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.

  • amyc

    JT, I would put you right up there with “The People’s Atheists.” I didn’t get to attend all day, but you made my day with your impromptu singing and dancing/writhing on the floor. Also, You and Matt rocked the debate, thank you for that.

    -Amy C.

    p.s. I’m working on that email. Toby and I got lost on the way home and didn’t get home until really late. (yes, I’m THAT Amy lol)

    • kevinbutler

      Hi Amy! *waves*

      • TobyA

        Kevin! Good job MCing, you were a natural public speaker.

        • amyc

          Toby, I believe it is spelled “imseeing” lol, we’re sitting right next to each other.

          Anywho, Toby says that JT did a really good job of making the debate accessible to those of us who never studied philosophy in depth. I agree.

          Also, hello Kevin!! I miss spending 72 hours on a cramped van with you. We should do it again sometime. Maybe…skepticon??

          • Pteryxx

            Heh… it’s “emceeing” from MC’ing, as MC comes from “Master of Ceremonies”. Whatever, Kevin still did a great job!

          • amyc

            Thanks, Pteryxx, but I was misspelling it on purpose just to mess with him. :-)

  • Elizabeth

    Thanks for the add on facebook. This event was my first secular gathering ever. I came to see Matt debate, having discovered myself as an atheist through The Atheist Experience show on youtube. Already knowing what a fine debater he is, I almost felt sorry for the two guys on the opposite side, whose logic/reason based arguments for the existance of god were vague and at times quite illogical. It didn’t help that they were not very good public speakers. While waiting for the smackdown from Matt, your eloquent, insightful and funny opening statement caught me off guard. You absolutely held your own and demonstrated yourself as a force to be reckoned with during the debate. Way to go!

  • thinkandyoushallfind

    JT, you and Matt rocked it, truly. You never hesitated or seemed stumped (really there was no reason to be). This was such a fun event. The camaraderie and love were much felt, and it cemented my conviction to be a part of this cause. I look forward to many more events like this.

  • wayoff

    This was my first time attending any type of secular event as well. I have only recently came out about my atheism and had been feeling a bit lonely. This event came right on time. The whole day was great. I now look forward to getting involved with some local groups and meeting people with like minds. Thank you to everyone who organized and participated!

  • amyc

    @wayoff and thinkandyoushallfind

    If you live in the area, Metroplex Atheists is a great organization. They have weekly meet-ups (and a page on in Arlington/Pantego. If you are too far away from that group, the DFWCOR website has a list of almost every freethought/atheist group in the DFW area. I hope you find a group that works for you.

  • Pteryxx

    DFWCOR’s list:

    Metroplex Atheists
    Dallas-Plano Atheist Meetup
    Freethinkers of UT Arlington
    Humanist Association of Ft. Worth
    North Texas Church of Freethought
    Freethinkers of Fort Worth Meetup
    Dallas Brights
    Fellowship of Freethought
    Denton Atheists Meetup
    Freethinkers of East Texas
    Camp Quest
    UNT Freethought Alliance
    Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists at UT Dallas
    North Texas Skeptics
    Secular Students at Collin College (our hosts!)
    Secular Humanists of SMU

  • kevinbutler

    What, was I not supposed to use that picture? :P

    It was a lot of work, but it was so worth it. It was awesome getting to know JT and the rest of the speakers, meeting people who wanted to start groups, and making sure the convention didn’t blow up on us.

    I was expecting the unexpected, but thankfully, there were no major issues behind the scenes. After a bit of a hectic beginning, it was smooth sailing. The volunteers really saved the day, I must stress.

    I can’t wait to do this kind of thing again. Thanks to all that came!

    For those in the area, check out for how to get involved with local organizations. Each has a different focus, so you’re bound to find one that fits your wants.

    • amyc

      It was awesome Kevin. I know I said this on Facebook already, but if yall plan on doing this next year I want to volunteer or something. I wish we could have been there early. Stupid family obligations kept us away, but we’re denouncing them for next year’s conference i promise :-) Toby was upset that he missed Dori’s speech. Will there be video available soon??

      • kevinbutler

        Yep! There are plans to put most of the presentations online. I’ll let everyone know when I do!

  • EcksLibris

    Hi all, this was also my first secular event in the DFW area, and I too felt energized and embiggened by the experience. My favorite theological argument was “Beauty, therefore God” and JT’s response during Q&A that while some people may, he does not find opera necessarily beautiful, therefore beauty is not a pre-ordained standard. Well, that and every other thing was my favorite. Thanks to Kevin and the volunteers for organizing, and for including local talent in the lineup too!

    • amyc

      hehe, embiggened. Is that even a word??*

      *sorry, I had to get a simpsons reference in there.

  • Grimalkin

    …There was a North Texas Secular Student Convention?!

    …at a community college 20 minutes from me?!

    And I missed it?!

    I now know true sadness. It would have been a perfect opportunity too, considering that ~20 minutes is probably the farthest my parents would let me travel for a, uh, satanic event.

    I’ll just cope with hoping that my Patient Zero infected you with The Gay at some point.

    • kevinbutler

      I’m so sorry! We did have an issue with publicity. No worries, though, most of the presentations will be online.

      • Grimalkin

        Oh, no need to be sorry, I tend to be very bad about keeping up with events and such.

        I’ll definitely have to check out the presentations online though, and try to remember this again for next year!

    • Pteryxx

      Also, in closing remarks, Kevin invited everyone back for next year!

      • kevinbutler

        You were able to make the convention? With such a cool username, I really wanted to meet you in person XD

        • Pteryxx

          OT: I was emailing Denton about a bunch of secular student blood drives, did that ever get addressed? I don’t have an email for you (and no Facebook either, blech.)

          • kevinbutler

            Nope, didn’t get anything about a blood drive. Great idea for next year!

            I log on to this blog using my FB account. You should be able to click my name and get to it. In any case, I have your e-mail, and I’ll be sending one to you shortly.

          • kevinbutler

            And by shortly, I mean I just e-mailed you.

  • Ye Olde Blacksmith

    Well done to Kevin and everybody involved with making this conf happen! It was great! I Am looking forward to next year. (I, too, would like to volunteer to help with next year.)

    I also want to +1 JT’s description of the speakers. Especially Damon’s. I was literally stunned and was one of the ones with a tear in their eye. I would really encourage him to continue giving talks about his experience.

    I have to admit, though, that I thought the debate was pretty boring. Not Matt and JT’s part of it, the other guys. “Beauty therefor God”, “Morals therefor God”, “A natural explanation combined with a supernatural explanation is best”??? Really?!

    My only regret was me letting “the shy” get to me and, thus, couldn’t really interact with the attendees as much as I would have liked. But that is my problem. *shrug* I still had a great time and highly recommend next year.

  • Smart Student

    Hey, this sounds like a really interesting club! Definitely going to check up about it, got any more info?

  • Eric126

    And all the while, Matt’s been deferring to you re: the strength in the debate. Folk like you and Matt, folk that are insistent with humility, are and will continue to be the head and heart of the groundswell, the leaders of the phalanx that marches behind the lightning rods that pick the fight (and occasionally, wielding the lightning yourselves). Good on ya, sir.

  • Pteryxx

    FYI, via Hemant, another atheist charity group in Austin, now expanding to Dallas:

  • Mark

    Where’s the video of the debate?

    • kevinbutler

      We’re still working on editing it, as we had two cameras working. It should be up very soon!

  • Greg Laden

    Turns out that there is an actual “people’s atheist”