct, and provided childcare. They’re doing all the right things in shaping the kind of atheist movement we want, so bravo to them! (That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this [NSFW] at the art show.)

The speakers were excellent as well. I met Arizona state representative Juan Mendez, famous for giving a humanist invocation on the floor of the statehouse. He was extremely friendly and generous with his time, talking to me and fellow Patheos blogger Dan Fincke for the better part of an hour about gerrymandering, political demographics, and the day-to-day experience of being a legislator in the minority – basically, everything you might want to know about how the sausage is made. He gave an equally excellent talk on Saturday about how atheists make a real difference when we come out, speak out, and engage in political activism. And he absolutely killed at karaoke on Saturday night (with “Bad Moon Rising”, if you were curious).

There was a very good panel on LGBT issues with Greta Christina and Think Progress’ Zack Ford, whose acquaintance I was pleased to make this weekend. Sikivu Hutchinson spoke on the intersection of secularism with race and class in America, and Maryam Namazie, always one of my favorite speakers, was on a panel about international atheism with Romania’s Cristina Rad and the Iraqi atheist Faisal Saeed al-Mutar, then gave a solo talk on topless and nude protests (including some by her) as a shock tactic against Islamism and other ideologies that treat the female body as inherently obscene.

On Sunday, there was a string of hair-raising talks on escaping fundamentalist and cultic upbringings by Beth Presswood, Vyckie Garrison, Tracy Lockwood, and Sarah Morehead. (This was something of a theme this weekend – as Greta Christina and I were discussing, it’s interesting that most of the speakers whose talks centered around escaping oppressive religious backgrounds were women, and I wonder if there’s a reason for that.)

But my hands-down favorite speech this weekend was given by an astonishing woman, the adventurer Barbara Hillary. She holds the distinction of being the first African-American woman to travel to both the North and South Poles – both of which she did in her 70s! She recounted stories of staring down polar bears, surviving in -40 temperatures, and grappling with an airline strike that almost scuttled her plans and left her stranded. I hope I grow up to be half as much of a badass as her.

Salt Lake City turned out to be a very good place for the convention. The town is surrounded by a strikingly gorgeous backdrop of mountains; there was warm, balmy weather all weekend, and a surprising abundance of excellent restaurants and brewpubs. And, oh yeah, there was also this:

I went with some other attendees on Saturday afternoon to visit the Salt Lake Temple, the earthly heart of Mormonism. The temple itself is closed to outsiders, but there are landscaped grounds and a visitors’ center that are open to the public. The statues on the grounds had one double-take-worthy plaque after another:

“The Melchizedek Priesthood is the authority of God to lead His Church, give the gift of the Holy Ghost, and perform other saving ordinances. This authority has been on the earth whenever the Lord has revealed His gospel. It was lost from the earth after the death of Jesus’s Apostles, but it was restored in May 1829, when the Apostles Peter, James, and John conferred it upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.”

At the top of the visitors’ center was a room presided over by a larger-than-life-size white marble Jesus, with a space scene in the background including a planet that might just be the fabled Kolob. We naturally had to take a group picture:

Below the building was a guided walk past dioramas, statues and sculptures depicting scenes from biblical and Book of Mormon history. Here’s their Adam and Eve, who bear an uncanny resemblance to Donnie and Marie Osmond:

A remarkably homoerotic painting of Jesus’ baptism:

The disciples are given the news of Jesus’ ascension by two very white angels who (as David Fitzgerald pointed out) bear an uncanny resemblance to Siegfried and Roy:

And then, of course, Jesus makes a quick pit stop in the Americas, and then nothing much happens for 1,800 years or so until the story picks up again with this guy:

The kitsch factor of all this is enhanced by the sheer earnestness with which Mormons present what is, in all honesty and fairness, a deeply goofy set of religious beliefs. As I said during the convention, if you asked me to write a story about a religion that was obviously made up, I doubt I could top Mormonism. And while – so far as I know – no one at the convention got anything other than a polite and friendly welcome from the locals, I still very much doubt I’d want to be a woman or a gay person growing up under the sway of the LDS church.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    That’s the Mormon Temple? Where are all the Hobbits? Where’s the Starship Enterprise? Where’s the magical AIDS curing frog?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApppEdET2i4

  • Dave Ucannottaknow

    You have me curious on the “gender-neutral” bathrooms. I understand the interest in allowing transgender people to use whichever bathroom they are comfortable in, but does this mean that in the future all bathrooms will include hetero men and women as well? That would be very interesting!

  • JohnH2

    You should have visited Salt Lake’s Comic Con, it was across the street from the Temple in the Salt Palace. Attendance figures place it as being the third largest in US and the largest convention in the state of Utah.

    By the way Kolob is a star, not a planet, and based on the cosmology of the Book of Abraham is almost certainly Sirius.

    Saying something is deeply goofy doesn’t actually make it false.

  • Leora Homel

    Glad you liked our city. The Mormons are easy to live with. Love the mountains!

  • Paul Sanders

    Nope, it just makes it deeply difficult to listen to without milk coming out your nose. Don’t worry, the other faiths just lose the goofy factor due to centuries of not-so-gently-enforced familiarity.

  • eyelessgame

    Back in the 1840s, a ton of Joseph Smith’s followers made the trek to California, intending to winter here with Sutter and then head back east to join their fellows in SLC, and Smith sent a message saying, basically, that they didn’t have the infrastructure for them right then. (Sutter, on the other hand, was overjoyed to have more skilled labor show up.)

    As a result, my area – between Sacramento and the Sierra foothills – has a substantial LDS population today. And, honestly, this is one of the nicest places to live I’ve ever known, and I kind of blame them for it. :)

  • DavidMHart

    No, but if an idea is goofy, it does suggest that we probably shouldn’t think it true unless and until someone can present good evidence that it is true, because there are vastly more goofy-sounding and untrue claims than there are goofy-sounding and true claims.

    The problem with these sorts of claim is not necessarily that they are demonstrably untrue; it’s that they are indistinguishable from stuff that’s been unashamedly made up. To the rest of the world – even to the rest of the Christian world, Joseph Smith looks much more likely to have been a charismatic confabulator than someone who genuinely discovered ancient truths – just like L. Ron Hubbard. So if you have good evidence that God actually is based on or near Sirius, or whatever other star system Kolob might be, then please present it; otherwise our default assumption is that the claim is false unless and until such evidence can be presented.

  • JohnH2

    I actually don’t have any reason to believe that God lives on Sirius B other than the Book of Abraham and the similarity of Sirius B to what is described in the book of Revelation. You appear to be assuming that because I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Abraham is an inspired translation of what appears to be a ~300 BC text that I must believe that God must live on Sirius B; that isn’t an accurate understanding of what scripture or a prophet is, though given the Evangelicals it is an understandable error to make.

    So God may or may not live on Sirius B, my thought is probably not, but given what is in the Book of Abraham the star Kolob, as understood by the writer of that book, is pretty clearly Sirius, regardless of whether or not Sirius is also the star nearest to God.

    I don’t know what you consider to be “good evidence”, given that others have claimed that “good evidence” would be God writing His name in the stars I am actually becoming very dubious of any demand for evidence as more than a tactic to attempt to dismiss a disagreed with claim. Through any set of data points multiple distributions can be drawn, and having a prior of a Dirac Delta function against the existence of God makes any evidence regardless of strength to be useless.

    In every Book of Mormon published there is the testimony of the three and eight witnesses, that is evidence; As understood by Mormons than and now the prophecy on the Civil War is evidence; The Word of Wisdom is evidence; The creation of the state of Israel and the retaking of Jerusalem is evidence; the lives and communities, both individually and statistically, of Latter Day Saints is evidence; other prophecies in regards to the fall of Communism, the financial crisis and housing collapse, and the overthrow of dictators can also be considered as evidence. In my opinion the best evidence is gotten by doing as suggested in Moroni 10:3-5.

    It is quite odd to me that Joseph Smith is lumped in with L Ron Hubbard when Joseph Smith went knowingly to his death due to his faith and L Ron Hubbard didn’t. It is also odd that Ellen White, William Miller, Charles Taze Russell, Nelson Barbour among others are not brought up when they also founded religions that are with us today, and have prophecies which are labeled by their own people as being “the Great Disappointment”. The Christian world is more upset that Joseph Smith claimed to have received new revelation that is very different from the orthodoxy, not that he founded a religion or had prophecies. Had Joseph Smith given some variation on the norm, claiming that it came via revelation from reading the Bible, the rest of Christianity would be perfectly fine with Mormonism, even if every word were to be provably unashamedly made up.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    By the way Kolob is a star, not a planet.

    Early Mormon theology didn’t draw a clear distinction between those two categories. For example, Brigham Young claimed that the sun had a solid surface and was inhabited:

    So it is with regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it; it was not made in vain. It was made to give light to those who dwell upon it, and to other planets; and so will this earth when it is celestialized. (source)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Yes, that was the idea – anyone could use any bathroom. Not only is it a good accommodation for transgender people, I’d think it’s also helpful for parents who may have small children of the opposite sex.

  • Dave Ucannottaknow

    Well it’s understandable for the benefit of those of certain shades on the LGBT spectrum, and of course for parents – but is it ok for hetero men to use the same facilities used by women (not that I think I would want to, nor I’m sure would they want that)? Do you envision a future with just one merged facility, where urinals are on the walls and women walk by the men who use them?

  • paizlea

    I look forward to the day that the US adopts unisex bathrooms, although I hope it involves closed stalls for everyone.

  • JohnH2

    The problem is taking the Egyptian mystery cosmology of Sirius (Kolob in the Book of Abraham) being the sun behind the sun and the governing fixed star from which all else in the cosmos moves according to, as evidenced by the Nile floods, and assuming that it is accurate and is how the cosmos is. What is odd to me about that is that they were also Masons and the all seeing eye appears on and in the Salt Lake Temple and the fixed stars are talked about in the GAEL so I don’t know why they didn’t make the connection; I guess the assumption must have been that the text was direct from Abraham and directly relates Abraham’s vision and that Abraham understood everything correctly, rather than having passed through what appears to be a 300BC editor and possibly having Abraham put things into the context that he was familiar with.

  • Dave Ucannottaknow

    “The US adopts unisex bathrooms”? As if it’s been done elsewhere? I can’t believe it’s ever, in any country where women are respected, been fully taken to it’s logical conclusion when thought completely through on. Parents should be allowed to use their judjement with children, and LGBTs should be permitted if their behavior is appropriate for their choice in that matter. Asking people in large buildings to either put up with single service bathrooms, or share moments with they really cannot with unfamiliar members of the opposite sex is hopelessly ridiculous and unacceptable for even the most sympathetic people who aren’t LGBT or mothers with kids in tow. It doesn’t matter how you spin it with people, it will never, ever happen. LOL, normal men and women in the office will not be engaged in casual conversation while urinating, or evacuating their bowls in adjoining stalls! When you fail to understand normal people, you give up any good reason for them to understand you.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    It happens often enough in parts of Europe that I’ve travelled. Though not in my native UK

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    Glad you had a good time at the convention. Though I wasn’t there, I was thinking about some of the talks and events you described, and it occurred to me that there’s an interesting contrast between the NSFW artwork and Namazie’s participation in topless protests. Nudity isn’t necessarily objectification and can be a useful tool when protesting against those who tell women that they deserve to be harassed or assaulted if they don’t cover up to a certain degree. At the same time, if a person decides to use nudity, they can’t just claim that anyone who criticizes their art/media/whatever is being a prude, etc. It matters how it’s done.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Do you envision a future with just one merged facility, where urinals are on the walls and women walk by the men who use them?

    Sure, why not? It’s already a thing in some parts of the world. I went on vacation to Belgium last October, and some pubs and other establishments there have them.

  • paizlea

    You’re assuming our current social norms around elimination are static. Why do you think unisex facilities are impossible, or even undesirable?

  • Dave Ucannottaknow

    Oh, Belgium, LOL! Where most people know each other, and functional indoor plumbing is scarce?

  • JohnH2

    I don’t think it is desirable because in many settings women’s restrooms are made twice as big as men and the mens room still has virtually no line while the women’s line goes outside the building and wraps around it, in the case of a particular fast food establishment I worked at on certain days during the summer; again despite the women’s room having twice the number of stalls. With the mens room servicing virtually equal number of men as the women’s room serviced women it would be terribly inefficient to make both bathrooms unisex.

    As with the ease and comfort of elimination in wilderness settings, or that in some Olympic sports the women record holder wouldn’t qualify for a men’s high school team (meaning if transgender individuals are allowed to compete as the gender they identify with than every medal in those sports would go to transgendered individuals), by nature men and women are different and have inherently different needs in terms of restrooms. That most buildings have equal sq footage for mens and women’s restrooms is decidedly unfair to the women, given urinals it leads to more stalls for men and the women’s room needs more than twice as many stalls to service the same number of people in a given time.

    I guess if you want to be the handicapper general, a la Harrison Bergeron, and ignore completely efficiency for some misguided ideal of equality then go ahead with unisex bathrooms.

    I should add that for lower traffic restrooms I don’t see any problem in them being unisex, most homes are unisex restrooms already

  • Elizabeth

    Oh, Belgium, LOL! Where most people know each other, and functional indoor plumbing is scarce?

    I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert after having been there only 10 days but…

    Population: 11Million+
    Headquarters of European Union and NATO.

    MOST PEOPLE KNOW EACH OTHER AND INDOOR PLUMBING IS SCARCE.

  • Dave Ucannottaknow

    But the beer is still a bit weird. I know it’s selling in the US, but then the US also has more than 40% of it’s population swallowing that creationism nonsense too.

    Perhaps a trend in human evolution is happening in Belgium, resulting in more people who get sick from all that juice in their beer and lack of decent hops. People with that trait have made inroads in the US, but not those who are heterosexual and don’t fear exposure to the opposite sex during their most private and embarassing moments. But if the Belgians are getting set to take over the world, there are worse groups than that which could change world culture.

  • Elizabeth

    all that juice in their beer and lack of decent hops.

    A++ would be trolled again.

  • Dave Ucannottaknow

    I can see by your photo that you are fairly young, and there’s something you should understand about trolls: it isn’t trolling just because you disagree with whatever the political leadership has declared a holy endeavor. In this regard, I tend to view the extreme liberals as sometimes every bit as religious as the religous people, and I am in fact an atheist who is very, very far from the right.

    As for that last post, it was just my weak attempt at humor, and I won’t deny that I’ve been laughing myself silly through much of this exchange, because it really is funny if you haven’t made up your mind that multiple-seater AND unisex bathrooms are a true must for the equalization and dignity of all (now isn’t that hysterical). I do realize it’s a difficult bind which some people on the LGBT spectrum have been caught in over the current paradigm, and I’m glad that attitudes have been loosening in that regard for their accomodation. But taking to the idea of foisting radical change on everyone at risk of making the overwhelming majority uncomfortable is just being petty.

  • Elizabeth

    I can see by your photo that you are fairly young, and there’s something
    you should understand about trolls: it isn’t trolling just because you
    disagree with whatever the political leadership has declared a holy
    endeavor.

    I thought you were a troll because you said that Belgian beer is bad and that’s why they have unisex bathrooms. This is an argument that seems to come straight out of a forum I moderate, Reddit’s “Beer Circle Jerk” where people make hyperbolic statements about beer for fun. I actually checked with the other mods there to see if you were one of them pulling my leg.

    But taking to the idea of foisting radical change on everyone at risk of
    making the overwhelming majority uncomfortable is just being petty.

    Petty is an odd way to characterize this. There’s not an army of genderqueer folks out for revenge. It’s a serious policy proposal.

  • GCT

    But taking to the idea of foisting radical change on everyone at risk of making the overwhelming majority uncomfortable is just being petty.

    IKR? Why be inclusive if it makes some people feel icky? Of course, that argument hasn’t worked for people trying to marginalize minority populations, but why let that stop you?


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