We’re about to leave lovely Madison, Wisconsin and the Freedom from Religion Convention. So here’s a short summary: it was a good meeting and I was impressed with most of the speakers; Christopher Hitchens “pissed off” most of us as he promised to do, and the organization of the meeting could have been greatly improved.
Now the details.
I already mentioned Katha Pollitt and Julia Sweeney, the opening night speakers, and they were hilarious and humane. I’d go listen to them anytime, and you should too, at any opportunity. They represent the happy, friendly atheists, and they do it very well.
Saturday morning opened with Ellery Schempp. You’ve all heard of him, right? Maybe not. He was at the center of an important constitutional law case, School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, back in the late 1950s. Coincidentally, when we lived in Pennsylvania our kids were all enrolled in the Abington School District, and the school does not make much mention of their moment in the limelight, although we were familiar with its historic importance, since it was part of our irreligious tradition. Pennsylvania schools used to open their day with readings from the Bible, a habit that was broken when a 16-17 year old Ellery Schempp defied them, got the ACLU involved, and took them all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was decided that it certainly was unconstitutional to use the public schools to advance sectarian religion.
Ellery gave a wonderful talk that both reviewed the law behind the decision and his personal role in it, and also talked about secular values. Great stuff; and you can learn more, there’s a new book, Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer by Stephen D. Solomon(b&n/abe/pwll), that recounts the whole story.
The next talk was amazingly apropos. It was by a 17 year old high school student who has been mentioned here before, Matt LaClair. Matt is from Kearney, NJ, and he was enrolled in a high school US History class in which the teacher seemed to prefer to ramble on about dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, and how non-Christians were going to hell, then to teach the students history. Matt not only challenged the guy in the face of widespread support for him from his peers and the community, but carefully documented the teacher’s nonsense with recordings. David Paszkiewicz still teaches at that high school, and is apparently still dribbling out his superstitious nonsense to the students, which is unfortunate … but Matt LaClair is an incredibly poised and articulate young man who is going to rise above it and leave that school behind, soon enough.
The third talk was by Stephanie Salter, a columnist for the Terra Haute Tribune Star, and … oh, my! … a theist. She has worked for separation of church and state, and her work is funny and right on target with the goals of the FFRF. Unfortunately, and I’ll mention this later, the organization of this conference left much to be desired, and coming as she did on the end of a long morning session, my attention was flagging a bit — no fault of hers, of course, but just the non-stop immobility of the session was a bit of a killer.
The last talk is the one everyone is going to be talking about for some time to come: Christopher Hitchens at his eloquent, acerbic best and his eloquent, acerbic worst. He got a standing ovation when he was introduced, and he should have stopped there, because the applause got thinner and thinner as the talk progressed, and by the end, people were walking out on him.
The talk began excellently. He gave some of the arguments from his book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and he had me cheering at his aggressive dismissal of the foolishness of religion. It was not, however, a great talk — he’d have a great couple of paragraphs of red meat that would then fade away into an unfinished anecdote…and then he’d start another one. It was clearly an exhibition of punctuated rhetoric.
Ah, but then at the end — he seemed uncertain about the time allotted and how much time he was using, furthering the impression that he was just making some unorganized, off-the-cuff remarks — he asked if we shouldn’t break for questions, and then suggested that he “bang on”, and when he got signs of approval, said he was going to say a few things to piss us off. And that he did.
Then it was Hitchens at his most bellicose. He told us what the most serious threat to the West was (and you know this line already): it was Islam. Then he accused the audience of being soft on Islam, of being the kind of vague atheists who refuse to see the threat for what it was, a clash of civilizations, and of being too weak to do what was necessary, which was to spill blood to defeat the enemy. Along the way he told us who his choice for president was right now — Rudy Giuliani — and that Obama was a fool, Clinton was a pandering closet fundamentalist, and that he was less than thrilled about all the support among the FFRF for the Democratic party. We cannot afford to allow the Iranian theocracy to arm itself with nuclear weapons (something I entirely sympathize with), and that the only solution is to go in there with bombs and marines and blow it all up. The way to win the war is to kill so many Moslems that they begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties.
It was simplistic us-vs.-them thinking at its worst, and the only solution he had to offer was death and destruction of the enemy.
This was made even more clear in the Q&A. He was asked to consider the possibility that bombing and killing was only going to accomplish an increase in the number of people opposing us. Hitchens accused the questioner of being incredibly stupid (the question was not well-phrased, I’ll agree, but it was clear what he meant), and said that it was obvious that every Moslem you kill means there is one less Moslem to fight you … which is only true if you assume that every Moslem already wants to kill Americans and is armed and willing to do so. I think that what is obvious is that most Moslems are primarily interested in living a life of contentment with their families and their work, and that an America committed to slaughter is a tactic that will only convince more of them to join in opposition to us.
Basically, what Hitchens was proposing is genocide. Or, at least, wholesale execution of the population of the Moslem world until they are sufficiently cowed and frightened and depleted that they are unable to resist us in any way, ever again.
This is insane. I entirely agree that we are looking at a clash of civilizations, that there are huge incompatibilities between different parts of the world, and that we face years and years of all kinds of conflict between us, with no easy resolution. However, one can only resolve deep ideological conflicts by the extermination of one side in video games and cartoons. It’s not going to work in the real world. We can’t simply murder enough Moslems to weaken them into irrelevance, and even if we could, that’s not the kind of culture to which I want to belong.
A clash of whole civilizations is a war of ideas. The way we can ‘conquer’ is on the cultural and economic level: the West should not invade and destroy, but should instead set an example, lead with strength, and be the civilization that every rational citizen of the other side wants to emulate. Yes, there will be wars and skirmishes, because not everyone on either side is rational, but the bloodshed isn’t the purpose. Hitchens would make it the raison d’etre of the whole Western effort.
This whole last third of his talk had me concerned about the first part. He had just told us in strong terms about the failures of religion and its detrimental effect on our culture, and now he was explaining to us how the solution in the Middle East was to simply kill everyone who disagreed with you. He didn’t relate the two parts of his talk, which was unfortunate. I’d like to know whether he thinks the way atheists ought to end religion in America is to start shooting Baptists, or whether he sees other ways to educate and enlighten … in which case I wonder why he doesn’t see any virtue in applying those same methods to Islam. I didn’t ask the question since the line for the microphone was long, and I had a depressing feeling that the solution would involve sending the Baptists over to Iraq to kill and be killed.
This is not my freethought movement. The Hitchens solution is not my solution.
I could tell that he did not have the sympathy of most of the audience at this point. There were a scattered few who applauded wildly at every mention of bombing the Iranians, but the majority were stunned into silence. People were leaving — I heard one woman sing a few bars of “Onward, Christian soldiers” as she left to mock his strategy. The questions were all angry or disputative, and were all dismissed with comments about the audience’s intelligence. The answers were always, “War, war, war,” and that we weren’t good atheists if we didn’t agree with murder as the answer. He seemed unable to comprehend that people could despise and oppose all religion, Christian, Moslem, or otherwise, yet have no desire to triumph by causing physical harm to the believers. I’ve noticed the same intellectual blindness in many Christians, actually.
Later that evening, someone in the FFRF was handing out an open letter to the freethought community, one that protested the inclusion of Hitchens and opposing any future speakers of his sort. I sympathized with the sentiment (and if the writer wants to send me an electronic copy, I’ll post it here), but I think it was useful to have Hitchens stand up there and tell us what he thinks — and there was absolutely no reticence in his comments, which I admire. But while I agree with his goal of working towards a rational, secular world, a triumph of enlightenment values, I disagree entirely with his proposed strategy, which seems to involve putting a bullet through every god-haunted brain. To have a clearly stated position to which we can respond with clearly stated opposition is actually a kind of gift.
I have to make a general criticism of the organization of the conference, however, despite knowing that there was a lot of work behind it. It was unimaginative, stuffy, and limiting: we had a small number of first-rate speakers who were given substantial time-slots one after another and sent up there to lecture at us. There was something like 700 or more people in attendance, and almost all of the meeting time was spent in tight focus on one person standing behind a lectern.
Bad pedagogy. Terrible for generating a sense of engagement. This is how you don’t want to run a meeting.
Here’s a post by Jonathan Eisen criticizing science conference organization. Most of it doesn’t apply here, but one in particular is telling:
Have too little time for breaks. The best part of conferences is the coffee and other breaks. No need to have too many talks. Have lots of breaks.
Seriously. What is our goal at these kinds of meetings? It is to organize. To interact with fellow freethinkers. To get ideas that we can carry home to help advance our goals. To meet new people and to network. To be entertained. Strings of long talks do this very poorly.
Another problem: attendance at this kind of meeting is largely on the gray side of middle age, with very little in the way of young people. Why? Because it’s boring! We should be engaging and recruiting more college-aged people, and this format just won’t do it.
Here are some positive suggestions: have more short talks. Have concurrent sessions. Get more of the participants on the stage — we had 6 speakers here, which means we had a pathetic teacher/student ratio. Use all those people who come to learn.
They definitely need more breaks, and I’m impressed with the stamina of all those gray-haired atheists. Have coffee in the hallway, have at least two sessions running simultaneously, and have solid breaks in between short sets of talks … and people moving between rooms or going for coffee will talk and and new ideas will spring up in the spaces between the sessions.
Mix up the format a lot. Every session does not have to be a talking head above a lectern (and note that at this meeting, no one used powerpoint or any kind of visual aids—while PP is not an unrelieved good by any means, at least it can provide some sensory stimulation). Why not have a few panels and workshops, too? Have a workshop on organizing a freethought group in your town, and get tips from successful organizers. Have a panel with an agnostic, an atheist, and a secular humanist at a table, and have them argue (with audience participation!) their differences. Have a media discussion: how are atheists portrayed in the movies? What are the best books on the subject? Get topical and specific: with the new movie on Pullman’s fantasy novels with their godless tone coming out, what are the literary virtues of the books? What do we expect from the movies?
There are many better ways to get an audience motivated and participatory and included in a conference like this, and I’m afraid the FFRF did very little of them. The audience was a passive entity to be talked to, and little more. Get with it, people!
I strongly recommend to anyone organizing this kind of freethought convention that they get in touch with some members of the SF community. Science fiction people know at a deep level how to put together a first rate meeting experience that will engage diverse interests, and be informative and entertaining, and most importantly, will appeal to people under the age of 60. There are big differences, of course — I hope a freethought convention wouldn’t have costume contests, and the dealer’s room isn’t going to be quite as impressive — but there are general ideas of attendee engagement that are universal. The FFRF succeeded on a purely intellectual level of providing a narrow band of information, but could be vastly improved on a social level.
It wouldn’t be hard. Every major city has a collection of die-hard SF nerds who have experience running a con, and there are quite a few godless among them. Cross-connect. Go down to your local science-fiction and fantasy bookstore, check the cork board and discover all the cons going on in your town, and contact the organizers and ask if they’ve got any freethinkers who’d be willing to consult. Not only will you get great ideas, but you might find yourself with a conduit right into a more youthful community, and new members with new ideas.