The conventions have been going on since 1970 and this was actually the 40th one. American Atheists normally have their conventions on Easter weekend. Why not? It’s not like Atheists haven anything else to do on that weekend and we can usually score good deals on conference room rentals. Although…is that really true? This year the convention was in Salt Lake City, Utah at the Hilton Salt Lake Center, fairly close to the temple at the center of town. However, there was a well attended Comic Convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center on the same weekend. I’m sure there were people from both conventions that wished that they could have attended the other one. In fact, I KNOW that there was at least one young lady in a local bar that would have rather been with the Atheists than the comic nerds (no offense intended). There will be another comic event at the Salt Palace in September but the Atheists won’t meet again until their next convention in Memphis, Tennessee on…you guessed it…Easter weekend. Perhaps the Atheists need to produce a comic book. There were over 100,000 comic book fans at the Salt Palace while attendance at the Atheist convention was a shade over 700.
In spite of the juxtaposition of events in the heart of Salt Lake City, the American Atheists convention was quite successful. Last year they met in Austin which is considered “Atheist friendly.” Salt Lake City was not as welcoming. For example, it was difficult to get local sign companies to take our billboards. However, there was a giant welcoming announcement posted in the SLC airport! One of the local sign media companies rejected the American Atheists billboard messages as “misleading, deceptive, and offensive.” What is “misleading, deceptive, and offensive” about a sign that says simply, “Utah’s families. All religious? Think again” with a picture of a rather typical looking family composed of a mother, father, and three kids? There is a thought that a billboard of cute kittens sponsored by the American Atheists would also have been rejected as “misleading, deceptive, and offensive.”
The Utah Atheists were welcoming, however. Dan Ellis and the Atheists of Utah were fine hosts. Just prior to the convention on April 6th, Dan and his group conducted a Mass LDS (Mormon) Church Resignation event. Over 24 attended and marched around the “Temple” before posting the letters of resignation. The Atheists of Utah Meetup.com group has over 850 members, fully 100 more than we have here in Tucson. So there are Atheists in Salt Lake City!
One of the main features of the annual convention is the “state of the organization” summary that is at the start of the main sessions. David Silverman has been doing a great job growing the organization and now we have a membership of over 7,000 which is up from about 2,000 when he took over. The organization is completely debt free and is purposely spending more than it is taking in. Of course, that can’t continue on forever because eventually the banked reserves will run out. The goal of American Atheists as outlined by Dave is to attack and normalize on the veracity, ubiquity, and privilege of the religious organizations in the United States. In other words, attack and verify the truth claims of the churches and in particular Christianity. We need to reduce the presence everywhere of religious influence. Finally, we must address the special privileges that are enjoyed by religious followers and organizations. All tax exempt organizations should be treated equally. Religious organizations should not be exempt from the IRS requirements that apply to other non-profits. Pastors should not get special breaks on their housing and the IRS should pursue violations in the churches with the same energy used to prosecute other violators. American Atheists are not asking for special privileges for non-believers, just equal ones. The American Atheists is not about making more Atheists but supporting, protecting, and building community for those who have come to Atheism on their own. The growth of the non-believers in this country, especially among the younger generations, is staggering and will pay big dividends in the future. Dave’s commitment to community and cooperation among the other secular and non-theist organizations is evident when looking at the attendance at the Godless March on Washington in 2002 and the Reason Rally in 2012. In just ten years attendance at a Washington D.C. event grew from 2500 in 2002 to over 30,000 in 2012. The Reason Rally showed the world that the various secular organizations could cooperate and come together to make a statement to the country that won’t soon be forgotten.
The speakers of the 2014 American Atheists convention came from a wide variety of backgrounds with diverse messages. This year there was a football punter (Chris Kluwe) and a winner from the Survivor television show (Denise Stapely). There were also speakers representing the LGBT and Black Atheists Communities. Speakers included popular podcasters and our very own Secular State Representative Juan Mendez. Several podcasts were performed live during the conference…and I had my first experience with gender neutral bathrooms at a national convention.
Aside from the formal presentations, there were plenty of diversions. There were VIP dinners, an award dinner, a comedy night, a new film screening, and a blasphemous costume event that ended with Karaoke. Salt Lake City isn’t the best city for pub crawls but a few of us broke away for some crowded bars and weak (3.2%) beer.
In short, I had a great time and I’m looking forward to the next one in Memphis.