How many atheists does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to change the bulb and one to videotape it, so that creationists can't claim some god said, "Let there be light."
How many atheists, agnostics and freethinkers will gather Nov. 6-8 in Seattle for the Freedom From Religion Foundation's 32nd annual convention at the downtown Red Lion Hotel? More than 600, and this year's event filled up faster than any in Foundation history, said Jackie Douglas, office manager, who also looks forward to "three times the bedlam" this year.
You will not find bowed heads or closed minds at a convention of freethinkers. You will find "a moment of bedlam" at Saturday's Nonprayer Breakfast, which since it's being held in three rooms will have thrice the pandemonium. The tradition for skeptics sitting down to eat is to make as much noise as they want by rattling their utensils, reading a favorite work out loud or simply yelling.
The Foundation is also putting "king-sized" freethought ads (with a "surprise" message) on the sides of 100 Seattle Metro buses the first week in November to coincide with the conference. The bus ad campaign includes 300 smaller interior signs with provocative quotes like "Faith is believing what you know ain't so" (Mark Twain).
The Madison, Wis.-based nonprofit organization has grown to more than 14,000 members. It was incorporated in 1978 "to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism." Its newspaper, Freethought Today, is published 10 times a year and is the only freethought newspaper in the U.S. Its weekly Freethought Radio show ("Slightly irreverent views, news, music and interviews") reaches worldwide, along with its Web site at ffrf.org.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president with her husband, Dan Barker, work with six other full-time employees and oversee several part-timers, volunteers and interns.
As a state-church watchdog, much of FFRF's work is legal. "We act on countless violations of separation of state and church on behalf of our membership and the public," Gaylor said. "Sometimes this watchdog barks and sometimes it's forced to bite. We can correct many violations through persuasion and education, but all too often we have to go to court, and that can be expensive."
The FFRF has brought dozens of First Amendment lawsuits, along with other court challenges to the "faith-based initiative," taxpayer subsidies of parochial schools, religious symbols and services on public property and prayers and religious instruction in public schools.
The Foundation has recently been fighting a trend for public boards such as city councils to open their meetings with prayers, which almost always have been Christian prayers that include exhortations to Jesus to bless the proceedings.
"That is in direct violation of the Establishment Clause and court decisions that say when prayer is allowed in public places, it must be nonsectarian or nondenominational," Gaylor said. "Of course we'd rather there be no prayers at all, because as we always say, nothing fails like prayer. And why should people who don't believe in any god or in a different god than the one being prayed to be subjected to someone else's Holy Ghost?"
The convention is a mix of serious business and good clean fun. Barker, a talented pianist, provides much of the latter. He had a touring musical ministry for 17 years and produced, wrote and arranged music for Christian publishing houses. He still gets royalties (even though he "came out" in 1984) as an atheist for his children's Christian musicals, "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "His Fleece Was White As Snow." He's also the author of Godless, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist and a children's book, Just Pretend.
Barker's music for the last 30 years has been decidedly different, with recordings that range from whimsical like "You Can't Win With Original Sin" and "Stay Away Pope Polka" to more serious tunes like "No Gods, No Masters" and "The World Is My Country," based on freethought hero Thomas Paine.
He likes to tell the story of how Irving Berlin followed up "God Bless America" with "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil in Hades."
Barker called Berlin "a patriotic agnostic" who didn't believe in an afterlife. "Just as 'White Christmas' is not about Christ, 'God Bless America' is not about God. It's about America," Barker said. "Irving Berlin was not an atheist evangelist. He was a songwriter and businessman who wrote and sold music that reflected the popular mood."
This year's recipients at the convention of the Emperor Has No Clothes Award are science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin and William Lobdell, author of Losing My Religion, a book about losing his devout faith while on the Los Angeles Times religion beat. Past recipients include Christopher Hitchens, Julia Sweeney, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Penn and Teller, Alan Dershowitz, Ted Turner, Janeane Garofalo, Natalie Angier and presidential son Ron Reagan.
Reagan, an "unabashed atheist" and Seattle resident, will speak Friday night on "One Boy's Journey to Godlessness," preceded by Phil Zuckerman, sociologist and author. Zuckerman's speech is titled "The Goodness of Godlessness."
The FFRF Freethought Heroine Award this year goes to Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History. She speaks Saturday on "My Atheist Paradise: Leaving Our Bodies to Art" and is followed by Le Guin.
Daniel Everett, who went from missionary to atheist and wrote Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, will speak Saturday. He's preceded by Barry Kosmin, a principal researcher of the American Religious Identification Survey. His topic is "The Rising Tide of Secularity in the U.S." The 2008 survey found that almost all religions have lost ground while "nones/nonreligious" is the fastest-growing identification segment.
Saturday's schedule includes the always popular raffle for pre-1957 U.S. currency, after which the words "In God We Trust" were added to bills. Winners will get "clean" bills of secular health (and won't chalk up winning to a higher power).
Media interested in covering the conference may contact Annie Laurie Gaylor at 608-256-8900 (Central Time Zone).
Visit FFRF's convention Web page.
Although registration is closed, preregistrants who still wish to order dinner ($50) may do so online at [XXXXXX] or phone 608-256-8900 (Central Time Zone) no later than Monday, Nov. 2.