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Los Angeles, Calif.

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National Convention

October 9-11, 2015

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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Heathens heading to City of Angels

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Emmy Award-winning actor Scott Clifton will welcome attendees to the Freedom From Religion Foundation's 37th annual national convention the weekend of Oct. 24-26 in Los Angeles.

Clifton starred in several network soap operas, including "One Life to Live" (fitting for skeptics!), won Daytime Emmys in 2011 and 2013 and is an outspoken atheist and host of the freethought YouTube channel “Theoretical Bullshit.” He turns 30 on Halloween.

It may also be fitting that hundreds of heathens are descending on the "City of Angels" for this year's convention at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. FFRF is the nation's largest group of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers. Based in Madison, Wis., it advocates for state-church separation on behalf of its more than 21,000 members and seculars across the U.S.

The Biltmore Hotel is now sold out (although you may wish to check back in case of cancellations through Tuesday, Sept. 23). Try hotel.com, expedia.com and other online booking agencies. For information on nearby hotels, visit here. 

Speakers and honorees will include:

• Two distinguished scientists will accept FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award, reserved for public figures who “tell it like it is” about religion. Paleoanthropologist Donald C. Johanson, discoverer of “Lucy,” author of many books and director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University in Tempe; and physicist Sean Carroll, senior research associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. Carroll is author of "The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World."

• Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Irvine School of Law and author of "The Conservative Assault on the Constitution," will accept a Champion of the First Amendment Award and speak on "The Vanishing Wall Separating Church and State."

• Marci Hamilton, Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, will receive a Freethought Heroine Award. Hamilton, a constitutional scholar, is the author of "God and the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty," and wrote FFRF’s amicus brief against the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court appeal.

• Linda Stephens, an atheist and longtime FFRF member, and Susan Galloway, who identifies as a cultural Jew, will receive Freethinker of the Year awards for challenging government prayer in Greece, N.Y., all the way to the Supreme Court.

 Anthony Pinn, the first African-American to hold an endowed chair at Rice University, is professor of humanities and religious studies. His latest book is "Writing God’s Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist."

• Jessica Ahlquist, student activist, will speak about "Communicating Secular Ideas with the Religious."

• Photographer Chris Johnson will discuss his coffee table book "A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy & Meaning in a World Without God."

• Barbara Mancini, Philadelphia, will give a speech titled "From Accused to Activist." She was prosecuted in 2013 for handing her dying 93-year-old father his prescribed morphine. A judge threw out the case.

• FFRF Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott, Rebecca Markert and Andrew Seidel will present legal workshops.

• FFRF Co-Presidents, and emcees Dan Barker (entertaining at the piano) and Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The conference starts Friday afternoon with workshops featuring FFRF staff attorneys and an appetizer reception from 3-5. Registration opens at 2 p.m. and continues through the convention.

The program begins formally at 7 p.m. Friday, including speakers, honorees and a complimentary dessert reception. Saturday starts with the nontraditional Non-Prayer Breakfast. An all-day program concludes after the evening keynote speech. The annual membership meeting and meeting of the State Representatives take place Sunday morning concluding by noon.

Convention highlights include the drawing for “clean” (pre-“In God We Trust”) currency and irreverent entertainment at the piano by FFRF Co-President Dan (“The Singing Atheist”) Barker.

Registration is $65 for individual FFRF member, $70 for nonmember/spouse accompanying member, $110 for nonmember. Student registration is only $10.

Go here for more convention news, including online registration and hotel information, and a complete schedule.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, on behalf of its Florida chapter and more than 21,000 members nationwide, is asking the mayor of St. Augustine to withdraw his invitation to Pope Francis to visit the city when he comes to the U.S. in 2015.

Mayor Joseph Boles issued the invitation in his official capacity and using the mayoral letterhead in a letter to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, apostolic nuncio to the U.S. (basically, the Vatican's ambassador to the U.S.).

FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker sent a letter of complaint Sept. 22 to Boles for making the invitation, calling it "a shocking breach of your civil and secular duties as mayor and to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which you took an oath to uphold."

State-church watchdog FFRF previously protested a similar invitation made to the pope by the mayor of Green Bay, Wis.

"You were not elected bishop of St. Augustine," the letter continues. "As mayor, you serve all St. Augustine citizens — of any or of no denominations, including Jews, Wiccans, Hindus, Muslims and Protestants — and those who protest against all religions.

"A majority of your citizens do not consider the pope their Holy Father. Nor do they consider it the business of the mayor to celebrate 'the birthplace of Christianity in the New World, specifically Catholicism,' " referring to language in the mayor's invitation noting the founding of the city by Spaniards in the 16th century.

FFRF also called the invitation "fiscally reckless, given the exorbitant costs of hosting a pope, costs which invariably end up being borne by taxpayers for crowd control, police protection, etc."

The letter added, "It's bad enough to put up with the Catholic Church's harmful and antediluvian doctrines — against safe and legal abortion, contraception, gay rights, same sex marriage, the equal rights and ordination of women as priests — without citizens having to literally pay to put up the pope.

"The shameful and unremitting scandal of sexual abuse of minors within the ranks of the Catholic clergy and even more scandalous cover-ups by its highest ranking officials have tarnished dioceses through the country, and left a devastated trail of victims and their families. Nearly 100 priests have been sued or accused of such abuse in Florida, including St. Augustine. You are inviting the head of the body that not only failed to protect the children, but was complicit in their sexual and mental abuse."

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Mandisa Thomas

Good Morning Everybody. All right. Very good. For those of you who did not catch my name, I am Mandisa Thomas and I am one of the founders and president of a growing organization called Black Nonbelievers Inc. This is actually the digital image of our banner that we use and take everywhere we go. And I like how it looks because it implies that we are going to take over the universe. Just kidding, but I also want to talk about a segment of the population that tends to be overlooked by the major organizations. That is changing but we still have a ways to go.

So to give you a background on myself, I was born and raised in New York City. I was actually was never raised religious, which is a rarity in our community. But I was exposed to Christianity, Islam, and different forms of supernaturalism that is rampant in our community. I moved to Atlanta at the end of 1997. One of the first questions normally asked by the black folks, “What church do you normally go to?” By the end of 2010 the scandal with Eddie Long was in the news, and I was really at a point where I was deciding where I stood with religion, and I have pretty much always despised it. And I really came back to identifying as an atheist/nonbeliever, and thought it was time to start getting out and meeting other people.

A short history, let’s get into that. So going into the history of why BN was founded, we started off as Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta.  And I had attended a meet-up group, and speaking with other black atheists online, I often heard there was a sense of intimidation and apprehension upon attending predominately white Freethought events. They would often be one of the very few or the only black atheists in the room, and here are a couple things that come along with that that others may not think about. And upon attending this meet-up, I actually encountered it and experienced it. There was a sense of, “I’ve never met a black atheist,” or a sense of being condescending towards the issues that we face, especially being a part of a predominately religious black community. So instead of complaining about it, we decided to do something about it. So in January 2011, we started Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta. Our first general meeting was held the following month and there were 15 people in attendants, that is more that the number of black atheists in this room. We can laugh about it but it is actually isn’t very funny because when people say they cannot see color, you are absolutely right about that. Because if you have to ask yourself have you really, really thought about this dynamic here. And that is okay if you haven’t, but this is what we are here to help with. And before I go on I must say many of our members do reference Dan Barker as an inspiration though his book and through his debates, so you are every well known and respect and acknowledged and admired in our community.

In November of 2011 due to the connections that we made, and through the interest and because of interest in starting groups in other cities, we increased our scope and shortened our name to  just Black Nonbelievers because we wanted to establish a base to help groups become established in other cities. And we are continuing in the tradition, even though it may seem in minute and small, we are continuing the tradition of some historic black humanists and Freethinkers such as Langston Hughes, who wrote a noble poem called “Goodbye Christ”, Hubert Henry Harrison, who was very, very notable in the time of the Black Renaissance.  Lorraine Hansberry who wrote a Raisin in the Sun, and Asa Phillip Randoph who was the organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the chief organization of the 1963 March on Washington. And I would also like to acknowledge Butterfly McQueen who Dan and I talked about this morning, who FFRF often acknowledges. So we definitely appreciate that. More information can be found at AAhumanism.net.

Some challenges faced as it pertains the Black community: For historical reasons, for reasons related to legal separation, legal discrimination in this country, and other injustices, the church and the doctrine, well the doctrine was imposed upon the slaves upon arriving into this country, but the church played a social and supportive role in the community at a time when the government did not. So this is the dynamic that people need to understand when it comes to our community, that this is one of the reasons why there is such a close tie with many blacks and religion. So you have a very religiously identified black community.  And the research numbers will verify this. There is a notion that religion and spirituality is inherent to life as an African American. You remember the phrase earlier when I said, when I was told, when I was asked, when somebody said to me, “I have never met a Black atheist.” I have heard that from other Blacks. And so when you hear that, when you realize that there are many in our community that do not know we exist, this is another reason why our group is important. So it is not to be a separating factor, it is a distinguishing factor, but it definitely helps both of our communities at the same time.

Most Black religious leaders and public figures are religious. When you hear of some of the prominent names in the Black community, they often do identify with some religious institution, and so therefore it is assumed that the majority, or most if not all Blacks do as well.  There are Chitlin’ Circuit personalities reinforcing negative stereotypes.  We all, some of us know some of those names, and I am about to show you some pictures of them right now. You have the Reverand Teedee Jakes, with the Potter’s house in Dallas, who has actually started producing and probably funding some of these religious movies that are out now. For example he is the executive producer of “ Heaven is for Real”. Probably not a lot of people know that, but he is starting to infusehis message and probably money into these propaganda type movies. And you see that he was on the cover on TIME magazine “The Next Billy Graham”. So even if you don’t know his name, there are a lot of Blacks that do, and unfortunately we can’t escape that.

You have Lou Sparicon?? Who is the leader of the Nation of Islam. Now they denounce Christianity, but they do subscribe to sect of Islam and other forms of Supernaturalism, and they recently crossed over into Scientology. So even though some may, and many have denounced Christianity and done away with it, there are still other forms that plague our community and that is one of them. Next guy, Creftlow Dowler???, who is head of  World Change Ministries in Georgia in College Park, huge complex, I was just there with Jimmy Lebain not too long ago, and it definitely takes up a city block. It is a ginormous facility, and he has almost the entire city of Atlanta on lock. He is one of the proponents of the “Prosperity Gospel” of the more you give to your church, the more your blessings will come down. And his blessings have certainly come down, because apparently he has at least 1-2 private jets that he flies everywhere. So that community is definitely supporting him. You have Mr. Steve Harvey, I don’t know if you have ever heard of him, he is the host of Family Feud, who recently a few years ago was talking mess about atheists. And he said that if a woman of God happens to come across an atheist they need to go the other way, and that if we come from monkeys why are there still monkeys. And this guy has professed to be now a relationship Guru and is trying to advise women on relationships even though he is now divorced twice. He also has a radio show and he definitely purports a message of religion and God in his talk. And last but certainly not lease, Tyler Perry, and he is the epitome of the Chitlin’ Circuit I was referring to, because he dons on a dress and a wig and plays Madea, who seems to be funny to some funny. But it really does enforce that big momma bad stereotype of Black women, but they laugh at it. Now it is like we have become our own running joke in this community, especially when we have so many problems.

Why black race or gender specific groups? This question comes up a lot. We have received, I wouldn’t say backlash, but we have received some rather nasty questions and nasty feedback from others saying that we are racist, or that they don’t understanding why there is a need for our groups. For one, many of us in the community, atheists, nonbelievers, however we identify, we care about our communities. We care about the growth and development. We care that there are so many religious people that do not get the help that they need for the problems that they have. And I wouldn’t say that religion is the primary problem in our community, even though it plays a big part, it does tend to mask a lot of issues that people don’t get help for, and practical help for.  So we care about that, and we want to help change that but in a secular manner.

We tend to specific issues that larger organizations do not have time to address. I love that FFRF and organizations like it challenge the separation of church and state statutes, and that is important. You have groups that focus on education and science education in particular and that is important, but you also have other groups that focus on the support aspect and the socialization aspect, and that is also important. And some do combine more of these at the same time. Bu there are areas that we may have a certain expertise that that is what is important to recognize and it is nothing to be ashamed of if a group only focuses on one area, we can always help each other with that. It encourages minorities to openly identify as atheist or some similar Freethought label.   Whether you want to admit it or not, there are still, and people have admitted it to me and others, that they were glad they found a group like ours because it helps bridge that gap, it does bring out more of us to have a group that is distinguished and designated. We also have members of all kinds in our groups, but we do encourage each other and encourage our members to see other groups if we aren’t local to their area, then find your local FFR chapter or find your local group because it is important, we specialize in offline participation so this is the means for us to do that.

And finally it is the best way to increase diversity. That has become such a buzz word in our community that sometimes I think it has just been said to death, it has been said over and over again, it has been ridden into the ground, but how many people are actually serious about it? How often do you talk to your other people of color in these events? Or just in general how many Black atheists do you know? How many of you can count on one hand how many Black atheists you know? How many can count on two hands? I mean really? Good, those numbers are still not high enough though. So when I see that it means there is still some work that needs to be done. Here is some correspondence that I have received. I have received quite a bit over these past few years. The first one I had to clean up quite a bit, grammatically. “What is this, a war against God? I can’t believe you have the audacity to try to erase the one who created Heaven and Earth and all things in it including you and me.” They go on to say, “Please change the name of ‘Black Nonbelievers’ to ‘Believers’ our race has suffered enough. “

So this is some of the feedback that we receive. And here is another one that is much better. Actually most of our correspondence has been really good. The other when says, “To be honest, I am not even sure that I am a non-believer,” and he goes onto say that being Black there is nothing in our history that indicates that a god is good. And one popular phrase in the community and a popular song is “We’ve come this far by Faith”. And when you look at the struggles in the Black community, it has taken more than faith to overcome them. But it is largely attributed to belief in God, which is really sad. But going onto our members, BN members are employees, students, entrepreneurs etc. pretty much the same as other groups. Many fear backlash from their families and friends, as well as loss of business from clients. There are many events in the Atlanta area that are considered leadership. There are a lot of women’s leadership events, but many of them end up being big church services. They are led by a lot of religious people, and in Atlanta it is definitely a status symbol to be affiliated with some form of church, so it was definitely cliquish I am sure, every community experiences it, but it takes on a whole new life form in our community. 

But they are also looking to establish professional, personal, and supportive connections with fellow nonbelievers. And we are seeking better ways to connect and communicate with believers about atheism and life as a nonbeliever. Of course we know there are many assumptions about atheists, what are the most common ones, we eat babies? What else? But we definitely seek to dispel those misconceptions and to give people a better view of who we are. And that yes, in our communities, we do exist. So here are just a few pictures, this was our first general meeting in February of 2011, this is one of our members giving us a science presentation. This was at the Day of Solidarity of 2012 and that was me singing. I am going to put Annie Laurie on the spot for a moment, because when she and Dan interviewed me for Freethought Radio and about the Blackout Secular Rally, and asked what I would be doing I said I will be singing “Ain’t no Stoppin’ us Now” and she said, “I’ve never heard of that before.”

This was at one of our general meetings where we featured Dale McGowin who is the founder and Executive Director of A Foundation Beyond Belief, which I am a board member, I am on the board of directors, and he is also the author of “Atheism for Dummies” and “Parenting Beyond Belief”.  This was a few of us at our Adopt-a Highway Mile in the Atlanta area. We are the only Freethought group that has one of these , and so we do have a community service component of our group. This was us after Dr. Sequibu Hutchinson’s lecture, she is the author of “moral Combat” and “Godless Americana” and she speaks extensively about the issues that Blacks face and Black Atheists face. She is also a good person to reference, and to look up for whose books to have. And finally this is our most recent Day of Solidarity for this year in which we featured Jimlee Labay. Look at the size, that wasn’t even half of the people that were there. There were many more that were in attendance but just half of us took that picture. SO what that says is from 2011 or 0212 to when we celebrated it two years later we have grown.

Some feature and events: We have been featured in documentaries. I remember the first documentary we participated in was a student documentary and it was a little difficult to get participation, but in this most recent documentary, “Atheists in the Bible Belt”, which was put on by Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters, we couldn’t get enough people to volunteer. So what this says it that the level of support they received form groups like ours and groups like yours has been extremely helpful. Yes and “Contradiction” by Jeremiah Komarah, which Dan and Annie Laurie were featured in as well. IT speaks extensively to the problem of the church in our community. We have been involved in focus groups. There was a professor who traveled to Nashville to speak to one of the groups in the area and she asked if we would participate. I made the four hour drive and a few of our members made the four hour drive and what that says is that we are willing to travel, and we are willing to come to you if you would like to talk to us. We don’t just expect people to come to us.

Jet Magazine in 2012, I had the distinct honor, and I say that sarcastically, to have been featured in the April 30, 2012 edition of Jet Magazine, which had T.D. Jiggs on the cover, and it was supposed to have been a well-rounded edition about religion and spirituality as it pertained to blacks, but it talked mostly about Christianity. But in all fairness they did a very good job on the article. Day of Solidarity of Black Nonbelievers, African Americans for Humanism billboard campaign, which did have a billboard in Raleigh and Veronique Matthews was the face of that billboard. Convention and Event tabling, because we focus on outreach, because we are focused on increased visibility, we do tables at events. Most recently at the American Atheist Convention in Salt Lake City, and we also table at local events in the Atlanta area. And if there are any opportunities to do that please let me know. And of you who have ever contact me you know that you will probably get a response within a half hour. Than the Black Out Secular Rally, along with Black Atheists of America, FFRF was a sponsor and we are greatly appreciative of that. We also did Atlanta Pride Festival with the Atlanta Freethought Society, this will be our second year doing this, and the annual New Year’s Eve Party along with Black Atheists of America. And again, I cannot emphasize enough that we are open to everyone, we welcome everyone, so if you have never taken a trip to the Atlanta area we are more than happy to have you.

And there is my contribution to the FFR Out of the Closet Campaign back in 2011. I said if I don’t believe in beings I can see, what makes you think I will believe in beings I Can’t. And there is a copy of the Jet Magazine article, just to give you a visual. Affiliated Organizations: there is the Black Nonbelievers of Dallas with Alex Jewels, who happened to be feature in Ebony magazine in 2011, and he was also the face of the Dallas billboard campaign. You have the Black Nonbelievers of Detroit with Ms. Bridget Crutchfield, who has become just an integral part of our organization. And she is also the found of Minority Atheists of Michigan.  Black Nonbelievers of Orlando with Richard Peacock, we are affiliated and we facilitate a Recovering from Religion chapter group, American Atheists. And there is a picture of all of us with James Randy, and this took place at the Freethought Florida Conference last year in Orlando.

Our future goals: Get used to this name New Turn, this was an original concept by on of our board members who is in the audience, Mr. Sincere. This program will focus on combatting recidivism, and that is the name of the revolving door of the correctional facility with ex-offenders. More often than not they end up back in the system within three years due to lack of opportunity and lack of support. So this is something we will be taking on in the future. Short term financial assistance for those in need. Many of our members have spouses, and are going through issues with their spouses due to their non- belief, and we all know that has broken up families sadly.

Support Base for local groups in various cities, continued collaboration and partnerships with Freethought groups. Last but not least I love to say, “Ain’t no stopping us now.” How do you walk past that smiling face at a convention? But the demographics, the times are changing, the faces of the movement are changing, and we must be ready for it. I appreciate that the level of support that we have been given, and again there is more information at our website. Just continue, we are going to keep growing, and we will keep moving.

Thank you

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