by Clayton Flesher
I attended the third annual Oklahoma Freethought Conference (FreeOK) this weekend in Oklahoma City at the Cox Convention Center. FreeOK is a gathering of atheists, agnostics, Secular Humanists and freethinkers for a one-day event.
This is the first year the conference has been held in OKC, with its first two iterations taking place in Tulsa. After this year, it will return to Tulsa, with plans for it to alternate between the two cities each year.
The official attendee count this year was 546, up from 318 the first year and just over 500 in 2012. Part of the increase in attendance was that the self-styled freethought community in Oklahoma and around the region is growing in membership and involvement. The Oklahoma Atheists, one of many atheist and freethinker communities in Oklahoma, has over 1,500 members on Meetup.com, is the seventh largest atheist community in the world, and averages one meetup every day of the week.
The high attendance was also in part likely due to the caliber of speakers that organizers were able to bring in. It also didn’t hurt that the conference offered childcare.
The keynote speaker was Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and author of various books including “The Physics of Star Trek,” an idea that initially started as a joke but turned into a way to get people interested in real physics, and “A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.” Krauss gave attendees an hour-long crash course in the Standard Model of particle physics and why the Higgs boson recently confirmed at the Large Hadron Collider is such a big deal.
The theme of the conference could have been “Variety,” as each speaker covered a wide array of topics.
For example, Sean Faircloth, the author of “Attack of the Theocracts, How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It” and the Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, an atheist think tank, gave a very detailed plan for how the secular community can and will organize to influence US politics between 2014-16. His talk included a call to action for attendees to help with a ground campaign in Iowa leading up to the 2016 presidential Primary Caucus.
There was a lot of energy in the room coming out of Faircloth’s talk. A former member of the Maine Legislature, Faircloth knew how to stay on message and get people interested in the talking points for political action that he lays out in his book. The line at the book table for Attack of the Theocrats was around thirty people deep, and his was the first title to sell out.
“If they [the religious right] can organize for intolerance and injustice,” Faircloth said. “We can organize for science and reason and compassion. The next great civil rights cause is us.”
Dale McGowan, author of various books including “Raising Freethinkers” and “Atheism for Dummies,” spoke on how to raise ‘actual’ freethinkers. He encouraged non-religious parents to give their children a firm grounding in religious ideas from the whole tableau, making it clear that children should feel safe to come to their beliefs without fear of what those beliefs might turn out to be.
McGowan argued that parents should give their children the tools to critically examine claims, and then let them do so, regardless of the outcome. For example, he advocated that parents should let their children know what they believe, but should also encourage children to talk to trusted friends and family members with differing opinions about what they believe and why.
But by far, the speaker who got the most excitement out of the audience was Emily Boyer, a sexual and reproductive health activist out of Wichita, Kansas. Boyer gave the dreaded post-lunch talk, which was perfect because there wasn’t a sleepy eye in the audience once she got started with her comprehensive Sex Ed presentation.
Boyer didn’t just talk about condoms and contraceptives, though that was definitely part of her discussion. She was clear that comprehensive Sex Education included body image, gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual health and reproduction, love and relationships, and sexual responsibility.
I’m a thirty-year-old man with a wife and a daughter, but I learned quite a bit from Boyer’s talk. In particular, Boyer provided a lot of resources for people to use for further research, including “There’s No Place Like Home,” a website dedicated to giving parents useful, age-appropriate tools for talking to their children about sex. The talk was so good, that during the Q&A, someone from the local chapter of Planned Parenthood stood up to thank Boyer for the quality of her presentation.
Speaking of Q&A, there was one after every talk, giving audience members a chance to clarify points that might have been murky, or even to steer the conversation in a whole new direction. Boyer even gave out her phone number in her slides so audience members could anonymously text her questions that they’d hesitate to ask otherwise. I am happy to say I got to ask Lawrence Krauss a question about metaphysics that has been bothering me for a while.
Other speakers at the conference included journalist and activist Jamila Bey (who had to phone conference during her presentation due to a family emergency), Seth Andrews of The Thinking Atheist, and science education activist and science-funding advocate Zack Kopplin.
The conference concluded with a 21+ after party that I was unable to attend, which is probably for the best.