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.
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.
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.
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.
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?