I got up early the second day of the conference, took a coffee and a pastry from the hotel lobby, and headed to the convention hall in Springfield Missouri. There was a large crowd outside today. I smiled, eager to meet new friends – until I realized they were Christian protesters.
Skepticon describes itself as the “Largest Free Conference on Skepticism” in the nation, and it has been a well-known atheist convention for several years.
I’d flown in the day before and driven down from Kansas City, passing through pleasant countryside, old white houses, and lots of bible colleges.
As someone with a background in theology and comparative literature, my writing and art focuses on religious themes without actually being reverent; in fact my playful paintings and research into historical religious literature and mystery cult traditions inevitably comes across as blasphemous.
It’s difficult to share my work with theists, who get uncomfortable, and so I’ve begun to make connections with atheists communities. But this was my first time actually participating in an atheist event. As somewhat of an outsider, I surveyed the gathering with the detached eye of a social scientist.
From the protesters outside, you would think atheists were dangerous, or evil, or violent, or somehow harmful to the moral fabric of America. But were they really?
What kind of people are atheists?
Here are some of the things I noticed about the people attending Skepticon:
- They talk a lot, use big words and speak quickly. They mostly talk about becoming more rational, science and science fiction.
- They have a lot of tattoos.
- They dress casually, almost defiantly unstylish.
- A lot of guys have long hair.
- A lot of girls have died their hair bright colors.
- They have piercings.
- They are eloquent, and opinionated, and well informed.
- They know a lot of stuff.
Here is a social hypothesis: they are a group of misfits. They were nerds before it became cool and fashionable to be a nerd, meaning they probably got picked on. They didn’t wear cool clothes and probably had trouble making friends. They were ignored – which pushed them further into isolation activities like reading books.
When they grew up they became anti-establishment, anti-ordinary. This was a move based in part on the social ostricization at the hands of the herd, but also the natural effect of education and the evolution of rationality and skepticism from anyone who does enough research. They celebrate their uniqueness and individuality by dying their hair and getting tattoos – proud of their nonconformity.
Interestingly, because they are full of self-motivation, self-empowerment, deliberate and conscientious with a sense of responsibility for their actions, they are more trustworthy: one vendor told me he doesn’t ever have trouble with credit cards or checks at an atheist conference, whereas at a normal conference he wouldn’t be able to trust people.
It was interesting to contrast this group with the crowd of protesters – well dressed, fashionable teens, many Asian-Americans, all huddled into themselves passive-aggressively standing up against a perceived enemy they knew nothing about, obviously sharing a group mentality about what they were doing there.
If I wanted to be mean, I could say that they just looked young, immature, and lacking intelligence. 18 years ago, I could have been one of them.
What do atheists stand for?
“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” says the fortune cookie wisdom of the religious. And atheists often argue that atheism is not a belief or movement or anything except the absence of belief in a deity. But it simply isn’t true that atheists stand for nothing.
In particular, atheists want people to get educated and make smarter decisions. They want to have the freedom to make their own decisions about what they can do with their lives and their bodies, and they want to share that same freedom with others. Hemant Mehta highlighted the discrimination against young atheists in American Culture; how simply choosing not to pray a long with a high school sports team can make a teenage girl supreme villain of the community.
Atheists aren’t fighting against God or religion. They are simply fighting for their right to respectively not participate without serious social repercussions and abuse. Another speaker, I forget which one, brought up the issue of speaking with Christians.
Some atheists, he said, think the religious “aren’t worth talking to” because they can’t listen. But how many of us were religious at one point in our lives? (A majority raise their hands). “I think we were worth talking to!” he concludes. And he’s right – part of the value of having an organized community of non-believers is to help transition those people who have begun to question their beliefs but are afraid to stop going to church or voice their opinions and ideas.
My favorite speaker at the conference, James Croft, really put all of this into perspective. Atheists are being called “Nones” – having no beliefs and nothing to stand for. They are empty, meaningless, and can be ignored. But the “non-religious” segment of the USA is growing exponentially, and with increasing swiftness. (As it does in every advanced society with open communication and technology and freedom).
James talked about the necessity of building a positive moral community, because atheists DO have things that they are willing to fight for. Important issues include:
- Climate change issue
- Equal sex marriage
- Reproductive rights, right to choose
- Honesty and accountability
- A moral constituency that is politically engaged
The interesting thing is that most of my friends and family, being Democrats, agree with with atheist values. Are these the evil ethics of Satanists trying to bring our country into evil? Yes, say the conservative republicans and religious right.
These political issues won’t be easily solved in the USA anytime soon.
As for myself, I’d much rather live in an America dominated by intelligent, scientifically progressive atheists who care about things like health care and climate change, than in an America led by Christians who determine political laws based on a book written a few thousand years ago.