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.


  1. #1 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 14, 2007

    The way to win the war is to kill so many Moslems that they begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties.

    But with religious fundamentalists this doesn’t work.

    After all, for them it isn’t a mere issue of life and death. It’s an issue of heaven and hell. For eternity. For ever and evermore.

    Hitchens should really stay off the booze. Alcohol smells similar to stupid oxide.

    This is insane.

    Does he also talk like that when he’s sober?

    (Is he ever sober…?)

    and there was absolutely no reticence in his comments, which I admire.

    Booze certainly helps in overcoming reticence.

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 14, 2007

    I should have expanded my first point: you can deter the Evil Empire from nuking you to radioactive smithereens if the Evil Empire is communist and believes that death is The End®. This does not work if the Evil Empire’s holy warriors actually want to die a glorious death in battle against the godless infidels, so they can go to paradise. I’m by far not the first to make this important point, and I’m surprised that Hitchens missed it.

    At least, I’d have been surprised if he had missed it while sober.

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 14, 2007

    In a way, the freethought movement is fortunate to have Hitchens.

    “Nobody is useless — they can always serve as a bad example.”

    The logical process he follows must look like a spaghetti dinner.

    <raising geologist hammer> Praise be to the ineffable logic of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!!!

    I expect that in a few years he’ll be converting to Islam.

    If the booze doesn’t do him in first…

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 14, 2007

    I guess these open expressions of disapproval about our Leader Figure disqualify the Uppity Atheists from “cult” status. Sigh.

    This just proves the Leader Figure is Dawkins, you dawkobot, you.

    No, don’t you see? He’ll adopt the temperance inherent in Islam’s prohibition against alcohol, convert, and then proclaim that Islam saved his life.

    Good point. Very good point.

    and you will see that the Koran is not a nice religious text.

    Of course it isn’t. Not even the New Testament is nice (see a few threads ago). And the Old Testament has actually even worse orders about holy war than the Qur’an… I hope I can find the page with the comparisons again…

    The point is that fundies of any stripe tend not to be much of a threat to anyone outside their own countries.

    Let’s just hope Busharraf isn’t toppled. Because that would deliver Pakistan’s nukes into the hands of al Qaida. Then you’d have a point.

  5. #5 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 14, 2007

    and at least one of them is blatantly pursuing nuclear offensive technology.

    The Iranians lost the longing for a martyr’s death 15 years ago. They aren’t what I’m afraid of. They want nukes to deter the USA — as long as that still works, see above.

  6. #6 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 14, 2007

    It is sad that the need for energy has made us as Americans have to give up so many of our values in places like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. But it’s not like that is ever going to change. We will still need oil long after we no longer need gasoline or diesel.

    But by then there will be no oil anymore.

    Put it another way: For every American killed by a terrorist, 2,427 die of skin cancer, 4,893 expire in car accidents, 9,735 are shot to death by nonterrorists

    What the fuck.

    Americans are twice as likely to get shot than to get hit by a car!?!

    Can I trust my eyes?!? After all, I am unusually tired today, and it’s almost one at night. :-S

    Google Salafist, Salafism and Tawid/Tawidism.

    Don’t. Try Tawhid.

    What really surprises me is how terrified the wingnuts are about everything these days. Until recently I hadn’t realized how appropriate the term chickenhawk is for most of these people. They accuse moderates and liberals of being soft and weak, but really, they’re the ones who are the chicken littles running around and squawking about how the sky is falling.

    If they weren’t scared shitless, they wouldn’be wingnuts. As I always say: ignorance produces fear, and fear produces conservativism.

    Historically, Persians, Lebanese, Turks, Afghans, and most Arabs were often regarded as white by Westerners, sub-Saharan Africans, and themselves -

    And they still are, by everyone except Americans. May have to do with the fact that Colin “Paleface” Powell counts as “black” in the USA; I bet he’d be “colored” in South Africa and “white” in Brazil.

    I really doubt that many of the religionist anti-abortion zealots actually value human life or “babies” as much as they claim to.

    Most of them seem to completely stop caring for you as soon as you’re born. Iraq war? Praise Fearless Flightsuit!!!1! Universal healthcare? AAARGH, communism!!!1!

    So welcome to the twenty first century. Water wars, overpopulation and disease. Oh yeah disease moving ever northward from the starving populations in the desertifing tropics.

    No, the tropics will — on average — get wetter because precipitation increases with evaporation. Has always been that way: just a few million years ago it was so hot that there were no deserts except the Atacama, and the Congo rainforest stretched from sea to shining sea. The diseases won’t move, they will spread. There have already been two cases of malaria in Germany contracted from mosquitos that had survived a particularly mild winter a few years ago and had previously bitten people who had brought malaria from tropical countries.

    On your other point, you don’t need to be a pacifist to understand that Hitchens is a hominicidal maniac. You don’t even need to be against the Iraq war to understand that.

    And is his use of liquor relevant?

    Of course, because it impairs his ability to think. Incidentally, nicotine slows impulse conduction through nerve cells (or between them, I forgot).

    Iran has had a population explosion

    Yep, and the mullahs forgot to close the universities. They’re doomed.

  7. #7 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 14, 2007

    Muslims hate us for who we are – just like Neo Nazis hate Jews for who they are.

    I bet some do. But read bin Laden’s own words to learn why he didn’t attack, say, Sweden.

    I think Europe, especially France, is beginning to rethink their stance due to their proximity to Iranian missiles, and hence are becoming more hawkish.

    I think Bernard Kouchner didn’t think a lot before he made that remark…

    I would add, Islamist organizations didn’t grow in popularity by murdering people but by providing social services, which is a rather nicer model for atheists to follow.

    Bingo. In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah does all the government should do but doesn’t do. You live in southern Lebanon and want to learn French? Go to a Hezbollah school. I kid you not.

  8. #8 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 15, 2007

    The alcohol use is as relevant to his arguments as his “you’re stupid” (assuming he makes them) remarks are to others’. Further, a lot of perfectly sober people agree with him. What are we supposed to say to them? That they’re stupid?


    Most likely such stupidity is built upon ignorance, but that’s not really an excuse, because the argument from ignorance is the pinnacle of stupidity.

    I don’t love Hitchens, and I think his position on the war is wrong. But even when Hitchens is blind drunk he’s still more articulate and cogent than many of his opponents.

    Yes. I agree. And?

    That makes his opponents worse, not him better.

    Do the people who pay him believe that his performance is demonstrably improved when he’s liquored up? Are we meant not to notice that even the un-gods have clay feet?


    Those calling him a drunk can take their ad-hominems and stick them.

    Ad hominem? I’m proposing a testable hypothesis to explain his sudden irrationality.

    I agree with comment 185: it would be much less nice of me if I said “no, the booze has nothing to do with it, he’s that crazy even when he’s sober”.

    But, again, that’s testable. I’m sure it has been tested — it won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t know the man personally.

    Yes, Hitchens disagrees with you about the use of military force, e.g. in Iraq. Get over it. He’s allowed to have a different opinion from yours; this doesn’t make him a genocidal maniac, ethnocentric bigot, or even a right-wing neocon.

    Oh, I agree. What makes him a genocidal maniac is not any of the above. What makes him a genocidal maniac is that he advocates killing people en masse.

    Isn’t that, like, obvious?

    Yes, he likes to drink alcohol. Well, I don’t drink alcohol at all — how many of you Hitchens-bashers can say the same?

    Me. It stinks, and it burns in the throat. Yuck.

    Also, how many of the posters here have lived outside of North America? Islamic integration in Europe is a major problem, I fear its an oxymoron.

    I’ve lived in North America for about a week, so…

    Integration of Islamic immigrants in Europe is indeed an issue. But you’re overblowing it. I’ve spent most of my life so far in Vienna, which has seen strong Turkish immigration.

    The problem is that you can’t for example publish Hitch’s book “God is not Great” in Saudi Arabia because it would be censored. So the Muslims won’t let us make a peaceful approach because they censor us, while they are allowed to spread their religion in our society.

    Don’t you see there’s a difference between the 7000 princes of Saudi Arabia and “the Muslims”?

    So the fact that Hitchens holds opinions about the Iraq war that many here find objectionable means that everything else he says or writes is wrong?

    Who has said that?

    A recent article by Hitchens outlines his large-scale strategy. Whether one agrees or disagrees with it – where’s the genocide?

    “Islam is as fissile as any other religion (as Iraq reminds us). Little binds a Somali to a Turk or an Iranian or an Algerian, and considerable friction exists among immigrant Muslim groups in many European countries. … Muslim women often demand the protection of the authorities against forced marriage and other cruelties. …

    I would also propose the following: …

    A declaration at the UN of our solidarity with the right of the Kurdish people of Iraq and elsewhere to self-determination as well as a further declaration by Congress that in no circumstance will Muslim forces who have fought on our side, from the Kurds to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, find themselves friendless, unarmed, or abandoned. …

    Energetic support for all the opposition forces in Iran and in the Iranian diaspora. A public offer from the United States, disseminated widely in the Persian language, of help for a reformed Iran on all matters…

    Unconditional solidarity, backed with force and the relevant UN resolutions, with an independent and multi-confessional Lebanon. …

    Ah, that sounds better. Let me risk the testable hypothesis that Hitchens was sober when he wrote that.

    Still, it’s not terribly farsighted as a whole.

    First paragraph: I agree.

    Third paragraph: The second part is good. The first part sounds good, but would lead to more trouble than there currently is, because the generals in Turkey will not accept an independent Kurdistan. If one comes to pass, Turkey will enter the war, and we will live in interesting times. A lot more should be done to increase Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, but immediately making the leap to independence would be quite counterproductive. Never mind Iran and Syria, which also wouldn’t like an independent Kurdistan… Syria could be weak enough to be annoyed with impunity, but Iran is not. We are looking at a classical case where diplomacy is needed over decades. Get the generals off the power in Turkey — without the country regressing deep into Islamic conservativism in the process, and without losing a good friend of the West in general and the USA in particular in the process –, get the mullahs off the power in Iran, and then start negotiating about the independence of Kurdistan. Not the other way around.

    The fourth paragraph is great, except that it shouldn’t be trumpeted out so loudly. The mullahs live in the justified fear that one day they’ll lose their power in a great big civil war. Any perceived threat will immediately lead to greater repression, which in turn could lead to the civil war that the Iranian opposition doesn’t want either. Iran should be discreetly helped to collapse like the Soviet Union or, better yet, like the communist regime of Poland. Anything faster and/or more visible would be counterproductive.

    The fifth paragraph sounds great, but would involve bringing the power of the government back in southern Lebanon so that Hezbollah is no longer needed to provide the basic services that are the government’s duty to provide, and it would involve getting the neocons and the rapturists away from the control of foreign policy in the USA. All that should be feasible, but it isn’t easy. Again, Hitchens sounds like he wants an overnight solution that simply doesn’t exist.

  9. #9 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 15, 2007

    Oops. Comment 185 is now comment 187.

  10. #10 Mel
    November 28, 2008

    Seriously PZ, what a shame, instead of listening to Hitchens confronting some pacifist do-gooders with their naive fallacies on world politics you didn’t think twice to parrot some lubricious phrases you heard from his leftist former colleagues from the nation.

    Hitchens always distinguishes between “jihadists” and Muslims, something you seem not to gasp at all (as you apparently prefer to toy around with the term “genocide” like a moron and political illiterate).

    I already lost quite some respect when you started your infantile “wafer-fuss-campaign” a shame for every atheist that truly gives something about religious tolerance and something that you for sure would not try with anything that’s holy for Islam (why?). But the pope is not OBL or Mahmoud A. and not a mass-murderer and thus shall not be trivialized with drivel of yours like those two.

    This now did it for me, especially because I had to find this post on some Leninists’ web-site.

  11. #11 PZ Myers
    November 28, 2008

    Right. He can distinguish between them, which was why he was advocating a bombing campaign against Iran…because bombs are very clever, and would only blow up jihadists.

    And jebus, could you clueless morons knock it off with the fatwa envy?

  12. #12 Mel
    November 29, 2008

    It’ll stop when you earned your fatwa. Try it, it’s much easier than with all the other religions. I heard Michael Jackson converted to Islam that’s a nice starting point. When you made it in a press release of CAIR raging about your “islamophobia” you did it right.

    hexag1 already pointed your words vs. Hitchens actual words (the link works!) if you disagree with his assessment that we are in a war that might need difficult decisions (as to threaten with force so that the Islamist regime in Iran refrain from arming itself with nuclear bombs) you could have said so but you didn’t. Maybe you didn’t want to make a complete fool out of yourself in saying something like “we should leave those Mullahs alone so that they are not angry with us”.
    Instead you said (as a reminder):

    “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.”

    Which is simply a wrong and foolish and fatuous thing to say. I thus think “clueless liberal” might describe you better than “godless” one.

  13. #13 Nerd of Redhead
    November 29, 2008

    Mel, you are a clueless idiot. Listen to PZ. He makes sense, unlike you.