Interim report: FFRF convention

As is always the case, at least in my experience, the Freedom from Religion Foundations meetings are at once serious, moving, sociable (lots of chances to mingle with members and speakers), and uplifting. The entire meeting is a bit more than a day long, so I’ll give a brief report halfway through.

Last night Dan Barker began the meeting with his piano music, in this case a rewritten version of a Christian song, and Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-President, formally opened the meeting, giving several awards to people who had given their city council meetings secular invocations rather than prayer.

Linda LaScola, who runs the Clergy Project with Dan Dennett–a project that helps nonbelieving clergy either find their way or come out of the closet–talked a bit about this very worthy endeavor. Then came one of the high spots of the meeting so far: a fundamentalist Christian from Eastern Tennessee, who had gone for years on the Clergy Project boards (open only to nonbelieving clergy) as  “Adam Mann,” stood up, told his story, and, for the very first time, gave his real name: Carter Warden.

It’s always moving and sad to hear these stories, and his was especially poignant, as it began with him investigating evolution, since he felt he had to know the enemy that his Church rejected. Well, that led him to read for years–all sorts of science, secular philosophy, books by atheists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Four Horsemen, and so on (he even read my book!). He finally came out as an uncompromising atheist, but his family didn’t know until just recently, and many of them still don’t know, as he announced it only here, and last night.

A musician, like Dan Barker, Warden then played guitar and sang a song he wrote about the freedom that comes with giving up God; it was really very good. He then did a duet with Dan sitting at the piano, riffing on an old Christian song, but changing the words so that it was Jesus, not science, that was built on “sinking sand” and that science, not Jesus, was a “rock.” Needless to say, Warden got a standing ovation. Then there was a short panel: Warden, Barker, Dennett, and LaScola took questions from the audience about the clergy project.

Lawrence Krauss then got “The Emperor’s New Clothes” award, and gave one of his characteristically animated and fascinating lectures on cosmology, “Turning metaphysics into physics,” about the origins of the universe and the new work detecting gravity waves.

This morning there was the famous “non-prayer breakfast” in which Dan Barker presided over a “moment of bedlam” instead of grace, and we all shouted, clapped, and clinked our glasses. The morning and early afternoon featured more awards, including one to Laurie Lebo, a local reporter who wrote The Devil in Dover book about the ID trial. Lebo, a runner and only 52 years old, described the heart attack she had this summer, which gave her a near-death-experience that she refused to impute to God.

Lebo was followed by Rafida Bonya Ahmed, who received the new “Forward” award from the FFRF. Ahmed is the widow of Dr. Avijit Roy, the secular Bangladeshi blogger who, along with his wife, was attacked in Bangladesh by machete-wielding Islamic terrorists. Roy died, and Ahmed was severely wounded, sustaining head injuries and losing the thumb of her left hand (an absence clearly visible on the big screen as the mark of terrorism). Ahmed continues the pair’s work of secularism, but now from Austin. When introducing Ahmed and telling about her tragedy, Annie Laurie’s voice broke in sorrow, as did Ahmed’s when she described the incident in detail. It was so sad. But Ahmed’s message was ultimately uplifting: we are all citizens of the world and must help our brothers and sisters who are repressed by Islam, or by the rapacious capitalism that awards Bangladeshi garment workers a full 70 cents a day for their labors. Ahmed had no use for what she called the “PC mentality” that excuses extremist Islam.

I’ll be speaking at 4 pm after Dan Barker and Susan Jacoby, and Dan Dennett will be talking after dinner. It’s been a fine meeting so far. You can see the schedule here.


  1. rickflick
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    What an amazing meeting. I so wish I was there. Maybe next time.
    I’m looking forward to any video from the meeting.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I was just looking at the latest Freethought Today from FFRF. Lots of good stuff in there and you get it every month for just joining. The comic on page 3 is a good one with Virgin Mary in full maternity explaining to her husband – Don’t be silly Joseph, of course I’m still a virgin. This must be some kind of miracle or something. Pool boy out back working on the pool.

  3. Posted October 8, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t posted in a long while. Having trouble with my WordPress login, and some personal challenges (including the sudden loss of another much-beloved cat last spring).
    So I really, really wanted to attend this confrence, as it’s in my hometown. No planes, hotels, just parking garages.
    Alas, too many complications in those challenges for me to add this to my schedule. Really wanted to meet Jerry – and get a paw print autograph.
    Hope conference continues to go well, and hoping to be able to be a regular on this site again soon.

    aka pghwelshgirl

    • Posted October 8, 2016 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      Sorry about the loss of your cat. If you send me your book, I’ll be glad to autograph it, add a pawprint, and send it back to you.

  4. GBJames
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Great summary of a very interesting convention. I thought I heard that Ms. Ahmed was now working from Austin but maybe I misheard that detail.

    • Posted October 8, 2016 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      No, she is; I erred. I sat next to her at dinner and we had a nice chat. A lovely woman, and I’m so sorry for her tragedy.

  5. Mark R.
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the report. I’m looking forward to the video and further summaries of the convention. Meow.

  6. Posted October 8, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Bravo to the organizers for inviting Ms. Ahmed.

  7. Diane G.
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Love the FFRF meetings–they always seem to find a sizable assortment of new, important faces to go along with the usual great speakers on the atheist circuit. Thanks for this report, and I’m looking forward to the next one.🙂

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