Highlights from the Atheist Alliance International Convention 2007:
- Getting into the hotel ballroom only after going through the hand-held metal detectors and handing over my bag to the people in the storage room.
- Realizing that it was the second time that day I had to go through a “special screening.”
- Being told that atheist conventions in the future would have to use these security measures due to “terrorists, fatwas, and death threats” (Those weren’t exaggerations. Ayaan Hirsi Ali had bodyguards around her at all times due to reaction to her previous work and her anti-Muslim book Infidel.)
- Stealing Daniel Dennett’s second-row reserved seat in the hotel ballroom… which gave me the opportunity to take great pictures… and sit right behind Sam Harris and his wife.
- Seeing Dennett walk into the room seconds after I took his seat (crap!)… and then seeing him move permanently to the other side of the room (I win!)
- Hearing Richard Dawkins say that The God Delusion had sold over 1,250,000 copies! There are also 31 foreign editions already published or in the process of being published.
- Seeing a picture of PZ Myers put up on the screen as Dawkins read one of his postings on Pharyngula: The Courtier’s Reply. As soon as the picture of PZ was up, there were cheers from the crowd. (PZ, you had fans at the convention!)
- Hearing an audio clip of comedian Marcus Brigstocke (Dawkins played this during his talk).
- Getting to ask Dawkins a question (When you’re Daniel Dennett for a night, you can do many things): Was he ever going to go back to writing science books? He said he was currently editing an anthology of science writing, but more importantly, he wanted to write a book for children: a book that taught them how to think critically. He hadn’t started writing it, but it was in his head.
- Deciding that I needed to have babies now, so that by the time Dawkins book came out (if it came out), my kids would be of age to enjoy them. I need help on this matter, though. Applications are forthcoming.
- Hearing Dawkins state that imposing religious labels on children was wrong (in his book, he calls this a form of child abuse). That is, we shouldn’t call them “Catholic children” just as we would not call them a “Democrat child” or a “Republican child” or a “Socialist child.” They’re just too young to think about those issues.
More interesting was when he put a chart on the screen that showed the number of hits he found on Google when he typed in “_____ child” (or children or kid or kids). He used a number of adjectives and ranked them all, getting this total (from most hits to fewest hits):
- Jewish child
- Christian child
- Muslim child
- Catholic child
- Israeli child
- Irish child
- Iranian child
- Conservative child
- Republican child
- Atheist child
- Liberal child
- Democrat child
- Marxist child
- Socialist child
- Agnostic child
What does it all mean? That’s for you to figure out.
- Catching Dawkins in a rare free moment and getting a picture with him:
- Seeing the standing ovation given to Dawkins after he finished his talk… and then not seeing a standing ovation given to Sam Harris after his (more on that below).
- Hearing Sam Harris talk about certain faiths: “Mormonism is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas.“
- Seeing the crowd reaction (not everyone was thrilled) to Sam Harris’ suggestion that using the term “atheist” was a mistake. There are no “non-racists,” he said, so why are we defining ourselves by something that should simply be the case? Victory for our side would not result in a world where everyone called themselves an atheist; rather, atheism would just be an obvious afterthought. (I was surprised to find out that Harris managed to write The End of Faith without ever using the word “atheist” or “atheism.”)
The label also carried liabilities, he said: people don’t like “atheists” and they have stock responses ready when we use the word to describe ourselves: “Stalin was an atheist,” for example. Granted, we can respond to those claims, but Harris said it was as if religious people had “drawn a chalk outline of a dead man and we just sit in it.”
Instead, he argued, we should be saying that we advocate intellectual honesty, reason, and evidence. Who wants to be an enemy of “reason”? This terminology will be much easier to spread than “atheism.”
Of course, the reaction was swift. One commenter spoke for many when she said that they did use the term “abolitionists” to band together the non-racist crowd at one time. Sometimes, you need an umbrella term to rally the troops even though the label may one day be obsolete.
- Going up to Richard Dawkins with a stack of seven of his books plus two of mine and asking him to sign them all.
- Seeing his reaction to that.
- Watching Christopher Hitchens pull a cigarette out of his pocket, in the middle of his speech, waiting for the moment he was done so he could go outside and light up.
Also, note that this is a rare photo. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen non-alcoholic liquid near Hitchens. Amazing. Unless that’s vodka inside… a thought that hasn’t escaped my mind.
- Giving Friendly Atheist wristbands to the various authors (a la Stephen Colbert’s WristStrong campaign). Daniel Dennett put a yellow one on immediately. (I win again!)
- Watching African-American, military veteran, and atheist rapper Greydon Square perform in front of a mostly older, whiter, male crowd… and watching the crowd get *really* into his music and lyrics. (Greydon was phenomenal.)
- Seeing Greydon Square’s t-shirt:
So Carl Sagan was a rapper, too?
(If I had a “Brown Carl Sagan” shirt, I would wear it every day.)
- Hearing Ayaan Hirsi Ali start a sentence with “Fundamentalist Islam…” and then quickly correcting herself by saying, “well, Islam… ”
- Listening to a question posed to Ali: “Why are Americans so stupid?” Her response: “Well… [it’s] only half of them…”
- Seeing Richard Dawkins stand in line to ask Ali the question, “May I nominate you for the Nobel Peace Prize?”
- Hearing Christopher Hitchens avoid answer one attendee’s query by saying: “Your question didn’t give me enough of an erection.”
- Hearing Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson and Hollywood screenwriter Matthew Chapman explain why he should be up for sainthood: “If an old lady who argued against contraception in the slums of Calcutta can be up for sainthood, so should I for having done nothing.”
- Hearing Chapman also say that for a woman to be religious, it was like “a freed slave still living on the plantation.”
- Staring at the word “ATHEIST” and realizing that you can unscramble it and get “EAT SHIT.”
- Being really upset that at one point, Dawkins, Harris, Ali, Hitchens, and Dennett (all of whom have made The New York Times bestsellers list) were in the same room, and there was no photo opportunity with all of them together.
- Hearing Dennett joke that “Atheism is a chick magnet.”
- Seeing the banana that one person had Dawkins sign:
- Finding out that one can get on Hitchens’ good side by buying him a drink like my friend Ashley did. He even thanked her when he signed her book:
(It says “Thanks for the scotch.”)
- Realizing that Ashley should have bought him a drink after he signed my copy of God is Not Great. He signed it: “For Hemani.” (To his credit, he caught the mistake without me saying anything and corrected it.)
- Having every major speaker and atheist leader in attendance sign two copies of I Sold my Soul on eBay:
Who signed the books? Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Daniel Dennett, Greydon Square, Eugenie Scott, Nica Lalli, Mike Estes, Margaret Downey, Paul Geisert, Mynga Futrell, Matthew Chapman, Julia Sweeney, Rob Boston, Brian Sapient and Kelly, Pastor Deacon Fred, and Ellen Johnson.
Those books will go up on eBay at some point with proceeds going to a secular non-profit group.
If you were at the conference and have highlights of your own, please share them!
Also, interviews with many of the speakers and more amusing pictures will be posted in the coming days!