Skepticon wrap-up: angry but joking atheists for the win

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, November 22, 2010 0:42 EDT
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All weekend at Skepticon, books were everywhere. The book seller had books about atheism, about science, and books written by the speakers. There were books being purchased, read, carried around, and signed. But these were not the books that were the ones being most discussed, even as the speakers hawked their own books from stage. That honor went to two highly contested texts: the Holy Bible and On the Origin of the Species. Never were two books so discussed while remaining largely unread.

Copies of The Origin were all over the place. The reason was that a creationist group set up in front of the convention to protest it (which was really odd to me, but was shrugged off by a lot of people who had dealt with these folks before), and their form of protest was to hand out copies of The Origin with an intro to it written by evolution denialist Ray Comfort. His creationist group put out their own version of The Origin in order to swing people towards creationism a couple of years ago, and they’ve been handing out free copies ever since. You can tell the second you see their copies of the book that they’ve vandalized the text somehow, simply because their copies are a lot lighter than the actual book On the Origin of the Species. A quick Google search demonstrates that this suspicion in correct, that the Comfort version of the book has four excised chapters, because Comfort doesn’t actually want people exposed to the evidence that Darwin marshaled for his theory. He also replaced Darwin’s actual introduction with his own evolution denialist gobbledy gook. Comfort would have you believe that actually reading The Origin will turn you against it, but his censorship of its actual contents proves that he knows that claim is false. Conventioneers responded to this peculiar protest by taking the books and then circulating them around so that the speakers could sign them, turning them into souvenirs of the event.

The other book that was being carried around by some folks was the Bible. They snagged the free ones that the Gideons put in hotel rooms, and also asked speakers to sign them. (I joked that I should have written, “Have a bitchin’ summer!” as my tag in the Bible, except my handwriting is so poor that people probably wouldn’t get the joke.) One guy came up with a fun idea of putting stickers that said “I Doubt It” that were advertising Skeptical Inquiry on the Bible and then returning it to the hotel room for the next person to find. This entire incident was another reminder to me of how different it is to be an atheist living in hyper-liberal and tolerant areas (like I do). My usual stance towards the Bible is indifference, honestly. It’s not that I don’t know about Gideon Bibles, for instance, but I so rarely think about them that it would have never occurred to me to look for one in my room for any kind of protest stunt to pull. But I think in some parts of the country, being mindful of the non-stop Christianity shoveling isn’t a choice.

As Ray Comfort clearly understands, actually reading On the Origin of the Species is likely to move someone closer to accepting evolution. In contrast, actually reading the Bible tends to turn people away from faith, which is why churches tend to discourage it, substituting “Bible study” for actual Bible reading. But it was clear from the way these books were being bandied around that this isn’t really about what’s in them, but what they symbolize: traditionalism vs. modernity, faith vs. reason, patriarchy vs. feminism. And that’s fine, I guess. Something had to be the symbols for that, though there’s a distinct reluctance on the part of the modernists in this equation to make Darwin’s book a symbol, because we reject the idea of treating science like received wisdom. But you have to work with what you got, not what you wish you had.

There was some amount of butt hurtness from the actual (and rare) accomodationists about the fact that this conference was mainly about atheism. Even talks that weren’t about atheism had atheist implications. Mine, for instance, was about feminism as the rational position, but the entire first half of it was about how religion is a major obstacle for women’s rights. (The second half was about pseudo-science. I’ll be putting it online soon, I hope. They were taping all the talks given.) PZ Myers talked about evolution and how it works on a genetic level, but the conclusion was about why evolutionary theory is, whether people like it or not, a threat to the god hypothesis. Rebecca Watson’s was about Christmas and the value of the various fantasies about it, but the conclusion was about atheism and whether or not atheists should celebrate Christmas. (Her conclusion was abso-fucking-lutely.) The claim was being floated that 3 out of 15 speeches were on atheism, but honestly, ever single one I was able to catch was about atheism on some level.

And that’s fine. It’s asinine to claim that the focus on atheism is going to run off a handful of religious people who might otherwise be interested in skepticism because they’re skeptical of UFOs and Bigfoot. Not that it isn’t true, but it’s basically beside the point. This claim underestimates the intelligence of religious people, because it assumes they don’t understand that skeptical claims about other supernatural beings have implications for claims about god. It also assumes they wouldn’t get that they’re in a thicket of atheists because everyone just politely refuses to talk about the obvious.

But more than that, the argument fails to honor the people who actually show up, who actually give money, and who actually care about this event. Those people want to talk about religion. They fall into two camps, though many people have a foot in each one. First you have people like me, who are atheist activists because we see the horror religion does in the world and we simply think challenging it is more important than challenging beliefs in, say, fairies. Then you have people who’ve actually been the direct victims of horrible actions taken in the name of religion, or they’re close to someone who has, and for them atheist organizing is a healing thing to do. For instance, there’s a whole lot of child abuse going on in this country in the name of Jesus Christ, and people who see that and are distressed by it don’t need someone blabbing on to them about how they have to turn down the volume on their objections because they might offend someone.

Talking about atheism doesn’t preclude talking about other stuff. The fear is that if you talk about atheism too much, you’ll run off religious people who might otherwise add value. But I would argue that the atheist talk gets people in the door, and once there they are happy to hear your arguments about resisting quack medicine, promoting science, and, in my case, embracing feminism. You would lose half those sets of ears if this was a conference that had more stuff about Bigfoot than it did Jesus. That’s just a cold, hard fact. People turn against religion for emotional reasons, but that doesn’t mean their arguments aren’t rational. Treating the angry atheists like they count less because they’re angry is simply unfair. They should be angry. Also, that they are angry doesn’t mean they are strident, humorless, or scary. As I noted above, for instance, instead for reacting to the creationists protesting the event by yelling at them, most people expressed their anger with humor, by defacing the books with the signatures of noted heathens speaking at the event. When you speak to people, they often have stories of beatings at the hands of fundamentalist parents, harassment at work from believers, and feelings of isolation in their various communities because of their atheism. They should be angry. I feel a lot of the debate about turning down the volume on atheism is telling the angry people that their feelings don’t count, and that’s simply unfair.

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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