Last weekend I was in Hartford, Connecticut for the annual convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a really great organization devoted to enforcing the separation of church and state in America. Unlike some atheist organizations, they actually do something beyond holding meetings featuring the same tired group of jet-set atheist speakers and selling each other lapel pins (sorry; I haven’t had my coffee yet). The FFRF mandate is this:
The nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation works to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism, and to promote the constitutional principle of separation between church and state. The Foundation is the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics and skeptics) with over 17,000 members.
The organization, now headed by the tireless duo of Dan Barker (ex-preacher and author of Godless) and Annie Laurie Gaylor (author of several books, including Betrayal of Trust: Clergy’s Abuse of Children), is perhaps most famous for mounting and supporting court cases that defend the First Amendment. Their most visible recent victory was obtaining a federal court decision ruling that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional. In one of his more disappointing actions, President Obama is appealing this ruling. He’s clearly in the wrong.
Anyway, on to the convention. Hartford is the capital of Connecticut, and here’s the state capitol building near the convention center:
The confab began with an optional visit to the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford. Twain (whose real name was Samuel Clemens), was of course an outspoken atheist; here’s one of his many quotes on disbelief:
A God who could make good children as easily a bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave is angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell — mouths mercy, and invented hell — mouths Golden Rules and foregiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor abused slave to worship him!
Here’s Twain’s wonderful house (you can take a virtual tour here), where he wrote, among other things, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. He lived there from 1874 to 1891, when he had to sell it because he was bankrupt from bad investments:
The conference formally opened on Saturday morning, with Dan and Annie Laurie reporting on the year’s accomplishments, including a rise in membership to 17,000 from only 5,000 a few years ago. Here is the indefatigable duo:
Dan, an accomplished musician who wrote several well-known Christian songs when he was a preacher, entertained the crowd by playing the piano and singing his newer heathen compositions during breaks:
Among other things it did this year, the FFRF mounted a series of bus and billboard ads that were displayed around the U.S. This “Come out of the closet” campaign features both famous people and “normal” American proudly displaying their godlessness.
Here are a few photos I took from the screen, but you can see the whole series at this page, and you can actually make and submit your own billboard design (with your photo and slogan) here. (Do it! If your design is really good, it might be chosen for use on an actual billboard.)
Science writer Natalie Angier, author of the wonderful essay “My God problem“:
This is one of my favorites:
And of course we can’t omit Le Randi, who had a great quote:
Friday evening featured two talks. In the first, Steve Pinker talked about his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. As always, he was eloquent and sported a natty tailored suit, though his hair seems to have become somewhat tamer:
(Before Steve’s talk, Dan played a new song he’d written in honor of the “Power Couple”, for Steve is married to the next speaker, Rebecca Goldstein. Dan’s song was about how their romance was due not to some divine force or miracle, but to a chance combination of genes, environments, and hormones.)
Rebecca gave a lovely talk on her own background (a strict Jewish religious education), which she overcame to become a philosopher and MacArthur prize winner, and also spoke about her latest book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. She was at the convention to receive the annual “Freethought Heroine Award“. Apparently Steve came along as a freebie.
Rebecca’s talk was followed by cake and coffee in the foyer.
On Saturday, the morning was occupied by awards to students and their own talks, which were very moving. These young people (Dylan Galos and Jessica Alquist) bravely stood up against the incursion of religion in their schools. The Freethinker of the Year Award was also given to Hawaiian Mitch Kahle (see Kahle here getting roughed up in the Hawaii legislature for objecting to an “official” prayer).
There were a few items on sale, including some “de-baptismal certificates,” signed by Dan (still an ordained minister), officially revoking the baptism of a Christian (name to be filled in). Bumper stickers were also on offer:
Saturday afternoon featured three talks. Joseph Taylor, once a famous Christian rock musician (almost an oxymoron, no?) recounted his deconversion, and Steve Trunk received the “Atheist in a Foxhole” award given to veterans who fight First Amendment violations. Steve is an activist who opposed the existence of the Mount Soledad cross, a large concrete cross (combined with a veteran’s memorial) that sits on state land in San Diego, California.
Finally, I received the “Emperor Has No Clothes” Award for “plain speaking on the shortcomings of religion.” This was really an honor given that previous recipients included Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Steve Pinker, Janeane Garofalo, Natalie Angier, Penn and Teller, and George Carlin. Like Groucho Marx, I don’t feel like I belong in that august club, but I did my best with a 45-minute talk called “The Odd Couple: Why Science and Religion Can’t Cohabit.” It seemed well received, and I signed copies of my book afterwards. Unfortunately, the talks weren’t filmed (I would love that one to be public) and I have no pictures since I was giving the talk. I’ll post the pictures that the FFRF took later.
The award was accompanied by a nice check and a heavy, gold-plated statue—made by the same people who make the Oscar statuettes—of a naked emperor. It’s being sent to Chicago since it’s too heavy for me to tote around on my travels. I have to say that this will be my proudest possession:
Saturday evening featured a banquet, with a toothsome dinner followed by an auction of “clean money” by Annie Laurie, Dan, and the FFRF Staff.
“Clean money” is U.S. currency printed before 1957. You may not realize that the motto “In God We Trust,” which appears on all U.S. banknotes—and clearly violates the U.S. Constitution—was added to our currency only in 1957. Various people had donated “clean” pre-1957 banknotes (from $1 to $100) to the FFRF, and these were raffled off as a way of getting donations for the organization.
Annie Laurie announces a big winner:
The evening’s highlight was a song-and-patter presentation by Charles Strouse, a famous Broadway composer who wrote, among other things, the music for “Annie” and “Bye Bye Birdie.” He also wrote the famous song “Those Were the Days,” sung by Archie and Edith Bunker at the beginning of each episode of “All in the Family.”
Strouse, now 83, is an open atheist who also received an Emperor Has No Clothes Award. Here is he getting it from Dan and then raising it proudly:
Strouse then sat down at the Steinway and played some of his greatest hits, as well as telling anecdotes (some of them off-color) about his days on Broadway.
At one point during a song, he suddenly stopped and began laughing. “My wife has fallen asleep,” he said. And sure enough, she had nodded off at the table.
Strouse finished with a rousing rendition of one of his best songs, “Tomorrow,” from the musical “Annie.” (I think, though, that his best song is actually “Once Upon A Time,” from the little-known musical “All American.” You can hear that lovely song, performed by Tony Bennett, here.)
Strouse’s rendition of “Tomorrow” was so spirited that it made me tear up. It is a wonderful song. I found a YouTube version of Strouse singing it, which gives you an idea of what we heard.
It was a wonderful evening and a wonderful convention. Many thanks to Annie Laurie and Dan for inviting me and conferring upon me such an honor, but especially for running such a fantastic organization. Join the FFRF now!