Mark Twain said: "go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company."
For three days, I was in Hell. And I loved every minute of it.
On November 9th through the 11th, 2007, the Center For Inquiry/ New York City presented “The Secular Society and Its Enemies,” a conference which featured a veritable Who’s Who in Hell. For three days many of the world’s most brilliant minds gathered to laugh, drink and discuss the big issues in the new home of the New York Academy of Sciences, on the 40th floor of WTC Building #7.
The poetry was lost on no one as we spent the weekend discussing threats to the secular world while just out the window was history’s greatest example of a “faith based initiative.” And yet, there was very little mention of that fact. It wasn’t necessary. Even as we stood around and noshed on mini-quiche, the shadow of those two towers loomed as large as ever. Rather than putting a damper on the conference, though, it had a galvanizing effect. It showed us just how important the cause we are all fighting for is. This isn’t just an intellectual or philosophical exercise: there are real, devastating forces taking on secular society.
The first night of the conference featured honors given to Neil deGrasse Tyson (my new hero), Ann Druyan (the sweetest, most brilliant woman I’ve ever met . . . who also happens to have been married to Carl Sagan) and 17-year-old Matthew LaClair.
You may have heard about young Matthew who, last year, caught a teacher of his on tape saying in class (among other horrid things) that a student was going to go to Hell because she did not believe in Jesus. Because of Matthew, not only was his teacher exposed, but so was the larger problem in our public schools, where things like that often go unchecked. Matthew was given the James Madison Religious Liberty Award and then gave the kind of speech seventeen year olds, by all rights, should not be able to give. I’m jealous of his poise and eloquence. I’d hate him for it if he weren’t such a damned nice guy.
The evening ended with a rousing speech by Eddie Tabash that warned of “the threats of the religious right to our modern freedoms.” I believe someone referred to it as Eddie’s “scare the hell out of you” speech.
After the evening’s events were over, I went up to Ann Druyan (the first celebrity I dared approach), and told her I had just heard her on Radio Lab* and how her story of her love for Carl being sent out into the cosmos made me weep like a baby. Truly, it’s that part of science we need to stress—the beauty, the poetry of it** and the work of Ann and Carl is greatest asset we have to that end. Ann and I talked for a few minutes—she told me how much she admired me for going into teaching, said how that was the most noble thing a person could do . . . That’s a moment in time I’m keeping with me. Ann Druyan told me that what I was doing was important. I could have shat myself.
The next morning, my fellow young activists and I were put to work. Kristine and I were set up as ticket checkers at the door to the overflow room. Y’know, just in case anyone wanted to sneak into the overflow room, rather than sitting in the main room. As you can predict, ours was an important job. But, it did mean that I got to see everyone as they came in (the door to the main room was right next to the door to the overflow room). Not only did I manage to piss off Dawkins (he didn’t think it was funny when I asked to see his ticket) but I also stopped a man who’s had a fatwa issued against him from entering (sorry about that, Mr. Warraq) and I had a conversation with Alan Dershowitz about the Ten Commandments without realizing he was Alan Dershowitz.
Since we were guests of CFI (in that they paid for us, flew us out and arranged for our hostel stay) the other students and I were relegated to the overflow room. And actually, the view there, courtesy of a big projection screen, was much nicer than that enjoyed by many of the people in the main room. It was funny, too, because we all still applauded for the speakers as though they could really hear us.
Saturday morning was a series of panel discussions featuring the likes of Susan Jacoby (writer of Freethinkers, probably the best book on the history of secularism in America ever), Rebecca Goldstein (Betraying Spinoza), the poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht (Doubt: A History), Ann Druyan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis, a wonderful counter-apologetic work), Richard Dawkins (as seen on South Park), Michelle Goldberg (Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism), Wendy Kaminer (Sleeping with Extraterrestrials which is the name of a book she wrote, not an activity that made her famous), journalist Damon Linker, and everyone’s favorite trial attorney, Eddie Tabash.
The panel discussions were each, in their own way, brilliantly fascinating and fascinatingly brilliant. Hearing very smart people disagree (at times, almost heatedly) but retain the intellectual integrity of the discussion is just awesome.
Perhaps my favorite part of Saturday morning was the panel (moderated by my hero D.J. Groethe) featuring Dawkins, deGrasse Tyson, Druyan and Stenger. The panel discussion itself was great and all, but the coolest thing about it was that during it, Paul Kurtz, the father of the modern Humanist movement and the reason all of us were there in the first place, came and sat with the rabble in the overflow room. Two seats down from me was the man who created CFI, the man whose words helped me put a label on what I believed when I had no clue what ‘Humanism’ even was. The fact that he decided that rather than sit in the front row of the main room and listen to the big headliners, he would sit with the students who couldn’t even afford to pay for their own stay in a hostel and watch it on a projection screen, told me everything I need to know about this man.
The rest of Saturday was kind of a mixed bag. Christopher Hitchens, unable to attend himself, sent a video interview, which unfortunately, was really hard to hear (at least in the overflow room). Then, there was the obligatory “Give us money” presentation, which, of course was very important, but mostly just frustrating to those of us who have no money. Luckily for CFI, those of us who don’t have money were in the minority at the conference.
The evening really picked up, though with a presentation by Peter Singer. More than anything, Singer made me feel really bad about only being a vegetarian. He was like that far away from making me feel guilty about eating vegetables.
After that, D.J. Groethe conducted an interview with Richard Dawkins (which was recorded for Point of Inquiry, one of my three favorite podcasts***). I was kind of disappointed initially—after all, I’ve heard Dawkins interviewed a whole bunch of times, but I’ve never heard him lecture. While I still would have liked to hear him lecture, the interview ended up being the best I’ve ever heard with Dawkins. He was very candid about his role in ‘the movement,’ freely admitting that his approach may not be the best. If only all of his detractors were able to hear him like that, maybe then they’d see that he’s not the arrogant monster they paint him as. Then again, probably not.
And for those of you who aren’t jealous of my weekend already, get this: Saturday night, I got to have dinner with Richard Dawkins! Yes, My Dinner with Dawkins will be an event I cherish and gloat about for the rest of my life.
Of course, it wasn’t just me and Richie—that’s what he likes to be called****-- sitting around a table chewing the fat. It was actually a few dozen of us student leaders sitting around with Richie in the backroom of a pub in the financial district, chewing the fat. He wanted to hear about our groups, what we were doing, what challenges we faced etc. He didn’t say a whole lot, except to ask a question or two (can you believe he didn’t know what a bong is?) and offer words of encouragement. Still, having Richard Dawkins’ ear for even a few minutes is a pretty damn cool thing.
On Sunday, there was a panel on the next generation of secularism in which a few of my new friends took part. Not to be all generation-centric or anything, but I’m really glad they had that panel discussion because I don’t think we can overstate the importance of this younger generation. We’re the ones who are going to keep this movement alive decades down the road. It was nice to see so many people over the weekend that understood that fact. And exciting to see how brilliant and eager that younger generation is. But there’ll be more on that in Part IV.
This conference made for one of the most amazing, intellectual stimulating and exciting weekends of my life. And, I got to be a total fan boy all weekend around people who are just as geeky as me. I mean, this was like going to a Star Trek convention and having Gene Rodenberry buy you a drink as you sit and talk to Nemoy and Shatner. Ann Druyan touched me! Her thoughts are in space (literally) and she freakin’ touched me!
Thanks to this weekend, I can die happily. And, if it turns out we’re all wrong and there really is a Hell, at least I can look forward to great company.
*For those of you who aren’t familiar with Radio Lab, let me just tell you: It is the BEST thing on NPR since This American Life. Please, do yourselves a favor and check it out at http://www.radiolab.org/
**As Dawkins wonderfully describes it, saying that the utilitarian view of science is what is important is like saying that music is good because it exercises the violinist’s right arm.
***See the first footnote for the other two of my three favorite podcasts.
****No, no he doesn’t. Don’t tell him I said that he did. And if you’re reading this, I’m very sorry Professor Dawkins, sir.