Skepticon and the Need for an Atheist Community

(Or, In Which I Rant Lovingly About Skepticon)

I haven’t written for a few days because I was off at Skepticon, which is the largest student-run atheist/skeptical conference in the U.S. It was amazing.

Spending a weekend with a combination of some of my best friends, a few of my greatest Internet Heroes, and a ton of cool people I didn’t know yet got me thinking about the concept of atheist communities–specifically, why we need them.

The idea of an atheist “movement” or atheist “communities” catches a lot of flak for various reasons. Some people are opposed to the idea that atheism should mean anything other than sitting on your butt at home on Sunday morning and not believing in any gods. That’s fine. For many of us, though, atheism informs and inspires what we do with the rest of our lives, and it’s unfair to deny the validity of that.

Others note the toxicity that certain parts of the atheist “movement” have–whether it’s Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, or outright bullying and harassment. Yes, these things happen in our community. But they’re not exclusive to our community. (Of course, I likewise disagree with the apologists who insist that because they’re not exclusive to our community, we should stop making a fuss about them. No, wrong. We should never stop making a fuss about them, because that’s exactly how we get rid of them.)

In other words, claiming that an atheist community is useless or counterproductive because of the nasty elements that it (still) contains misses the point. All communities contain nasty elements. The solution isn’t to disband the communities, but to kick those nasty elements out.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who chooses not to participate in our community because of that, of course. It’s up to you what you’re able and willing to deal with. Personally, I’ve found that the benefits of belonging to this community far outweigh the drawbacks, but that’s just me. And besides, for many years, I was one of those people who called myself “agnostic” (not realizing, of course, that almost all atheists are also agnostics) and shied away from atheist clubs and events. I had my reasons. Now I don’t.

Besides that, people who claim that there’s no point in having an atheist community don’t realize what it’s like to be newly deconverted or living in an area where atheism is heavily stigmatized. I met people at Skepticon who literally can’t be themselves anywhere but there (or on the internet, with pseudonyms). Doesn’t that matter?

Atheist communities can be both productive and fun, when done right. So what was it that was so special about Skepticon?

It was that I walked in and felt like I had come home.

Suddenly I was surrounded by people who really like the fact that I’m always ranting about psychology or social justice or whatever. I had so many interesting discussions all throughout the weekend, in many cases disagreeing with people. Tons of people wore Surly-Ramics (these amazing pieces of ceramic jewelry that an artist named Surly Amy makes to promote science and skepticism), and we compared ours.

Me, at home at last with my ridiculously political laptop. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

For this entire weekend, I didn’t have to apologize for caring. I didn’t have to say, “Sorry I’m being all serious, but…” I didn’t have to say, “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being religious, it’s just that…” I felt like I was among hundreds of like-minded folks.

Some will say that this makes Skepticon like a “circlejerk” of sorts and that wanting to associate with people who are like you is wrong. I disagree. You don’t typically learn from circlejerks, and I learned a lot. And while it’s a bit immature to always avoid people you disagree with, there’s nothing wrong with escaping to your own “tribe” for a weekend. Constantly having to argue and defend your opinions can be exhausting. For me, Skepticon was like a vacation. An educational one.

Besides, there was plenty of disagreement at Skepticon. It just wasn’t about 1) the nonexistence of god, 2) the value of skepticism, or 3) the fucking awesomeness of science.

There were protesters outside the expo center. They were pretty nice as protesters go. One of them had a sign–I wish I remembered what it said verbatim–and it said something like, “Why such a big fuss over nothing?”

This is one of the biggest myths I hear about atheism, and it’s a myth stemming from the belief that god is all there is to live for. If there’s no god, there must be “nothing.” Nothing worth celebrating, nothing worth getting together for, nothing worth having conferences about, nothing worth getting up at 5 AM to drive 9 hours for. Nothing worth fighting for, nothing worth blogging about, nothing worth dying for. Nothing worth letting your kids stay up past their bedtime so you can teach them about it as they look on in wonder.

The thing is, Skepticon wasn’t just about atheism. Some of the talks were entirely about science and/or skepticism, like the workshop my friend Ben gave about pseudoscience, the talk PZ Myers gave about evolution (which I understood very little of; sorry PZ, you still rock), the talk about the Higgs boson, Rebecca Watson’s amazing talk on how evolutionary psychology is misused to promote sexist bullshit (which had us all squirming in our seats with laughter while simultaneously shaking our heads), and Jennifer Oulette’s talk about positive effects of hallucinogenic drugs and how our outdated national drug policy prevents further research on them.

Why does this matter? It’s not that theists can’t be good scientists or that they can’t promote skepticism and scientific literacy. It’s more that science takes on such an important status in the atheist community that celebrating it is par for the course. Walk into an atheist convention and you’ll see geeky t-shirts and hear references to xkcd and encounter people with PhDs in all sorts of cool scientific fields. My atheist friends and I once hung out over video chat and watched a live stream of Curiosity landing on Mars. When atheists talk about stuff, we’re rarely talking about “nothing” (or, rather, god’s nonexistence). We often talk about science, and science is absolutely worth celebrating.

Skepticon attendees counter-protesting. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

As for the more explicitly atheism-themed talks, theists might be surprised to know that nobody stood there repeating evidence for god’s nonexistence over and over. Greta Christina talked about how her atheism helped her cope with her father’s death and with cancer. She also mentioned how the atheist community donated so much money in the wake of her diagnosis that she was able to stop worrying about how to afford taking time off from speaking and traveling to recover. Hemant Mehta talked about supporting teenage atheists who are discriminated against in high schools. Darrell Ray discussed how religious ideas about sexuality have permeated even secular discourse, and how we can let go of them and stop feeling shame about our bodies and sex lives.

Oh, and JT Eberhard addressed common Christian arguments against atheism, finishing his talk with “But how do you know love exists?” JT knows love exists because we see evidence for it in how we act with one another, and in how he feels about his girlfriend. And then he proposed to her in front of the whole audience.

These are some of the things we talk about when we get together.

Skepticon is free, and its organizers are committed to keeping it that way. The money for it comes from donations and sponsorships. Just a few days before this year’s Skepticon, the organizers found out that due to an unexpectedly expensive contract, the fundraising had fallen very short. They posted a message asking the community for help.

And we gave them $6,000 in two days.

There is so much work ahead of us in improving our community–making it more accessible, more diverse, more friendly to women, more safe. But even as it is now, it amazes me, and I’m so happy to be here.

The new Surly I got this weekend to remind me to keep doing what’s important.

Sarah Silverman and Mandatory Childbearing

Sarah Silverman in “Let My People Vote.”

A few weeks ago, a certain Rabbi Rosenblatt that I’d never heard of before wrote an open letter to Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman, criticizing her for…her political beliefs? Her comedic style? Her fashion sense?

Nope, for her decision not to have children. Which apparently means that she’s not “really” Jewish, which means that she shouldn’t be using Jewish terminology in her comedy, as she did in her video, “Let My People Vote.”

You will soon turn 42 and your destiny, as you stated, will not include children. You blame it on your depression, saying you don’t want to pass it on to another generation.

I find that confusing, coming from someone as perceptive as you are in dissecting flawed arguments. Surely you appreciate being alive and surely, if the wonder of your womb were afflicted with your weaknesses and blessed with your strengths, it would be happy to be alive, too.

I am not surprised that Rosenblatt finds this confusing, and I wouldn’t hesitate to guess that he’s never been depressed. Unless you have, you don’t really understand what it’s like, and why someone might not wish to inflict that on their children. No doubt the wonder of Silverman’s womb would indeed be happy to be alive. But it’s not like her unconceived children can regret the fact that she chose not to have them, can they?

You said you wouldn’t get married until gay people can. Now they can. And you still haven’t married. I think, Sarah, that marriage and childrearing are not in the cards for you because you can’t focus on building life when you spend your days and nights tearing it down.

This is such a childish thing to say. “OHHH, but you said you wouldn’t get married till gay people could, and now they can! Why haven’t you gotten married, then? Huh? HUH?!”

One thing to note is that Rosenblatt is completely and predictably ignorant about the state of same-sex marriage rights. You would be forgiven for assuming that because Rosenblatt is Jewish, he lives in New York, which recently legalized same-sex marriage. Actually, though, he’s from Texas. Not only does Texas ban same-sex marriage in its constitution, but it even had anti-sodomy laws on the books less than a decade ago. Oops.

Not only does Rosenblatt not understand basic legal reality, but he also, apparently doesn’t understand English. Silverman did not say, “Once gay people can get married, I’ll get married too.” What she actually said was this:

Not only would I not get married until everyone can, I kind of am starting to get appalled by anybody who would get married in this day and age. Anyone who considers themselves for equal rights, to get married right now seems very odd to me.

In other words, legalization of same-sex marriage is a necessary condition for Silverman to get married, but it is not a sufficient one.

Rosenblatt continues on his Quixotic quest to produce the stupidest open letter ever written:

You have made a career making public that which is private, making crude that which is intimate, making sensual that which is spiritual. You have experienced what traditional Judaism taught long ago: when you make sex a public thing it loses its potency. When the whisper is replaced with a shout there is no magic to speak about. And, in my opinion, Sarah, that is why you have had trouble forging a permanent relationship – the most basic desire of the feminine soul.

Oh, that ludicrous idea that sex is something to be kept Sacred and Secret and Intimate or else it stops being awesome. I saw this myth trotted out during the Northwestern fucksaw controversy of 2011, and here it is again. I’ll address it in detail some other time, but for now, let me just say this: it’s false.

So wrapped up is Rosenblatt in his medieval conception of “the feminine soul” that he never realizes that women who don’t want children do exist, and that childless (or childfree) women are not necessarily so because they have “trouble forging a permanent relationship.” Or because there’s anything else wrong with them, for that matter.

And I totally get that it can be very difficult to imagine that something you hold very, very dear isn’t really important to someone else, especially when it comes to life choices. Personally, I don’t really understand people who want to spend their lives doing stuff with money on computers rather than being therapists, but I’m sure that it’s not because of some terrible flaw in their character.

Judaism celebrates the monogamous, intimate relationship with a spouse as the prototype of the intimate relationship with God. Marriage, in Judaism, is holy. Family, in Judaism, is celebrated. But for you, nothing is holy; in your world, nothing is permanent. Your ideology is secular. Your culture may be Jewish, but your mind is not.


I think you have latched on to politics because you are searching for something to build. There is only so much pulling down one can do without feeling utterly destructive. You want to fight for a value so you take your belief – secularism – and promote it. As an Orthodox rabbi, I disagree with just about everything you say, but respect your right to say it. All I ask, respectfully, is that you not use traditional Jewish terminology in your efforts. Because doing so is a lie.

So there’s his whole thought process. Silverman isn’t married, doesn’t have/want children, and talks about sex, so therefore she’s not “really” Jewish, and therefore, she can’t use “traditional Jewish terminology.”

Ironically, the use of traditional Jewish terminology that Rosenblatt takes issue with isn’t even part of a comedy routine, and doesn’t even involve that nasty sex stuff he’s so upset by. The “Let My People Vote” video exposes Republican attempts to restrict voting rights by requiring photo IDs and shows how certain groups of people may effectively be disenfranchised by them. The only objection Rosenblatt could possibly have with the video is that it uses the word “fuck” prodigiously, in which case he should probably get over himself.

Rosenblatt ends his self-righteous and myopic letter like so:

I pray that you channel your drive and direct your passion to something positive, something that will make you a better and more positive person, something that will allow you to touch eternity and truly impact the world forever. I pray that you pursue marriage and, if you are so blessed, raise children.


Marriage and children will change the way you see the world. It will allow you to appreciate the stability that Judaism, the religion of your ancestors, espouses. And it will allow you to understand and appreciate the traditional lifestyle’s peace, security, and respect for human dignity – things you have spent your life, so far, undermining.

Don’t get me wrong, marriage and children can be great things. I personally look forward to both. But to pretend that they are more “positive” than political action and that they “impact the world forever” is naive and narrow-minded.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: nobody but you, your friends, and your family (and apparently Rabbi Rosenblatt) really cares about your marriage and your children. If you’re going to get married and have kids, do it because you want to and because it’s meaningful for you, not because you want to make a mark on the world.

For that, you’ll need to actually leave your house and do something.

If Your God Condones Forced Pregnancy, Get a New God

[Content note: sexual assault]

I mean, I realize it’s not that simple, but could you at least consider it?

Richard Mourdock, a Republican senate candidate from Indiana, thinks we should be praising the Lord if we get pregnant from rape:

The only exception I have to have an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

Then of course the outcry began and Mourdock tried to apologize:

I said life is precious. I believe life is precious. I believe rape is a brutal act. It is something that I abhor. That anyone could come away with any meaning other than what I just said is regrettable, and for that I apologize.

What he seems to be saying is that rape itself is abhorrent, but the pregnancy that may result from it is not. This is puzzling. The two processes are not completely disjointed from each other. Pregnancy is a response that most female-bodied people are capable of having to sexual intercourse. If rape is awful, how can pregnancy resulting from rape be a gift?

And on that note, defines gift as such: “something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance.”

If the way your god honors, shows favor, or gives assistance to women who have survived a traumatic and possibly violent crime is by forcing them to carry an unwanted baby and then raise that child for 18 years, you need to find yourself a new god.

Oh, and if your politician supports forcing these religious beliefs on all Americans, you need to find yourself a new politician.

But incidentally, Mourdock has not only failed at being a decent human being and at understanding the U.S. Constitution. He has also, according to at least one writer, failed at interpreting his own religion. A Chicago Theological Seminary professor writes:

Rape is sin by the perpetrator and God does not cause sin. Conception following rape is a tragedy, not part of “God’s will.” The capacity for tragedy to occur in human life, and indeed in what we call “natural evil” like earthquakes, is a result of what Christians call “the fall” from perfection as described in Genesis.

When you make God the author of conception following rape, you make God the author of sin. This is a huge theological error, and one that Christian theologians have rejected since the first centuries of the faith.

Not being a Christian (much less a theologian) myself, I can’t necessarily vouch for this interpretation, but it certainly makes more sense to me than Mourdock’s.

What this suggests to me is that Mourdock, and others like him, aren’t actually interpreting their religious beliefs objectively and then coming to the conclusion that abortion is still wrong even after rape. Rather, they are reinterpreting the religion post hoc so that it supports their desired conclusion–that abortion is wrong no matter what.

Of course, religious beliefs should have exactly nothing to do with public policy, and I don’t understand how this is still up for debate. However, the fact that these politicians aren’t even expressing genuine religious ideas, but rather manipulating religion to make it seem like it supports their twisted morality, somehow pisses me off even more. Surely (whines the atheist) this is not what religion is about?

The thing about gifts is, they can be politely declined or flat-out refused or returned to the store or given to someone else. If god has so kindly offered you the “gift” of a pregnancy following a rape, you should be within your rights not to accept the gift.

A gift that is forced on someone without their consent is, by definition, not a gift at all.

Faith is not a Mental Illness

I’ve been seeing a disturbing tendency among atheists to compare religious belief to mental illness. Sometimes this comparison is made explicit, as in this article. Other times, however, the comparison is more implicit–for instance, when words like “crazy” and “delusional” are used to describe religious people or their beliefs (hi Dawkins).

These comparisons are inaccurate and offensive to both religious people and people with mental illnesses.

First of all, being religious is a choice. Being mentally ill is not. While it’s a bit arguable whether or not faith itself is a choice–I certainly can’t make myself believe in god, but perhaps others can–the existence and success of religious proselytism proves that choice is at least part of the equation. Only a completely ignorant person, on the other hand, would attempt to proselytize mental health (although it obviously does happen).

Regardless of whether or not you can choose to believe in god, you definitely get to choose whether and to what extent you observe a religion (unless you’re a child, but that’s different). People with schizophrenia don’t get to choose which hallucinations they have and how often. People with OCD don’t get to choose their compulsions. People with phobias don’t get to choose which phobias they have or how they manifest themselves.

Second, suggesting that religious people are mentally ill is sanctimonious and offensive. It insinuates that they are incapable of consciously and purposefully choosing to be religious, and that their religious beliefs are just as meaningless as a symptom of mental illness. It reminds me of when I used to bring up concerns with friends who would respond, “Oh, that’s not such a big deal, you just feel that way ’cause you’re depressed.”

As I mentioned, being religious is a choice. For most people, it’s a choice made with one’s own best interests in mind. Comparing that to a schizophrenic delusion is a wee bit condescending.

(Of course, delusions that are religious in nature do exist. Some people with schizophrenia believe that they are possessed by religious spirits of some kind, that they have spoken to god, or that they are the messiah. However, this is vastly different from the way most religious folks experience their faith, and is obviously a symptom of mental illness.)

Although I’m an atheist who kinda sorta wishes religion didn’t exist, the fact is that it does, and I refuse to believe that all of the billions of religious people in the world are just mentally ill. No, they’re onto something. It’s just not something that I’m interested in myself.

Finally, these comparisons trivialize the suffering that people with mental illnesses experience. The distinction between mental health and mental illness is not that mentally healthy people do not believe in supernatural things and mentally ill people do. The difference is that (most) mental illnesses interfere with the person’s functioning and make them feel, well, bad.

Religion, for all its flaws, often does the opposite–it provides people with community, teaches them to behave morally and charitably, and helps them cope with illness, death, and other challenges in life. (A caveat: I’m talking about religion at its best, not at its worst, and these same effects can be found elsewhere.)

So when you imply that the definition of mental illness is believing in things without evidence, you miss a lot about what it’s like to be mentally ill. Namely, you ignore the emotional pain, cognitive distortions, thwarted goals, ruined relationships, physical fatigue, and all the other things that are part of the experience of mental illness.

There are many interesting, intelligent, and non-offensive ways for atheists to argue against destructive religious ideas (for instance, here’s an example I read today). Calling religious people mentally ill is not one of those ways. Let’s put that kind of useless rhetoric back on the shelf where it belongs.

[guest post] The Dharma of Depression

My friend Seth, who has guest-posted here before (read it, it’s awesome), returns to talk about depression and Buddhism.

Note: The following is a transcript of a speech given at the weekly College Meeting for Worship at Earlham College.

Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming. It means a lot to me that people have come to hear me talk about this.

For my entire adult life, and most of my adolescence, I have struggled with depression.

Sorry to drop the heavy stuff on you right away, but this must be understood if anything is to come of the rest of my talk.

In many ways, I have been very lucky. I have never had to take medication; I know people who have. I know people who would not be with us today if they hadn’t had medication. I know people who are no longer with us. I have attended memorials for those people in this very meeting house.

Depression is a terrible, terrible disease.

Other diseases ravage your body; depression ravages your mind. It tears away at you will, your hope, at everything that makes you, you.

Let me be clear about this: depression is not sadness. 24/7 sadness would be incredibly obvious to everybody around you. But depression is much more insidious than that, and in my experience, it often takes your friends and loved ones by surprise when it crops up.

So what is depression, then?

Well, I obviously can’t speak for everybody, but here’s my experience:

Depression is being trapped in a slow, steady downward spiral of negative thoughts. Depression is thinking that the biggest mistake you made all day was getting out of bed. Depression is the feeling that you’re slowly falling to pieces, and the inability to pick yourself back up and put yourself back together. Depression is the irrational yet inescapable idea that your life means nothing to anybody, and that nothing would change if you just suddenly vanished from off the face of the earth.

The worst thing about depression, though, is that it devours the very resource that is necessary to fight it: your willpower. Sure, maybe you know that you should try talking about it to a friend you trust, or make an appointment to see a councilor, and that might help. But how in the world are you going to do that when you’re lucky just to have the ability to pry yourself out of bed in the morning?

All this is very important to understand. Partly for my story, because this is what I mean when I say that I was depressed. But also because you may well meet somebody suffering from depression in the future, or maybe you already know somebody who is. It will help both of you if you have at least some idea of what they’re going through.

But back to my question, because for far too many people, it isn’t rhetorical. How do you fight something that destroys your ability to fight?

Like the experience of depression, the key to overcoming it is different for each individual person. For me, the key was faith, which is why I’m here talking to you all today.

It may surprise some of those here that know me when I say that I consider myself a deeply religious person. Part of that is probably because I’m not extremely outspoken about my religious beliefs, and when I do talk about them I tend to frame them as a general philosophy about the world rather than a spiritual belief. Part of that is probably a cultural tendency to assume that “religious” means Christian, or at least Abrahamic, which I am neither. Nor is the religion I wound up devoting myself to the same one I was brought up with. Nevertheless, I consider myself religious because my personal philosophy and sense of morality are, if not directly taken from my religion’s teachings, very much in sync with them.

Allow me to explain.

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