was held Friday the 30th through Monday the 1st in Renton, WA (near Seattle), and I went -- it's only about 160 miles away, and Richard Dawkins would be there.
About 340 people attended, and it was an unusual experience for me to be surrounded by so many people who were all atheists. Many had come from places significantly less hospitable than Portland -- the first person I talked with at any length was from Spokane, and some others were from small towns.
There was a report from the Reason Rally in Washington DC a week earlier, which had drawn 20,000 people despite rain.
The core of the conference was the lectures and workshops on Saturday. There were three time slots, each with four options (schedule here
). For the first two time-slots I naturally chose Dr. Jon Peters's "The Genome and Evolution", which was an eye-opener.
I've known for years that the evidence from genetics is overwhelming; even if there were no fossil record at all, the genetic evidence all by itself would be absolutely conclusive that the theory of evolution is true. Much of what Peters discussed, however, was very recent further
discoveries -- from the last year or so. Biology, like medicine and computer science, moves at a very rapid pace these days.
Much of it concerned the genetics of atavistic traits that occasionally appear (humans with tails, whales with legs, etc.), and of various kinds of DNA segments which are non-functional and thus get passed on from generation to generation unaffected by natural selection. Work on these issues has greatly multiplied the number of known phenomena which can be explained only by common ancestry among species -- including and especially between humans and other great ape species.
An interesting aside was that other work in genetics has given us a surprising amount of knowledge about the history of human population sizes. The total human population at any one time could never have been smaller than about 8,000 people.
Peters was not shy about pointing out the implications of these discoveries for religion, which go far beyond merely refuting the Genesis creation myth. Since there could never have been just one pair from whom all modern humans are descended, for example, the story of the Fall and inherited original sin are nonsensical, and thus so is the sacrifice of Jesus -- and there goes most of the core of the Christian belief system. Anyone who thinks that Christianity and modern science can be made compatible with each other doesn't understand the science, and probably doesn't understand Christianity very well either.
Peters mentioned that even some Evangelical Christians who are geneticists, and who worked on these discoveries, had abandoned their resistance to the theory of evolution and are now trying to convince their fellow Christians that rejecting it is no longer tenable. He called 2011 a "Galileo year" for biology. See his website
for details on these matters (the boxes on the left aren't clickable -- mouse over the headers at the top for drop-down menus).
For the final time slot I went to "Current Separation Cases", on recent court decisions affecting separation of church and state. The focus was on the conflict between employment non-discrimination laws and the right of religious organizations to conduct their business (including hiring and firing) on the basis of the taboos and general arbitrary weirdness which they exist to promote. Let's just say that the reasoning in some recent decisions has proven pretty arbitrary and weird too, even on the Supreme Court. It's anyone's guess how any given case will be decided (but we definitely need to make sure that there will not be a Republican in the White House to make judicial appointments any time soon).
On Sunday morning Dawkins arrived, along with two leaders of the US branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation
-- Elizabeth Cornwell and Sean Faircloth -- who spoke on the ongoing harm done by special legal privileges for religion (religious day-care centers in the South are exempt from the regulations imposed on non-religious day-care, for example, and at least two children have died as a result), and how to work toward a more secular society. Dawkins interviewed two former pastors who had abandoned religion (there is a special atheist initiative, The Clergy Project
, to help such people make what is obviously a very difficult transition) and who were dealing with the devastating rejection by bigoted family members and friends which so often accompanies "coming out".
Atheist activism, by the way, now clearly embraces the analogy with the gay movement, and this came up several times during the conference. Gays used to be stigmatized rather as atheists are, by the same kinds of people and for similar reasons; yet they've won much greater acceptance and significant legal successes (such as the spread of gay marriage) in a surprisingly short span of time. Clearly theirs is an example worth studying.
Last of all came the book signing. I'd brought along my copy of The Extended Phenotype
for this, and it now bears the great man's signature; unfortunately, given the huge crush of people waiting in line, there was no opportunity to talk with him at any length.
After the conference there was another event in Bellevue a few miles away, where Coldwell, Faircloth, and Dawkins spoke again. Attendance was far larger than at the conference -- I wouldn't be surprised if there were more than a thousand people there -- and the doors didn't open until almost an hour after the scheduled time. But it was well worth it. Dawkins spoke on the need to reclaim words like "pro-life" and "intelligent design" and "morality" which have been seized by religionists as Trojan horses for their various inanities. Faircloth, a passionate speaker, emphasized organization and political activism (for his full program, see his book
), while Coldwell talked about what's currently being done, which is a lot.
As she pointed out, it would be very easy for Dawkins to just relax at home in Britain and watch his book royalties roll in; instead, he's touring the US and helping atheists here get active and organized, because he understands what's at stake. Given the tremendous power and cultural influence of the US, the ambitions of American fundamentalism represent a global threat, not just one confined within our own borders.
Dana Hunter has a report
on the Bellevue event.
If you've never been to a conference like this, I recommend it. Everyone I encountered was friendly, and the organizers and volunteers were always helpful when I had a question about something. I'm not generally comfortable in crowds or groups, but it can be surprisingly liberating to be among hundreds of people who share one's understanding of the insanity and inanity of religion.