The Future of an Atheist Unity Convention? January 9, 2010

The Future of an Atheist Unity Convention?

I’ve written a couple posts about a possible atheist “Unity” convention.

Today, the leaders of several national non-theistic organizations got together for an annual meeting to discuss strategy, future plans, and bounce ideas off each other. The Unity Convention was one of the agenda items.

First, the bad news, then the good.

Here’s where we’re at:

There are some very important reasons not to go forward with this idea.

Money is a big one. For example: How would we raise the necessary funding to rent space? Would we rely on internet fundraising? Ask national organizations to invest (quite a bit of) money? What if no one came and we couldn’t recoup the costs? How much should that registration cost be? Let’s say after registration fees were taken in, and groups were paid back what they invested into this, there was a profit. What would happen with the extra money? None of this is a trivial matter.

Who would take charge of such a convention? One person? A committee? A national group or two? There needs to be a leader or three… and when that’s the case, how do we make sure this doesn’t turn into something that’s all about them or their groups?

Would groups have to give up their annual conventions that year to make this happen? If they hold their conference that year, would the existence of the Unity conference dilute the experience of the first one?

Where would it be held?

When would it be held?

Would it be called an “Atheist convention”? Or a “Humanist convention”? Or a “Unity convention” (which is pretty vague)?

Should the tone be anti-religious or “we just want the same respect religion gets” or something else? Or all of the above?

I’ll be the first to admit there are some easy answers to some of those questions. But some of the questions are tough.

We’ve known about all these issues for quite some time. These weren’t just new issues that were brought up today at the meeting for the first time, but they get to the heart of why some organizations’ leaders (who admit to liking the idea of a Unity convention) are hesitant about signing on to it.

That said, there’s some good news.

A vote was taken on whether we should proceed with the idea of a Unity Convention. The “yes” votes won (by a relatively slim margin).

It was a secret ballot, for what it’s worth. So there’s no calling out one organization or another for “voting the wrong way.”

Here’s what will happen now: A committee will form with the task of coming up with a proposal about how to handle some of these major issues (the money, the multiple convention scenario, etc). They’ll send that proposal to the leaders of the various national organizations. Those groups’ boards will have to decide whether or not to sign on to the proposal.

We’ll go from there.

As for the time frame for all this happening, I don’t know. But I think most of us who support the idea want this all coming together sooner rather than later.

I have to say: This is the third year in a row I’ve heard Margaret Downey talking about this idea. This is the first time we’re making serious progress toward making it happen.

It may not sound like serious progress to you (“That’s all they did? They formed a committee?”) but I assure you it’s a big step. Before the vote was taken, I wasn’t sure that most of the groups would even want to proceed. It was a pleasant surprise to hear the results.

So to all those who like the idea: Remain optimistic. There’s a lot of work for the committee to do, but they all want this to happen and they’ll make decisions that will be in the best interests of the people who would attend and the groups that would be involved. Hopefully, after the committee’s work is done, the national organizations will say they want to be involved.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Keith

    These strike me as issues that aren’t unique to an atheist unity convention, but common to any group of people wishing to start a new conference/meeting. I have confidence they can be worked out.

  • Gabriel G.

    Consdering we don’t have the advantage of thousands upon thousands of years of gathering loyal followers and killing opposition, I’d say this is a good first step. Being that I’m only 18, I’m curious as to where this will lead in the near and far future.

  • yhj

    Anywhere interested folks could go and participate?

    also we Atheists/Humanists are of a smarter breed 😀
    We’ll get things done in short time and hopefully the right way.

  • Claudia

    Like Keith said, the issues listed seem pretty indistinguishable from those had by any other community. How many national conventions are there of religious organizations? Surely they have issues too?

    I appreciate that it being the first time and all, it’s important to get it right, especially given that hostile media would love nothing better than to air divisions or portray us as fractious and petty. However not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good is also important.

  • phoenixphire24

    I really hope this goes through. I’m sure it’s been brought up already, but it might be a good idea if it hasn’t to get in touch with the groups that are putting together the global conference in Australia in March. I’m sure they had to deal with a lot of these same problems, and given their list of speakers, it seems like they pulled it off!

  • Perhaps some polls or general questions in the blogosphere over costs, as far as how much one is willing to pay? I have done some small conferences, 250-300 people, and I know for example, that Hotels and Convention centers are not in the charity business! However, they are willing to work with groups.

    I can say that I would be willing to pay if the benefits were there. Things like recognized guest speakers, panel discussions, debates, debate techniques, blog techniques, etc.

  • Tom

    I can’t say I’d be in favor of a convention. As mentioned in the previous “youth organization” post, many (most) atheists don’t feel the need to join an organization dedicated to atheism, and most would not feel the need to pay out or travel to go to a convention dedicated to atheism either.

    One downside is that in the public view, if a national atheist “unity” convention can only muster at most a few thousand atheists, it only further marginalizes atheists (in their view), when in reality, most atheists simply have little interest in going.

    Also, none of the national atheists speak for me (an atheist), so having an “atheist” convention with a wild assortment of topics does me no favors. Call it a Humanism convention, call it a Brights convention, call it anything, but don’t try to speak for “atheism”. Atheism is only the lack of the gods belief, nothing more.

  • It seems to me that this needs to be scheduled at a time when most college students are not at school—it needs to cater to the next generation, not the old farts like me who have been to numerous conventions that attracted other old farts.
    (Besides, I don’t think anything will ever top AAI 2007.)

    DC’s okay….for me. But, I don’t think “cheap hotel rooms during Easter” should be a prime consideration.

    I think other attractions (“Atheist Day at Disney World”) or a beach would attract more people to arrive early or stay late.
    If it’s during the summer, some college campuses should be able to host the event and offer much cheaper rooms than hotels.

    If a normal convention doesn’t work out due to cost or scheduling, how about an online convention, with live (hopefully famous) speakers, and perhaps state-specific segments too.

    Question: is this event about getting coverage in the MSM, or is it just to get us all together without regard to any publicity? If it’s in DC, is there going to be lobbying?

  • I think it matters that such a convention have a clear purpose. Would it be primarily political, philosophical, academic, social (i.e. building the nontheist community) or cultural (making nontheism more of a recognized force within society)?

    There are obviously dangers that come with making it about fighting theism…no matter how benign or respectful the language we use, it would be seen as evidence that we are merely angry, belligerent haters of Ma and Pa Christian. This isn’t a reason not to do it, only something to expect and decide if the costs are worth the potential gains.

    Frankly, purely philosophical or academic aims might be interesting, but probably wouldn’t garner high attendance. This kind of “convention” might work best as an online event. I’d certainly tune in, but I wouldn’t spend hundreds of dollars to register and travel.

    A largely social agenda might be fun and interesting, but might also backfire, since I suspect most nontheists aren’t really joiners and aren’t in the market for a social atheist movement to hitch their wagon to.

    There is the shotgun approach, doing a bit of everything and seeing what sticks, and then developing the next convention off of that. But that still doesn’t answer the central question I’m offering: why do this? I think if you can answer that question clearly, then a lot of things will fall into place (including a name).

  • Alex

    Maybe Orlando or another easy to get to city with lots of housing options would work. Also promotion, promotion, promotion. A goal should be to make the Secular Coalition as big and influential as possible

  • cozmikdaisey

    My two cents, for what they’re worth…
    Perhaps instead of one big convention with everyone, what about several coordinated events with the different groups having their regular convention just all at the same time and in the same general area with getting everyone together on an overlapping day.
    We are a rather mixed bag of folks and some of the groups may not necessarily want to spend and entire convention together. So some could have their conventions before the overlap day and some after. Possibly with some groups merging their conventions together or larger groups absorbing the conventions of smaller like minded groups for that year.

  • Whatever is done we must aim at getting noticed by the national news media, and so we must show up in force. Here’s a possible suggestion which will get the needed attention. Let’s do it on the National Day of Prayer. This year it’s May 6th, which is too soon to organize for this year. But how about next year? As a person who knows how to get attention I think this would be perfect if we’re to do it all all. At the convention we can talk about the lack of evidence for prayer, why such a Day violates the separation of church and state, the abuses of religion, and so forth. And we can do this in DC.

  • The Other Tom

    I’m really surprised by some of these questions, because to me they’re solved-problems, we just have to look at how they’ve been solved before.

    How would we raise the necessary funding to rent space? Would we rely on internet fundraising? Ask national organizations to invest (quite a bit of) money? What if no one came and we couldn’t recoup the costs? How much should that registration cost be?

    Examine the World Science Fiction Convention (worldcon) for an example. Indeed, somebody from this “unity convention” should contact the Worldcon folks – at a minimum I expect they’ll offer some advice, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they provide helping hands, new friends, organizational software, and a venue to recruit new members.

    In the unlikely event that doesn’t solve all your problems, I recommend contacting my local science fiction convention, Arisia. I know offhand that they’ve got software for organizing conventions and I’m pretty sure it’s open source.

    Let’s say after registration fees were taken in, and groups were paid back what they invested into this, there was a profit. What would happen with the extra money?

    You bank it for the use of the next Godlesscon organizers. Arisia also sometimes, when the surplus is particularly good, gives grants to other SF conventions and organizations that the Arisia board thinks are worthy. (I’m not saying you should apply, I’m just pointing out that it’s an option for what to do with a theoretical surplus.)

    Who would take charge of such a convention? One person? A committee? A national group or two? There needs to be a leader or three… and when that’s the case, how do we make sure this doesn’t turn into something that’s all about them or their groups?

    You will need one or more leaders, and an odd number so if they have to vote there can always be a decision. There will have to be committee(s) below them too. The leader(s) are there to make snap decisions when the committee(s) don’t have time to gather and decide, and to provide specific direction to vague decisions from the committee. Look at any fan-run science fiction convention and you’ll find a model.

    Would groups have to give up their annual conventions that year to make this happen? If they hold their conference that year, would the existence of the Unity conference dilute the experience of the first one?

    For Worldcon, the local groups continue to hold their conventions that year, and the local group makes sure its convention is scheduled such that it’s not so close to the time of Worldcon that one can’t attend and enjoy both.

    Where would it be held?
    When would it be held?

    Entertain proposals from organizational groups who want it to be held somewhere specific. Proposals would include date, time, facilities, costs, local attractions, events to occur at the convention, etc. Sounds like you have a committee to vote on proposals this year… then let everyone who attended vote on next year’s proposals. The winning group organizes the convention and does it their way that year, tilting the theme and events slightly (but not unpleasantly strongly) toward their interests and the pleasures of their locale. Other groups offer support. Everyone tries to consider the wants and needs of others, and over time traditions develop as to what happens at the convention.

    Would it be called an “Atheist convention”? Or a “Humanist convention”? Or a “Unity convention” (which is pretty vague)?

    Vague is okay, as long as the name doesn’t discomfort any significant number of people. Everyone will come to call it what they like if it doesn’t have a catchy name. Or, look at Worldcon: “Worldcon” is just a catchall name, and every year the specific instance of the convention has its own name, such as “Noreascon” or somesuch that the host group gives it.

    Should the tone be anti-religious or “we just want the same respect religion gets” or something else? Or all of the above?

    Since it’s an event for a diverse audience, you are going to get all of the above whether you like it or not, so just plan for that and deal with it. My suggestion is, have some events with specific direction in that regard (it’ll be selected by whoever is running the specific event) and list that info in the program, and for the rest, have an official policy of “we can all disagree on this aspect” and leave it at that. If anyone wants to get pissy about it (and someone will, there’s always that person in a large group) remind them of the official “we can all disagree on this aspect” stance and move on.

  • Nancy

    I would be seriously concerned about security.

  • I just wanna know, if you guys do end up doing a huge atheist convention…will there be cupcakes?

  • Brad

    I think this is a great idea, having a convention in the name of non-theism. It sounds like you have been bouncing this around for some time… If I could I would like to give my two cents.

    It seems like there are a few issues involving leadership, funding, location, ect. I see the elemental idea is to arrange an intimate gathering of atheists, something that the internet can never offer us, so as to exchange ideas for a better future…

    How would we go about developing a lodge system for atheists around the country (world), non-profit of course, they would be set up essentially like masonic temples(lodges). Of which I think their influence, in our societies, is greatly underestimated. In Iowa alone, where I live, and where there are only 99 counties, there are about 600 Masonic lodges.

    The idea is to establish a place for atheists to exchange ideas, a place to feel free to do so and not stand a chance to be ridiculed. It would be a great thing for atheists, knowing you would have this brother/sister hood to lean on. I just think this is a real need for atheists around the world.

    About funding…? Are there any very wealthy atheist anywhere that would donate, yearly for a few years to this cause? There are plenty of houses, fixer uppers…

    In the beginning, I have read that the early thinkers, ponderers, observers, would gather in the woods for meetings…

  • Scott

    Did FFRF ever show up?

  • Patrick G

    I’m really glad that this has gotten to this stage. I feel like, that a “unity” convention would be great for people like myself who find themselves not identifying with any specific group. I find myself identifying as a skeptic, atheist, and humanist. Yet I find that just sticking with one group just doesn’t seem to cover enough ground.
    Again really glad this got voted to this point and ditto on the “this sounds like every other convention’s problems”. I’d also say to look into getting the JREF involved as they host TAM every year and they’ve really got their head around making a convention work.

    Thanks, Hemant for keeping us up to date on this, can’t wait to hear how the proposal goes.

  • jimbo

    Why does an organization have to go through a conventional meeting area? Why not inquire about having a meeting at site where one has enough land and is dedicated to the cause, hello?

  • I’m still in favor of regional conferences first (in 2010 or more likely 2011) building to something major in 2013.

    As a bonus, a January 2013 conference would be after the end of the world in 2012.

    Godless 2013: We Told You So.

    Hemant, is anyone setting up a website to promote this event?

  • SmilingAtheist

    I think a unity conference is a great idea but unity to what is the problem. You really can’t compare other conferences to one. Biggest problem you have here is passion for something. Not everyone is passionate about atheism or about being an atheist. You also have the issue with many athiest being in the closet still. If you were to do this do about something should be passionate about but making sure that the media knows it’s all atheists attending. Since this appears to be an American event (though I’m sure non-Americans would be interested) I would say make a political statement, one that says that atheits vote too and we need representation. You could also make about a promotion of rational thinking and science education. Something lacking in the US lately. I would say you need to make a cause out this is what I’m getting at.

  • Anne O’Day

    Yay, progress!

    Come on little kitties …

  • Ron in Houston

    Yeah, Hemant for head cat herder…

  • TychaBrahe

    Is this intended to be a national (or North American) thing or an international thing? Frankly I can’t see a lot of atheists traveling from Europe to Australia or Australia to the US. One thing about other conventions is that they are about things that people are passionate about: feminism, God, science fiction, mysteries, doll houses, horse breeding, whatever. Most people I know are not passionate about their atheism unless some theist is shoving religion in their faces. (I rarely think about the fact that I don’t believe in God except when I see a violation of the first amendment. On Tuesday nights, I’m out with my local knitting group, not my local social dinner of Skeptics/CFI.)

    One way around this is multiple conventions linked via the Internet. There could be a conference in Australia, one in North America, and one in Europe. I’m not sure how much support there would be in South America or Asia or Africa.

    Anyway, these conventions could happen at the same time. There could be joint seminars via Webcast. There could be a large room dedicated to tele-conversations. Interesting, and much less expensive.

  • NewEnglandBob

    Call it a critical thinking and rationality convention. Get the NSF to fund part of it. It is secular and not religious so they might add funding.