Jerry Coyne asks a valid question: Are there too many atheist meetings?
I know this is a sign of a successful and burgeoning movement of disbelief throughout the world, and I recognize that they give us greater visibility, and I understand that they serve as a useful venue for people to make connections as well as listen to their atheist “heroes.” But to me the speakers and talks have often seemed repetitive: the same crew of jet-set skeptics giving the same talks. And how much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?
He actually has a great list of the pros and cons of having so many conferences nowadays (courtesy of Grania Spingies, the Secretary of Atheist Ireland).
As someone who’s attended many of these conferences and helped plan some of them, I’ve paraphrased where Spingies gets it right with the Good and Bad (further comments below each section):
- You usually see the same people (speakers and attendees).
- You hear many of the same talks (YouTube exacerbates that problem).
- They can be expensive.
- What are you going to talk about when you’re only united by your disbelief in a god?
Though, while many of the same people attend these events, I’ve met new people at every event I’ve ever attended. Our numbers are growing, and these big events are the first exposure to “organized atheism” for a lot of people.
Regarding speakers giving the same talks over and over… I get where they’re coming from. You want to present something you’re comfortable with when you have the largest audience. But the onus is on the speakers to be original, and some are better than others at doing that. Conference organizers can always invite different people, too — we’re not at a loss for voices that need to be heard — but the “big names” tend to be the same ones.
Even though I’ve probably developed a few different talks over the years, I tend to give the same one to most local groups I speak to because it’s the one I’m most comfortable with. Conferences are a different beast, though. That’s the place to present something new and exciting. If you’re presenting the same schtick at a major conference that you do everywhere else — and that we’ve probably seen on YouTube — you probably shouldn’t be speaking there in the first place.
Not every conference is expensive, either. Some offer whole/partial scholarships (JREF’s The Amazing Meeting) or travel grants (Secular Student Alliance and Center For Inquiry leadership conferences). Some are entirely free (Skepticon).
Finally, there’s plenty to discuss at these conferences. There are new issues, too, that probably didn’t come up very much (if at all) a decade ago — like raising children without religion (Should you teach kids about Santa? About Christian beliefs?) and relationships (Can you legitimately date a theist?) and how to lead a large student group — but we’re able to do that now since our numbers are bigger. There are always politics and current events to talk about, too. Just like with local groups, it’s not like everyone is just sitting around, not praying.
- You get to meet other atheists in real life
- You get to hear some amazing speakers (many of whom have something relevant to say)
For me, the social interactions are always the best part about a conference. And even though I’ve heard, say, JT Eberhard speak before, I’ll always be in the audience for one of his talks. He’s just that good at getting his message across.
I would also add that these conferences can inspire you to be more of an activist. I would not have become as involved in the movement as I am if I didn’t attend a Secular Student Alliance conference several years ago.
Local meetups are nice — we really do need more of those — but national gatherings are far more powerful (at least in my experience). They can get “bigger” names, offer a better opportunity to network, and start important conversations (e.g. Don’t Be a Dick).
They also get a lot of publicity from the mainstream media.
So are there too many atheist meetings?
No. (As one commenter on Coyne’s site notes, “That’s a bit like saying there are too many TV channels.”)
We’re not oversaturated yet, and more opportunities are better for everyone.
There are parts of the country where it’s still tough to meet other atheists, and these conferences are one way to get our message across to people who probably aren’t used to hearing it. Which is why it’s so important to hold these events in parts of the country where atheists aren’t very visible, like the Bible Belt.
These may be the only places some people can comfortably talk about being godless without any consequences.
Another commenter on Coyne’s site points out: theists meet every week. Atheist conference-goers might get together once every few months, if not years.
And if you don’t want to go, no one is making you
Are there too many atheists conferences? What’s good and bad about them?