Texas Freethought Convention: Atheists Invade Houston

10/17/2011 03:58 pm ET | Updated Dec 17, 2011

On Oct. 7-8, Houston was invaded by some 700 atheists, agnostics, humanists and other unclassified nonbelievers for the annual Texas Freethought Convention. This year the event was also co-sponsored by the Atheist Alliance of America. The program included talks by several of the most prominent atheists and skeptics and was highlighted by the presentation of the AAA Richard Dawkins Award to the noted literary figure Christopher Hitchens, who is gravely ill from esophageal cancer.

Besides speakers, the program arranged by TFC president Paul Mitchell and AAA president Nick Lee included supplemental activities such as breakout discussions, comedy shows, music, a film festival (including "The Ledge," with its director), art exhibits and every imaginable God-denying item for sale, from bumper stickers to T-shirts. A large book sale was also conducted, with signings by those authors present.

Many organizations had tables where you could learn about their activities on behalf of freethought. Lots of young people attended; the Secular Student Alliance even had its own separate (cheaper) banquet.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science also co-sponsored the meeting. Dawkins was on a U.S. tour selling his latest book "The Magic of Reality" (for children). Dawkins flew in from Kentucky, where he had spoken to a huge audience. The Dawkins Foundation is growing rapidly, with offices now in Oxford and Washington, D.C.

Some highlights: The meeting opened Friday morning with PZ Myers talking about "Mutants" in which he debunked the notion that genetic mutations are always harmful.

In the afternoon, Skeptic Magazine publisher and Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer gave two talks on why people believe and the origin of morality, based on several of his books, including his latest, "The Believing Brain."

Saturday morning, Darrel Ray, author of "The God Virus," gave a talk on research he has done on the connections between sex and religious belief. He reported on a survey showing that religious people have pretty much the same sex life as the non-religious. They masturbate, have premarital and extramarital sex, oral sex, and all the rest the same as nonbelievers. They just feel far more feel guilty about it.

In the afternoon, Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, talked about teaching evolution in Texas. I followed with "Faster-Than-Light? The Philosophical and Theological Implications." Next, I joined PZ, Genie and LSU philosopher Barbara Forrest on a panel to discuss education. They emphasized the problems of teaching evolution and creationism. I argued that there as more important antiscience issues to discuss, and Genie took my cue to announce that NCSE is starting a climate-change initiative. I mentioned the interesting connection between evolution and global warming denialism -- both have strong religious involvement.

The highlight and most moving event of the convention was the Saturday night banquet, in which Richard Dawkins presented the Richard Dawkins Award, sponsored by AAA and his foundation, to Christopher Hitchens, whose latest book is "Arguably." Right after dessert, the 500 or so attendees rose to their feet cheering and applauding as Dawkins led Hitchens into the room shaking hands all the way. He had lost a lot of weight and all his hair from his cancer treatment, centered at a prestigious clinic in Houston. He continues his work there from his room.

Dawkins then gave an eloquent tribute to Hitch, after which Christopher spoke for 13 minutes and answered questions for another 15 minutes or more. He was pretty much his old self, a little softer-spoken and just a tad less pugnacious. But he received standing ovation after standing ovation. (See a nice article about Hitchens in the Oct. 10 NY Times arts section.)

Sunday morning, Forrest, co-author with Paul Gross of "Creationism's Trojan Horse," talked about how the creationist movement, centered at the Discovery Institute, has repeatedly changed its central theme language, going from "creation science" to "intelligent design" to "teach the controversy" to "academic freedom" in their attempts to get creationism taught in public schools. She listed all the states where bills have been proposed to allow teachers to practice their "academic freedom" to teach the so-called flaws in the theory of evolution and present the "alternatives." Her own state of Louisiana has been the only one that has passed such a bill. One of the proposed alternate textbooks says that evolution claims humans are descended from chimpanzees. Similar bills have been defeated or have died in committee everywhere else. An important, unacknowledged point is that schoolteachers do not really have academic freedom. Only college teachers do. But even then courts have ruled that the classroom is not a public forum where all ideas, no matter how off the wall, must be given equal time.

I asked what the problem was teaching about creationism, or even the Bible, as long as it is done honestly and factually. Several philosophers of science have said that despite court rulings, creation science and ID are science -- just incorrect science. Forrest disagreed because these introduce the supernatural. However, science is not forbidden from addressing the supernatural, as long as it involves the interpretation of empirical data. A number of people came up to me later saying they agreed with me and that allowing at least some mention of creationism would at least serve to deflate the academic freedom argument. Forbidding it really looks like censorship. Furthermore, the more one learns about religion, the less religious one becomes. Teach creationism and comparative religion. Just teach them properly.