Could We Hold the Ultimate Atheist Conference? January 20, 2008

Could We Hold the Ultimate Atheist Conference?

At the “meeting of the atheist leaders” on Saturday, there were several discussions about tactics and ideas for future collaboration.

The idea that caught my attention the most was Atheist Alliance International (AAI) president Margaret Downey‘s call for a “Unity Convention in 2010.”

Right now, the major national atheist groups hold conferences once a year. They get between a couple hundred to several hundred attendees each. There’s a lot of overlap, too, with many people goingto multiple conventions. Nowhere near the tens of thousands of people who go to certain religious conventions. Sometimes, the registration is through the roof and people have to be turned away, as was the case with the recent AAI conference.

Imagine if the conventions of AAI, American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association, and the Center For Inquiry could be combined. This could be in addition to the groups’ yearly conferences or in lieu of them.

Just for a year.

Maybe not all of them would want to join in, but even if a few did, it would be impressive.

That was the sentiment that Margaret was conveying.

Here is an edited transcript of her presentation.


… I asked for your attention at this meeting because I am requesting that we target the year 2010 as a year to do what some think is impossible—a Unity Convention.


In 2002, American Atheists president Ellen Johnson organized and implemented the greatest event in the history of the atheist movement. The 2002 Godless American March on Washington made it clear that there is a strong and active community of atheists who want to be recognized, respected and appreciated.

I devote this presentation about the possibility of a 2010 Unity Convention to Ellen Johnson. She is my inspiration in broaching this subject today.


Those of you who participated in the 2002 Godless American’s March on Washington need not be reminded of the wonderful atmosphere of unity that prevailed as a wide variety of groups marched down the Washington Mall, gathered in front of a huge stage and listened to inspiration speakers for a full day.


Since that day, we have seen the formation of the Secular Coalition for America, Atheist Meet-Up groups, the hiring of the first lobbyist to represent non-theists, best-seller atheist books and a huge increase in membership in all national and local like-minded groups.


We have Ellen Johnson’s 2002 Godless American March on Washington; authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens.

This is the perfect time to take a firm stand in the arena of politics, community involvement, ending negative stereotyping of non-theists and to further promote rational thinking.


The very fact that we are gathered here today shows how far we have come. I propose that now is the time to show the world that the non-theist community has congealed into a cooperative powerful force. We are no longer a silent complacent minority.

Non-theists will not be recognized by the media or politicians until we conduct something similar to the 2002 Godless American’s March on Washington.

It is my intent today, to open a dialog about how we might do something spectacular such as a Unity Convention in 2010.


At such an event, we can present concerns we have as non-theists. We can host speakers that convey interesting positions on a wide variety of subjects.


If a convention center is used, a public area can be set up with booths, literature and presentations that highlight the different non-theist groups in America. Those interested in learning about non-theistic thinking would have an opportunity to visit with representatives from all groups—just like the public is invited to visit with exhibitors who set up booths at Expos and trade shows.

A Unity Convention can re-engage the non-theist community and can give hope to the notion that, very soon, non-theists will no longer be considered a minority and that atheism is as American as apple pie


Conducting a Unity Convention will not be easy. The task can not be taken on by one particular group. It is a task that must be viewed as cooperative in every way.


Convention organizational duties must be shared and the implementation of the event must represent each cooperative group equally. It is imperative that any group sponsorship of a 2010 Unity Convention is identical in every way. Not one group could be given more credit than another.

If we can accomplish this as leaders, we can do what is right for the entire movement.


I ask for each of you in this room to voice any pros and cons that come to mind as we work through my allotted agenda time.

Margaret added that the optimum plan for a convention like this would include a major sponsor (or two) to underwrite the costs and oversee the plans. This goes for individuals as well. She will contact both large corporations and specific people who are capable of taking on such a large project.

All this said, there are still a lot of factors to consider…

When would this be held? 2010 is much sooner than you think if you wanted to plan a *large* convention, reserve the space, plan the sessions, coordinate with all the groups, etc. 2012 seems much more realistic.

Would other groups cooperate? Representatives of the potential organizing groups need to discuss this topic with their respective boards. Hopefully, many will come around and say yes. But if they say no, then what? Can you force them to cooperate? Should they be shunned if they opt out?

Would other groups still have their own conventions that year? In some cases, yes, if they wish. These conventions can bring in money (that the groups would be forgoing with the Unity Conference) and mandatory yearly business meetings are often conducted after the conventions are over.

In other cases, the groups they may wish to skip their usual convention for a year and put all their resources into this endeavor. It’s a small sacrifice for the larger goal of bringing together such a large group of atheists.

Will atheism still be as much of a “hot topic” in the coming years? One reason a Unity Convention seems worth pursuing is because there is so much talk about atheism these days. There have been several books about atheism on the best-sellers lists, debates and discussions about religion in public forums, etc. But will that trend continue or will it die down? If it dies down, will there be interest in a huge atheist convention a few years down the road?

What would we call it? Some people like the word “atheist,” some like “Humanist,” some like “non-theist,” some like “Bright”… it’d be difficult to find a broad enough umbrella of a name that everyone would be happy with. And if you can’t find one of those, which group(s) will be upset with the choice of label?

Considering all this, think of the positives that would come from a Unity Conference:

Thousands of atheists could meet, socialize, and network with each other.

It would bring together subgroups of non-theists who would otherwise never work with each other. (“You’re a Humanist? I’m an atheist. Let’s never speak to each other.”)

The publicity and media interest could be incredible.

If organized in a certain way, we could make sure it’s not so much about denigrating religion as it is about promoting positive ideas for non-religious people.

Those are just some scattered thoughts.

What are the other pros/cons that you envision from a Unity Conference?

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jen

    That could be really cool. On the other hand, it means there is only one opportunity for atheists to attend a conference. It isn’t necessarily easy to get away for the weekend, depending on where and when it would be. Multiple conferences does mean multiple opportunities for people to attend. By the same token, of course, that means that there is only one conference, and its a lot easier and cheaper to attend one conference than four.

  • Hemant:

    This would be EXCELLENT! You could surely count on Canadians attending, too. I know I would! With an increasing number and reach of atheist bloggers and increased major media attention on atheists, the event could be very well publicized at all levels of media.

    This could easily be the most dramatic event of its kind of all time. Given its magnitude, surely just about every major atheist public figure would attend. Moreover, I have no doubt that some atheist celebrities would also show up.
    Depending on the orientation and length of the event, I imagine that big musical acts could be included. Just thinking of how huge this could be is very exciting.


  • She needs a graphic designer to work on her presentations in the future.

  • Karen

    Very cool idea. I’d love to see what corporations, if any, would be courageous enough to sponsor an atheist conference!

  • What would we call it? Some people like the word “atheist,” some like “Humanist,” some like “non-theist,” some like “Bright”… it’d be difficult to find a broad enough umbrella of a name that everyone would be happy with.

    If you’re looking for the most inclusive name, I’d go with “non-theist”. As a technical description it pretty much covers everyone in your target group, and it lacks the negative associations that the term “atheist” has unfortunately taken on in popular parlance.

  • Doug Indeap

    I think it is a great idea. Mindful of the logistical hurdles, I urge the various groups nonetheless to aim for 2010–in order to tap into the ongoing surge of enthusiasm, in order to get on with things and not less moss grow . . . or whatever, and in order to perhaps get something going for maximum effect in the 2010 mid-term and 2012 presidential elections.

  • That’s why I envy atheists from the United State of America and Europe. Atheists here in the Philippines are alwayss left in the dark.

    Anyway, are you the same guy who wrote that book “I sold my soul in E-Bay”? Nice book…I read it on a bookstore here in Manila ( Well I don’t have a copy since books are too expensive in the Philippines…I wish to have a copy someday…gonna save money for a copy of it). It’s really quite different…Hmmmm…I never imagine an atheist being promoted by Christians. Tell you frankly, I don’t like the last part of the book…you know…that questions and answer thingie…I have a feeling that Christians are using you for a guinea pig. I don’t know…just being paranoid sometimes. But I really love the way you handled it. You such a open-minded person and that’s the best way to show the world what an atheist really is. More power!

    John Paraiso

  • Autumn

    This would be a huge step forward for all non-theists. I feel a united front is so important for us to be taken seriously and to have our voices heard and respected. I sincerely hope that this is able to take place.

    As for the name, having something positive about us as a group would be great considering the amount of media attention it would most likely get. Even though people may not read the article, they will hear the name of the convention and a message could be sent to them through the name. I like the idea of emphasizing that we are Americans.

  • Mriana

    I like non-theist because it covers so many groups. Godless Americans doesn’t seem right, because it sounds like there are many gods (demented Gizmos or Tasmanian Devils) running around and we are without one or many of them. I hardly think that is the case.

    Sorry, when I hear the words Godless Americans, I picture these little gremlins or shrunken Taz’s running around and for whatever reason I don’t have one. Was I suppose to have one? 😳 If that’s the case, I’ll be sure to get Gizmo and feed him after midnight. 😆

    So someone please tell Ellen to stop with the Godless Americans deal before I crack up laughing due to my imagination- and hopefully not at the convention if I can afford to go by then. 🙂

  • Mriana

    John Paraiso said,

    January 20, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    That’s why I envy atheists from the United State of America and Europe. Atheists here in the Philippines are alwayss left in the dark.

    Anyway, are you the same guy who wrote that book “I sold my soul in E-Bay”? Nice book…

    Yup! He’s the one. 🙂

  • John, if you are brave enough to post your address, I will mail you a copy of the book, otherwise, email me.

  • By holding a Unity Conference or whatever this is going to end up being called, with plenty of notice, I believe quite a few more atheists, thinkers, brights, etc., will come than with the scattered conferences of the groups out there.

    I’d be one of them.

    Reason why I don’t go is that I don’t know which group to sign up with and/or whether I should sign up with them all or not. With this, it allows the chance to see every group that’s there and figure out better by asking members of each respective group questions that may not be answerable by each groups website.

    And to top it off, I’d be meeting atheists from a much broader range of the human spectrum than even if I were to go to multiple groups conventions.

    The one thing I would imagine that would draw at least a few if not more is that you are going to save money. If you go for the weekend or the week or however long this is going to end up being, you will probably feel you got your money’s worth. Whereas, with multiple conventions, some may not see the point or may not be able to get away more than once a year. This would be a definite big draw for me.

  • As for what to call it, I thought that was already solved – “Unity Conference”. If that’s the name of the Con, all possible descriptors can be included in the information about it, without anyone feeling excluded because of the name (as was the case for instance when the founders of the Brights took offense at the proposition that they call themselves Godless). A Unity Con would be for everyone who fits under the atheist umbrella, regardless of what they prefer to call themselves.

  • I like Felicia’s suggestion for the name – ‘Unity Conference’ as this may encourage people to attend who don’t like referring to themselves with terms like atheist, bright, humanist etc., but still want to here the message.

    If such a convention could be organised and be successful, then you should also consider holding it on a regular basis, such as every two years, perhaps in different cities each time.

    PS. we have some fantastic convention centres here in Australia 🙂

    ‘Strike while the irons hot’ Do it in 2010, don’t wait any longer. (held late in the year, still gives you 2 1/2 years to organise it)

    Avoid using the term ‘American’ within the campaign/convention name, to give it a more world-wide appeal. Who knows, you may get a few overseas visitors wanting to attend. I understand that the conference is mostly to promote American atheist groups and concerns, but some of those concerns are felt in other countries as well. I’d love to see a core of your speakers visit Australia, and other countries, link up with local atheist groups and hold similar conventions.

  • Marla Shane McCain

    I think the “Unity Conference” is exactly what we, as non believers, need. It will need many dedicated people and lots of planning to make it happen, but count me in.
    How about London as a location? Or perhaps the thought is to have it right in the bible belt buckle?

  • The Unity Conference sounds fantastic! (Although it wouldn’t be obvious that it’s a non-religious conference based on the name.) I can hardly wait; I hope Margaret’s idea actually comes to fruition.

    Christianity is dying in Canada, so you might expect to see quite a few of us Canucks attending.

  • I really like this idea! I also like the name “Unity Convention” – maybe that’ll circumvent all the debates of what is the best descriptor – humanist, atheist, non-theist, whateverist. Maybe it could have a tagline such as “the place to be for atheists, humanists, non-theist etc” (where etc will of course be replaced with other terms…). The goal needs to be to make this BIG.

    I realize that this was just suggested, so what is the sense amongst the leadership for having such a conference? Maybe if all of us email the organizations where we’re members and ask for such a convention, it’ll be a reality in 2010.

  • skywolf

    i would attend if i could my question is where would it be?

  • I would do my darndest to go–wherever it is. If we won’t be herded, all us cats have to form a pride at some point, or this country will just slip into the dark ages.

  • Any update on this, Hemant?



    (And completely unrelated: Where did you get this comment form?)

  • Any update on this, Hemant?

    None yet. But it’s still in the works. The idea has not been abandoned.

    Where did you get this comment form?)

    It came with WordPress, though I believe I added in this plugin:

  • Brilliant idea! There are good and bad things about a larger, more representative organization, but this is about a convention, not a single organization.
    It will be cost-effective and more likely to get people’s attention. Hope I can help somehow.

    David Williamson

  • Barry

    Pro: The 2013 date is perfect. We can celebrate that the last popular end-of-the-world prediction failed. Point out to the public that these kinds of religious scare tactics are to be ignored in the future. Something along those lines. Actually, I’d like to see some one build a website where people can pledge to disregard superstition if the world doesn’t end in 2012, like maybe.

    Con: How many people could afford to travel to this international conference. That factor will substantially reduce attendance. How was attendance at the Iceland convention? I know I wasn’t there.

  • I wish I were better able to attend this Unity Convention. I love the idea and the location, but I have not been able to attend a con since 2007.

    We’ll see closer to 2013, after we finish laughing at 2012 and our failure to no longer exist.

  • Cindy Johnson

    I am a newby but if there is anything I can do to help please let me know. I am a teacher so I could probably be of use for camp quest. I am starting my “unity convention or bust” fund right now!

  • Greg

    I think the biggest hurdle is that atheists are fractured for a reason. Such a conference would have to have quite the big-tent concept to get everyone to be interested.

    That being said, count me in. 🙂

  • G Felis

    I’m one of the many who have trouble with the Scienceblogs comment registration system, but per PZ’s suggestion I wanted to say “Yes, I’d go to a non-theist unity convention.”

    Heck, I’d even write and present a paper specifically for it, or sit on a panel: My CV should have several publications on a science-grounded approach to ethical theory by then that would be particularly relevant to the false claims of moral authority constantly made by the religious.

  • tdd

    Count me in. I live near the mall.

  • Would it be more (or less) feasible to do 2011 regional conferences — all on one day — as preparation for/buildup to a 2013 national conference?

    I’d see it as providing a few benefits:

    Demonstrate that non-theists of various stripes can organize joint conferences;

    Gain networking opportunities in advance of the national conference;

    Show the media that there are non-theists all over the country, not just in the Northeast;

    Increase interest in a national conference and help raise awareness of the opportunities for interaction.

    Cons? I suppose the only major downside I’d see is if the regional conferences failed miserably!

  • Lyle

    Great idea for the meeting, but bad timing. The US presidential election is in 2012. Having the Unity Convention in 2013 will give the politicians plenty of time to forget us before their next elections in 2014, 2016 or 2018 (depending on the office). It would be far better to hold the Unity Convention early in 2012. That might make it stick in the politicians minds while they are campaigning in 2012. But count me in. I’ll be there whether it’s in 2012 or 2013.

  • andrew

    Love the idea, but again not being in the spotligt before the 2012 election is not a good thing.

    I live in DC, so count me in.

  • Matthew

    I daresay there’d be a good showing from the Chattanooga Freethought Association.

  • Austin

    I would attend!

  • Marilyn

    I think it’s a great idea — the “nontheist” name seems best, for reasons given earlier in these comments.

  • PZ suggested 2013 as a reasonable goal, and to let you know if we wanted to attend something like this, so I’m raising my hand!

  • I live near DC, so I’d certainly try to attend.

  • ellie

    Count me in!

  • Peter

    Would love to attend, but being on the other side of the world, I don’t think it’s likely. I would like to see a simultaneous “International day of unity”, where active local groups could stage events in support of a world wide movement. Just my 2c

  • kathy abrams

    Count me in. There is no time to loose.

  • The 2010 HEADS meeting (a yearly meeting that includes representatives from all major nontheist groups in the nation) that took place the weekend of January 9, 2010 was very productive.

    The 2013 Unity Convention proposal I presented was met with a lot of interest. We ran out of time discussing the subject as it is a very complex proposal. There are some challenges to overcome, most of which revolve around economic concerns.

    I was given the encouragement to form a working group and many of the national leaders volunteered to serve on it. Now that the unity convention seed has been planted, a committee will figure out the details.

    I appreciated all the wonderful commentary submitted by members of this blog. The committee will keep you informed of the progress, but we want your continued input.

    The first step is to find grants. Please let us know if you have connections to or contact information for individuals, granting agencies, businesses, television producers or independent film companies that might be interested in funding a 2013 unity convention.

    The next steps are:

    Designing a program
    (agenda, events, workshops, entertainment, program topics, speech topics and speakers)

    Selecting the name of a unity convention

    Creating a logo

    Please get involved today by contacting the newly formed committee of which I am the temporary chair. You can leave messages at:

    Please place “2013 Unity Event” in the subject line.

    Thanks, again for your interest.

  • The 2013 Unity Event Committee is now discussing which month such an event should take place. There are two months that are to be narrowed down to one.

    Please tell me if you prefer April or October and why.

    You can respond here or at:

  • You need to seriously think about building up this blog into a major player in this field. You clearly have a solid understanding of the topics all of us are looking for on this site anyways and you could possibly even earn a dollar or two off of some offers. I would dive into following recent news and increasing the amount of posts you make and I guarantee you’d begin seeing some great traffic in the near future. Just a brainstorm, good luck regardless!

  • April is a less hectic month for me than October. It seems the whole country is getting back to school in September, and gearing up for Thanksgiving in November, so October seems like the month to rest and take a breath. Also, there are several competing conventions already planned during late September and into October (CFI, FFRF, AAI…?)

    I feel as if I have fewer demands on April from outside pressures (school schedules and holidays), and can better anticipate my attendance.

    That being said…I’ll be there NO MATTER WHAT!

  • danglesnipesdaniel

    Hey my name’s Daniel and I’m trying to connect with other Atheists out there. Does anyone have any advice on how I could get involved with the movement? I’m a 24 year old Business Management student at Wayne State University in Michigan but I also have the gift of gab and I can write very well. I’m also a good musician. I just want to contribute to the Atheist Movement to the best of my ability because I know that the world will benefit when it’s inhabitants become more rational. Thanks.

  • max benser

    Ellen Johnson?
    Women, said: Christian Believ is a stupid! But this is a Truth 100%!!! She talking a same
    Nietzsches Lanquage! I can not believ, she is American!!!


  • karl marx

    But Richard Dawkins?
    He is a biggest Sharlatan! He said in Book “God,s Delusion” Jesus is a Men, who do good
    thinks!!! Luke 19:27., John 10:30., John 15:5.6., Luke 14:26., Luke 3:9. For me, Dawkins
    is a wrong Person, not a Atheist! Because, God or Jesus is a same ideological  S H I T !
    Old or New Testament, is a most criminal book of the World!

    Look You Tube Film from israels Soldier Ariel Siegelman: “War in Gaza.”


  • max benser

    Ellen Johnson?
    I can not believ, she is American, and she living in America! This is a same Country from
    Elvis Presley, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barak Obama, Ronald Reagan,… Inauguration
    with the Bible in Name of God! And Result? Holy Nuclearwars round the World! This is
    american-christian Politic in Name of God??? This is a Genocidalpolitic without World!


error: Content is protected !!