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My Wild Weekend With a Nobel Laureate, a Pulitzer Prize Winner and a Former Saturday Night Live Star

Most would agree that FFRF, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has the most fun conventions. They’re not “stuffy” and, despite doing serious work, do not take themselves too seriously. This goes for their annual formal conventions as well as the annual July 4 bash at the Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall in Alabama. The 2002 FFRF convention in San Diego was probably the most entertaining reason-based convention on record. It was also one of the best attended of such gatherings, with 400 to 450 registered attendees.

The Friday events were an awesome way to kick off the convention. Dr. Michael Newdow was awarded the “Freethinker of the Year” award, and he gave a humorous acceptance speech describing his circuit court case in which “under God” in the Pledge was declared unconstitutional. He also discussed his future legal goals. His presentation was spiced up with is own blues songs about the court cases and the media fallout. As a doctor, a lawyer and a budding musician, Newdow is a versatile talent.

For me, the highlight of the event was the presentation by Saturday Night Live alum Julia Sweeney. Julia has gone through a deconversion of sorts from Catholicism to skepticism. She described it in a similar style as her critically acclaimed film/monologue, “God Said ‘Ha!'” which dealt with her losing her brother to cancer and then surviving her own cancer. Roger Ebert described “God Said ‘Ha!'” as “This film has a dignity, an underlying taste, in the way it deals with subjects like cancer and dying. It doesn’t simply use the subjects as an occasion for manipulative sentiment. At the end of the film, we feel we’ve been through a lot with Julia and Mike Sweeney and their family. We’re sad, but we’re smiling. I was thinking: Life’s like that.” Julia is working on making “Letting Go of God,” a monologue, and I look forward to its widespread distribution.

Friday concluded with Dan Barker and Steve Benson’s performance of “Tunes ‘n Toons.” “TnT” is a hilarious musical/cartoon satire of politics, religion and culture. Dan is a former minister and an accomplished musician who still gets occasional royalties for Christian musicals he wrote in “a past life.” Steve is the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial-cartoonist for the Arizona Republic. The duo’s performance is very popular and it is different each time. On Saturday, Steve received an “Emperor has No Garments” award for his longtime defense of reason through his editorial cartoons.

“Tunes and Toons” had a “mystery guest,” Darrell Lambert, the Seattle area Eagle Scout who was expelled because someone learned he didn’t believe in a god. On Saturday, Lambert was awarded a student activist award and spoke concerning his expulsion. Lambert is the ultimate “all-American guy”–with one exception. He’s 19 years old, clean cut and a high-level Eagle Scout who trains other scout leaders. He is very bright and is studying to be a forensic anthropologist. The “exception,” of course, concerns his nonbelief in a god.

Another student activism award went to Blake Trettien of Maryland. As a high school senior, Trettien filed a lawsuit challenging a display of the Ten Commandments on public land in Frederick, Maryland. Blake is also a great example of the “youth of reason” and he is now a student at Johns Hopkins.

Nobel Laureate chemist Paul Boyer spoke about a scientist’s view of atheism in America. He is bold in his nonbelief, even for a high-level scientist. In his official Nobel biography, he explains that nothing other than atheism makes sense for an understanding of science. Like many American scientists, he bemoans the scientific illiteracy of the American public.

Another esteemed scientist, Robert Sapolsky, received an “Emperor Has No Clothes” award for his books on animal and human behavior. Sapolsky is a professor of neuroendocrinology at Stanford. Among other things, he discussed various psychological conditions and how they affect religiosity and irreligiosity.

Probably the most moving presentation was that of Taslima Nasrin, an exile from Bangladesh now living in Sweden. Nasrin is under a fatwa, or death sentence, from Islamic leaders in her homeland for her critical writings regarding Islam’s treatment of women. She cannot visit her family and friends and has to watch over her shoulder when she travels. Before fleeing Bangladesh, she was in hiding, moving from friend’s house to friend’s house to avoid the police and a mob which sometimes included more than one hundred thousand people. Her story reminded many of the Diary of Anne Frank. Her story puts a human face on the evils of religions in their extreme forms and when they control governments.

The events closed with a reading and presentation by Phillip Appleman, accompanied by his wife and muse Marjorie Appleman. Phillip is known as the “Poet Laureate of Humanism” and is a distinguished anthropologist. He is an expert on Darwin and Malthus, and is able to set Darwin and evolution to poetry to explain its mechanisms and its effects.

The convention was a memorable one, and I look forward to attending many more. I encourage the godless in the US to attend an FFRF event, either their national convention or the annual July 4 bash at Lake Hypatia in Alabama.