Some of the luminaries who spoke at the conference, held at the Crown Royal Hotel in Crystal City, Va., over the weekend, included Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, author Sam Harris and journalist Christopher Hitchens. The Atheist Alliance International describes itself as "the only democratic national atheist organization in the United States."
While most attendees on Friday night were adamant that God was a myth, the convention, attended by hundreds of people, brought into focus a divide among atheists as to their identity as a movement and the nature of the enemy they faced.
In his speech, Dawkins portrayed a black-and-white intellectual battle between atheism and religion. He denounced the "preposterous nonsense of religious customs" and compared religion to racism. He also gave no quarter to moderate or liberal believers, asserting that "so-called moderate Christianity is simply an evasion."
"If you've been taught to believe it by moderates, what's to stop you from taking the next step and blowing yourself up?" he said.
By contrast, Harris's speech was a more tempered critique of the atheist movement itself. While Harris said he believed science must ultimately destroy religion, he also discussed spirituality and mysticism and called for a greater understanding of allegedly spiritual phenomena. He also cautioned the audience against lumping all religions together.
"The refrain that all religions have their extremists is bull-t," Harris said. "All religions do not have their extremists. Some religions have never had their extremists."
Specifically, he noted that radical Islam was far more threatening than any radical Christian sect, adding that Christians had a right to be outraged when the media treated the two religions similarly.
Harris also criticized movement atheism and questioned the use of the word "atheist."
"Atheism is not a philosophy, just as non-racism is not," he said. "It is not a worldview, though it is frequently portrayed as one.
"Rather than declare ourselves atheists, I think we should emphasize reason," Harris added.
While the audience gave Dawkins a standing ovation, Harris received only polite applause. One questioner later declared herself "very disappointed" in Harris's talk.
But whatever differences the speakers had with each other, they were united in their contempt for religion and their belief that religious faith had to be challenged and ridiculed by secularism and reason.
"Religion is not the root of all evil, but it gets in the way of [determining] how we got here and where we find ourselves," Dawkins said. "And that is an evil in itself."
Dawkins was particularly critical of parents who raise their children as a "Catholic child" or "Protestant child." Children must not be labeled as subscribing to a particular religion, he said, and should be allowed to examine the evidence and determine their beliefs for themselves.
"If I said that's a post-modernist child, for example, you'd think I was mad," he quipped.
Other speakers at the convention included philosopher Daniel Dennett, evolutionary scientist Eugenie Scott, and Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson Matthew Chapman. There was also a performance by atheist rapper Greydon Square, who wore a shirt that read "The Black Carl Sagan."
Many of the attendees seemed to have developed an aversion to religion from conservative, Protestant Christians. Several of the atheists Cybercast News Service spoke to complained of living under fundamentalist parents who frowned upon any questioning of the Bible or any activity condemned in Scripture.
"It wasn't easy [telling my parents I was an atheist]," one said. "I still haven't entirely told them. I just say I'm a humanist, which they don't seem to mind."
Further emphasizing the attendees' distaste for conservative religion was the convention gift shop which, in addition to atheist materials, sold politically liberal-themed bumper stickers and pins, including "Impeach Bush" and "Stewart/Colbert '08."
A common decoration at the convention was the red letter "A," which was emblazoned on t-shirts and pins worn by several of the attendees. The "A," an allusion to Hester Prynne's punishment in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, is a symbol of the Out Campaign, a movement started by Dawkins to encourage Americans to proudly display their atheism.
Although Crystal Clear Atheism was well-attended, it received little publicity and media attention. The convention also experienced frequent technical difficulties, particularly during Dawkins' Powerpoint slideshow.
Atheists are still a small minority in America. A Newsweek poll earlier this year found that 91 percent of Americans believe in God. A more recent Pew Research Center poll found that atheists were among the most distrusted people in the nation, with 53 percent of Americans holding an unfavorable opinion of them.
But they are a proudly elitist and self-certain minority. When asked what the main difference between believers and atheists was, Dawkins had a quick answer: "Well, we're bright."
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