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Des Moines Forgotten

Atheists Caucus in the Heartland

5/1/2024

The year was 2011, and I had been in Des Moines for four years. My first feature documentary, “Brent Houzenga: Hybrid Pioneer,” premiered at the Des Moines Social Club at its former location at 1408 Locust St. that previous November. It was now April, and the weather was finally breaking. I had read in the news early in the month that the National Atheist Convention was coming to Des Moines.

American Atheists was said to be a major advocacy group for nonbeliever civil rights and state-church separation. The convention was to feature speakers, panels, activism workshops and social events for nonreligious, as well as curious, people.

I haven’t said which way I swing regarding faith, and I won’t. I remember Mayor Cownie’s speech about Des Moines welcoming everyone to our city, which I thought was hip. There was a new rise in megachurches in the metro area, so to see something on the other end of the spectrum coming here was a breath of fresh air. 

I had received a call from a gentleman named David Silverman who was looking for a videographer to capture a weekend of events for the American Atheists (the organization behind the convention). These were the early days of my career, and my videography was still on the table for work opportunities. If you want to offend filmmakers of any type, call them videographers. Videographers shoot weddings. Filmmakers make movies. Back then, it really didn’t matter to me; I just wanted to make money on my own terms and not be stuck in an office somewhere. (I say that as I type this in my second office in Clear Lake at Renovo Media Group.)

To prep for this experience, I attended one of the monthly meetings of the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers for a vibe check. The group seemed just like any other nonprofit think tank. They recorded their minutes, took attendance, and had grinders for lunch. It was a mix of both conservatives and liberals who shared a common belief of atheism or were agnostic. New members and guests introduced themselves and explained why or why not they believed in what they believed. One member shared news regarding government relations (separation of church and state), another oversaw their volunteer efforts, and an event/party planning committee planned their group outings. 

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When David Silverman called me, he initially offered passes to the convention in exchange for services. (Another pro-tip: Don’t offer to pay someone with tickets for the exact event you are supposed to film. You are going to be there anyway, so that payment doesn’t make sense.) We settled on some small dollar amount that probably paid my cell phone bill and bought a few groceries for the week. The lineup was mainly tenured academic types, medical physicians, scientists, a handful of folks who converted from religious to atheist, and a live podcast by some people I had never heard of.

The convention was held at the Embassy Suites April 21-24 and carried the theme, “Atheists Caucus in the Heartland.” There was an opening ceremony, panel discussions, Q&A with the tenured professors, and a lunch and learn. In the middle of the day, one of the coordinators burst through the double doors of the conference room and interrupted whatever theological TED Talk that was happening to tell us there was a famous YouTube preacher protesting outside of the hotel. Everyone raced outside of the Embassy Suites to see the action. This guy looked like he was straight out of Central Casting. He wore Mennonite style farm clothes with what appeared to be multiple homely wives who were all holding signs with some wordsmith doomsday threats. This was the most exciting part of the weekend.

The last item on the agenda was the live podcast, but the audience had mostly left for the day. Fewer than 10 people were left in the giant conference room plus the guys on stage everyone but me knew of. That was it.

The American Atheist Convention has not been back to Des Moines, to my knowledge. Meanwhile, I did pick up a book by a faux author named Sam Singleton, an Atheist Evangelist. He performs one-man shows as a tongue speaking, snake-handling, holy-roller from the Ozarks. One is called, “If the Ocean was Whiskey and God was a Duck.” I pull this out most holidays and read it to my nieces with a voice straight out of the Bible belt. ♦

Kristian Day is a filmmaker and writer based in Des Moines. He also hosts the syndicated Iowa Basement Tapes radio program on 98.9 FM KFMG. Instagram: @kristianday, Twitter: @kristianmday

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