On Saturday, the SSA conference was in full swing, with three simultaneous tracks of talks going on throughout the OSU student union. As Murphy’s Law predicts, the ones I wanted to see the most were inevitably scheduled at the same time as each other. But I still got to see some outstanding speakers, with topics running the gamut from the nuts and bolts of campus organizing to high-level political strategizing to important lessons on community and social justice. Here are some of the standouts that I saw:
Sharon Moss of the SSA discusses how campus groups can connect with and take advantage of alumni in the area.
A friend of mine, Kenny Flagg from the Freethinkers of the University of North Dakota, whose acquaintance I was pleased to make earlier this year. And he’s making his mark in the secular movement: He himself came as a speaker, giving a talk on the best uses of social media. Since he apparently won the SSA 14,000 (!) Facebook fans in a single weekend through the power of Reddit, he would know.
The extremely hardworking SSA staff were omnipresent throughout the conference, doing an outstanding job of making everything move along on schedule. Here, Lyz Liddell, director of campus organizing, has apparently perished from overwork and was lying in state for the remainder of the conference. (Not really.)
At lunchtime, there was something brilliant that I’ve never seen before. The SSA provided a catered lunch, and each table in the dining room had a card announcing its designated topic of discussion – diversity, community building, interfaith work, and so on, plus a few wildcards – the better to spark interesting conversations. I joined the table on “Overcoming Stigma” with some attendees from UNLV and Purdue.
After lunch, Jen McCreight gave a still-necessary talk on the importance of diversity. As she said, atheism has too often been represented by a bunch of white men looming out of the darkness.
Amanda Knief of American Atheists educated us on the legal rights and obligations of employers when it comes to religion in the workplace. Sarah Moglia took care of her adorable dog, Sagan, while she did so.
A.J. Johnson, also of American Atheists, presented on “Why the Christians Keep Winning and How to Stop Them,” a superb talk that taught me a lot. Her thesis had two parts: Religious groups take advantage of ridiculously expansive legal loopholes and special privileges, supplemented on some occasions by outright cheating made possible by skimpy oversight. She urged us to lobby for requiring religious groups to file the same disclosure forms that are required of other non-profits, and not to cede basic elements of humanity, like community building, to the churches.
Jerry DeWitt was a Pentecostal preacher for 25 years (!), but now he’s an out-and-proud atheist, one of the first public graduates of the Clergy Project, and the director of the nonprofit Recovering from Religion. Despite losing his job and facing exile in his small community, he’s undaunted. He delivered a powerful message for reason, delivered in the booming cadences of a genuine fire-and-brimstone sermon. His motto: “Heal the sick and shoot the zombies” – meaning, help those who can be helped, but don’t waste time on those who’ve abandoned their conscience to hateful dogma.
Next, the Saturday night keynotes! Hemant Mehta led off the evening with a talk about a Christian school exercise in which elementary students were told to draw pictures of Christians and atheists. As you can see, the Christian is holding a cross and a banana (that latter being the bane of atheists everywhere), while the nonbeliever has tattoos, drink, drugs, and a unibrow for some reason. Where are religious children picking up these prejudices?
David Fitzgerald of San Francisco Atheists set out a ten-point evil plan for how atheists can conquer the world, complete with evil cackling, mad-scientist outfit and goggles. He got an enthusiastic standing ovation from the 300-strong crowd in the main auditorium, which made him a tough act to follow for the last keynote speaker of the night… which, as it happens, was me.
As I said to people afterward, I thought of this as my debutante ball. This was the first talk I’ve ever given to a major atheist convention, and it was by far the largest audience I’ve ever had, by at least a factor of three or four. I was fully conscious of what a signal honor it was, not only to be invited to speak at the SSA’s leadership conference, but to do so as a keynote speaker not up against any other talk. So I won’t deny that I took the stage with more than a few butterflies in my stomach.
My talk was titled “How to Move Mountains,” about how secular activists can overcome resistance from a hostile religious majority to bring about progressive change. I cited the abolitionist movement and the women’s suffrage movement as examples of two social movements that did exactly that, illustrating how the opposition to both of them was couched in religion, and discussed what lessons we can learn from their success. How did it go over with the crowd? Modesty forbids; but video was taken and should be made available soon, so you’ll be able to judge for yourself. However, I do have to quote my favorite of all the tweets that were posted about it:
— UC Secular Alliance (@UChicagoSecular) July 8, 2012