I typically haven't been good about the whole "conference report" thing. It always seemed like an overwhelming task -- trying to sum up the essence of an entire multi-day conference in a succinct and entertaining blog post, or even in a marginally readable. But I've figured out that I don't have to report on an entire freaking conference in order to write about it. I can just report on the stuff I especially liked about it. (And, if it seems relevant, the stuff that particularly got up my nose.)
Which is good. Because the Secular Student Alliance national conference was freaking awesome, and deserves to be reported on.
I go to a lot of conferences, and they're all different, and I find something to enjoy about all of them. But the SSA has a very special place in my heart. Skepticon rocks harder, TAM is more glam... but the SSA feels like home. I feel like I can just relax and hang out there, more than I can at any other conference. If you're an atheist student, you should absolutely make this conference a priority. If you're an atheist student who doesn't belong to a student organization, come anyway -- they'll help you get one started. And if you're not a student, you can still come, and you can still have an awesomely good time.
So here, in no particular order, is The Stuff I Liked Best About The Secular Student Alliance National Conference.
1: Jessica Ahlquist. Jessica, for those who aren't familiar, is the atheist high school student who's suing her public school for having a prayer banner in the school gym. After she spoke, I kept saying, "She's one of the best speakers of her age that our movement has." Then I realized: No. I have to stop saying that. She is one of the best speakers our movement has, period. She's clear, personable, expressive, friendly and approachable but completely capable of commanding a room, with a sweet manner folded into a foundation of hardcore tough. I can't tell you how many people at the conference told me that I was their second favorite speaker, second only to Jessica. I was not insulted in the least. I was totally honored.
2. Ed Clint's talk on "transfaith" -- the alternative he's proposing to "interfaith" -- and on whether an atheist organization can be confrontational and still work with religious organizations. His conclusion: Yes. It's not always easy, but it can definitely be done. The thing I liked best about Ed's talk was that he didn't just put his opinion out there as an opinion. He backed it up with solid evidence. His own group, the Illini Secular Student Alliance, has engaged in some very confrontational atheist activism -- as just one example, they were the initiators of the "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" event that so many non-confrontationalist atheists were so vehemently opposed to. And yet they've been very successful in forging bridges with campus religious groups... including with the campus Muslim group, who the atheist group is now on excellent terms with. So this whole idea that confrontational activism is inevitably and irrevocably divisive needs to be put to rest. (I also like the idea of "transfaith": a lot of atheists, myself included, are entirely in favor of atheist groups building relationships with religious groups, but have a strong reaction against the word "interfaith," since it implies that atheism is a faith. The word "transfaith" seems like a workable compromise. We just need to get the interfaith alliances to go along with it.)
3. Jeni's Ice Cream. Probably the best ice cream I have ever eaten. Possibly some of the best food of any kind I have ever eaten. I was in Columbus for five days, and I ate Jeni's ice cream for three of them. For the bulk of my meals. (Seriously. I had ice cream for dinner on one night, and ice cream for lunch on two different days. Because I am five years old.) My favorite flavors: lime cardamom rhubarb, and sweet corn with black raspberries, and bourbon butter pecan made with Maker's Mark, and peanut curry, and cherry lambic, and brown butter almond, and Riesling poached pear, and goat cheese with cherries, and... and... and... I pretty much wanted to fill a bathtub with all the flavors and roll around in it. (And yes, I know about Humphrey Slocombe in San Francisco. I love Humphrey Slocombe. Humphrey Slocombe is awesome. Humphrey Slocombe is almost as good as Jeni's. But not quite.)
4. Jamila Bey. What can I say? Jamila rocks. She's smart, hilarious, passionate, riveting, inspiring, and just generally a first-rate speaker. She's also Exhibit A against the whole stupid argument that "going out of our way to get women and people of color as speakers will dilute the quality of out events." Jamila is quickly becoming one of the most popular speakers on the atheism circuit... and she's someone our movement might not have noticed if event organizers hadn't been going out of their way to make events more diverse. She's also a joy to hang out with, and is now pretty much everybody's BFF. You should get her to speak for your group. Period.
5. The Brothers Drake Meadery. I freaking love Columbus. I am entirely serious. Columbus, Ohio is one of the coolest cities I know of. If I had some terrible curse put on me and for some reason couldn't live in San Francisco, Columbus would be high on my list of places I'd like to live. And one of the things I like best about Columbus is the food/ booze culture. And one of the things I like best about the food/ booze culture in Columbus -- apart from Jeni's, obviously -- is the Brothers Drake Meadery. Apparently artisanal mead is the new booze craze, and apparently Brothers Drake is leading the charge. And I can see why. They take mead seriously, they treat it like any serious vintner would treat their wine, and it pays off. I had no idea mead could be like that. And no, it's not all sugary sweet. In fact, most of their mead isn't sugary sweet. They actually make dry mead. I had no idea there was any such a thing. And the proprietors are knowledgeable without being snotty. I had a delightful time chatting with them, and drank way too much mead as a result. (There was an aggressively bad band playing there the night we showed up, which was unfortunate; but Ashley assured me that it's not usually like that.) Alas, you can't get their mead shipped to you: they take the whole "local" thing very seriously, the only way to get it is to go to Columbus. Another reason to go to the SSA conference.
Some other quick mentions of awesome Columbus food experiences, so I don't spend this entire conference report telling you about Columbus food culture: The biscuits and jam at the Northstar Cafe; pretty much everything I ate at the Northstar Cafe; and the iced hot chocolate at le Chocaholique, which was like a chocolate Slurpee. The salted turtles at Chocaholique were also pretty darned lickable.
6. Debuting my new talk. I'm always a little nervous when I give a new talk. And I really wasn't sure about how this one would go over. I feared that the topic -- "Resistance Is Not Futile: Is Arguing About Religion Worth It?" -- might be either too esoteric or too divisive. It seems it was neither. I had a ball delivering it, and it got a great response. The only downside was that most of the students already agreed with one of my central points -- that arguing with believers about religion can be effective, and does sometimes work to persuade people out of religion. Which meant I spent a certain amount of time preaching to the choir. But the choir seemed to enjoy being preached to, and appreciated the revving-up. So it worked.
7. Hanging out with SSA folks in the coffee shop after the meadery trip, talking philosophy and politics and trying to sober up.
8. Jen McCreight. I'll just say this about Jen: I've seen a lot of talks about diversity in the atheist movement. Heck, I've given a lot of talks about diversity in the atheist movement. I've even seen Jen speak about it before. And she's still entertaining, engaging, thoughtful, funny, friendly, and able to say hard things without being hostile or alienating. I've seen her other talks as well, and this is not a fluke. She is one of the best voices we have in our movement. I will happily hear her speak any time she's on stage.
9: Karaoke. This was something of a mixed bag, actually. As some of you already know, I'd pledged to pop my karaoke cherry as part of an atheist bloggers' fundraising competition for Camp Quest, and the SSA conference was the place I'd agreed to do it. Turns out, I don't actually like singing karaoke. I especially don't like singing karaoke at the tail end of a conference, when I'm terminally exhausted and my voice is shot. But hanging out in the karaoke bar was a pretty darned good time (once the whole "Oh, fuck, I have to sing karaoke" thing was behind me, anyway). Dancing with a bunch of atheist wimmin to the karaoke rendition of "I Kissed a Girl" may have been one of the high points of the entire conference. Jen McCreight delivers one hell of a version of "Sin Wagon." And I was happy to have checked karaoke off my "gotta try that one of these days" list... especially for a good cause. (More on the karaoke experience in a later post.)
10: Hanging out and meeting folks. I had so many great conversations with so many amazing students, I can't even begin to remember them all. The students in this movement blow me away on a regular basis. I hope with all my heart that every one of them stays in the movement when they leave school. In whatever capacity. Blogging, making YouTube videos, leading national organizations, organizing social events in their local atheist groups, writing letters to the editor, simply joining organizations... whatever they can and want to do, I passionately hope they do it. If they do -- if even half of them do -- then in ten years, this movement is going to rock the world. More than it already is.
There's way more I could talk about here. Anthony Pinn. David Silverman. PZ Myers. Waxing off a strip of JT Eberhard's leg hair (no, really -- it was part of the whole Camp Quest pledge drive thing, and when I'm tempted I bitch about the karaoke I remind myself that JT got it way worse than me). Hemant Mehta. Amanda Knief. Dan Barker. The silly ice-breaker at the beginning of the conference. Etc. Etc. Etc.
But I don't want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and if I try to write about everything that was awesome about this conference, this post will never go up. So I'm going to leave it here. Those of you who were there -- it was awesome to see you. Those of you who missed it -- hope to see you next year!