Today marked the closing of the third annual Skepticon hosted in the buckle of the bible belt; Springfield, Missouri. With registration tipping 1400 (actual attendance closer to half that), it became one of the largest conferences of its kind in the United States, possibly the world.
What, precisely, is Skepticon though? It was something of a debate before, during, and after the conference. There are some, like Jeff Wagg, who believe that it is an atheist convention and doesn’t like it. Others, like the “cap’n,” JT Eberhard and PZ Myers wax poetically about the subject on their own blogs. Amanda Marcotte, who gave a talk about feminism as the rational position, talks about the subject as well. Wagg says it thwarts and co-opts the “skeptic movement.” JT says Wagg is just plain wrong. PZ just thinks the whole thing is ridiculous. Amanda says that by squelching atheists, you’re marginalizing their input, which is wrong 1.
I doubt Wagg attended the conference, but I can see what happened to his logic though. Because several of the speakers declined to submit a topic it appears he leapt to a conclusion. Did he email or in any way attempt to contact any other speakers to find out what they were talking about? Again, I doubt it. Skeptics aren’t supposed to make any kind of truth claims without some good evidence to back them up. A few cherry-picked titles of talks is not evidence.
So lets look at the schedule as it appears on the website skepticon.org. I’ll break them down into two categories: Atheist and Non-Atheist.
|The Ten Thousand Christs and the Evaporating Jesus||The Role of Irrationality in Sexism|
|Does skepticism lead to atheism? panel||Coming Out Skeptical|
|Atheism and sexuality||Confrontation vs. Accomodation panel|
|Are Christians Delusional?||The Abuse of Physics by Theists and Spiritualists|
|Patriarchs and penises|
It appears, by title alone, to have three talks which have nothing to do with theism. One, by Victor Stenger, which defends science against theism, so it’s a little difficult to conflate that with a talk about atheism. For the other six; one is a panel specifically about this exact conversation, so I can’t in all honesty keep that in the pro-Atheist column. Five atheist and four non-atheist doesn’t really seem like an imbalanced conference, now does it? So the question then becomes, is the fact that some of these talks are being given by openly atheist speakers diminish their authority on skeptical topics? Do their talks automatically become about atheism merely because they identify to be atheists? I don’t think so.
All that being said, the conference did have an atheism theme, but that is not what the conference was about. Having gone to the conference, listened to all the speakers, and talked to many of the speakers I can confidently say that the conference was about skeptical inquiry, critical thinking, and challenging truth claims. While, yes, a lot of the talks, including Stengers’ “Abuse of Physics” ended on the note that science does not support the god hypothesis, only three talks really trumpeted the cause of atheism; “The Ten Thousand Christs and the Evaporating Jesus,” “Dear Christian,” and “Are Christians Delusional.”
This debate brings up two very important aspects of the movement; the privilege of those skeptics who don’t and have never lived in an area where religion is proudly proclaimed on every corner as fact, and the negative connotations of the word atheist. If Skepticon was founded and continually held in, say, Portland, then I doubt it would be so non-theism-heavy, but since context is so very important in every conversation the area has to be taken into account. Springfield, MO is the national headquarters of the Assemblies of God, has four colleges concerned with theistic education (Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Baptist Bible College, Central Bible College, and Evangel University), and has more billboards dedicated to showing you god’s truth than any other place I’ve been to. Now then, I think, contrary to what PZ thinks on the issue, it isn’t ridiculous to be talking about it. The fact that it is being talked about is a good thing and a good sign for the conference; it will keep the conference from actually becoming Atheistcon. But this is disconcerting as well; that a note-worthy skeptic wants to distance skepticism from atheism speaks leagues about the negative connotations of the word and the possible prejudices within the skeptic community as a whole.
Atheists are seen by many like this:
Whereas most of us see ourselves like this:
We need to work on reclaiming the word atheist. We are the future of the movement whether you like it or not. Skeptics shouldn’t be shunning us; they should be embracing us with open arms.
- EDIT: I wanted to clarify the previous point, as I may have been misconstrued to say that Amanda was wrong, when in fact I was saying that she is right and marginalization of any group is an unhealthy and, i.m.o., unskeptical attitude. My apologies to Amanda. ↩