This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Texas Freethought Convention, which was co-sponsored by the Atheist Alliance of America.

Aside from the fact that this was a very successful atheist conference in Houston, Texas, the highlight of the gathering was the Saturday night presentation of the Richard Dawkins Freethinker of the Year Award to Christopher Hitchens by Dawkins himself.

Most of you might know that I have been involved in the promotion of science and critical thinking for many years, and as such, I have attended many science/skeptical/atheist conferences, and have seen and met more amazing thinkers and speakers than a dirty white boy like me should be allowed to. I’m no expert by any stretch, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this award presentation was the skeptical/atheist/science/critical thinking event of the year.

Now, I’m not trying to sell you on the fact that the award is all that important. I don’t think patting ourselves on the back holds much iron in the grand scheme of things. But I think the circumstances and the people involved added a new dimension to the event, serendipitously creating a message and delivering it in the precise manner we should aspire to deliver it. In short, it was the most engaging speech and Q&A session I’ve seen.

The entire evening was possible due to a morbid coincidence. The convention was being held in Houston, and Hitchens is receiving treatment at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center for stage IV oesophageal cancer. Had the conference been in another city, the award would no doubt have been presented without the recipient in attendance. There was actually some concern that Hitchens’ illness would prevent him from attending, even as close as he was. But he soldiered on, and arrived to a nice ovation, just as dinner was being served.

Now, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Hitchens on a couple of occasions, and even had a drink with him at a party in Las Vegas, and I honestly never considered him much of a physical specimen. It’s simply an idea that I never associated with the man. He’s a storied drinker and a smoker, and his mental capacity is such that it normally renders all assessment of his other attrubutes moot. At least it did in my mind. But this was the first time I’d seen him in person since he was diagnosed. And as you might imagine, the toll the cancer has taken on him was quite evident.

Robbed of his hair and much of his weight, his clothes hung loosely on him, and he moved slowly and deliberately, a handkerchief in his hand to muffle the deep coughs that exploded from time to time. I won’t say I felt pity at the sight of him, because I know from reading his work and hearing his words that he is dealing with his illness with rationality and science, and the admiration I have for that certainly belies any pity. But I was concerned that he might be too frail to do anything more than wave from his seat. I suspect many others in the crowd had the same concern.

But when Richard Dawkins, eloquent as ever in his introduction, called Hitchens up to receive the award, he rose from his chair and made it to the podium.

Now, I won’t transcribe Hitchens’ speech here. I’ll let you guys watch the video below (I just wish there was video of the Q&A that followed). I’ll just say that, though I didn’t always agree with Hitchens on every subject, and though I found him smug to the point of distraction at times, I was always amazed at his verbal acumen and his wit. But the thing that struck me as so profound about this event was the fact that such powerful ideas were coming from such a debilitated body. (And dare I say, he may be a tad bit more humble now?)

Yes, it was still Hitchens. And yes, we would expect nothing less. But it drove home the idea that rational thought and delivering a rational message can be powerful in any package. In our world, the ideas are what’s important. The process of critical thought is what matters. Rationality and the scientific method are the icons. Not necessarily the people espousing them.

At any rate, last week we discussed Steve Jobs in the Thursday Inquisition. And I don’t want to eulogize Hitchens today. He may yet have some time left. But let’s open up the floor to discuss the ideas he stands for, or to give an opinion of the man himself if the mood strikes you.

Can a message have impact despite the package from which it comes? Examples? What is the most effective method of delivery? Ordinary person, straight up intellectual, or Hitchens-esque polemecist street fighter? What are your thoughts of the Hitchens and his struggle with cancer? The floor is open.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar of genjokoan
    October 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm —

    The best part of this event that I have gleened from afar, was the converstation with Christopher and Mason Crumpacker, an eight year old skepchick. See here for more.

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/mason-crumpacker-and-the-hitchens-reading-list/

    • Avatar of Sam Ogden
      October 13, 2011 at 5:17 pm —

      Yes. I thought that was pretty awesome. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it out of the ballroom to see the exchange.

  2. Avatar of BeardofPants
    October 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm —

    Video has been removed. :(

  3. Avatar of genjokoan
    October 13, 2011 at 10:57 pm —

    Indeed, the three videos posted to youtube as well as the comment by the person how posted them on Jerry Coyne’s blog. I suspect foul play. :-/

    I have those videos saved. Obviously they are not my work. I will make inquiries …

  4. Avatar of tfc2012
    October 13, 2011 at 11:11 pm —

    Great write-up Sam. We’re glad you could make the show. Yes it was a great event for us organizers as well, although most of us were working most of the time and didn’t really get to sit in on the events.

    As far as the video is concerned, we had signs posted on the doors that since we had a professional video company in the venue shooting footage for professional release, we weren’t allowing private filming. They also own the rights jointly with TFC and AAA. So you may see some YouTube footage being shut down.

    BUT…we know that this footage is epic and important, so we are soon to offer a free “nugget” to everybody of the Dawkins speech and the Dawkins/Hitchens Q&A in professional quality. (i.e. no bobbing and weaving hands, heads and room echo) The actual convention set will be up for sale soon, but we decided to make the Dawkins/Hitchens Q&A video a freebie to everybody.

    Our film crew is working fast and furious to get the best quality product out ASAP.

    Sorry for any inconvenience this has caused. We’ll let everybody know as soon as we get the “ok” that it’s ready to go, and we’ll provide all the links.

    Keep checking for updates on our websites and Facebook pages. Texasfreethoughtconvention.com and Atheistallianceamerica.org.

    We’re excited about it as much as everybody else.

    Thanks!

    -Paul

  5. Avatar of tfc2012
    October 13, 2011 at 11:57 pm —

    The exchange outside the main ballroom between Hitchens and the girl was also captured and will be available at a later date.

    It was precious and she kind of stole the show!

    -Paul

  6. Avatar of mattwhitby
    October 14, 2011 at 2:34 am —

    When you get a gift like Hitchens it seems churlish to complain about the wrapping paper.

  7. Avatar of cornelioid
    October 14, 2011 at 9:56 am —

    Very frequently i’m confronted by other skeptics and atheists with the principle that accusatory, firebrand, and even smug confrontation is ineffective, at least relative to accusatory and firebrand diplomacy. (Compare Hitchens to Harris and Dawkins.) I’ve gradually acquired two rebuttals.

    1. The last time i had my mind radically changed was over the 2003 Iraq War. I used to be an avid opponent and protester, and Hitchens knocked me out of it. I questioned, i did more of my own research, and i came to my own conclusion that the war was something i should have supported. Hitchens didn’t provide the arguments that pushed me over but he did quash the arguments that had previously convinced me. He achieved this by means of smugness — smugness at me and my own justifications, at least as i felt it. I’d heard other commentators make stronger arguments than his but they never phased me.

    2. When i post something on Facebook with a smug denunciation of someone’s position or choices, i often get lots of angry, contrary feedback. When i post analogous things with questioning or disagreeable or mildly critical commentary, i generally get none. I may not convince any of the people who disagree (though sometimes i do), but it makes my posts more popular and gets more of my friends to read them. This illustrates, to me, Greta Christina’s (and of course others’) point that we engage not so much to convince our adversaries as to publicize our arguments.

    I don’t mean to prop up personal experience and anecdotes above research, of course. Is anyone else more receptive, as i am, to smug accusations than to diplomatic suggestions?

  8. Avatar of Scopes Monkey Matt
    October 14, 2011 at 11:02 am —

    I love Hitchens. Hitchens is an ass. Hitch is fucking brilliant. Hitch is an egomaniac. I agree with Hitch. I disagree with Hitch. Long live Hitch. Long live Hitch.

  9. Avatar of DataJack
    October 14, 2011 at 6:22 pm —

    Sam, the intro by Dawkins was great, and the Acceptance and Q&A were great, and I am very sorry that I missed them.

    However, I want to say a few words about this article. Your write-up is brilliant and eloquent, perfectly capturing the spirit of the event, and why it matters. Thank you, and bravo.

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