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.

Advertisements

[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.