Skepticon update

By Amanda Marcotte
Saturday, November 20, 2010 20:59 EDT
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Sorry no CSA post this week—I’m traveling. Specifically, I’m in Springfield, Missouri to attend Skepticon. (I spoke yesterday for an hour on feminism and skepticism.) Lots going on, and I’ve only just now started to organize my thoughts on it.

I think the biggest revelation to me has been the reminder that atheists are actually an oppressed minority in this country. Not the most oppressed or anything—this isn’t the Oppression Olympics, and the only atheists you’ll talk to who exaggerate their struggles are usually white men who hold professional, well-paying jobs and have no fucking clue what it feels like to be really oppressed. But I’ve had an interesting opportunity to check my privilege as someone who lives and has basically always lived in a bubble where my atheism is never held against me by employers, friends, family, or the society around me. Growing up in West Texas, I wasn’t a full blown atheist yet, but I did feel skeptical about what PZ Myers gleefully called the God Hypothesis last night during a panel. Maybe I experienced some push back for this growing up, but I don’t really recall it. I think the unique tolerance for eccentricity in that area gives you space to be tolerated, and again, I wasn’t really loud or outspoken about my doubts about god. I barely even thought about the subject, honestly. It was only when I got older and started to give more attention to the idea of critical thinking that I even spent energy thinking about god, and I realized I didn’t believe and frankly never had in any substantive way. By then, I was already living in Austin, where atheism is not only tolerated, but making fun of Christianity is a popular sport. Now, obviously, I live in New York. My entire adult life has been spent in circles where not believing in god is accepted to expected, depending on the company.

This isn’t a typical experience for many to most of the atheists here. On the contrary, I’ve learned a lot about how much religion and the expectation of it is miserable for many atheists. Springfield is smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, and a lot of people that come to this hail from similar places. Finding a community of atheists is a giant relief for many of them, because they feel isolated and misunderstood. Some people have mostly had positive interactions with religious institutions, but arrived at atheism strictly from thinking about god claims logically. Some people have experienced spiritual abuse, and have a more emotional component to their rejection of religion. But a common theme that people are actually treated like they’re scary or threatening or evil even for refusing to believe in god.

In fact, there have been blowback incidents at this very convention. Last night, while I was sitting around having a drink with some other convention-goers, someone who came back from the bar reported that she heard a woman getting livid with a man who told her what the convention was for. She rabidly insisting that atheism is a kind of religion, as opposed to the absence of it. This opened up a conversation where people discussed actual grief they’ve gotten from people they know: the “you hate god” thing, accusations that atheists have no morality, and my personal favorite, claiming that atheism requires as much if not more faith than believing. This one is my favorite for two reasons: 1) No, it doesn’t. Rejecting an evidence-free and implausible claim takes less faith than embracing said claim. 2) The person leveling this accusation is inadvertently conceding that faith is dumb, which is why they think it’s so damning to claim atheists have “faith”. I’ve had people say this dumb shit to me online, sure, but at this table a lot of people endured it from friends and loved ones. It was distressing.

Most of the programming so far has been top notch, and I’ve learned a lot, particularly about some of the actual evidence against certain religious claims. (Not just that there’s an absence of evidence for them, but that there’s evidence against them.) There was also a panel I frankly thought was pointless, about the debate between so-called confrontationalists and accomodationists. I hate this debate, because everyone gets all inflamed over nothing. If everyone calmed down for a second and stopped thinking in terms of these labels, I think they’d realize they basically agree 99% of the time. And that space of agreement is that different situations require different strategies, and that just because you build alliances with religious people on some issues doesn’t mean you have to give up criticizing their beliefs in different situations. (For example, it does atheists well to line up with other religious minorities on freedom of religion issues.) Better was the panel on the question of whether or not skepticism leads to atheism, though it was also meandering. Part of the problem with it was that the evidence that skepticism does lead to atheism was sitting right in front of us all—the panelists were all atheists, and most of the attendees appear to be atheists. And of them, most of them seem to have been brought up with the expectation of faith, but rejected it as irrational. So the answer to the question, “Does skepticism lead to atheism?” is, “Not always, but generally yes.”

I expected to get a lot more grief for my talk than I did, because the skeptic community is heavily male and a lot of the men haven’t really considered how they should apply the tools of skepticism to gender roles. But the response I’ve gotten has been almost 100% positive, with the only real criticism coming from a woman who didn’t like that I discussed religious organizing against the birth control pill without going into a digression about how the pill is supposedly bad for you. I responded by saying I’ve definitely been exposed to the claims of anti-pill feminists, and I think the evidence is just against them. This is a hard discussion to have one to one on the spot, though, because you really need to have the evidence for the various claims in front of you so you can dissect it. But the general response has been really positive. Lots of questions, but not any real defensiveness about the things I said.

One thing in general I like about skeptic gatherings is just that—people are super laid back and take the claim that this is about open discourse very seriously. Instead of bunching up and freaking out when presented with challenging ideas, they really do go the extra mile to ask questions and think about the idea instead of dismissing it out of hand or seeking reasons to shoot it down without thinking about it. Not that defensiveness never happens—I heard lots of stories from activists dedicated to bringing more attention to the issues of racial diversity, feminism, and LGBT rights, and so I’m not being a Pollyanna about it—but I would say that overall, the tone of discourse compares favorably to other organizing conferences I’ve been to that are focused more on feminism or liberal politics. As an example, I would say that amount of time that people in the audience spend hogging the mic during Q&A sessions is a fraction of what it has been in any other space I’ve been in. There have a couple of people who grab the mic and hold forth for 5 minutes without really asking a question, but they are a tiny group. I took questions for about 20 minutes, and mic-hogging didn’t happen even once during that time. Every other time I’ve ever been in a Q&A session, there has been at least one person who was a mic hog or was only asking a question to attack you, but had no real interest in hearing your point of view. The only exception was the last time I talked to a skeptic’s group, and took questions for literally 45 minutes without a single mic hog. This isn’t about my ginormous ego, either. When I’m in the audience, mic hogs make me want to strangle them. The time has been set aside to hear what the speaker has to say, not some random self-appointed audience member.

I bring this up because the stereotype of skeptics is they are imperious know-it-alls with closed minds and no sense of wonder. My experience is literally the opposite of that—if I was to characterize the average skeptic, I would say a somewhat geeky, curious, open-minded person who enjoys asking questions and really listening to the answers. Also, super nice and gracious.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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