Reason on the Bayou: My Weekend

Reason on the Bayou: My Weekend April 16, 2013

I spent the weekend traveling to Reason on the Bayou as one of many excellent speakers and had an absolute blast even in my sleep-deprived state. Chad Thibodeaux and the LSU Secular Student Alliance did a terrific job of putting on the event and the audience was welcoming and enthusiastic. So here are a few of my thoughts on the whole thing.

First of all, let me mention the food. Being in Louisiana, I tried to take advantage of some of the local color and eat some of my favorites. The night before the event, some of the speakers and students went to a restaurant called Chimes and I had a fried alligator appetizer that I shared with the rest of the table. I’ve had alligator several times in the past and liked it, and this was the best I’d ever had. For the entree I had an oyster po-boy and it was good, though not the best I’ve had. After the event, a bunch of us went to a pizza place and I had a muffaletta sandwich that was quite good.

Now the bad: Getting iced tea without sugar is a real trick in these parts. There was a McDonald’s in the student union and I went and ordered an iced tea. What I got was loaded with sugar and when I asked if they had plain iced tea, they said no. I have never understood why anyone would drink sweet tea. If you want do drink koolaid, order koolaid. But this is the south, after all. Rob Boston noted that the dividing line is Richmond, Virginia; order iced tea below that line and you’re almost certain to get only the sweet version.

Secondly, the people. That’s always the fun part of events like this, getting to see people I don’t get to see often enough, meeting people you’ve known online only and meeting new people you hadn’t known at all. In the first category, it was great to see Barbara Forrest, Rob Boston and Nate Phelps again. Nate I met for the first time last year and Barbara and Rob I had met several times, but hadn’t seen since probably 2008 or 2009. Nate, as always, gave a talk that was very powerful about his experiences with his family.

In the second category was Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, with whom I have regularly corresponded by email but never met. He was much younger than I expected, for some reason, and he and his wife, also an attorney with FFRF, were charming, funny and great company. Alexander Songe and Gordon Maples were both energetic young activists with some good ideas about building communication among secular groups.

Also in the second category was John Loftus, whom many of you know as the first person to join Freethought Blogs and then leave (by his own decision). And this may shock some people (including myself), but I really liked him. We had exchanged some cross words in the past, but he’s a tough guy to dislike when you meet him in person. He was absolutely nothing like I expected. He’s the kind of guy my dad likes to call a “character,” funny and charming and a bit eccentric. I’m really glad we got the chance to meet and put all that stuff behind us.

It reminded me a lot of when PZ and I first met many years ago, after having had some rather vitriolic exchanges over differences of opinion (which are largely still there). Despite those disagreements, he’s nearly impossible to dislike in person. And it reminds me once again how easy it is to spark a fight over an internet connection and to go after someone as an abstract rather than as a person that, if you met them, you’d likely get along with just fine. And that’s something I should try to avoid doing in the future.

And then there are the people I’d never met or had any communication with. Abby Hafer, a zoologist, gave an interesting talk about the fact, documented in an informal study she did, that intelligent design advocates never seem to do any actual scientific research. Zack Kopplin I had never spoken to before and we knew each other only by reputation, I suppose. He’s really a brilliant young man who is way more composed at his age than I ever was.

Last but certainly not least was Jerry DeWitt. I knew who he was, though I doubt he knew my name at all and I’d never seen a video of him speaking. I knew he was an ex-minister, but he’s damn sure still a preacher. He still has the cadence and charisma of the Pentecostal preacher he used to be and it was really fun to watch as he used it to preach what was essentially a short sermon about engaging people at a visceral level rather than merely an intellectual one. Dan Fincke reports on a similar Easter “sermon” he delivered at this year’s American Atheist convention.

Jerry then told us the story of his last year and he organized it around a touchingly humble theme. Since it was Easter, he addressed the topic of “resurrection”. He talked about a year in which he hit a real low (having his house foreclosed on and his marriage go onto the rocks–both as consequences of the end of his income stream as a Christian pastor) and started a road to a potentially major comeback as he wrote a book. But he told this story of his own inspiring “resurrection” as one of the power of relationshipsto resurrect. He did not talk about the power of a human being to pull himself up by his own bootstraps without any god to rely upon. Rather he talked about the power each one of us has to lift each other up. Instead of giving all the credit either to a nonexistent god or to himself, Jerry gushed with gratitude to other people whose investment of love and energy into him carried him where he could not walk himself.

And then he really reared back and preached—giddily, loudly, and adamantly in his big southern preacher’s accent—about how we held more power in our abilities to form relationships and more wisdom in an ounce of our love than there is in all of the Bible combined. Or something like that. It was a bit of a reach and a bit of an overstatement of his approvable case but, whatever–I came for a sermon; what did I expect?

And as he worked himself into a preacher’s lather and sent inspired chills up my spine, he stressed to us that this wasn’t a parody. What he was saying wasn’t a joke and he wasn’t a joke. He really was preaching. And he really was a preacher. By which I think he meant that the joy beaming from his face was real and his unabashed shouting to the heavenless reaches about the real differences human relationships had made in his life and the real, inspiring potential they had to change the world was all sincere. He said this was the real Jerry DeWitt, not the mild mannered guy you might encounter out in the lobby. The real Jerry DeWitt was a preacher. One bursting unapologetically with uncontainable conviction, love, gratitude, good news, and enthusiasm.

Yep, exactly that. And I really liked it. Dan is right, this is something that can come off as parody if you don’t meet Jerry and see that this isn’t a performance, it’s really who he is. And I think maybe we need someone like Jerry DeWitt in the atheist movement. I was very glad to have the chance to meet him and listen to some old-fashioned fire and brimstone in the name of reason rather than religion.

All in all, this was just a great weekend. Great company, great food, great conversation, a lot of laughter and more than a bit of inspiration, old and new friends — what more could a person ask for? And it reminded me once again how important it is to build these communities of people. The mixture of old warhorses like me with enthusiastic and energetic young people just starting to make their mark on the movement provides a shot of inspiration and hope that is compelling and important. And as always, I’m gonna need a few days to sleep it all off.

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