Before "Women of Faith" Hits AAC, Female Atheists Throw a Gathering of Their Own

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Women of Faith, a conference put on by the nation's largest Christian book publisher, hits the American Airlines Center next week.

The "Feminine Faces of Freethought" conference is not coincidentally being held tomorrow at Resource Center Dallas.

It's safe to say that there won't be a lot of overlap between their attendees.

"I was just looking at their website," says Melanie Clemmer cheerily. She's the outreach director for the Fellowship of Freethought, one of DFW's atheist and humanist groups. "I was going down a rabbithole of internet videos of Women of Faith, which is kind of scary."

She laughs. "Sorry about that."

Clemmer explains that ever since she found out about the WOF conferences, she's been hoping to hold "a sort of of counterpoint" around the same time. The idea started small: "For our first meeting, I thought we'd have a lunch and learn, there'd be about 15 people, we'd have just a discussion or just one speaker." Then she went out of town and didn't show up for one planning meeting. When she came back, the women in atheism lunch had morphed into a daylong conference with more than a dozen speakers. They're expecting around 75 people to show up. "I'm still a little bit in awe at how this took off."

Before she was a humanist, Clemmer was, several decades ago, a Mennonite in Pennsylvania, where she grew up.

"The community I grew up in was more tied into mainstream American culture" than some Mennonite groups, she explains. "We had cars, electricity, and our dress was like most of mainstream American culture. But even if you look at the wedding pictures of my grandparents, you can actually see a style of dress and head covering of the women, jackets for the men, that are actually a little closer to what we call the plain Mennonite church."

Clemmer came to Dallas at 22 to work for the VA Hospital as a dietitian and diabetes educator, where she's worked ever since. But her religious beliefs began to gradually ebb away.

"I still have many friends who are Christians," she says. "There are many people who I do see as doing good in the world, and it does come as an outgrowth of their faith. But I just personally got to the point where I could no longer compartmentalize my reason and my intellect with the supernatural. So for me -- there are plenty of people who I think can do the mental gymnastics required to say, 'Well, the Bible does say this about women or slavery or gay people, but I can still be a good person. I'm just going to take it in this context.' And I just got to the point where I could no longer do those mental gymnastics."

But Clemmer found that the atheist movement was, at times, not particularly diverse.

"Women are actually still a minority in the atheist and freethought movement. And typically the face of free thought and the skeptical movement is that of the middle-class middle-aged white male." The purpose of the conference, she says, is pretty simple: "We wanted to show that the freethinking movement has many other faces, both in gender and diverse backgrounds, and the wealth of knowledge that we bring."

The keynote speaker will be Noelle George, who founded an organization called Parenting Within Reason, which encourages parents to raise their kids with a background in "science and critical thinking." Other speakers will include former Muslim women, bloggers, LGBT women, and the leader of Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated. Men are also welcome, Clemmer says, and childcare will be provided.

"Those of us that live here in the Bible Belt, there are many of us that do find that we need to have, I'm going to call it a safe space where we don't have to be asked what church we belong to," Clemmer says. "Or where we can talk about some of the different things that we encounter living in a religious environment, different things that drive us crazy, mutual support, and outreach activities." The goal of FOF, she says, is to "create a community where people can get together and do things to help our fellow humans without being under the umbrella of a religious organization."

As for the conference, she says, "One of the things that I would like to accomplish is for any woman feels she's out there alone -- whether it be in her career, in fighting for women's rights, in parenting -- that she knows that she has a supportive community that's out there. I hope that people feel energized to make a difference in their community."

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