This post is the first part of a three part series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist convention.

This weekend I attended the 2010 American Atheist Convention – my first time at a meeting of the American Atheists. I was coming off a series of attack blogs against my critiques of atheistic positioning so, to be honest, I was a bit nervous. And though I had some trepidation, I also had hope. But this conference, though it had its moments of insight and inspiration, was an experience that left me feeling somewhat defeated. At one point, things got so offensive that I had to do everything in my power not to walk out of the room. But for the sake of positivity, let’s start with the good, shall we?

Paul Kurtz

kurtzThe first two talks of the conference assuaged my fears that the conference program might be a series of rants against religion across the board. It kicked off with a talk by “the father of Modern Secular Humanism” Paul Kurtz, called “A Kinder and Gentler Atheism?” Kurtz opened his talk by saying: “Atheists and Secular Humanists unite… we have nothing to lose but other people’s illusions.” Though I found that a bit off-putting in its echoing of the Atheistic obsession with terming the beliefs of others as illusory, Kurtz promptly got to challenging the participants of the conference.

“Though many of my friends and I enjoy the critique of religion, we have a far greater task than that: to present alternatives,” Kurtz said. “We’re not doing that [right now]. If god [does not exist], what do we do about that? We should be leading the way.”

Kurtz elaborated on that point at length, saying:

I think the most imp thing for the Atheist movement in the United States is to change the ways the public perceives Atheism. It is the most hated group in America, because we’re known as “angry atheists,” when we really ought to be affirmative atheists… It’s very important that we think about redefining Atheism. Most [Atheists] I meet are good people, fine citizens, dedicated to the societies in which they live, virtuous… that is why it’s important that we make that clear… In my view, atheism needs to be gentler and kinder. We have to give the impression of being a civilized, morally committed group who, on the basis of science and reason, are skeptical of claims of religion, and also demonstrate that it is possible to have moral integrity and express good will in order to reassure people that we are committed to our moral outlook. I’ve always used the soft approach. We have to demonstrate that we’re loving people above all else.

He also emphasized the significance of interreligious cooperation:

We’re facing awesome problems… we ought to work together with our religious friends about these problems. The atheist movement needs to be inclusive. We ought to be defined not by what we’re against but what we’re for. It’s important that we not be totalitarians… we need to emphasize the importance of democracy, of tolerating others’ beliefs… A lot of my colleagues have turned against me because they don’t like the positive and prefer to just lambast religion. But we need to move beyond egocentric individualism. Atheism should be affirmative, positive, constructive, and [provide] parameters and guidelines for the fullness of life.

Kurtz’s perspective wasn’t always exactly in line with what I believe, but I found his talk very inspirational. Not everyone seemed to – the first person to ask a question during the Q&A did not take well to Kurtz’s critique of Atheism’s negativity, arguing that Atheists having negative things to say is good and that it is the Atheist’s duty to educate the world, which elicited a hearty round of applause from the room. Still, I really enjoyed Kurtz’s talk – I think I took twenty pages of notes on it, but I’m not going to transcribe them all here. Though I didn’t nod my head to everything he said, I’m glad to have Kurtz as a vital voice in this movement.

Massimo Pigliucci

pigliucciImmediately following Kurtz, Massimo Pigliucci, a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, did a talk called “What’s Atheism Got to Do with It?” His session was on how atheism does not imply the dismissal of all philosophical inquiry. Like me, Pigliucci, a former scientist and now philosopher, has been accused of being an “accomodationist” in his work. To that, Pigliucci said, “If I’m an accommodations, I’m in good company. We shouldn’t have these kinds of labels. If science brought you to atheism, great. But we shouldn’t have a litmus test to participate in this community.”

As I’ve done, Pigliucci critiqued the exclusivistic attitudes of New Atheist folks like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and even Penn and Teller in his talk, saying, “I love Bill Maher and Penn and Teller, but if we’re part of a community of reason we need to take members to task when they say things that aren’t that reasonable. And they have some unreasonable ideas.” Ultimately, Pigliucci’s perspective can be best summed up by this statement: “I don’t pretend that my position is the only reasonable one.” This pluralistic perspective was refreshing and important.

Todd Stiefel

Stiefel, who was referred to by many at the convention as an “exciting new face of Atheism,” gave a thoughtful and commanding talk on strategies for advancing the Freethought / Atheist agenda. Stiefel had a lot of say and I agreed with most of it. Early in his talk he said something I’ve been saying for a long time in almost the exact way I say it: “Religion is not going away anytime soon. Focusing on directly eliminating religion and faith will outcast us further from 80% of the population, [and] we will fail on a macro level.”

This theme reverberated through much of what he said. Stiefel articulated strategies for the movement, including that we need to “level the perception of who is ethical, marginalize fundamentalists, [and] team with theists,” comparing such a coalition to the queer rights movement and its straight allies.

“We need to stop being so divisive and unite around the things that we have in common,” said Stiefel. “We need to motivate inactive freethinkers to join the movement – why aren’t they getting involved?” I agree that this is an important question to ask and it shouldn’t surprise that I think it is because of the pervasive negativity in our community. To this end, Stiefel said that we need to “personalize freethinkers to others by ‘coming out’ and ‘living openly’… demonstrate that we do ‘believe’ in love, integrity, reason and freedom,  [and] take a positive approach whenever possible… I don’t know about you, but I am tired of hearing that we don’t believe in anything. We need to be positive. People don’t want to join in on an angry, bitter movement.”

He also talked about the importance of structuring a community around our values:

We need to offer a community to freethinkers… to give a sense of family. [We need to] make available guidance and emotional support as freethinkers search for hope and purpose. I know this is an Atheist convention, but let’s get over the labels and increase the study of humanism, a positive label that says more than what we don’t believe in.

Stiefel took to task those who radically oppose religion and encouraged interfaith dialogue:

[We need to] oppose fundamentalism, irrationality and dogma, but not religion in general. Take a diplomatic approach while appreciating the value of religious criticism… Contrast fundamentalist values with secular values [and] demonstrate similarities between moderate theistic values with secular values. We have to show them we may not believe in their deity but we have more in common with them than fundamentalists do.

This is the impetus behind the interfaith work I do – to help religious people see that the non-religious are just as likely to be their allies in values as their religious counterparts. This perspective hasn’t always been warmly received by some in the Atheist community and has made me feel occasionally marginalized, and Stiefel underscored that this movement will fail if those in the movement who appreciate religion are pushed aside: “Too often I hear ‘they’re an accomodationist, get them out of here…’ No. We need every voice in this movement.” This made me feel particularly good, as I’ve been labeled just that very recently.

Moreover, Stiefel said that Atheists need to stop being so black and white in their approach to religion. “We need to accept that religion can be both good and evil; we need to give tolerance [to] the good to receive tolerance. We cannot go out and say that all religion is evil or we will be alienated. We cannot be absolutist.”

I couldn’t agree more – this was, perhaps, my favorite talk of the convention. It got a mixed reaction from attendees, but it seemed many were open to what he had to say.

Dan Barker

barkerIn the afternoon on the second day of the convention, Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, spoke about his experiences as a former minister and evangelist. “I left Christianity not because I didn’t like it – in fact, I am still friends with many Christians – and not because it felt bad,” Barker said, “but because of an intellectual process I had. I thought to myself, ‘If Adam and Eve are just metaphors, maybe so is God.’”

In spite of his conculsions, Barker talked about why he doesn’t aim to convert: “My conclusions belong to me and me only – that’s what so great about the Freethrought movement. I don’t want to push my beliefs on others.”

His talk, titled “How to Talk to a Fundamentalist,” noted that “not all Christians are the same; not all fundamentalists are the same. There’s no one answer to say, ‘Here’s how you talk to a fundamentalist.’ Not all Christians are [fundamentalists] – some can see the gray areas… But fundamentalist minds are binary – everything is absolutistic. Everything is right or wrong… So if you’re ever having a conversation with a fundamentalist, remember that. Maybe you’re not speaking the same language.” His talk echoed the methodology of the Interfaith Youth Core, which recognizes religious divisions not as one religion versus another but as pluralists standing against fundamentalists / totalitarians.

Barker suggested that when talking to a Christian fundamentalist it is important to know the Bible and to be able to offer a unique take on secular morality, referring to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an Atheist who had a lot of purpose in her life. It seems Barker has a purpose of his own, and he still sounded very much like a preacher. Barker’s talk felt particularly relevant for me as a former Evangelical who also wanted to be a minister. And like listening to Christian sermons back in the day, I was inspired by his prophetic message.

Wendy Kaminer

kaminerThe final talk I attended for the American Atheist Convention was “Privileging Conscience” by Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic who is a correspondent for The Atlantic. Kaminer talked about how the Atheist movement needs to refocus its priorities in respect to legal challenges.

Kaminer discussed a case in which a woman was not allowed to read from the Bible to her child’s class when the students were invited to have their parents come in and share from their child’s favorite book, as well as prayer in schools. Kaminer asked: “Does a law that asks for a moment of silent prayer, meditation, or another silent activity privilege religion? Many of you may say yes, but I tend to disagree… There is an argument that mandatory moments of silence coerce prayer. I say: reminding [students] that they have the right to pray silently does not a theocracy make.”

She highlighted many legal cases in which moments of silence in school were legally challenged by Atheists, including one in which a “Child Psychologist testified that some might succumb to peer pressure to pray.” Kaminer’s perspective: “It takes a great leap of faith to say that moments of silence actually advance religion.”

She also talked about legal challenges to Christian student groups that have exclusive policies for membership, but raised a very important point: “You wouldn’t want the government telling the American Atheists that they couldn’t have their members sign a pledge [to the ideas of their cause]. Would you want Fundamentalist Christians on a voting panel for an Atheist group? [Of course not.] So why should a Christian group be expected to allow an Atheist to join?”

Kaminer spoke from a highly legalistic perspective, displaying a breadth of knowledge and employing years of experience following relevant cases. The audience didn’t seem to take well to her positioning – the man sitting behind me loudly uttered “bullshit” several times during her speech – and offered a flurry of combative questions during the Q&A session. One individual asked about parents who don’t want kids to be exposed to material they find offensive, suggesting that just as some parents find pornography offensive others might wish to shield their children from the Bible. I thought that was such a silly question – as an Atheist parent, wouldn’t you want your child to be aware of this book that is so influential? Children need to be aware of what other people believe, and by putting them in public education you are opening them to world of pluralism.

Kaminer’s talk may have been the most poorly received of all at the convention, but I thought it was a useful, educational moment for our community.

Conversations

I had a few really great conversations, including a particularly honest dialogue with a representative from the New York City Atheists and one from Alabama Atheists. Though there was fundamental disagreement about the best approach to take in non-religious community organizing, we did concur that there was a place for all of our perspectives in the movement. This conversation occurred as I was getting ready to leave the convention; we engaged one another’s perspectives with respect and an open spirit, and it left me feeling optimistic about further dialogue in the future.

This certainly wasn’t so for all of the convention – check back throughout the week for reports on the less encouraging moments from my experience, and be sure to follow my adventures on the Eastern Seabord on Twitter.