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.

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.

On Taking People’s Word For It (Or, When Not to Argue)

“You’re not really depressed, you just get sad sometimes.”

“You’re not really a lesbian, you’ve just had some bad experiences with men.”

“You’re not really an atheist, you’re just questioning your faith. You’ll find God again.”

Why do people say these things?

Everyone I ask seems to have a story about a friend or family member who just cannot accept what they disclose about themselves and insist that it’s not true–without any evidence.

From a skeptical perspective, that bothers me. Most of the time, when someone makes a statement, it’s possible to (intelligently) dispute it. If someone states a fact–i.e. “It’s 70 degrees outside”–you can dispute it if you have evidence against it–i.e. your thermometer reads 80 degrees. If someone states an opinion that can be supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a good president because he has business experience”–you can counter it with an opposing statement that is also supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a bad president because his ideas about fixing the economy would actually worsen the situation for the middle and lower classes and also because he is a huge lying douchecanoe.” (But I digress.)

However, if someone makes a fact-based claim that they have firsthand knowledge of and you do not–i.e. “I don’t believe in God” or “I am a lesbian”–you cannot argue. Sorry, but you can’t. You have no evidence.

You can, if you want to be an asshole, tell them that they’re going to hell or that you find that appalling or that you hope they change. But you cannot claim it isn’t true.

(Likewise, feelings are not up for debate. If someone says they’re sad, then they’re sad. If they say they feel embarrassed, then they feel embarrassed. “But you don’t really feel that way–” Yep, they do.)

But what if you have a Real Legitimate Concern that it’s “just a phase,” or that they’re misinterpreting things somehow?

First of all, examine where that concern is stemming from. Is it because, in your heart of hearts, you really really don’t want this person to be who they say they are? If so, you should probably keep your Real Legitimate Concerns to yourself, because you may* be a bigot.

If it’s because this person has a history of going through “phases,” it’s more reasonable of you to gently express your concern, but be kind about it. Most people stop going through phases eventually, and this could be it.

However, even if it is a “just a phase,” that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. As people grow and mature–this is a process that lasts a lifetime, by the way, rather than stopping at some arbitrary age–they change. Religious people may become atheists; atheists may become religious. Political identities change. Mental health changes. Even sexual orientation and gender identity can change. That doesn’t mean that a person’s past identities were fake or “lies,” and even if you believe that what they’re telling you now will not always be true, the kind thing to do is to affirm who the person is right now.

And if you’re “disagreeing” with what someone says about themselves because you’re concerned about possible repercussions for the person if they identify that way (such as being bullied for being gay or ostracized by family for being an atheist), remember that the onus is never on victims of prejudice to hide who they are. It’s on the rest of us to learn how to treat them like human beings. If you’re spending your energy on trying to get people to hide who they are when you could be spending it on encouraging people not to be bigots, you’re doin’ it wrong.

Depression presents a special case. When someone discloses to you that they are depressed, it may be extremely tempting to try to persuade them that they’re not “really” depressed because you think that this will help somehow. However, you can’t will an illness out of existence anyway, so you might as well accept what they’re telling you and try to be supportive. For many people (like me), identifying themselves as “depressed” is a relief, because the alternative is to believe that it’s just your personality and that you’re destined for a life of misery. That’s a topic for a whole other post, though.

In general, asking questions is better than making statements when someone’s telling you something personal–it shows that you don’t presume to know more about their experience than they do. However, there are definitely right and wrong ways to go about it. “So how did you realize you were a [insert identity here]?” is worlds better than “But how do you really know you’re [insert identity here]? I mean I had a friend who said they were [insert identity here] but they changed their mind later/were only doing it for attention/were just going through a phase! Are you sure?”

Remember, though, that it’s not the person’s job to provide you with Sufficient Evidence that what they’re saying about themselves is true. Sure, people lie about themselves sometimes. But presuming that someone is lying when they’re actually not is a pretty easy way to ruin a relationship.

If you have someone in your life who insists on disagreeing when you disclose something about yourself, here are some of my favorite ways to respond (warning: snark may not be suitable for everyone):

  • “Interesting. How did you learn to read minds?”
  • “You’re probably right, you know me much better than I know myself. Tell me, am I hungry right now? Should I go eat?”
  • “How do you know that?”
  • “Actually, yes, I really am [insert identity here].”
  • “Citations or GTFO.”

*You may! I said you may! That doesn’t mean you are. It’s a distinct possibility, however.

The Circular Logic of Internet Misogynists

Yesterday–the same day, incidentally, that I discovered that I’ve inspired my first pathetic little hate club–a blogger I respect announced that she’s taking a hiatus from blogging after enduring constant abuse and harassment for daring to be a woman with opinions on the internet.

Jen McCreight wrote:

I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few). If I block people who are twisting my words or sending verbal abuse, I receive an even larger wave of nonsensical hate about how I’m a slut, prude, feminazi, retard, bitch, cunt who hates freedom of speech (because the Constitution forces me to listen to people on Twitter). This morning I had to delete dozens of comments of people imitating my identity making graphic, lewd, degrading sexual comments about my personal life. In the past, multiple people have threatened to contact my employer with “evidence” that I’m a bad scientist (because I’m a feminist) to try to destroy my job.

[...]I don’t want to let them win, but I’m human. The stress is getting to me. I’ve dealt with chronic depression since elementary school, and receiving a daily flood of hatred triggers it. I’ve been miserable….I spend most of my precious free time angry, on the verge of tears, or sobbing as I have to moderate comments or read what new terrible things people have said about me. And the only solution I see is to unplug.

 

In case you don’t follow Jen’s blog and aren’t familiar with what’s been going on, here’s an example, and here’s a post she wrote about it once. I don’t really have the words for how awful and unconscionable this is, so I’ll just quote JT Eberhard: “the people who have harassed her into quitting are inhuman shitbags.  As the atheism movement gets bigger, the tiny percentage of just rotten folks will continue to be comprised of more and more people who would sooner destroy a person than an idea. Those people don’t deserve this community.”

But what I really wanted to talk about was these misogynists’ reactions to Jen’s decision to quit blogging (for the time being). Sure, some of them made the typical “good riddance” comments, but others actually blamed her for being “unable to take the heat” and claimed that the only reason she quit was to get sympathy.

The interesting thing is, these people purposefully harassed Jen–you know, to make her feel like shit–and then blamed her for being too “weak” to take the harassment without quitting.

This sort of circular logic completely baffles me.

(It’s not the first time I’ve seen this convoluted reasoning in a community that prides itself on its supposed ability reason clearly. An idiot once saw fit to inform Greta Christina that he had lost all respect for her after she released a naked photo of herself for a good causea photo that he masturbates to. Somebody explain this.)

What many of these misogynists seem to be saying is that the fact that Jen quit retroactively justifies their treatment of her. Because she wasn’t able to “deal” with their harassment, the harassment was justified. Ridiculous.

Also, it disgusts me how clueless these people seem to be about mental illness. People who stop doing something because that thing is giving them a mental illness are not being “weak.” They aren’t “letting the trolls win.” They aren’t “flouncing.” They aren’t “looking for sympathy.” They’re taking care of their own health.

And that comes first, even if their mental illness was caused by something that seems like no big deal to healthy folks. For instance, if dating makes you depressed, you’re completely justified in staying away from dating for a while. If your job is making you depressed, you’re completely justified in finding a new job. But what happened to Jen, by the way, is not something that should seem like “no big deal” to any halfway-decent person.

I likewise take issue with people who refer to what Jen went through as “trolling.” There’s a difference between trolling and harassment. When I make a blog post and someone comments “lol your an idiot, go fuck yourself and stop writing,” that’s trolling. When someone continually harasses someone on various internet channels (email, Twitter, the target’s blog), recruits more people to help with that, writes their own blog posts trashing the target, impersonates them in a derogatory way, that’s not trolling anymore. That is harassment.

Trolling is usually mindless and casual, something done by an immature, inconsequential person who’s bored and wants to mess with someone. Harassment is calculated, targeted, and done with a purpose. Trolling is annoying and stupid; harassment is harmful and can be scarring.

Trolling is something we all run the risk of when we put our work out there on the internet. Serious political posts get trolled; silly YouTube videos get trolled. Delete the comments and move on.

Harassment is not something we all run the risk of. Harassment is targeted at people who are being “uppity,” who don’t “know their place.” A feminist on the internet–and especially a feminist in the atheist blogosphere–is one such person.

I don’t care how strongly you disagree with someone’s ideas–harassment is unacceptable no matter what. There is no justification. The fact that your target developed a serious mental illness and had to quit is certainly not a justification. The fact that you disagree with their vision for atheism is not a justification, either. If you think harassment is an appropriate response to ideas you disagree with, then guess what–you’re a terrible excuse for a human being.

I rarely make statements as categorical as that one, so you know I really mean it when I do.

Occasional Link Roundup

This is my occasional link roundup, in which I occasionally post links to things I like. Feel free to link to something you’ve written recently in the comments!

1. Ever wondered what the manic phase of bipolar disorder feels like? Read this.

2. Attachment parenting might be harmful to mothers’ mental health. It always gave me a weird feeling. “What is especially sad is that self-evident things like ‘mothers are human beings,’ ‘having a life outside of child-rearing is necessary for maternal well-being,’ ‘there is nothing that makes a mother a more capable parent than a father’ still need to be proven by research.”

3. So, a bunch of crap went down in the atheist blogosphere this past week–or at least, in my corner of it. A lot of people seem to disagree that a concern for social justice has any place within atheism. My friend Andrew has this take on it, and another atheist blogger, Zach, wrote this: “I want a new atheist movement that actually cares about people. An atheist movement that will look at the way religion poisons our views on gender, race, or sexuality and actively tries to combat that. I want an atheist movement that will reach out help other people, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, ability, education, wealth, visibility, or even religion.”

4. And speaking of the atheist movement, here’s an example of racism within it.

5. A great post about misconceptions about demisexuality. I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, but it seems like few things bring out nasty comments quite like this subject does.

6. An analysis of the media’s portrayal of Jennifer Aniston as perpetually pitiful. Never really thought about this before, but it’s fascinating.

7. A takedown of one man’s sexist blog post, in which he obsesses about an Australian Olympic athlete because she’s so “sweet” and “feminine”–you know, unlike the rest of us bitches. I’m not linking to the original piece because I don’t want to give him pageviews, but this post quotes heavily.

8. What anti-feminists don’t understand. “Then one day, women stopped telling men what they wanted to hear. They asked what they were without us – or, at least, without our definitions. Men never stopped to ask the same thing, and when they sort-of did, they returned too readily to rhetoric of supremacy and strength. Anti-feminists are so caught up in being the victim that they never consider positive identity formation to be a goal, or even a possibility.”

9. And, on a similar note, what people who call themselves “equalists” don’t understand. “As for the “equalists”, if they truly wanted to take a neutral stance on the gender roles, they could start by not always attacking feminists – while, at the same time, rushing towards the defence of the men’s rights movement.”

10. Kids who sleep later do better in school, but schools don’t seem to be interested in addressing this.

11. Mara Glatzel, a blogger I admire, on why she writes.

12. Why it matters that we now have our first out pansexual politician.

13. A really touching post about sexual assault, friendship, and recovery. TW.

14. And on a similar note, post of the week goes to my friend Cassy, who wrote this heartbreaking four-part narrative about her experiences with sexual assault, abuse, mental illness, and recovery. Huge trigger warning on this, so please watch out. But if you can, read it.

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