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.