My weekend at the North Texas Secular Student Convention

What a great time this weekend at the North Texas Secular Student Convention!  So much good, I’m going to jump right in.

1.  The organizers

This conference ran very smoothly.  It was a great group of students, very personable and tons of fun.  I would love to return to this event next year for the organizing team alone.  Many props to Kevin Butler, who was the workaholic lead organizer.

They actually used to picture I sent them for the program.

2.  I got to team up with Matt Dillahunty

Following the death of Christopher Hitchens, I believe that the best living atheist debaters are now Richard Carrier, Dan Barker, and Matt Dillahunty.  If you watch clips of him Matt on youtube you will see a man positively wrecking theists left and right with charm and class but without ever pulling punches.  Like Greta Chrstina, calling him my friend after so many years spent calling him my hero still feels odd.

My goal going into the debate was to just hold my own with Matt, to stay out of his way, and to look like it was a team effort instead of Matt sitting there smacking down arguments with me observing.  I think I accomplished that.  I also felt like we had very good chemistry as a team.  We came up with a solid battle plan ahead of time, executed it well, and had good non-verbal communication.  I learned a lot and improved as a debater this weekend on account of working with Matt.  I could not be more grateful for this experience.

This was a dream come true for me.  A+++++ Would debate with Matt again.

I also got to meet his lovely wife, Beth.  She was an absolute sweetheart.  She and Matt are barfingly cute.

The video of the debate will be up soon, after which I will write a review of the debate.

3.  Damon Fowler

I met Damon this weekend.  He is shy, almost timid.  Not the person you would’ve expected to take on an entire community.  Not at all the type of person you would expect to be comfortable on stage, especially since this was his first time to speak publicly.  He was even perceptibly nervous beforehand.  I admit to being worried he would stumble, quite understandably, when it came time to deliver his talk.

Then he took the stage, and everything went silent.

I remember my first dramatic role as a young actor (believe it or not, I was once Romeo).  Without the laughs to which I had grown accustomed in my comedic roles I found it impossible to gauge if the audience was “with me.”  I conveyed this problem to my father who told me the way to measure audience involvement in a serious piece is to stop and listen.  And then, if you can hear a pin drop, if you cannot hear anybody breathing, you know you’re moving them.

Damon was genuine on stage.  He was under control.  Still shy, but still strong.  And when he paused the room was as silent as god.  And many in attendance wept.

I was so proud of Damon.  He received one of two standing ovations on the day (Singleton received the other).  He deserved it.  He should be asked to give that talk again.

4.  My kind of speakers

Usually at big events like this there’s a weak talk or two.  Not at this one.  Every speaker rocked.  But there is something more important than that.

If I could pick two high profile atheists I could dub “The people’s atheists” (as in they’re incredibly down-to-earth, super kind, everyday Joe types who also happen to be frackin’ geniuses), I’d choose Greta Christina and Matt Dillahunty.  The other speakers there were also up to their level.

There are some prominent people in this movement who are good a gussying up to the famous atheists in the hopes of getting promoted, but who treat anybody who cannot directly benefit them with indifference.  Those people piss me off.

This group of speakers interacted with the crowd as if revisiting old friends (which many of us actually were) and, in doing so, provided the feeling that we all have a substantial piece of the ownership of this movement.  It’s easy sometimes for people to feel as though there are all these “big name” atheists and all the followers in two separate, distinct camps.  Not true!  We all contribute greatly.  Just because the niche for some is on stage or on well-read blogs doesn’t make us more or less important than anybody, and this group of speakers realized that.

This group was full of great speakers who were also great people.  In my experience, that means a lot more for both our movement and the success of a conference than having great speakers who are there for their fame and little else.  You want speakers who prioritize empowering the people in the auditorium over empowering themselves.

If you’re running an event, you could not do much better than Hemant Mehta, David Fitzgerald, Sam Singleton, and Matt Dillahunty.

The speakers I didn’t know (Smalley, Mooneyham, and Fowler) followed the lead of the more seasoned speakers.  They rocked on stage and blended seamlessly into the audience when their time on stage was over.

5.  I met Courtney.

I have been blogging for about eight years (in obscurity for 7.5 of those years).  One of the first people to read my writing was Courtney, who fervently defended the existence of god.  She eventually abandoned her faith and credits me as her primary influence.  She continued to read my work and we would exchange emails every now and again.

We met this weekend for the first time.  She is wonderful (and has a tattoo of freaking Charmander!).

6.  This conversation

Early in the day a man approached me, put his hand on my shoulder, looked me dead in the eyes and seriously said, “I want you to know: god is using you for his own purpose.  You’ll realize that one day.”

I wondered if this guy always started conversations with strangers by condescending them.

“God’s purpose must be the destruction of religion then, because that’s what I’m working toward” I shot back.

“No, no.  You and me, we’re not enemies” he replied.

“If you don’t think I’m your enemy, you don’t know an enemy when you see one” I said.

“Hey, I don’t wish you harm.”

I answered with, “And I don’t wish you harm.  But I work to challenge and unmake religious belief.”

After my curt response, he went back to talking to Hemant.

7.  The energy

It. Was. Fun!

People learned.  We were inspired.  And we all focused on the long arduous road toward a better world for atheists.  It’s easy to let all the shit that’s wrong with the world get us down, but we handled the “heavy” material with laughs and camaraderie.

Saving the world is pretty rad.  Having a blast while doing it is even better.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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