After a week of struggling to upload videos and pictures, partially in South Carolina, and partially in Michigan(where they are apparently using a 4800 baud modem at my hotel), I am proud to bring you my recap of and observations on Rock Beyond Belief.
I’ll try to keep the extraneous technical commentary to a minimum. In short, I’m an amateur. You can see it in the videos. The press conference with Dawkins is out of focus, because I hadn’t enabled the digital for video on my camera. Then it stopped recording halfway through Dawkins’ response to my second question. His response to my third question is lost to history, unless I can get ahold of the guy from PBS that was there. It was a wonderful question, and it got a laugh. It went something like, “What effect do you think a Rick Santorum presidency would have on the atheist movement? And if he gets elected, can I live with you?” I was so horrified when I saw that the camera had stopped recording during my shining moment, that my brain froze, and I didn’t write down his answer. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck! Here is a snippet of the press conference. The part with me.
Ed Brayton, the owner of Freethought Blogs and writer of Dispatches From the Culture Wars, was emcee. He did a good job, I thought, especially considering some of the bumps throughout the event. Here’s his intro.
The lineup included a lot of musical talent that I hadn’t heard before, but that I’m now glad that I have. The first performer was Baba Brinkman, the “Dawkins of Hip Hop”. He was enthusiastic, putting together rhymes on evolution, atheism, and how our common heritage should be bringing us together.
Sean Faircloth was a great choice for a first speaker. He’s energetic, well spoken, and on-point. He gave a great speech bringing everyone up to speed on why we were there. Spot on.
Richard Dawkins. How much can I really say? A good bit, actually. I had a press pass, and I used it as well as I knew how (see aforementioned amateur status). I was there for the press conference, which also included Justin Griffith, Sean Faircloth, and Todd Stiefel. I was in a little bit of celebrity-shock when he walked into the tent. The adrenaline hit, and I have to think that I was visibly shaking. Luckily, it ebbed away, and I was able to ask my questions. Between the press conference, talking to him after (and getting him to sign my son’s copy of “The Magic of Reality”, and his speech, I have to say that my opinion of him was solidified. He is an incredibly easy person to talk to. Yes, I can see how people think that he comes off as abrasive, or self-righteous. They’re wrong, of course, because the only reason they see him that way is because they believe their faith has a special status. Recently, in a Facepalm argument (I know, I know), the other person said that he “sounded like a pompous British aristocrat”. Of course he does! Anyone with an Estuary accent sounds like a pompous British aristocrat to Americans, that doesn’t mean they are. Case in point, Tom Baker and David Tennant.
Roy Zimmerman was witty, irreverent, and intellectual. A great addition to the lineup.
Dale McGowan is truly awesome. He gave a great presentation on the Foundation Beyond Belief, the wonderful work they’re doing, and the necessity for us heathens to get involved. I got to talk to him off to the side. We chatted about resources for freethinking parents, UU’s, and my son’s daycare. If you haven’t already, please check out Foundation Beyond Belief. We’re big supporters of their work here at Left Hemispheres. Also be sure to check out The Meming of Life, his site about secular parenting.
I finally learned how to properly pronounce Hemant Mehta’s name (think metaphysical). His effort as a public school teacher to maintaining the barrier between that role and his life as an atheist activist is laudable. It’s great that students approached him on their own to form a student organization.
Words Such As Burn performed some progressive punk for us, including a cover of Lennon’s “Imagine”. That’s Todd Stiefel to the left.
Here’s where I get negative. I have great respect for what Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation do. His speech on this day, however, was completely out of line. My clip is only of the “chant” (I wasn’t filming when he started, but when I realized what was going on; I knew I had to get it). The rest of his speech is just as angry. This was unnecessary and, I felt, a little embarrassing. This day was about military freethinkers being able to gather, without harassment, enjoying the same rights afforded to others. And yes, it was also about the fact that the government shouldn't be providing a paid forum for any religious or nonreligious beliefs. It wasn't, however, a protest rally where we start yelling at the base commander and carrying on hysterically. Thanks for being the stereotype that day.
Nate Phelps is a nice guy. He’s also a very brave one. It takes a lot of courage to leave your family and the only community you’ve ever known when you’re only eighteen years old. It takes a lot of heart to get in front of thousands of people and pour it out for them, hoping to strengthen the resolve of others in that situation, and to spread the truth about his family’s heinous lies and venomous hate.
Todd Stiefel, whose Stiefel Freethought Foundation is responsible in great part for the funding of the event, spoke on the Constitution and biblical principles. Not as David Barton would, mind you. No, he outlined how the Bible is in direct opposition to our Constitution. This was near and dear to me, as I had recently raised these same ideas to my PA General Assemblyman over HR 535. There is much more of Locke, than Luke, in our Constitution.
Spoonboy was great. I always appreciate a one man show. I got to talk to him at the after party, and I thanked him for bringing up GLBT issues. I got out before DADT was lifted, and I had never heard anything positive said publicly on a military base about the GLBT community; to do so would have been to invite suspicion.
Margaret Downey spoke about the discrimination against atheists and GLBT’s in the Boy Scouts of America. She then played Dan Renzler’s YouTube video, and invited him on stage. I also left the Boy Scouts for similar reasons. I started getting uncomfortable with the religious bent about the time I went from Webelos to Scouts. I no longer buy their stupid popcorn.
David Silverman. Dick, or not a dick? That is the question. I admit that I came into this with a preconceived notion of who David Silverman was. I had seen him on TV, read interviews, and watched the YouTube videos. Then I got to interview him myself. He was cordial, friendly even. I asked him about the billboard in Harrisburg, PA; whether or not it was going to be replaced. He said that it was, but that it was going to be redesigned. He expressed some sadness that the image had been what people had latched on to, and that they hadn’t bothered to read the rest. “American Atheists wants everyone to read the read the Bible. We dare them to read it, not just portions, but the whole thing.” He told me that he had given his daughter a copy of the Bible; he doesn't want to shield her from it. He wants her to understand it for what it is.
We also talked about the Clergy Project. “Objective truth can’t come from a flawed document. It’s inadequate, and there’s clergy that realize that. We want to help them. True guidance comes from within.”
I mentioned that I am a complainant in the case FFRF filed against HR 535, and he was dismissive. “If it could be won, American Atheists would have done it.” That irked me, and I think he’s wrong. Establishing harm will be the toughest part of the case, which he doesn’t think can be done. I disagree. I think great harm can be shown in the ostracizing of non-Christians in the Commonwealth. We’ll see how it plays out.
I asked him how he felt about being a meme. “I love being a meme, it humanizes atheism. Anything that puts a human face on the movement is great. I’m not just a hard ass atheist.”
He asked me if I was related to the good folks at JesusFetusFajitaFishsticks (we share a rather uncommon last name). “Not as far as we can tell, we’ve talked though,” I said. “I’m the same; I’m not related to any of the Silvermans in New York.”
His speech was typical Silverman; fiery, aggressive, embracing of arrogance and a superiority over the religious. He put me off a little as he always tends to do in his public appearances. I would direct him to item one in this post by Daniel Fincke.
So, to answer the original question, I guess I’d have to say this. David Silverman is an alright guy, though I don’t agree with him on some issues, or his methods. Sounds resolvable.
Oh, Justin, you sly fox! He had us all going. He said he was going to do a Q&A with the crowd, so that the guy could get a mic and propose in public. All went well! Congrats to the lovebirds! Make more freethinkers! ; )
Jeffrey Lewis is a musician and comic book writer. He’s really fucking good. He commented that he was a third generation atheist, and that it doesn’t really come up in his thoughts all that often because of the way he was raised. I can only hope that for future generations we achieve that as a cultural norm.
Dan Barker sang us some songs and told us about his near-brush with the military during Vietnam. Ed Brayton said, “Dan Barker never thought he’d be opening for Aiden.”
There’s plenty of video of Aiden out there, so I settled for taking some pictures. They put on a great show. “Hysteria” was stuck in my head for days, and co-workers were giving me funny looks as I sang the lyrics without realizing it.
Some random pics from throughout the day.
steak I was going to eat later.
At the after party I got to speak to Ed Brayton and Assassin Actual who told me about some of the goings on and future additions at Freethought Blogs (sorry, no spoilers, I promised). I spoke to some really great people throughout the event, military and civilian. I was happy to see a diverse crowd. There were people of all different ages and ethnicities, and families with young children. Thank you Camp Quest for coming to support the kids. It gave me hope for the future. It was freeing to be able to be me, in public, in a way I never have before. It was a really great experience for me, as an atheist and as a veteran. It's definitely a sign of progress. This year has seen two large public atheist events. We've still got some conventions coming up, and the opportunity to continue building this momentum. Thank you to Justin Griffith and everyone else who made Rock Beyond Belief possible!