Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Day I Learned That Dawkins is a Human Being

I am the only person in the world who has a photo of Richard Dawkins with a dog's head in his crotch. I'm fairly certain of this fact. In the home office of a University of Michigan professor, while all of the professor's friends and colleagues sipped wine in the living room and chatted about the state of education, the famed Richard Dawkins was greeted by a well-groomed standard poodle named Lucy. He pulled a cell phone out of his pants pocket and said "I want to take a picture of Lucy!" The clearly camera shy dog ignored Richard and went about his business sniffing me down.

It was kind of a surreal moment for me because I had just finished policing a line of hundreds of people all aching for just a moment with the celebrity scientist. That moment with Lucy the poodle was first time I had ever seen Richard Dawkins ignored. I later got to see him showing around the flashy tie his wife had apparently made him, slam a book about a creation museum down on the coffee table exclaiming "this is what pisses me off!" and eventually blending into the small crowd of college professors.

I remembered Andrei, one of the characters from Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and how he idolizes Napoleon. After a near-death experience on the battlefield, Andrei is surprised to find that, when he finally comes face-to-face with his hero, Napoleon is but a human. I wouldn't say that I had a near death experience, but I definitely hadn't been having the easiest week. I had in the same day witnessed a young woman being hit head-on by a pickup truck in the middle of the city and was followed and felt up at a crosswalk. Combined with my recent experiences in inner-city Detroit, these things made me go into my work at the Dawkins event with a different mindset than I expected to. This time last year, I was with the same people volunteering at the same event. I was starstruck by the presence of the scientist who convinced me to love biology. This time, I my interest was aroused by the ordinary person that I had the unique opportunity to spend time with.

In this movement, we want to be enlightenment leaders. Sometimes, even we fall into old patterns. We put our leaders on pedestals when we agree with them and damn them when we don't. We forget that we are all just humans. We forget that being human is not only a negative quality. It's the human element that makes this movement worth being a part of.

I walked home alone that night after the Dawkins talk. I wasn't floating the way I was last year after seeing Dawkins. I was thankful. I was thankful because I realized that everyone who was with me at the Dawkins event last year was with me that day, only something was very different about that day's event. Last year, I did not know the people I was working with. This year, I was happy to call them my friends. It's a feeling we tend to take for granted. At the moment I recognized it, there was nothing more I could possibly ask for.

Our SSA, October 2011, with Richard Dawkins

1 year later

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

SSA Stories: A Debate!

A little over a week ago, our Secular Student Alliance sponsored our first big event of the year: a debate between Eddie Tabash and Frank Turek! I was very busy running around taking still photos and video, so I absorbed very little of the actual debate. Judging from the feedback I received, mostly from friends and SSA members, people seemed to think that both Eddie and Frank had distinct strengths and weaknesses. The consensus seemed to be that Eddie offered better content, but Frank was more accessible and charismatic. Even so, our SSA members seemed happy with the outcome of the debate. I did not get to speak at length with attendees from New Life Church, but I assume, judging from the occasional rounds of applause the Frank received throughout the debate from his followers, that they were also pleased.

There appears to be a segment of our community that just doesn't like debate. I've heard that it's too confrontational, it doesn't accomplish anything, etc. At some point, I'd like to experiment with another medium, like a panel discussion. I do think that people find debates entertaining though. We atheist activists have heard most of these debates play out multiple times, but a lot of people haven't. One of my friends who was raised atheist actually told me after last year's debate, "I didn't think I'd get anything out of it, but I actually learned a lot." She went on to attend last week's debate as well.

We weren't able to count how many people attended the debate, but I was quite happy with the turn-out. What would I recommend to groups interested in organizing an event like this?

Firstly, start planning early. We had about four weeks to prepare for the event. Originally, we wanted to bring in Matt Dillahunty, but he wasn't available at the time. We were very fortunate that the Center for Inquiry stepped up and offered to send Eddie our way. If they hadn't helped, this event might not have happened. If I could do it over, I would have tried to get started on such things a couple months in advance.

On a related note, expect and be prepared for little problems. I was really worried that we wouldn't have a debate format worked out by the time the debate happened because we kept having to make changes. We almost didn't have enough people from our group to usher/volunteer at the event. I was actually a bit frustrated by the time it was all over. I'm really glad I had so much support from my officers and from our partners at New Life Church. It takes dedication to plan a big event like this because there's no way to know what's going to happen. Making sure you're ready to work your tail off is the best you can do.

Make sure to promote the heck out of your event. If you don't have a significantly large audience, you will be disappointed, especially considering all the work you will have put into organizing it. I discovered that events like this debate are a great way to connect with the larger freethought community. We worked on the event with Center for Inquiry, but we also had representatives from Michigan Atheists and Mid-Michigan Atheists and Humanists in attendance. I always feel so happy when I can see leaders of various groups together. We spend way too much time working against each other, whether we intend to or not.

Lastly, check your equipment. I am still fighting the technical issues I was having with my camera at the debate. There were some oversights that I am definitely not going to have the next time (e.g., having a significantly large card in my camera).

I have to be honest, organizing this event was hard. On the other hand, it was worth the work. I hope everyone got something out the debate. I know I did.