02 August 2011

On attending atheist conferences, networking, and an assessment of secular activism

The Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference was certainly a new experience for me. As August Brunsman took the stage to give the opening remarks, I glanced around the auditorium at the 200+ people in attendance, and it dawned on me that every single one of them is an atheist (or agnostic, or whatever they want to call themselves). There was something profoundly empowering about that feeling.

I already knew that nonbelievers are legion in this country, given the preponderance of atheists who choose to vent their hopes, fears, opinions, and frustrations in blogs or on Reddit; seeing that many of them together in one place for one purpose really hammered home the idea that I'm not alone in my worldview.

I'm obviously very open about my atheism on the internet for those who wish to read my opinions and get to know me through text on a screen, yet I'm tight-lipped about it in person. I don't mention it unless someone directly asks, and whenever I meet new people when starting a new job, doing volunteer work, or at social gatherings, I silently hope that the topic won't come up. It was a relief being able to meet new people - generally very intelligent, interesting, quirky people - without having to worry about whether I'd need to bite my tongue or prepare for an argument if religion got brought up in conversation.

Some people just don't like me saying that there's no Candy Mountain.

Yet even with this obstacle removed, I found myself in the grip of shyness at first while attempting to mingle. In spite of my years working in customer service and interacting with the general public every day, I'm still painfully awkward about introducing myself to new people, particularly if I actually give a damn what they think of me. For some reason it's easy for me to confidently play the role of the clerk, the cashier, or the receptionist; when it comes to just being me most of that confidence is gone.

I got the hang of it, though. My first couple of introductions, particularly to leaders in the movement such as Ashely Paramore and JT Eberhard, were incredibly awkward; fortunately, both of them are friendly, down-to-Earth people who quickly made me feel less awkward. After that I was on a roll, and my decision to wear my "This is what a feminist looks like" shirt on Saturday paid off - it was a great conversation starter!

I've certainly never before had the opportunity to socialize and network with this many avowed nonreligious people. I'd be glad that I went if it were only for the awesome people I was able to meet.  In a way, I feel put to shame by many of them; those who are still in school are doing far more with their lives than I am three years after graduation.  It's an honor to have met nearly everyone I talked to there, not just the handful of popular bloggers.

And now, an assessment

Not surprisingly, the speakers and attendees there leaned substantially toward the left of the political spectrum (though none quite as far left as the Marxist revolutionary group that was advertising there). That's fine - most atheist conservatives I've encountered seem to care more about economic issues, whereas the SSA has social issues as its main focus, its mission statement explicitly stating that it is economically neutral. As a centrist with a left-libertarian slant, I might actually have been the most politically conservative person there.

"Theists are a marketing tool,
and will be treated as such."
I couldn't help but twitch a little at some of the logical fallacies that a couple of the speakers let slip into their speeches; granted, people like Dave Silverman and Darrel Ray should be expected to deliver snarky feel-good propaganda for atheists in the politically charged struggle against the Religious Right. Dave wasn't so bad, aside from a few seemingly exaggerated statistics begging for a [citation needed]. Darrel, on the other hand, had some questionable advice about PR for campus groups, coupled with some generalizations about all religions based solely on the traditional Abrahamic variety.

Greta Christina's speech encouraged atheists to have productive arguments with religious believers about what they believe and why they believe it; whether civil discussion or heated debate, it gets them thinking about why we don't believe it, and might even get a few of them to question why they believe it.  I think that's a good principle; we freely discuss and critique other ideas to figure out what works, so why not do the same for religious beliefs?

It was inspiring to hear speeches by younger people like Zack Kopplin standing up to sanctimonious politician's attempts to undermine science education and Jessica Ahlquist standing up against sanctimonious students, teachers, and administrators who use bullying tactics to promote their religion.  These teenagers are on the front lines of legal battles I can't believe we're still having with the religious establishment.

At the core, the secular movement (or at least this wing of it) seems to be motivated by a desire to make atheism a non-issue in our society. The emphasis is on grassroots activism, on giving atheism a visible, vocal yet approachable presence in the marketplace of ideas, and on giving apostates from the various religions aid and comfort in knowing that they're not alone in their skepticism.

It certainly isn't a push to abolish religion (though its traditional form may well go extinct on its own due to inability to compete with reason).  Other aspects of left-wing values (gender and LGBT equality in particular) seem to tag along with it naturally, but I see no reason why it would be an exclusively left-wing movement.  Secularism isn't a "religion" itself, as some conservatives contend; on the contrary, it's the only force that keeps the various conflicting myths and superstitions from crowding out real knowledge, particularly in the arena of education.

In conclusion, this is a movement with which I'm definitely on board.  I can't say that I've ever felt strongly enough about a cause to consider being an activist for it; that has changed now.  I want to contribute to the secular movement and not simply cheer it on from my desk chair. 

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Creative Commons License