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Activism, Atheism

American Atheists 2011 Wrapup

This year’s American Atheists Convention was held in Des Moines, practically dead center of both Tornado Alley and the Republican Christian Midwest.  Ironically, we felt the impact of both over the weekend.

On Friday, nearby St. Louis suffered through the worst tornado in fifty years to hit the area.   Flights were delayed, re-routed, or cancelled, and many of us found our travel in limbo.  I spoke with a man in a Cardinal’s jersey whose girlfriend had been in the airport while it happened.  She hunkered down in the parking deck while rain flew sideways through the length of the garage.

Meanwhile, the Christians of Des Moines organized a massive protest, gathering the glory and righteousness of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in a show of solidarity not seen since Westboro picketed some dude’s funeral somewhere.

Ok.  That’s not entirely true.  Not all of this horde was from Des Moines.  Apparently, the main instigator (the one with the bit about long hair) was shipped in from Florida.

The truth is, everyone in Des Moines was fantastic.  I wore my convention badge everywhere I went, and nobody took offense.  The hotel staff was wonderful.  The shuttle service from the overflow hotel was on point the whole weekend.  I felt like Des Moines was happy to have us.

As for the convention itself, there are several themes through the weekend that I believe mark a turning point and maybe even a critical mass for the Atheist Movement in America.

Women


This year’s speaker list, while still overwhelmingly male, included several notable women.  And the truth is, the women rocked the house.  Jamila Bey’s presentation on African Americans, church culture, and non-belief was one of the highlights of the weekend for everyone.  Meanwhile, Greta Christina did what Greta Christina does.  She intricately and powerfully dissected the issue of “atheist anger,” finding just the right perspective to bring the objects of our ire into sharp relief.

Jamila Bey

These two seemed to me to be the clear audience favorites for the weekend, and there were other powerful female voices throughout the weekend as well.  Perhaps just as important, there were a lot of women in the audience.  I’ve been to several American Atheists conferences, and… how to say this diplomatically…

Well, it was nice to see a good percentage of women this year.  And believe me, it’s not a matter of aesthetics.  We need women in the movement.  I believe the influx of women is an important indicator, too.  This is not a movement of stodgy old white men arguing philosophy anymore.  This is a cultural movement with relevance for everyone, and all segments of American society are beginning to understand the gravity of the situation.  Many women decided to skip church, family dinner, egg hunts, and children with candy to join us in the discussion of religion’s impact on their lives.  This is a very, very good sign.

Students

There were over 800 attendees this year, and though the “official” numbers are not in yet, we know there were some two hundred plus students in attendance.  Many of them took an active role, too.  If the influx of women was (forgive me) a godsend, then the presence of so many young people — guys, girls, gays, straights — was a powerful indication that we’re doing things right.  We are reaching the people that matter the most to the future of the movement.

Consensus

It has been said that getting atheists together for a common cause is like herding cats.  Only more difficult.  This has been largely true for many years, but this year seems to have marked a turning point.  There are still disagreements — academic, philosophical, political.  But these differences were downplayed or even ignored this weekend.  We were as united in purpose as I have ever seen.

There were several ideas that seemed to permeate the presentations and spontaneous conversations:

  • We recognize our place as a minority.  For a movement that has been dominated by older white males, it’s difficult to recognize and embrace the fact that we are a minority, and have to play by minority rules.  But I think we’ve done it.  We are listening to blacks, women, and LGBTs, and we’re taking what they’re saying to heart.
  • We recognize this as a political movement.  American Atheists is a non-profit, so there were no political presentations.  But in private conversations, it was clear that we know this isn’t about philosophy anymore.  We have a favorable administration and a limited amount of time to get to real political goals.  Women’s rights, gay rights, and separation of church and state are real issues that effect us all on a daily basis.  There is a sense of urgency among us.
  • We recognize this as a cultural movement.  I believe the days of eschewing marketing are gone.  We have realized that in the war of ideas, “sexy” sells.  Churches and the political far right have enormous coffers, and they know how to use their money.  They’re out there recruiting and advertising.  We need to be doing the same thing.  (And we are, by the way.  Stay tuned.  There are lots of good things coming…)

There is a feeling of urgency among us, but there is also hope.  David Silverman has been president for seven months, but already there is a sense of motion.  We are no longer huddling together trying to maintain the status quo.  We are reaching out and going out into the world.  We are proudly advertising our non-belief, and encouraging those around us to join us.

I believe that human rights movements (and make no mistake — this is a human rights movement) reach a point of critical mass.  In the same way that even the Republicans are beginning to recognize the excesses and absurdities of their Tea Party members, I think agnostics and moderate theists are beginning to see the dangers inherent in the Far Right Religious Agenda.  In all the human rights movements I know of, it was the awakening of the apathetic middle that signaled the beginning of oppression’s end.

This year’s conference was a celebration and a call to action.  We’ve made great strides in the last year, and next year promises to be bigger and bolder in ways that would have been unimaginable even half a decade ago.  (No… I won’t tell you… yet…)  If you have never been one to get involved, and have been sitting on the sidelines, now is the time to act.  If you’re still closeted, now’s the time to come out.  If you have never donated time or money to organized atheism, this is the moment.  There are big things on the horizon, and I believe we will look back to Des Moines 2011 as one of the pivotal moments in American history.  Join us, won’t you?

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Discussion

7 thoughts on “American Atheists 2011 Wrapup

  1. Wow, the Christians of Des Moines really get around. That looks like the same group of delegates standing outside the Lady Gaga concert I went to in Nashville last Tuesday.

    Posted by haroldjohnson | April 25, 2011, 3:40 pm
  2. I really would have enjoyed the discussion on “atheist anger”; it’s been on my mind and in my conversation quite a bit lately.

    Posted by haroldjohnson | April 25, 2011, 3:55 pm
  3. You can read a lot of what she said HERE. With a few updates, this is the bulk of the first half of her presentation.

    The second part focused largely on THIS POST.

    When you put those two posts together, you get a nice progression:
    1. This is why we’re angry.
    2. This is why our anger is justified.

    In the end, she spoke about the need to control anger. It’s useful, but it also causes us to act rashly, to think less critically, to react emotionally. However, and it’s a critical point — there has never been a human rights movement that was not fueled by anger. Anger is what makes things better when it is focused in proactive ways.

    She concluded with a very powerful remark. She read two quotes about the necessity of anger and action in the quest for human rights. (I wish I could remember them, but I can’t.) She then revealed that they were quotes from Ghandi and MLK. Her point was that society always views anger as socially disruptive and dangerous — UNTIL the anger results in real change. Then the angry people are viewed as revolutionaries.

    Posted by hambydammit | April 25, 2011, 4:11 pm
  4. Interesting. I began thinking about “angry atheists” after I began attending the local freethinkers meetups here in Huntsville, Alabama. I’m not saying they’re an angry group; quite the opposite, in fact, at least in person. The online presence of a few of my new friends seems remarkably bitter though. Much of it is due to sarcastic fronting, of course, which is hardly real anger…but then, I know my own rage and often it manifests in sarcasm rather than direct engagement.

    Posted by haroldjohnson | April 25, 2011, 4:27 pm
  5. Actually, I’d like to edit my comments a bit. I’ll have to think this over a bit more before I began making declaring my friends as seeming remarkably bitter; it’s probably more due to my own sensitivity that I’m interpreting their online behavior as such. And again, I must reiterate that it’s only a few — I’m not saying the entire group is angry.

    The fact is, I haven’t yet read the article you pointed me to so I’m going to do so right now. Perhaps it’ll provide me with some insight on my own anger.

    Posted by Harold | April 25, 2011, 4:44 pm
  6. Harold, here’s an article I wrote a few years ago about anger that I think addresses some of what you’re contemplating.

    One thing to consider is that anger is not a complete description of a person. It’s a response to a stimuli…

    My second reaction, I confess, was anger. How dishonest of him to try to discount atheism by labeling us all as angry malcontents! This is exactly why people like him make me angry!

    That’s when it hit me, square in the forehead. He’s not being dishonest. I don’t doubt that every atheist he’s met has been angry. If I met him, he’d almost certainly make me angry, too. That’s just it! HE makes atheists angry, so they’re all angry around him. So, I forgive him for thinking that all atheists are angry. I understand how he made the mistake.

    The things that we atheists are angry about are political and cultural issues. When I am stopped by people on the street and told I’m immoral, just because I’m wearing an atheist shirt, I GET ANGRY. When I’m having a beer at the pub with my atheist-friendly peers, I’m not angry.

    The difference, I think, is an equivocation. When many Christians characterize us as “angry atheists,” they’re trying to tar and feather us with our own anger. They’re making it seem as if we’re just bitter, angry people. But we’re not. We’re good, decent people who would love to not have to be angry. We like things better when we’re happy.

    If you read all of my blog, you might well get the idea that I’m an angry person, but that’s because this blog is about what makes me angry. If you were to hang out with me for a month, you might never see me get angry. I’m a very happy, cheerful person most of the time. I just happen to be an atheist activist. Because social injustice makes me angry.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | April 25, 2011, 4:45 pm
  7. Greta Christina’s speech is still making me think!
    I was moved to tears by her comments, and I bet that the reason so many of us are indeed angry is that we see such squandered potential when we hear others say, “Jesus will fix it.”

    But I am encouraged in that so many others are choosing to use their anger to fuel thought and change.

    I thank Greta for her talk. She is indeed a revolutionary!

    Posted by Jamila | May 23, 2011, 2:51 pm

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