Sunday, March 10, 2013

Freethought Festival 2: Fight back!

This weekend I'm attending Freethought Festival 2, a free conference in Madison, WI put on by Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at UW-Madison.  Read about yesterday's "Science Friday" speakers here to get caught up.  Search #FTF2 on twitter for live tweets.

Saturday's theme: Fight back!


Amanda Knief
Source: trianglefreethought.com

Amanda Knief

The golden calf: Why the faith-based initiative needs to be sacrificed


Amanda's talk focused on the faith-based initiative (F-BI, I'm adding the dash so it looks less like the FBI), which was formed by George W. Bush in 2001.  There are two main issues Amanda focused on regarding F-BI: religious discrimination and being unable to track how taxpayer money is spent within churches.

It used to be that places of employment couldn't religiously discriminate in hiring and firing (1964 Civil Rights Act - Title VII).  But in 2002 an executive order was passed so that religious organizations can discriminate based on religion to keep "integrity".   This is what allows the Catholic church to only hire men as priests, for example.  But this also means a Catholic hospital could turn down a highly qualified Jewish doctor and hire an under-qualified Catholic doctor instead.  That's a problem.

The second issue deals with churches' entities that offer a service, and that they're no longer required to report on taxpayer money spent.  Before, if a church had a soup kitchen, that soup kitchen would need to be registered as a separate 5013(c).  5013(c)s are non-profits, and if they are awarded any federal grants or monies, they must submit a report (a 990) afterwards showing how the money was spent.  When Bush created his F-BI, he changed the process: services offered by a church (soup kitchen or homeless shelter, for example) no longer register as their own 5013(c); they remain under the church.  Thus, the F-BI gives taxpayer money directly to churches, which are not required to submit a 990 showing how the money is spent.  Your tax dollars are going to churches, and you can't see how it's spent!  Where's the wall between church and state?

Amanda suggested we ask our local Faith-Based Initiative office (Yes, every state has a F-BI office.  I wasn't aware of this) what grants were given out and how much money was spent.  What was the money spent on?  This is public information, so everyone is entitled to know.



Andrew Seidel
Source: Freethoughtfestival.org

Andrew Seidel

The greatest story ever told: America's Judeo-Christian heritage


I've seen Andrew's name a lot on Hemant's blog or via tweets this past year when I was living in Spain, so it was great to finally put a face to the name.  What a great addition to FFRF!  Andrew talked about how to counter the unfortunately common idea that the United States of America was founded on Judeo-Christian values.  Let me just say first that it wasn't.  Andrew began with some well-known facts among freethinkers: The Treaty of Tripoli states that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion".  The words "under god" were added to the pledge in 1954, and the words "In god we trust" were added to paper money in 1956.  Andrew talked about the historical context of this time, McCarthyism.

Then he went through each of ten commandments as well as parts of the Constitution to show that the bible does not share the same values as our Constitution.  Remember now, the bible was used to justify slavery!  All of his evidence together shows that the United States of America was not in any sense founded on Judeo-Christian values.

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It was at this point, post-Andrew's talk when everyone's leaving for lunch, that I realize my pen is missing.  Someone had given me a book recommendation and I was going to jot it down.  Now my pen is shorter than the normal pen, and fits into two elastic bands on my notebook; it came in a set.  I had just used it to take notes during Andrew's presentation, so it must be close by.  I check under my chair, glance around the floor around me, don't see it.  I found another in my purse with which I wrote down that book title, but I really want to find my notebook's pen.  It's nowhere to be seen, so I accept the loss and head back home for lunch.

When I'm about a block away from the conference site, near the bottom of State Street, I feel something in my boot.  I grin to myself as I think it must be my pen.  Fifteen minutes later when I arrive at home, I take off my boots and voila!  It must have fallen into my right boot when I stood up after Andrew's talk or something.  Pen in hand, I was able to keep taking notes with my notebook set after the lunch break during the afternoon and evening sessions.
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Hemant Mehta
Source: Freethoughtfestival.org

Hemant Mehta

Post first, ask questions later

I've been reading Hemant Mehta's blog Friendly Atheist since its birth (during my high school years), and met him at the World Humanism Conference I attended in Washington D.C. in the summer of 2008.  Being familiar with some of his more recent talks that have been recorded and posted to his blog, I was glad to hear some new material on an issue that isn't restricted to atheism.

Hemant gave us a few examples of people that didn't fact check before posting online articles or blog posts (Jezebel, and the consequences of their non actions.  In many of his examples, no journalist (or very few) had even contacted the subject of the articles and posts!  So the takeaway of Hemant's talk is to ask questions first (before posting), fact check, follow through (follow-up when the story isn't top "news" anymore), and contact direct sources whenever possible.  Have a question about a drawing?  Contact the artist.  Think an article online is misrepresenting a group?  Contact the author directly with questions before blogging about it.


Greta Christina
Source: womeninsecularism.org

Greta Christina

Why are you atheists so angry?


I had never heard Greta speak before, so when she began without a powerpoint I was worried that I wouldn't be able to follow.  I'm a visual learner, so it's easier for me to pay attention when my eyes are involved too.  Greta is amazing and captivating; my worries were unnecessary, as I had no problems whatsoever staying focused.  What an inspirational talk -- I highly recommend watching her full talk one once it's posted.

Greta began with reasons why she's angry: 40% of the homeless population in Utah are teenage homosexuals that have been kicked out of their houses by their religious parents, seriously ill children die because their parents believe in faith healing (and such parents are protected from child neglect charges in 39 states), religion is used as a rationalization of slavery, the reputation of the Catholic church was more important than the raping of children, AIDs spreads in Africa because people have been taught using condoms is immoral, etc. etc.  The list went on and on, and made me realize I need to get more involved to make change.  She ended saying that anger is not hatred; anger is how we know that things are not okay, and it's a powerful tool for social change.  Again, I recommend watching Greta's full talk once it's up at the AHA @ UW-Madison's youtube page.


Atheist pride parade

Atheist pride parade, Madison WI


This is believed to have been the first atheist pride parade ever in Madison, WI.  I'm so glad I was here to be a part of it.  At my post about the atheist pride parade in Madison you can see more pictures and hear more details about the event.


JT Eberhard
Source: freethoughtfestival.org

JT Eberhard

Dear Christian 2

JT, blogger  at What Would JT Do, gave a speech directed at Christians.  I guess he gave the talk "Dear Christian" at last year's Freethought Festival, but had enough to say that he made a second talk this year.  That mixed it up, addressing Christians throughout the talk, but I found myself wondering how many believers were actually in the room.  Here are two random points I jotted down during his talk: Some people thinking about leaving the church are hesitant because "belief changed my life".  To that JT says any belief can change your life, regardless of the truth of the belief.  For example, let's say I believe that there's a monster under my bed, and if I don't wear socks the monster will eat my feet.  That would cause a change in the my life; I will now be absolutely sure to wear socks whenever I'm in or near my bed.  Even though the belief caused a change in my life, that doesn't mean the belief is true.  The second random point is that throughout history, science has replaced religious explanations time and time again.  Has religion ever replaced a scientific explanation?  No.



Dan Barker
Source: freethoughtfestival.org

Dan Barker

Freedom from religion

Dan began with a little bit of history about Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), formed by his now-wife Annie Laurie Gaylor and her mother Anne Gaylor in Madison, WI.  Dan was actually a Christian preacher and musician for 19 years before he became an atheist.  Soon after he made the change, he was invited to be on AM Chicago.  Annie Laurie was also an invited guest for that show; the host was Oprah Winfrey.  I had already seen the youtube footage of this show, when Annie Laurie and Dan Barker first met, but Dan pointed out in his talk that they recently showed it to their daughter.  Not many people have a video recording of the first time they met their future spouse!  His talk didn't seem to have a central focus, it was more of a collection of stories - which were fun to listen to.  Dan also played and sang a total of three songs during his talk, since there was a piano up front in the room.




Desiree Schell
Source: freethoughtfestival.org

Desiree Schell

No gods, no masters: Unexplored links between unions and freethought

Canadian Desiree (thought of you lots during the talk, Hannah) talked about the relationship between unions and freethought.  Unions in Canada support public education, social safety nets, universal health care, laws against discrimination, access to abortion, and same-sex marriage -- which are causes that many freethinkers in the states support as well.  Desiree had some graphs that compared the number of unions and number of freethinkers in Scandinavia, which was correlated.  Although correlation is not causation, Desiree shared some evidence with us that favors her hypothesis.

A random quote I wrote down during her talk was "You know, most countries in the world have more than two political parties..."  Just having the two main republican and democratic parties feels so normal since that's all you're exposed to growing up in the states, but after having lived in Spain for two years (where there are 16 different political parties currently in Congress) I learned otherwise.  Anyway, Desiree's reminder was nice since I tend to get caught up in the American system when I live here.
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