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AAI Convention Impressions

I returned from the Atheist Alliance International Convention in LA last night and I’m struggling to get back into the groove of my East Coast time zone. I wanted to post my impressions of the convention, including my highlights and disappointments.

Overall, I’d have to say that I loved the entire event. There were some technical issues every now and then and a bit of disorganization here and there, but it didn’t detract from my experience at all. Almost without exception, the people I encountered were friendly, warm, polite, and fun-loving. There were smiles everywhere I looked. The event was also nearly devoid of religion-bashing, which was a delightful surprise. There were some expected jabs at creationists from some speakers (where appropriate), but that was about the extent of it.

The event was positive, informative, and socially delightful. We were privileged to have lunch and dinner with Margaret Downey, who was a pure delight. I sat next to a wonderful couple from Vancouver (whose names escape me, sadly) at dinner and we had great conversations about religion, politics, and philosophy. At the Sunday night social, I had an exuberantly fun time with Richard Haynes (of Atheist Nexus), Sean Faircloth, Trevor (not Victor), and Carla the veterinarian who delighted in explaining the intricacies of various castration techniques (OMG I hope I got her name right). Topics ranged from zombies to Hello Kitty to health care to the aforementioned castrations (which seemed to come up far too often, with hilarious results). It was wonderful.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference before (professional or personal) with that many openly friendly people.

As for the speakers and events, here’s a summary of my experience.

Friday

Friday was the opening day and after a live podcast for Dogma Free America (which covered current events and was quite entertaining), almost all the presentations were paralleled by two others, so it was tough to choose between the speakers (the program wasn’t always clear about the topics).

My first choice was a good one and I listened to Stephen Frederick Uhl, an ex Catholic priest and author of Out of God’s Closet, speak about ethics and morality without religion. I enjoyed his talk immensely and found much of what he had to say paralleled some of my own ideas about ethical/moral guidelines… only he explained things better and in more detail.

I wasn’t as fortunate for my second and third picks of Sunsara Taylor and Maurice Bisheff. Taylor spoke about abortion, but was way too radical in her views for my tastes… and for the tastes of most others in the room, based on the comments and questions she received. Bisheff spoke about Thomas Paine, but his presentation was terribly dry and seemed to promote Paine’s deistic views which, according to this talk, approached the level of metaphysical woo.

Friday night there was a live screening of Real Time with Bill Maher (with Richard Dawkins as guest) after which we got a hilarious presentation by Brian Dalton (of Mr. Deity fame) along with the entire cast of his show who did some of the sketches on stage. Near the end of his presentation, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher arrived and Maher was awarded with the Dawkins Foundation award for his movie Religulous. Maher then delighted the crowd with some great comedy, including a reading from Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life (you can see a clip on YouTube of that bit).

After the main convention hall events, there was a comedy fundraiser for AAI with some very, very funny comedians.

Saturday

Saturday was science day and all the speakers were directly sponsored by the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Every talk I attended was brilliant and informative and inspiring.

  • J. Anderson Thomson, an evolutionary psychologist, spoke about the evolutionary foundation for morality and the studies that are being done about the brain and how it process moral decisions.
  • Lawrence Krauss, a physicist (and author of The Physics of Star Trek), spoke about the universe, its expansion, its origins, and its future… and made physics not only interesting and entertaining, but incredibly funny.
  • Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist and the leader of the imaging team for the Cassini project, spoke about Cassini and showed some remarkable images of Saturn, including this one, Saturn eclipsing the Sun and with Earth as a small dot just above the left side of Saturn’s rings.
  • A biologist (whose name I don’t have at the moment) gave an amazing talk about stem cell research and what’s been accomplished so far, what being worked on currently, and what the future holds. His did a great job of making it all understandable to laymen.
  • Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution is True, spoke about the evidence for evolution in various fields. His talk was probably my favorite of the convention, since it’s one of my favorite topics (and favorite books) and he was a very entertaining speaker.
  • Daniel Dennett, philosopher and author of Breaking the Spell, spoke about the “Evolution of Confusion,” the interviews he’s doing with atheist clergy, and the fluff language of some theologians (like Karen Armstrong, as Jerry Coyne reminded me) who say things like “God is the God behind God.”
  • Richard Dawkins was the keynote speaker after the dinner banquet and, being on a book tour, read from the final chapter of his new book about the evidence for evolution titled The Greatest Show on Earth.

Saturday evening, there was a live music party hosted by Atheist Nexus. I was completely bushed at this point and didn’t stay around for much of it… and had a Sunday breakfast scheduled for 7:00 am with the board members of Atheist Alliance International.

Sunday

I had breakfast with Stephen Uhl (mentioned earlier) and Stuart Beckman, the current president of AAI. We gave Beckman some feedback about the convention and had some great conversations about building support in the atheist/skeptic/free-thinking community and getting rid of the stigma society attaches to atheism.

There were two headline speakers after breakfast.

  • Jonathan Kirsch, religious historian and author of The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual, spoke about the Inqusition, its origins, its methods, and how they have been used over the centuries… even up to the current day. It was a fascinating talk and he was an entertaining speaker.
  • Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education and author of Creationism vs. Evolution: An Introduction, spoke about the verbal and legal tricks that creationists use in their attempts to insinuate creationism (or intelligent design… same thing) into our schools’ science curriculums. She was warm and funny and it’s reassuring to know that she and her staff are on top of the issue.
  • Sadly, Richard Haynes, the founder of Atheist Nexus, was moved to after the closing ceremonies, so only a small crowd got to hear his talk about his story, starting Atheist Nexus, and how to help build the atheist community.  He was very friendly, humorous, and relaxed and made a great presentation. It would be great to have him as a headliner at the next convention.

Sunday night there was an informal social at the hotel bar from 7:00 to midnight for those folks who were staying over until Monday. I got there a bit early, doing some writing and drinking Diet Coke, until folks started to arrive… and then it was a phenomenal evening of hilarity, as I mentioned at the start of this post.

Overall, this was a terrific event. The minor glitches and snippets of disorganization didn’t phase me and the speakers were informative and inspirational. What really made the event special, however, was the sense of camaraderie, friendship, and warmth that was exuded by the attendees. For folks that are frequently labeled with all kinds of derogatory terms (hateful, angry, rebellious, etc), they certainly blew away that stereotype and made the convention center into a place that felt welcoming and comfortable… even for non-atheists (of which there were a few).

I’d definitely go again.

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