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Freethought Festival 2012 (Presented by Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison)


In April 2012, Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison was able to host Freethought Festival 2012 in collaboration with the Madison Coalition of Reason thanks to a Project Grant from the national SSA. This article summarizes the experiences of that event for the group.

It would be a severe understatement to say that Freethought Festival 2012 was “big.” The mere possibility of such an event is a testament to the tremendous support received from the SSA, our guest speakers, the event organizers, and the growing secular movement itself.  As such, please understand that the following summary, while lengthy, in no way captures the magnitude of the Freethought Festival.

Freethought Festival 2012 was broken down into four theme-based sessions, each of which featured five to seven talks related to a central topic of importance.  The first session, “Sexy Secularism,” took place on Friday, April 27th, and consisted of talks addressing issues of religiosity in human sexuality (Dr. Darrel Ray), the intersection of biology and morality in the abortion debate (Chris Calvey), LGBTQ rights (Dr. Veronica Drantz), philosophy of science (Dr. Elliot Sober), and then culminated with a keynote discussion of evolution vs. creationism in the public science classroom (Dr. Kevin Padian).  The crowd grew over the course of this first evening, perhaps reaching 400 seated attendees at its peak – though there was continuous turnover as people arrived and left throughout the evening.  After each talk there was time for a brief Q&A session, allowing audience participation and a chance for speakers to clarify points.

An interesting observation was the immediate deployment of social media by speakers and attendees.  In particular, twitter use between speakers, organizers, and attendees helped us capitalize on the material being presented, as salient points and humorous comments were made available instantaneously to a much larger audience through the employment of our #ftf1 twitter hashtag.

Saturday, April 28th consisted of two sessions – “Confronting Religion” in the morning, and “Church and State” in the evening.  Talks ran from 9:30 AM until about 6:30 PM, separated by a social event – the Speakers’ Luncheon – at mid-day.  In the opening remarks, Chris Calvey of AHA highlighted the geographic distribution of attendees and speakers, establishing the magnetic effect that events such as Freethought Fest can have in our community.  Additionally, the graphic made clear the growing demand for such events around our nation. Freethought Festival 2012 brought in speakers and guests from around the nation.
Saturday’s first session opened with unique combination of compassionate and potentially confrontational perspectives from three leaders in the secular community.  The audience was first treated to an insightful discussion of the psychology inherent to abandoning one’s faith (Dr. Valerie Tarico).  This was followed up by a spirited “how-to” guide for productive religious debate by JT Eberhard – a real crowd pleaser, replete with on-stage magic tricks!  PZ Myers then lobbed a challenge to the scientific community, presenting a case for public atheism among practicing scientists, and frankly criticizing the existence of “accommodationist” viewpoints within the scientific world.  Each talk inspired lively discussion over the lunch-hour break, and a flurry of twitter activity.
Saturday also featured a unique social event, the Speaker’s Luncheon.  Attendees could sign up on a first-come-first-serve basis for a semi-private catered meal with speakers.  We found this to be a great opportunity for interaction and socialization between guests, speakers, and event organizers.  From an organizational standpoint, we gathered valuable ideas for improvement from both guests and speakers during this gathering, and look forward to incorporating these suggestions into future iterations of the Freethought Festival.

Following the lunch break, “The Friendly Atheist,” Hemant Mehta, spoke on the issue of promoting secularism among our youth, and how the movement can assist young atheists.  Following him, Matt Dillahunty gave a fantastic talk about his experiences engaging believers in formal debates, and the broke down the fundamentally flawed moral justifications inherent to many apologists’ arguments – he made a moving case for a secular, reality-based worldview in his memorable closing remarks.  Finally, Dr. Richard Carrier delivered a scholarly treatment of the evidence for a historical Jesus – supporting his argument that the central character of Biblical providence may indeed be a fictional concoction of ancient minds, perpetuated and mystified over the passing of time.  Again, Q&A sessions followed each talk.
The third session, “Church and State,” tackled the contentious issue of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between religious organizations and the state/federal government.  Andrew Seidel opened the session by thoroughly discrediting the “Christian Nation” myth propagated many citizens of our nation, through critical inspection of historical/literary context and judicial precedent in the United States.  Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor then discussed the ineffectual nature of religion in tackling the real problems our country faces – utilizing the popular FFRF billboard phrase “God Fixation Won’t Save This Nation.”  Dr. Ellery Schempp then shared wise words about the importance of keeping church and state separate, eloquently and thoroughly explaining the historical and contemporary threats to the nation from religiously motivated sources.  Sean Faircloth then presented the session’s keynote address, providing attendees with a vision for a secular society, and the grassroots organizing efforts necessary to make the vision a reality.   

Following Sean’s talk, he was joined on stage by the session’s other three speakers for a panel discussion entitled “God and Government.”  This component of Freethought Festival 2012 offered an opportunity for the audience to ask questions about public policy and social activism in the secular community.  Highlights included: a comment from Sean Faircloth encouraging nonbelievers to seek public office (even suggesting the possibility of a non-theist president in the future from among the current youth generation), and a poignant explanation of the intricate relationship between secularism and women’s rights from Annie Laurie Gaylor. Saturday wrapped up with social time at local Madison establishments, the UW Memorial Union, or much needed rest!

Sunday the 29th featured talks that focused on “Building a Secular Movement,” beginning with Phil Ferguson’s advice about how to interrupt the perpetuation of religious faith by encouraging, emphasizing and popularizing science as parents and active community members.  This led nicely into Dr. Dale McGowan’s talk about secular parenting, in which he offered salient advice for raising ethical children in the absence of religion; his advice for following the “golden road” to honestly honing critical thinking skills in our children.  Lyz Liddell then took the stage, and delivered a lucid explanation of the shifting demographics in the secular community, how student groups are the source of current and future growth in our movement, and what the SSA is doing to support them.  Next, James Croft brought a distinctly Humanist perspective to Freethought Festival 2012, and offered a sharp contrast to the heavy emphasis on atheism by focusing on principles of secular activism that accommodate a broader range of belief systems.  Alix Jules shifted the discussion towards diversity in the atheist movement, uncovering the unique challenges and promising rewards associated with expanding our movement to reach currently under-represented communities.  The final speaker was the President of the James Randi Educational Foundation, D.J. Grothe.  His talk helped to synthesize the entire event by reminding us of how the different flavors of freethinking (and their associated labels) are compatible and synergistic; they all help to forward the foundations of skepticism in society.

Freethought Festival 2012 brought 21 prominent speakers from the secular movement to Madison, to celebrate freethinking, secularism, and the growth of the secular movement.  The event was designed to feature many talks from speakers of diverse backgrounds/expertise to showcase the multifaceted nature of the secular community, and expose attendees to potentially new issues related to secularism.  The event included 21 talks, a panel discussion, a speaker’s luncheon, and post-conference social gatherings in the city of Madison for speakers and attendees - as well as impromptu magic tricks and vocal performances from our speakers!

This article was written by the members of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Watch video of the speaker presentations hereThere are plans in place for a Freethought Festival in 2013, stay tuned!

Photography: Ingrid Laas. Used with permission.

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