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(Being the first in a series of reports on the 2007 convention of the Atheist Alliance International in Washington DC.)

I don’t have many genuine heroes. Carl Sagan set the bar pretty high when I was thirteen. Since then I’ve generally required a combination of intelligence, lucidity, and courage from applicants to my private Valhalla. Huxley’s there, and Voltaire. Emma Goldman. Gandhi.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet several of the living members of my pantheon, like Dawkins and Harris, but my path had remained uncrossed with one — until yesterday morning.

eugenie scott

Dr. Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), spoke to the convention, laying out the recent history of the fight to keep evolution education alive and undiluted in American schools. It’s a helluva fight, and the main focus of NCSE’s brilliant and tireless work.

So impressed have I been with NCSE that I donated a portion of the (sad, small) proceeds of my 2002 novel to the organization.

Imagine my delight when I heard a voice behind me at the breakfast bar wondering where the tray of food had gone—and turned to see Dr. Scott herself, momentarily free of the buzzing hoard that typically attends Spheres like Eugenie at these events. (I’ll explain the geometric reference later this week.)

I explained that another tray was on the way, then thrust out my hand. Just wanted to thank you for your work, Dr. Scott, said I.

Eugenie Scott looked at my name badge and her eyes widened. “Oh my goodness, hello Dr. McGowan!” she said. “I’m so glad to meet you!”

“You…you know who I am?” I was flabbergasted.

“Yes yes, you wrote that wonderful book a few years back!”

Holy crap. We stepped out of line to chat. I mentioned parts of her presentation that had especially impressed me, especially around the historic Dover case a couple of years ago. Instead of saying thangyavurrymush and beating a retreat like the other luminaries, she began, eyes sparkling, to give me an insider tour of the case—everything from the tactics of the creationists to the coming together of the legal team and the incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into a case of this stature. I could not have been more fascinated. After a series of exchanges with Richard and others best measured in nanoseconds, I was overwhelmed that I rated this kind of attention.

She even flatteringly assumed I was genetically literate, making a passing reference to “the transposition of the second allele in chimpanzees and humans.” Thanks in part to my BA in physical anthropology, I understood each and every one of those words. I imagine the phrase itself has meaning as well.

After more than ten minutes of this, I began to worry that I was monopolizing time that she could have spent giving wedgies to passing creationists. “Please,” I said, “I don’t want to keep you from breakfast,” a new tray of which had by now arrived. “No no, that’s fine,” she said, “too many carbs anyway”—and continued the loveliest conversation I’d had in the entire convention. We talked about our shared opinion that atheists are the world’s worst “salesmen,” about the need to build coalitions with the non-crazy majority among religious folks, and the satisfaction of fighting for truth and justice.

At last I said, “Well, it’s been such a pleasure to meet you! Keep up the brilliant work.”

“My pleasure,” she said. “So good to meet you.”

“Enjoy the rest of the convention,” I added and turned to go.

“You too, Chris.”




Dr. Chris McGowan is a paleontologist and author of the book In the Beginning: A Scientist Shows Why the Creationists are Wrong.


Dr. Dale McGowan, alas, is neither.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.