Texas Freethought Convention
|For the record, the slogan on my T-shirt does NOT say: "Life is short; drink hard." But that's not a half-bad idea.|
The first-ever Texas Freethought Convention took place this past Sunday, October 26th, at the Saengerrunde Hall in Austin, Texas. As far as I've been able to determine, this is the first time in modern American history that a convention has been held specifically for the freethinkers and atheists of a single state to come together. There are, of course, many national groups that hold conventions: the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists and Atheist Alliance International are the primary sponsors of these. There was, back in the 19th century, a regular annual meeting of freethinkers in New York State that lasted for six years. However, it does not surprise me in the least that the great state of Texas would lead the way in this respect. There are certainly enough active secular groups here to make the prospect plausible, and the pervasive religiosity throughout the state makes the possibility a necessity.
|Congregating in the Texan-German Saengerrunde Hall is oddly appropriate, given the German Freethinkers who settled in this part of the state in the nineteenth century.|
I was proud to represent the North Texas Church of Freethought, and there were many other groups in attendance who were active in organizing and promoting the convention, including the Freethinkers Association of Central Texas, American Atheists - Texas, the Atheist Community of Austin, the Corpus Christi Atheists, and the Center for Inquiry - Austin. I was especially happy to meet some of the people with whom I've been corresponding by email for quite some time; there were also plenty of new people that I had opportunities to speak with. I'm hopeful that, if nothing else, this convention has propped open the doors of communication among the secular groups in Texas, and there will be a lot of cross-pollination between us all as a result.
|Contrary to popular belief, atheists can apparently have children. We just lack the ability to love them.|
The demographics were much more balanced than I thought they would be. Families were the overwhelming majority as far as I could see from my table in the back, and there were more children running around than you could shake a Bible at. The large hall made for a kid-friendly atmosphere, as they tended to dance around whenever the music acts came on stage, or regroup to the back of the hall for coloring or face-painting. I'm glad to see this being established as the rule right off the bat- I'm encouraged to think that future conventions will also have large numbers of atheist and freethinking children, and I hope that the organizers will be able to develop more content specifically for them.
|I predict that my "de-baptism" (walking under a hair-dryer) will have precisely the same effect as my actual baptism.|
The overall atmosphere of the convention was jovial and social. There were regular speakers on the schedule (including myself) and they captured the assembled crowd's attention throughout the day (substandard PA system notwithstanding), but between presentations, attendees routinely gathered in groups eating barbecue from the restaurant next door, or wandered back to the tables set up by the various participating groups. My own high visit rate had nothing to do with all the free bottles of Shiner and Blue Moon I was handing out (free beer for freethought). There were also some organized light-hearted moments, such as the "de-baptism," facilitated by walking underneath a hair dryer. At first I wasn't going to bother, but then I figured, "what the hell" and went up to join in. It's worthwhile to submit to a few seconds of embarrassment for the sake of demonstrating how silly rituals can be.
|Terry McDonald from the Metroplex Atheists proposed the radical idea that we shouldn't avoid making friends with Christians. For shame, Terry.|
One of the real highlights of the convention was Terry McDonald's speech. He began by taking Sam Harris to task over his 2007 Atheist Alliance International speech where he called for an end to the use of the term, "atheist." Terry made the point that most of us feel comfortable calling ourselves atheists because that accurately describes us, and that whatever we call ourselves, everyone else is going to refer to us as atheists anyway. He made a comparison to the term "non-smoker." If smoking had never been invented, it would be a ridiculous term, but since there are smokers, the designation "non-smokers" carries semantic weight. So although Sam Harris' post-religious aspiration is still nice to keep in mind, we also have to be mindful of what we're considered by society at large. And Terry also made the point, drawing on his own experiences with people like Derward Richardson, that atheists should not shirk from friendships and communication with Christians and other theists. This drew some strong criticism from Miguel and others of FACT, who felt that seeking egalitarian relationships with Christians and other theists was a tacit approval of their position. More debate followed, and Michael from Corpus Christi Atheists pointed out that a hard-line approach is reasonable when atheists' rights are threatened, but otherwise it's more profitable to reach out to theists, especially moderates. This exchange was electric, and I'd like to see some planned debates at future conventions- if we're going to do it anyway, it might as well be planned.
|Anna De Luna, in her performance of "Chicana Atheist," reminded us all of the difficult cultural battles experienced by those who grow up in and reject religious traditions.|
It was also a joy to see a performance by Anna De Luna, whose "Chicana Atheist" one-woman show is a celebration of the struggles faced by atheists who must emerge from stifling religious cultures; as an Hispanic, her stories about the slavish acquiescence to Roman Catholicism by her family were poignant, tragic, and instantly empathetic to the audience, who sat entranced during her performance. Even something as seemingly simple as finding friendship or falling in love can all-too-easily be complicated by contradictory views about one's spirituality and religious acceptance.
|The capstone of the evening, a combined set with Safely Limitless and Riffsong, included this sing-a-long performance of John Lennon's "Imagine."|
The penultimate event of the conference was a performance by some of the assembled musicians including Safely Limitless, Paul Mitchell's Riffsong, and Paul Martin's Aspiring Atheist. As promised, we were able to sing (more or less) along to John Lennon's "Imagine." It was a nice way to close out this history-making event, and only winning the autographed copy of Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" in the final raffle could have made the day better. Which it did.
|Note to Self: No matter how late the evening gets, don't throw away your raffle tickets. You might miss out on something really freaking cool.|
My final thoughts are: 1) I'm glad this happened, 2) I'm glad that I was able to be a part of it, and 3) I'm especially glad that this is going to continue next year, and for years afterward. I hope that Texas can be a beacon to the other states as freethought and atheism continue to gain cultural ground in our great society.