I feel like the scales have been lifted from my eyes. I was blind, but now I see. For most of the time I've been going to conferences, I've been avoiding conference reports as tedious drudgery... but now that I've discovered the secret -- don't worry about being thorough or even coherent, just post a series of disjointed observations about whatever happened to catch my fancy -- I'm all inspired, and want to do it every time. (And it makes for perfect "plane ride home" blogging!)
So here, in no particular order, are The Best Things About the Midwest Humanist and Freethought Conference.
1: Brother Sam Singleton. If you have not seen Brother Sam Singleton, Atheist Evangelist, you are missing one of the great joys of life. Hilarious and chilling, erudite and crass, quoting Voltaire with a vivid Ozarks accent, Brother Sam's performance kidnaps the style of a Pentecostal revival meeting and uses it to deliver a sharp, compelling, take-no- prisoners atheist rant that makes Christopher Hitchens look like a vanilla cupcake. Truly the best of both worlds: if you think embracing atheism means losing the wild, soaring, inspired artistry of religion, his show is a must-see. I was cranky and groggy about being up at 9am on a Sunday with very little sleep (isn't that supposed to be one of the benefits of atheism -- that we get to sleep in on Sundays?)... and Brother Sam woke me the fuck up. See him if you possibly can. Make it a priority.
2: The pillow fort. This is what awaited Jen McCreight when she arrived in Omaha. The impenetrable fortress of pillows! And a devastating ambush with the socks and T-shirts of victory! Photo (and video) by JT Eberhard: campus organizer, Skepticon co-founder, and renowned pillow fort architect. When the history of the atheist movement is written, let it be recorded that its thought leaders were five years old.
(And can I just say: This is one of the best pictures of me that has ever been taken. I am seriously tempted to make it my author pic for my next book. If I were a rock star, I would totally make it my next album cover. [Tangent within a tangent: Has any rock star or rock band ever done an album cover photo behind a pillow fort? And if not, why not?])
3: Jen McCreight's talk. Jen has this unique talent as a speaker. Her manner is casual and approachable, like she's simply chatting with you and it just happens to be at a lectern with a PowerPoint presentation. And then she sneaks these ideas out that punch you in the brain and shake everything up. Completely sensible ideas, ideas that seem so obvious you can't believe you didn't think of them before, ideas that seem even more reasonable given her relaxed and chatty approach... and that will totally fuck with your world. The key concept of her talk -- that women's relationships with God and religion are essentially abusive relationships, with all or most of the classic signs of abuse, and that the reasons women find it hard to leave religion are often the same reasons it's hard to leave an abusive relationship -- is one of those ideas. I am now rethinking a ton of stuff about how to persuade people (especially women) out of religion, and how to make atheism more welcoming to people (especially women) who are leaving it.
4: JT Eberhard's talk. JT's talk, on the other hand, was anything but casual. JT's talk -- on why reason is a moral obligation, and why atheists ought not to suffer unreason gladly -- said hard things about religious belief, and hard things about religious believers, and hard things about atheists who decline to push back against it all. It was one of the darker talks I've seen him give. It was also one of the most inspiring. Not in a rah-rah "Atheists are awesome!" way, but in a "This is serious shit, we all need to be stepping up our game" way. (I still don't agree with him about the primacy of reason in all areas of life -- I think there's a hugely important place in our lives for irrationality and intuition and impulse. Just not when it comes to evaluating truth claims about the non-subjective universe. But that's a conversation for another day.)
5: My angry atheist rant. I gave my "Why Are You Atheists So Angry?" talk. I love my "Why Are You Atheists So Angry?" talk. It's one of my two favorite talks to give (running neck and neck with "Atheism and Sexuality"). And judging by the response, other people seem rather fond of it as well. I'm not going to indulge in false modesty. It's a barn-burner. And I do so enjoy burning a barn.
6: The panel discussion about "The Ledge." This took me by surprise. There was a screening of Matthew Chapman's "The Ledge" on Sunday, and a panel discussion about it with the speakers... which the speakers hadn't actually known about until it was announced from the podium on Saturday. We were all like, "We're doing what now?" And, "You want us to be coherent on the last day of a conference, about a movie we just finished watching?" But it was actually a fascinating conversation: about the characters' motivations, and whether atheist characters in movies should be role models or flawed and complex human beings, and how far a film can stretch plausibility for the sake of good storytelling, and what the atheist community can do to fill the human needs that religion is filling, and whether the movie's main character was a good guy with some asshole tendencies or an asshole with some good tendencies, and more. And it was a conversation that soon spilled out from the speakers' panel and into the audience. For the last event of the conference, when everyone was drained and sleep-deprived and had Jello for brains, it was surprisingly lively. (And the movie itself is, IMO, excellent. I'd seen it before, back when I reviewed it, and it held up to the second viewing quite nicely.)
7: Hanging out at Caffeine Dreams after it was all over. Caffeine Dreams is a truly delightful space: sprawling and spacious but also intimate, arty but also friendly and welcoming, in an old brick building that used to be two bars that used to be an architect's home. (According to the barrista, anyway.) Plus plentiful sofas for exhausted speakers/ organizers/ die-hards to collapse into. And Mountain Goats on the sound system. Aaaaaaaaaah. I was fried and jangled when we got there -- happy and satisfied, don't get me wrong, but fried and jangled nonetheless -- and Caffeine Dreams was a balm to my non-existent soul. The food wasn't wildly magnificent or anything, but it was tasty and fresh, and the coffee was strong... and the space was so delightful, it could have made a day-old Quarter Pounder seem delicious. The next time I go to Omaha, I want to eat every possible meal there.
And the company there was exquisite. Languid, meandering, post- conference- Jello- brain conversations about travel, and chocolate, and relocating the Large Hadron Collider to Columbus (ideally next to Jeni's Ice Cream), and atheist politics, and life in the military, and whether kittens or puppies are cuter and why. I felt suspended in time, and entirely happy to be exactly where I was.
There was so much about this conference that was excellent. Hemant Mehta's talk. Fred Edwords' talk. Mr. Deity's talk. The drawing of a T-Rex on the bag of Italian food that Jen and JT and I had delivered to our hotel. (JT had promised a ten-dollar tip to the delivery guy if he drew us a dinosaur, and the delivery guy came through with flying colors.)
But I've been to a lot of conferences now... and these conversations among old friends and new are almost always the best thing. You never know when the good ones are going to happen: it could be at the merch table, or at the Steak 'n' Shake, or over grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the post-bar-hop sobering-up efforts at the late-night coffeeshop. But whenever and wherever they happen, they are worth it. This movement is becoming a real community; this community is becoming an extended family. It makes me happier than I can say.