Aside from the piss-poor performance by the theists during the debate, there were a couple of low points for me during the conference.
Some of y’all are intense
At the risk of sounding completely bigoted and neuronormative, I gained a lot of appreciation for the stereotyped image of atheist conference-goers as a bunch of oddballs. I’m sure any group of people who have a passionate interest in a specific topic will produce its share of wackies, but I don’t go to conferences (except things that are work-related, which is a whole different thing to tackle) – I don’t think this is an ‘atheist problem’ per se, I think it is a problem inherent to human interaction. That being said, there were some things that were kind of offputting for me.
First of all, as pugnacious as I am about a wide variety of topics, I know better than to turn every verbal misstep into an opportunity to mount a soapbox. Part of human interaction involves putting others at ease, in order to allow trust and emotional intimacy to build. If your objective is to cultivate that kind of interaction, then jumping up and down any time anyone says something incorrect or insensitive is counter-productive. There were a number of times when I found myself sitting and chatting pleasantly enough with folks I didn’t know, only to have the conversation jerk wildly into a combat situation with no real warning. I didn’t want to be around those people.
Human relationships are fundamentally non-logical, and I can certainly appreciate the difficulty that many people have in navigating those kinds of environments. Far be it from me to tell others how they must behave. What I am suggesting is that if your goal at meetups is to make positive contacts with other people, then you need to learn to let certain things go. If you find yourself constantly having to let important things go (like homophobia, sexism, racism, what-have-you), then maybe you’ve found someone with whom positive interactions are not possible. If someone’s behaviour bothers you, then absolutely feel free to call them out on it – just be aware that most people lack the maturity to separate criticism from attack.
Moral positions as propaganda
In a choice between A) someone who says misogynistic, gender-essentialist, pseudo-scientific bullshit, and B) someone who doesn’t say those things, it is a pretty easy choice to pick B. However, those are not the only two choices we have, nor is B sufficient for me. There were a few speakers who talked a mighty fine game about combating sexism, but who then pivoted little barbs and jokes and comments that pretty much rely on the existence of sexism to work. I’m happy that the community is getting better about overt stuff, but I think we should hold off on the back-patting and self-congratulation until we can honestly say we understand the issues we claim to be better about. Having a panel on women’s reproductive rights is a major coup, but it stands at odds with a speaker who pronounces ‘misogyny’ with a hard ‘g’.
Preaching to the choir
This part drove me the most nuts. I understand the need for rallying, for in-group buoyancy, for creating a safe space to be an ‘out’ atheist. That being said, conferences are supposed to be a place to discuss new ideas, not simply re-hash old ones. Having a debate about the existence of a god at an atheist conference is like an “ewoks vs. tribbles” panel at a Star Trek convention. Everyone is already on one side of the issue – the discussion is largely moot.
In the same way, I found myself bored by a number of the speakers (or at least parts of presentations) who stayed with the same handful of shopworn jokes and arguments about atheism. Any parts of your speech that I can get by browsing through advice animals on the r/atheism front page are probably safe to cut – we get them. Anyone who doesn’t know that the Old Testament sucks or that religious folks are hypocrites can just ask the person sitting next to them for an explanation.
Desiree Schell and Joyce Arthur stood out to me as people who had developed new ideas to bring to the discussion. Matt and PZ stayed a bit closer to the ‘orthodoxy’, but presented those ideas in new and interesting ways. I would have liked to have seen more of that and fewer talks about how stupid creationism is, or how the Bible isn’t a useful source of morality. Maybe it’s just my own personal bias, but I get the impression that those ideas have already permeated the crowd enough to be self-sustaining.
The biggest disappointment for me by far is missing Maryam Namazie’s talk, which I heard was an absolute barn-burner. I got a chance to meet her briefly as I was about to head out the door to the airport, but obviously 5 stolen minutes of conversation is not the same as actually getting to spend time with someone. I also missed Sam Singleton’s atheist revival and Lawrence Krauss’ presentation, which is a huge bummer.
Overall, I was impressed with the level of organization at the event, and had a really positive experience. These few gripes aside, I enjoyed myself a great deal. I have been told emphatically that I must attend more of these, so I suppose I have to start looking into the feasibility of cross-continental travel. A few people have made some suggestions into how I can make that happen, so who knows? You may see my goofy grin sooner than you think.
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