SSA 2011: Discovering the meaning of an atheist conference

This is a guest post by Kyle Pitzen. He is a graduate student at the University of Northern Iowa and member of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI).

Hello, everyone!  My name is Kyle Pitzen, and I am a relatively new member of the Freethinker movement, but have been skeptical most of my life.  I recently become involved with UNIFI during the spring semester of this year.  This alone has caused me to become much more enthusiastic and outspoken in my atheism.  Having never been to a conference of any kind, I had never fathomed the incredible energy and optimism that exists within our community.

Before becoming a part of the active atheist movement, I had the preconception that people of similar beliefs to myself were just as disenfranchised with the movement as I was.  From the outside of the movement, I think it’s easy to see how this could happen.  The media is almost exclusively siding with the conservative religious population of our country, and politicians tout religion as one of the single most important values in our country today.  It wasn’t until I started to become active in UNIFI that this wall of pessimism began to develop cracks, and last weekend I—as Jamila Bey would say it—smashed through it. The weekend consisted of so many superb speakers, fantastic people, and terrific times that listing them all would be an unending venture.  However, I will attempt to do my best to relay the incredible experience that was SSA 2011.

The first evening of the conference began late for the four of us, arriving sometime around seven.  The lineup immediately struck me, with Annie Callicotte, David Silverman, and Jamila Bey in the first round of speakers.  I felt Jamila’s talk on diversity was spirited, and Annie’s talk about networking was valuable to any student in the movement.  It was David’s talk, though, that truly cemented the mood of the conference for me.  I believed, until that point, that I had joined the losing side of a one-sided battle.  However, as I would discover over the next couple of days, we are truly an optimistic movement.

This energy carried easily into the second day with Ed Clint giving a talk about Transfaith.  I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about about it going into the conference, but I have to say that I am convinced.  I would be very surprised if more groups, instead of allowing religious groups to justify service on superstitious grounds, don’t begin to claim service based purely on our own intrinsic humanity.

I’m told that some of the best parts of a conference are the opportunities to network with other groups and individuals, and SSA was no exception. Over lunch, we ate at a sushi place, and had an enlightening conversation with Evan Clark about succession planning, and had conversation with other fantastic people.

After the lunch break, we returned to listen to more talks!  Among them was mister Hemant Mehta, whose talk revolved around critical thinking in schools, and how the skill set involved in thinking critically is under developed in schools today.  Illustrative examples were given, especially those involving standardized testing and how they are inadequate for the modern world.  Amanda Knief gave a very informative talk on the issue of lobbying. This was a topic that I hadn’t realized was an issue, but it most certainly should be discussed more.  The final talk of this session was from Jen McCreight on diversity, and something that really stuck with me was bringing schools of thought other than the sciences into the conversation, which is something that would serve really well to include a larger population of people.

Dinner, night two, was an adventure culminating in the acquisition of Five Guys burgers and the commencement of great conversation with the likes of Ed Clint, Rebecca Tippens, and Conrad Hudson, which generally revolved around the distinction between Interfaith and Transfaith, a common topic throughout the conference.

The last three speakers of the evening served to build upon the optimism I had been feeling through the conference, and Jessica Ahlquist drove that home very well.  Her undiminished drive, despite her experiences in school, was inspiring.   Overall, I was extremely impressed with the quality of the talks, and by the time the awards ceremony was finished, (good job, all you motivated organizations out there!) I left empowered and invigorated.

The evening concluded with delicious buffalo wings and talkative company. Mostly what I witnessed were groups from every corner of the continent coming together to network and to discuss the issues that mattered to them.  Every where I turned, there was an interesting discussion going on, and it was a sad thing when the evening wound down to an end.  However, I’m sure many plans were made this evening (how to get the word out about Transfaith!), and great things will come of them.

The last day ended with yet another round of exceptional speakers.  Among them Zach Kopplin of Louisiana, with an astounding talk about his struggles with the teaching of creationism in Louisiana, and our own Cory Derringer, who spoke on the dangers of graduation and how to ensure your group survives the loss of a powerful leader.

Before I attended this conference, the general feeling I got from the atheist movement was that of an ant, simply waiting to be crushed by the foot of religion, despite our obvious logical and moral high ground.  However, after three days of speaking with some of the most impassioned people I’ve ever met, I left feeling as though we are more akin to the first cooling drops and flashing lightning of a building storm.  We may currently be relatively small in number, but how strong our voices are becoming!  We are right, and with that most powerful of tools, we are certain to win our fight.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Chana Messinger

    So glad you enjoyed it as much as I did! Something that might cheer you up even more:  http://scienceblog.com/46622/minority-rules-scientists-discover-tipping-point-for-the-spread-of-ideas/

  • http://de-avanzada.blogspot.com/ Daosorios

    Hey, I’m one of the guys who got a prize. Actually, I could’nt make it to the conference but I skyped my gratitude words from Colombia. Check’em out here: http://bit.ly/oCPUTC

  • David p

    I think America is the only country in the western world where it is possible to think you may be on the loosing side. Everywhere else it is very clear religion is losing it’s grip over the general populace.

  • niall o’driscoll

    I like your page . Religion here in Ireland is certainly losing it’s grip , largely due to the awful record of some priests and religious . But the Catholic Church still has a great deal of power in education and in hospitals , and is very reluctant to loosen it’s grip .  Due to huge changes in public attitudes , it’s Ok to be an atheist or an agnostic here , now, and an intending candidate for the presidency of our country is gay , and scored highest in public opinion polls . But , due to certain clauses of our constitution , regarding tenets of Christian faith , it is impossible for an atheist to become president , or even a judge .  I sympathise with American atheists , as it appears that being an atheist in the U.S. needs a lot of courage , even bravery .

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I had the preconception that people of similar beliefs to myself were just as disenfranchised with the movement as I was

    Was that supposed to be disenchanted?


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