I attended the 2014 Atheist Alliance of America Conference in Seattle, Washington from Thursday 7 August to Sunday 10 August. I found the conference productive, educational and enjoyable.
Other than simply being a regular attendee I was filling a few special roles; I was Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry’s Affiliate Council representative, I was the Secretary to AAA’s Board of Directors, and I was the incoming editor of Secular Nation magazine.
As a lesson learned at this conference, let me say that while they may seem awkward and vaguely silly at first, Robert’s Rules of Order absolutely *rock* for keeping a meeting efficiently on point. Several of the Affiliate representatives had been at prior Council meetings and remarked to me afterward that they’d never seen one proceed so smoothly.
The remainder of the conference was largely devoted to learning and networking, apart from an Affiliate Council strategy session. The speakers were all as amazing as I’d expected them to be. The only small sad disappointment was the absence of Horus Gilgamesh, who had been sent a death threat and who decided that it wasn’t worth it to forge ahead, partly for his own safety and to spare his family worry but also so that the conference would not have to bear extra security costs and other attendees would not be put in danger. In solidarity just about every attendee wore stickers on our ID badges saying “Hello, my name is Horus Gilgamesh!” – a gesture that he has conveyed was deeply appreciated.
Rebecca Vitsmun was the first main speaker on Friday, and her speech was both emotionally moving and a great example of using an emotional impetus to achieve very practical orgainzational ends. She didn’t simply embarrass Wolf Blitzer by failing to be a theist after a tornado wiped out her town, she set about working with Foundation Beyond Belief to set up a genuinely useful infrastructure to allow on both a local and national level for humanists to respond effectively to natural disasters.
In the first breakout session I chose to attend Mynga Futrell’s presentation on “Seeking Influence in Public Schools: A Strategy For Atheists” in which she provided me with a better understanding of how the curricula and textbooks are determined for public schools. The textbooks are mainly determined by four states, California, Texas, Florida, and New York, but there is ample opportunity for affecting curricula at the State and school board level, and she offered some examples of how she’d gotten small but important changes made, often by working in coalition with minority religious groups (Jewish and Muslim, mostly), and some advice on framing issues in ways most likely to be seen as positive and nonthreatening to the Christian majority.
Bob Seidensticker, author of the novel Cross Examined and the eponymous blog, spoke after lunch giving a whirlwind tour of the counter-apologetics he specializes in. Pretty much all of the arguments he deconstructed are covered by the characters in the novel, which I recommend. (I fetched my copy from home and he graciously signed it “Bob Seidensticker, or possibly Horus Gilgamesh!”)
In the afternoon breakout session I attended the presentation by August Brunsman, of the Secular Student Alliance, one of the success stories in the modern freethought movement. August gave us a picture of how rapidly the SSA has grown, identified the balance between allowing local SSA leaders to tune the program for their own environs and providing solid, standardized support methods to them. He told us about additional SSA-sponsored programs like Secular Safe Space providing a nonthreatening place for students to express doubt, and told us about the training programs SSA offers faculty and other interested non-student adults to enable them. He also spoke of the relative difficulties SSA has had moving down the educational ladder from colleges to high schools, with the lesser levels of autonomy available to students at those levels, and about how SSA is trying to bring in more parental involvement at those levels to compensate.
The final work session of the day was Affiliate Strategic Planning, in which we used brainstorming and mind mapping techniques to get some idea of where AAA would like to go for and with affiliates, as well as clarifying what representatives of the Affiliate Council saw as their proper relationship to the Board of Directors. An unofficial post-session developed out of that meeting for myself and AAA consultant Richard Haynes with valuable insights into practical aspects of both best-practice bylaw writing and producing a viable print magazine being offered by affiliate Brian Allen; we decided that we’d skip the movie in order to continue discussion and develop ideas.
Friday evening wound up with Comedy Night, which was hilarious (especially Ian Harris, who I’d frankly never heard of before but who is a complete riot), followed by an after-party at which I ended up imbibing entirely too much ethanol.
As a result on Saturday I was not running on all cylinders, but I managed to at least be present for Steve Hill’s sharing of the intersectionality of being in racial, religious, and class inorities, and Amanda Metskas’ explication of the Secular Coalition for America’s workings. (I also recorded them for later perusal, as I did all the presentations I attended.)
After lunch Brother Richard Haynes presented on developing online freethinking communities, in which he made what I thought were some very cogent points, especially about being willing to tolerate atheist voices that differ from our own (S.E. Cupp and Bill Maher both being used as examples) and being willing to forgive and move on when one of our own screws up. (There may be some self-interest there though, as Brother Richard confessed that he actively encouraged Richard Dawkins to Tweet more!)
Then there was the presentation I’d been agog for; I am a *major* Steven Pinker fan! He is an even bigger intellectual hero to me than the aforementioned Richard Dawkins, even if he’s less popular in the world at large, and he did not disappoint as he clearly and precisely laid out the reasons why religious beliefs were plausible and cogent evolutionary survival stratagems or at least exaptations, and why the
alternate explanations based on religious ideas being factually true did not hold water at all. His points were pellucid, beautifully organized, and compelling. In the Q&A afterward he was poised, thoughtful, and interesting in his elaborations.
Yes, I want to be like Steven Pinker if I ever grow up… and I was first in line to get my books signed! We had a few minutes to chat and as I told him, his books are not only intellectually heavy but physically heavy, yet it was well worth the lug. As he started to sign them he laughed and asked me “Is your name really Horus Gilgamesh?” So I had to explain… 🙂
(I did have to skip the Richard Carrier debate, as I desperately need ad more sleep by this point; I am a third shift worker! Richard’s a friend, so he accepted my excuses! By the way, if we have him as a speaker for SHL at any time we get $25 off his normal honorarium.)
In the evening of course was the Richard Dawkins Award, which this year went to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (whose husband is Steven Pinker, so he was kind of a freebie! When Amy introduced him she rattled off an amazing long list of the awards he’s received, and Dr. Pinker pointed out that she’d missed one very important one; he was last year’s recipient of the same award his wafe received this year!).
She gave an acceptance speech which seemed very much off the cuff, speaking of her upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish family where it was questioned whether even her speaking voice should be kept silent – but as casual and informal as her acceptance was it remained cadenced and interesting throughout. Afterward I made sure to get up to be first in line to get her books signed as well, and ended up enjoying a multi-way conversation with her for the better part of an hour, and she is a *fantastic* conversationalist! When we did finally get around to geting the books signed, she looked at my name tag and said, “Is your name really Horus Gilgamesh?”
The wrap-up the following day was a trip to Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, Snoqualmie Falls, and Boehm Choclaterie, and it was lovely indeed, socializing in congenial environs with my fellow freethinkers (and getting extra wine samples in because the pourer used to live in my home town back in England, Banbury). I even made some possible arrangements for future Secular Nation articles, and an exchange program between SN and our sister magazine of the Atheist Alliance International, Secular World.
Activism, atheism, Difference-making, Education, Secularism
As I said, productive, educational, and enjoyable!