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Let a hundred flowers blossom

by Donald Prothero, May 08 2013
The surreal sight of Margaret Downey and Jessica Ahlquist dueling with bananas in the foreground, while evangelist Ray Comfort interviews P.Z. Myers in the background

The surreal sight of Margaret Downey and Jessica Ahlquist dueling with bananas in the foreground, while evangelist Ray Comfort interviews P.Z. Myers in the background

Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences”
—Mao Zedong

Last weekend I had the privilege of speaking at the Orange County Freethought Alliance fourth annual conference. Although I’ve spoken at The Amazing Meeting (this coming July will be my third such time), and frequently at the Skeptic Society meetings over the years (my “home base”), and made the big AAI meeting when it was in Burbank in 2009, this was the first of the smaller regional meetings in California that I had ever attended. I’m familiar with big events like TAM, with its lineup of all-star speakers and gigantic ballroom crammed with over 1600 people, so this smaller local meeting with about 300 participants was a nice change of pace. The venue was a smaller convention/ ballroom facility in the Fullerton Howard Johnson’s hotel. We were in the heart of Orange County, long the most conservative place in all of California. Since we were just blocks away from Disneyland, as you walked in that morning there was a continuous flood of tourists (mostly Asian) headed out for The Magic Kingdom. Yet the weather was nice (after a record-breaking heat wave on Thursday and Friday), the sun was out, and the swimming pool beckoned to our speakers who had flown from cold and snowy Minnesota or Philadelphia.

I got there much earlier than necessary (I never take chances on LA traffic, and since I was a morning speaker, I wanted to make sure my talk was working properly). The organizer, Bruce Gleason, had done a remarkable job with his small cadre of volunteers running the registration table and badges, handling the AV, manning the exhibitors’ booths in the back, and assigning one volunteer to be the speakers’ “go-fer” and another to give us warning on how much time we had left. The meeting price included catered lunch and dinner buffet style, which was excellent, and very efficient in feeding a large group and getting them back quickly.

The theme of the meeting was “What is the Future of Secularism?”, so Gleason opened the session and enlivened each break with some vintage music with a futuristic theme, from “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” (which used to be the theme of Disney and GE’s ‘Carousel of Progress’ of the 1964 World’s Fair and then in Disneyland for many years) to the themes from “The Jetsons” and “Lost in Space.” His emcee was a talented musician, Gary Stockdale (composer of Penn & Teller’s music, and many other familiar themes), who enlivened each break with one of his original  secularist songs on piano or guitar. Many of the smaller secularist groups from San Diego to Ventura County had their own tables with signs above them, and they had a special table for us speakers right next to the podium and screen. Best of all, they had a “green room” rented from the hotel, where the speakers could relax and work on their talks, complete with snacks and drinks.

The published schedule was rather lax in practice, so we began at 10:30, not 10:00 as published. But it didn’t matter, since Gleason had made sure that each speaker only went 35 minutes, left plenty of time for questions, and gave everyone a 5- to 10-minute break between talks. This is a BIG improvement over some of these conferences, where the speakers go non-stop for hours with minimal breaks, and it becomes very hard to focus when you’ve been sitting for three hours. The session opened with Jessica Ahlquist, the high school student who had challenged her school in Cranston, Rhode Island, about their big religious prayer banner on the campus and won in court. Her account of the threats and harassment, and the betrayal by people she thought were her friends, was truly chilling. Even more impressive was her amazing poise and strong will for someone so young (she’s now 17), and how well she handled an extremely difficult situation, stuck to her guns, and got this violation of the First Amendment removed. The audience was so moved that they gave her a long standing ovation at the end, and it was well deserved.

Her act was a tough one to follow, but I gave a talk I’d previously given to other skeptical/ secularist groups (such as NYC Skeptics and Minnesota Atheists) about the parallels between the different types of science deniers, from creationists to global warming deniers to anti-vaxxers to AIDS deniers, and how they all borrow tactics pioneered by the Holocaust deniers, and smokescreen strategies used by the tobacco companies. It is a brief taste of my upcoming book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, which is due out in time for TAM in July. It got a lot of great questions, and lots of people talking to me personally afterwards, so it must have been well received. The crowd around me took so long to disperse that I was the last one in the lunch line, but there was more than enough food.

The afternoon session was even more stellar, even though we were just a little regional meeting. We led off Matt Dillahunty, the prominent Austin, Texas, TV and radio host of several different secular shows, who talked about  “secular soul-winning”: which kinds of arguments worked for convincing religious people and which ones didn’t. He was followed by Greta Christina, the famous blogger, feminist, and LGBT activist, who talked about how to “come out” as a secularist, and what lessons we can learn from when the LGBT community came out. Then came the exuberant Dr. Darrel Ray, the Kansas author of The God Virus and Sex and Secularism, who talked about his surveys that explored the sexual hangups and guilt that people lost when they got out of repressive church backgrounds. The afternoon concluded with the gut-wrenching accounts of Margaret Downey. She illustrated her point about winning people from religion by telling our own stories with her own background as part of a mixed-race family in the Deep South in the 1960s, who rebelled against repressive church teachings at a young age. She went through some horrendous life experiences yet came out stronger in her need to help others trapped in religious shackles.

At dinner, they had a lavish buffet that included steak and salmon, and the speakers were asked to sit in the “green room” where those who wished to sit with us could join us. I had a great time talking to a whole table full of people I had never met before. As dinner was winding down, we looked out the window and saw a bizarre sight: the clownish evangelist Ray Comfort  (the “Bananaman”) was interviewing P.Z. Myers! Although they have fought back and forth in the blogsphere for years, apparently they had never actually met. Soon, almost the entire conference was hovering around nearby, mesmerized, and capturing the moment on a hundred cell phone cameras. P.Z.’s account of what Comfort asked is recounted here (but don’t be surprised if Comfort edits it to make P.Z. look bad or confused). At one point, Jessica Ahlquist and Margaret Downey brought a couple of bananas from the green room and were clowning around, dueling, and otherwise satirizing Comfort’s famous shtick that the banana was “created” to perfectly fit the human hand.

After that surreal experience, the evening concluded with the two biggest names among our speakers. First, P.Z. Myers talked about science and science education in our society, and pointed out that even without the problems of religion tampering with science, we have other issues like a Texas high school which spent $16 million on a football stadium, but no extra money for science labs or teachers. He talked about how the entire edifice of scientific research in the U.S. is a relatively new phenomenon. It was confined to the rich private Ivy League universities until World War II, when science and technology were harnessed for the wartime effort. Then after the war, it was Vannevar Bush (a Republican) who set up the modern scientific research apparatus, and turned the huge land-grant public universities from places to train farmers and teachers to full-service research centers. Now these same places are going into rapid decline as federal and state funding has dried up, and the students are now bearing the major share of the costs. Likewise, it was GOP president, Eisenhower, who fostered this expansion of research, and also got the interstate highway system built, and spent much on our infrastructure. Now, most of that system is gradually crumbling and falling apart (as documented by numerous engineering studies), exemplified by the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis just a few years ago.

The final speaker was Jamy Ian Swiss, who focused on the distinctions and overlaps between skepticism, atheism, and secular humanism (apparently, a version of the talk he gave at TAM in 2012). In his metaphor, we are all armies fighting a common enemy, and overlapping in most of our goals and even membership. But we each inhabit slightly different “tents” pitched next to each other on adjacent hills. We welcome others to our own tent, but we don’t want others moving our tent (skepticism) and making it theirs. Needless to say, this is contentious topic in the secular world right now, and P.Z. Myers was not very happy about it. There was no time for discussion at the end because our final act was a choir, “Voices of Reason.” Although I could not attend, they had Sunday field trips to see the Space Shuttle at the California Science Center and to view an IMAX movie about the Hubble space telescope.

In short, it was a very interesting and stimulating conference, with a surprising number of top-rank speakers for such a small local meeting. More importantly, it demonstrated a phenomenon that is happening all over the U.S.: the rapid grassroots growth of the secular movement. Where once TAM and the SkepTrac of Dragon-con were the only shows in town, attracting all the top speakers, now the calendar is crowded with secular meetings nearly every weekend, all over the country. In southern California alone, we have  over two dozen different freethought groups, science clubs, humanist groups, and “coalitions of reason.” As I read various blogs, I hear about the great conferences run each year in Missouri, in Minnesota, the NECSS in the northeast, and so many others. Of course, I don’t have the time or funds to go to all these meetings, or even a tiny part of them, but it is so encouraging to see this rapid growth and expansion of meetups between people who would otherwise remain isolated and ostracized in their tiny church-run communities. Thanks to the internet, so many people who once would remain “in the closet” and not realize that they were not the only non-religious person in their town have now come out of the woodwork. They are banding together with meetings at every level which show that the non-religious are indeed the fastest-growing group in the American religious scene. We seculars greatly outnumbers Jews, Muslims, most Protestant denominations, and we’re expanding (especially with young people) at a time that evangelical churches are on the decline. This was especially apparent at this meeting, as well as at TAM and AAI and others I’ve attended: where once it was the domain of old cranky white guys, now the meetings are overwhelmingly young people under 30, with almost equal numbers of men and women. We’re still not so successful in attracting people of color to our ranks, but during the meeting there was a lot of discussion about how that can be overcome.

Although the pernicious influence of fundamentalists on our science education and public policy may not vanish in my life time, the demographics show that we are indeed on the path to becoming a more secular place some day, as most of western Europe has already become (and for that matter, even Canada). That is the most exciting thing I realized from the entire meeting.



5 Responses to “Let a hundred flowers blossom”

  1. Brian Dunning says:

    So glad to read that you had a positive experience. Bruce is a super nice guy and puts a tremendous amount of work into this conference each year. It’s the first one I’ve missed in a long time.

  2. Max says:

    What would Mao Zedong do?

  3. Sheldon W. Helms says:

    You buried the lead, Don. You mentioned the talk that Swiss gave about skepticism, and that he chastised PZ Myers specifically, but failed to talk about the aftermath (except in hyperlink form).

    As a result of that talk, PZ Myers has officially divorced himself from the Skeptic Movement. He has, in the past, expressed frustration over the movement’s current direction toward giving religion special treatment, and the “hands-off” attitude that dominates at conferences, in blogs, etc., even coining the term “Bigfoot Skeptics” to refer to people who only go so far in their skepticism. But Swiss’ talk put him over the edge.

    People can click the link above to find out what else he had to say. I agree with his assertion that religion, as well as the question of belief in gods, ARE within the purview of science. I don’t think the “take-my-ball-and-go-home” approach is the best way to deal with it. But then again, I’m not the one being attacked in a conference talk.

    • That was intentional. The focus of my story was the way in which skeptic/secularist meetings and conferences, and overall numbers, and growing. I didn’t feel like getting in the middle of the PZ vs. Jamy battle in my post, since it has overwhelmed Loxton’s posts the same week. I DID provide a link to PZ’s comments on the conference, for those who wanted to follow it.

  4. Richard says:

    I believe that secularism and skepticism are two sides of the same coin. I’m speaking here of political secularism or church-state separation, not personal or moral secularism. I believe that the institutions of our society should be based on science and that unscientific and untestable beliefs should not be imposed on others. No creationism or revisionist history in our public schools, no laws that would criminalize most abortions, no restriction of gay rights, no alternative medicine in our medical system. To me they are examples of the same principle.