AAI Conference thoughts
I was one of the first of the Rational Responders to arrive at the conference. Rich Rodriguez and I attended the auction on thursday night, where we filmed both Dennet and Hitchens doing the blasphemy challenge. To be honest, we were both a bit star struck for a while. We were sitting at a table with a couple of other early arrivals, and while we were talking, Richard Dawkins strolled right by. He was just milling about, and checking out the items up for auction, but it was really funny to watch the effect that it had on our table. Suddenly, the conversation became very disjointed, and everyone was glancing over their shoulder, trying not to be that guy, but gawking anyway.
After a couple of hours, it became obvious to us that these guys may be celebrities, but they really are basically ordinary, approachable people. For much of the evening, Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali were pretty much available to anyone who wanted to get an autograph, or ask them a quick question. Hitchens was particularly available, as he was conveniently located next to the bar.
Friday night was thrilling. All of the speakers were fantastic. There was something bigger about Friday, though, and it's what I consider to be the most exciting element of the whole conference. Sam Harris made a rather controversial speech. Both of his main points were contrary to the mainstream atheist trends right now, and he admitted up front that his ideas would probably not be well received. The beautiful thing about it, though, was that after the speeches, when many of us were gathered in the hotel bar, lots of people did disagree with him, but the sentiment seemed to be disagreement over minutia, and agreement that despite minor quibbles, the purpose of everyone at the conference was agreed upon.
This might seem like a small thing, but it's not. Atheists are notoriously hard to organize, and once you have them all together in one place, it's even harder to get them to agree on a single point. After all, freethinking encourages independent ideas. Certainly there is a lot of impetus to organize now, with the current political climate, but it seemed like there was something bigger. It seemed like there was general agreement that the time to stand idly by and let theists demand respect for their ridiculous beliefs has come to an end, regardless of politics. I personally heard at least a dozen stories of people who have come to realize just how much harm religion does individually -- how it breaks up families, represses normal desires, and causes all sorts of cognitive dissonance and personal stress. I talked to Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, and Socialists. There were retired people, college students, professors, lawyers, artists, and just about any other kind of profession you can think of. This was not a group of stodgy intellectuals. These were ordinary people who have become tired of living in the dark ages. Many have travelled to other parts of the world, and have seen that society can function perfectly well without the belief that god is necessary for morals.
I'll definitely be making the trip next year. I feel energized and motivated, and I think pretty much everyone who attended this year feels the same. Apart from being a bit understaffed and not having enough available tickets, it was a roaring success.