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.

[guest post] Hurricane Sandy, Climate Reality, Political Absenteeism

In purely economic terms, Hurricane Sandy will cost the United States $20 billion. And although a little less than half of that cash is insured, it cannot come close to accounting for the millions who have been devastated by the storm, the flooded streets, the damage to some of our most treasured landmarks, and the 16 human beings who lost their lives to the “one-in-ageneration” storm.

The science is clear. Climate change produces wetter, more intense, and more frequent tropical storms. Drawing a conclusive causal link between climate change and Hurricane Sandy is nearly impossible, but if there exists a wake up call, this surely is it.

We watched from afar this summer while our drought-stricken farmers struggled to produce crops in the erratically dry midwest. We sleepily, passively enjoyed last winter’s unusually comfortable weather. All of these patterns are symptoms of climate change. And not once has Mitt Romney or Barack Obama returned to the issue of climate in this election cycle.

At the RNC, Romney had not the poise to merely disagree with Obama’s policy on climate. Instead, he had the arrogance to proclaim, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans…” (cue eruption of laughter)… “And to heal the planet…” (cue a little less laughter).

Climate change has been discussed in every presidential election since 1988. But at this critical time in international negotiations, at the time when our nation’s fields and cities are experiencing the beginning of these monumental changes in our climate system, we have retreated to vacuous economic rhetoric and irresponsible jokes.

Romney promised to help us and our families, as though somehow we were not dependent on a habitable planet and a stable climate. If our leaders take seriously the safety of our families, now and in the future, we must all be prepared to act now. “We owe it to our children and grandchildren.”

Rising water rushes into an underground parking garage (Getty Images)

Water floods Ground Zero (John Minchillo / AP)

Corn damaged by drought last summer (Jim Lo Scalzo, European Pressphoto Agency)

Mark Silberg is a third year undergrad at Northwestern studying philosophy, among other things. He strongly believes that corporations are people, and that, like all people, they have moral responsibility.

[guest post] The Tradeoff Between Ambition and Happiness

A fellow blogger has provided me with this guest post about the psychology of ambition and happiness. Enjoy!

Imagine there’s a big project at work and you decide to come in on the weekend. The
length of you stay is entirely up to you, but you’ll get paid overtime for each hour.
After six hours you’re starting to feel like you’ve had enough. It’s time to decide
whether to stay another hour.

Both options have their benefits. Leave and you get to go hang out with friends. Stay
and you make more money. You go over the pros and cons in your head, but because
you have complete freedom over how to spend the next hour the choice comes
down to one thing: are you unhappier about leaving or unhappier about staying?
The decision will be made based on whether you feel, or convince yourself to feel,
unhappy and unsatisfied about only working six hours.

The point of this little scenario is that while many of us don’t consciously make
these specific decisions every day, the course of our lives and our happiness is
altered by how we incrementally reach these decisions over many months or years.
Are you going rip yourself apart over still not getting that promotion, or will you be
satisfied that you’ve reached the professional level you dreamed about when you
were a college student? Will you be happy if everything in life is great except for the
fact that you’re single, or will you be so unsatisfied that you have no choice but to
dedicate yourself to finding a significant other?

Happiness is influenced by a number of things that are out of our control – random
events, brain chemistry, immutable mental schemata developed as a young child – but
we can control some piece of our happiness through the stories we tell ourselves.
We can tell ourselves we’re successful and be happy, or we can tell ourselves we’re
not successful enough, and in doing so motivate greater achievement that ultimately
leads to a higher and more-stable level of happiness.

All of this is to say that it seems as though life involves a significant tradeoff between
ambition and happiness. Ambition requires focusing on what you don’t have.
Happiness requires focusing on what you do have. Yet the best way to truly strive
for more is to make yourself unsatisfied and unhappy with your current state. Thus,
in order to achieve more and push yourself to greater long-term happiness, it is
helpful to destroy short- or medium-term happiness.

The big question is what’s the optimal equilibrium between current life satisfaction
(i.e. happiness) and current life dissatisfaction (i.e. ambition)? The answer to this
question is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the driver of
many of the big dilemmas people face in their lives. Should you accept what you’ve
accomplished on the grounds that it will keep you happy forever, or should you
convince yourself to feel unsatisfied on the grounds that one day you will wish you
achieved more? Clearly the answer is different for each person at each point in their
lives.

The happiness-ambition tradeoff is also one that society as a whole must grapple
with. It’s probably efficient to stigmatize things like delinquency, ignorance,
and lawlessness, but what if there happens to be a smart upper-middle class kid
whose childhood dream is to become a lowly janitor? If somebody has such great
perspective on life that they are truly happy with becoming an uneducated janitor,
is that something social norms should discourage? Is it wrong for society to try and
rob them of their happiness in order to push them to do something that might have
more social value?

The point of all of this is…well, I’m not quite sure. Hopefully it helped generate some
unique thoughts about what happiness really means and what we can do about it.
And hopefully the next time you’re unhappy about where you are in life, you’ll think
more clearly about the emotions driving your thoughts. Is your level of ambition
really worthwhile given what it’s doing to your happiness? Or alternatively, is
your happiness “legitimate” enough that it’s worth taking your ambition down a
notch?

Perhaps with improved metacognition you’ll even find a way to mitigate the
ambition-happiness tradeoff – to somehow increase motivation by making yourself
unsatisfied with what you have, but do it without robbing yourself of present
happiness.

Eric hails from the D.C. suburbs, though he now spends his days in New York City working to improve/ruin the lives of children by conducting research on the benefits of extending the school day. His blog – Peer-reviewed by My Neurons – is a wondrous hodgepodge of posts that all somehow relate to social science and social policy.

“Legitimate” Rape Does Cause Pregnancy

Credit: RHRealityCheck.org

…and so do all those other kinds of rape.

It amazes me what lengths pro-lifers will go to when trying to justify imposing their version of morality upon the rest of the country.

Senate nominee Todd Akin (R-AR) thinks that, even in the case of rape, abortion shouldn’t be necessary. Why?

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview posted Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

And if the female body fails to do its job?

“Let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something,” Akin said. “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

So…a couple things here.

What is “legitimate rape”? Akin didn’t explain, but based on what I hear from those on his side of the aisle, I can assume that a “legitimate rape” goes something like this: a young woman is walking alone down a dark street, wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt. It’s not a dangerous neighborhood, because no woman would go to a dangerous neighborhood alone unless she wants to get raped. She is out because she has important things to take care of, not because she was out having fun or anything like that. She is attractive–but not too attractive–and thin, straight, and white, because fat women, queer women, and women of color can’t possibly be raped and/or should be happy if they are. She is a virgin, or at least has only had sex with her husband or with a serious boyfriend. She’s not that type of girl who sleeps around, that is.

Then a man literally jumps out of the bushes and rapes her without warning, even though she screams for help and tries to fight back.

That is a legitimate rape, and in this situation, her body would “shut down” her fertility, or something like that.

As for whether or not this epic pregnancy-avoidance mechanism actually exists, I haven’t seen any evidence for it in the scientific literature (which, by the way, is the only kind that matters here). And since Akin’s the one who brought it up, the burden of proof is on him. I’m not sure which “doctors” he’s been speaking with, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they happen to be barred from practicing medicine in several states.

To me, this points to a need for more and better sex education in schools–before kids grow up, get a degree in divinity, and make a career out of spouting this kind of rubbish and ruining people’s lives with it. Akin is far from the only pro-lifer to think that rape (excuse me, “legitimate” rape) can’t cause pregnancy, as this anti-abortion website proves. (I don’t want to bog down this post with lengthy quotes, but search that page for “sophisticated mix of hormones” and try not to laugh.)

So, moving on to Akin’s statement about what happens if “that didn’t work, or something.” Akin seems to view abortion as a punishment or an “attack” on the child for having the chutzpah to get conceived. It’s not. First of all, you can’t punish something that isn’t alive. Second, it’s interesting that Akin would apparently not consider forcing a living, conscious woman to continue a pregnancy that resulted from rape to be “punishment.” Sure seems like it to me! And, unfortunately, research shows that about 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year.

Obviously, Akin has “apologized” for his statement. In his apology, he said that abortion “is a very emotionally charged issue” and that his statement “does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.” He then reconfirmed his pro-life stance, dissed on the Democrats for trying to expand the government in these trying economic times, and notably, said nothing about whether or not the female body can “shut down” pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape.”

Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy are laughable, but they should not merely be laughed at. For one thing, he is far from alone in holding this ludicrous belief, and his advocacy against reproductive rights does not end  here. Akin has also supported a complete ban on emergency contraception, and he cosponsored a bill that would’ve restricted funding for abortions to pregnancies that occurred as a result of “forcible” rape (you know, as opposed to the kind where she was asking for it).

Furthermore, as Ilyse Hogue points out at The Nation, comments like Akin’s can have significant political consequences. She notes that for the past few years, the Republicans have employed a strategy in which a politician voices an extreme far-right opinion and gets media coverage for it, allowing the opinion to percolate. Then, less extreme Republicans gradually adapt that stance and it becomes part of the Republican platform.

I would imagine that statements like these can also shift the goalposts in a slightly different way. When a far-right Republican makes such a statement, he/she often receives deserved opprobrium from both liberals and conservatives, and thus allows the more “reasonable” conservatives to reframe their own opinions as valid and acceptable. In this case, for instance, the more “reasonable” conservatives may denounce Akin’s statement and say something like, “Akin’s ridiculous; of course abortion should be legal in all cases of rape.” Key words: in all cases of rape. Not if the woman just doesn’t want to be pregnant. To moderates who lean conservative, then, this viewpoint now starts to seem much more reasonable, because it’s being compared with Akin’s.

Over at The AtlanticTa-Nehisi Coates has a great analysis of Akin’s comments using the concept of privilege:

I think what’s interesting here is the assumed power. I have the right to objectively define pregnancy from rape as rare. I have the right to determine separate legitimate rape from all those instances when you were in need of encouragement, wearing a red dress or otherwise asking for it. I have the right to manufacture scientific theories about your body — theories which reinforce my power. If the body doesn’t “shut that whole thing down” then clearly you weren’t raped, and there’s no need to talk about an abortion. And even if I am wrong on every count, I still have the right to dictate the terms of your body and the remaining days of your life.

In other words, Akin can literally tell you whether or not a woman was “legitimately” raped based on whether or not she gets pregnant. Not because of any scientific evidence, not because of anything the woman herself claimed or testified, but simply because that’s how he would like it to be.

He can do this despite the fact that he currently sits on the House Science and Technology Committee.

That, right there, is the punchline, which actually isn’t funny at all.

P.S. Sign the petition to have Akin removed from the science committee, and to stop lying about rape.

More responses:

[Guest Post] The Importance of Skepticism and Critical Thinking in American Society

This post was written by a fellow skeptic and student of psychology, Matthew Facciani.

At best, a lack of skepticism and critical thinking in our society will leave humanity uneducated, insipid animals. At worst, it will be the cause of our ultimate demise.

To begin, I would argue that critical thinking (disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence) is related to and facilitates the process of skepticism (the method of suspended judgment or systematic doubt). In order to be skeptical, you must be able to systematically pick apart problems with the concept or idea. By utilizing critical thinking in one’s skepticism, we can challenge fixed beliefs and continue to advance our society with scientific, artistic, social, and other pursuits. Additionally, employers strongly value critical thinking in their potential employees and critical thinking skills are positively correlated with GPA.

Despite the obvious importance of advancing mankind, some individuals are actually opposed to teaching this kind of thinking. The Republican Party of Texas’ Official Platform explicitly stated they were against the teaching of critical thinking in public school classrooms (quoted from their platform: “We oppose the teaching of… critical thinking skills”). It is astonishing that these elected politicians would even consider such a position, let alone have it in their official platform.

This certainly reflects a problem in American society with regards to the values of critical thinking and skepticism. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan discusses the problem with not valuing these types of thinking in our society. He mentions that even people who may want to study science can be overwhelmed by pseudoscience, and science is “often filtered out” before it reaches us.

The fact that scientists like Sagan are critical of our scientific inadequacies would not mean much if it not for the data that backs up their statements. Americans have embarrassingly low scores in worldwide comparisons of scientific literacy, science, and math. Skepticism and critical thinking are simply not valued in American society, and the data supports it.

Because skepticism and critical thinking are not cultivated in American society, many Americans cannot tell when they encounter something that is pseudoscience (such as homeopathy or astrology). Someone may want to learn about scientific research, but due to our society’s scientific climate, people are inundated with pseudoscientific claims. Furthermore, with the advent of the internet, there is so much information about everything so you can find arguments for any position–with sound evidence or without.

However, a keen understanding of science makes it easy to determine which claims have a substantial amount of evidence. For example, climate change has been documented as a real and problematic phenomenon by many, many researchers. But a few vocal people have found “evidence” against climate change that makes people think twice–as they should when presented with conflicting data. However, any scientifically literate person should be able to see that the overwhelming evidence is that climate change is a real phenomenon and the few studies against it are outliers, poorly done, or cherry-pick data based on their biases.

These biases also impact how people deal with scientific claims in general. People may blindly follow someone who they think is in charge or an expert without analyzing things for themselves (see Milgram’s obedience study). People also see others following these “experts” and are likely to try to conform (see Asch conformity studies). When many people are already blindly following perceived authority figures, it is likely to continue because people do not want to be nonconformists, and the cycle continues. It takes more of a psychological effort to research things for oneself as it is, but couple this with a cultural environment that does not foster critical thinking, skepticism, or science, and we have a legitimate problem.

Furthermore, science in general is often misrepresented in the media. My own field of psychology is often decimated by its public representation and perception. I am technically getting a PhD in experimental psychology, but if I say the word “psychology” to an average person on the street, they think I will psychoanalyze them on a couch, read their mind (though, ironically, my research is actually like mind reading in a scientific sense), or engage in some other pseudoscientific method they saw on television. So I often tell people I study neuroscience because it has less stigma compared to psychology–though people are less likely to know what neuroscience even is!

Most other sciences deal with these issues, as well. The average American is simply not inclined to research or understand scientific concepts because skepticism and critical thinking are not valued in our society. Listening to what people say on television is often good enough for most people. It may not directly impact one person who doesn’t know what an experimental psychologist actually does, but that mindset of incessantly accepting information without challenging it can have catastrophic consequences. We are left with a critical mass of people who do not challenge information presented to them. They blindly follow what perceived authority figures tell them without a second thought.

Critical thinking allows people to dissect and analyze information, and skepticism prompts them to question the information that’s being presented to them first. So I ask, I plead, whoever is reading this–please stand up for the importance of skepticism and critical thinking. Write to your local politicians telling them about it. Do not let someone say something mindless and unfounded without challenging them. We need to foster an environment in which people feel comfortable challenging ideas and concepts. Once this happens, many more people will be thinking critically about our society’s problems and greater progress will occur.

Matthew Facciani is a 2nd year PhD student studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of South Carolina. He completed his undergraduate education at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, receiving a B.A. in Psychology with honors. Facciani is also a secular activist, but advocates for any group that is oppressed or treated unfairly.