Do We Really Need This Many Atheist Conferences?

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):

The bad:

  • 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.

The good:

  • 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?

  • http://hoverFrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I’ve never been to an atheist conference and I never seen one advertised locally. I mean within a hundred miles of where I live. Maybe that’s a UK thing because we tend not to advertise our religious affiliations (or lack thereof) so a conference of this kind would be a bit odd.

    Of course if TAM is in London in October I may have to take on the label of odd.

    Oh and I do think that there are too many TV channels.

  • http://lowhangingbadapples.wordpress.com Reed Braden

    I like that there are so many conferences, simply because not all of us can afford to travel and take time off of work to attend, say, TAM in Vegas or the Global Atheist Conference in Oz. To those of us in that position, 98% of these conferences might as well be in Narnia because we’ll never get to them! But the more conferences and conventions we have, the greater the chance that one will (crosses fingers) come to Richmond where I live.

  • http://www.facebook.com/todd.grzech Todd Grzech

    I like that these meetings keep atheism in the news, and I’m sure there many of us who can not afford to attend out of town meetings. I’ve never been to one, but if there were an atheist conference held near me I would certainly attend and I think it would be a good experience for local atheists who can’t got to Chicago or NY to attend one.

  • Bones

    I can think of eight places within walking distance of my house where Theists meet at least once a week.I can’t think of one place where Atheists meet.I’d love for a conference to come here.
    And I also believe there are to many TV channels.

  • Dpeabody

    I have a feeling that my perspective will change over the next year. Currently I am in Calgary Canada with a very small atheist community and no conferences anywhere near. But next year I will be moving back to my beloved London with a large atheist/skeptic community and conferences like tam London. So I imagine whether you feel like there are too many conferences will be mainly based on where you live.

    As a side note: I think there are far too many people that give the same talk time and time again. I would suggest that people make their talks current and update them. Then restrict talks to years. If you find yourself doing the same talk year after year you aren’t current & you aren’t interesting. I would also like to see more open format discussions & Q&A’s. As unless you have a specialisation or great new idea you will most probably just be giving one of the 100 generic talks on skepticism and how your brain can fool you.
    ….The above was said in a happy voice, even if that did not come across

  • Roxane

    “There are too many atheist conferences” is the jaded remark of somebody lucky enough to have been to more than one. I’m still waiting for my first.

  • http://s2solutions.us/wordpress Seth Strong

    I’ve never been to a conference and I would be happy to go. But, I think I have enough insight to comment on the repetition.

    For starters, what is repetitive to me is surprisingly new information for some members of skeptic local meetups, especially those with guest speakers. So having all these meetings still has a purpose even if it’s possible that we’re getting diminishing returns.

    Secondly, the guest speakers don’t have a lot of time to take action on the hot buttons. For example, atheism isn’t much to be active about directly in my opinion but church and state separation or the quality of science classes is a place for activism that atheists can rally around. There are other issues, too but I’m being brief. So, telling us science in schools is at risk is not as useful repetitively unless we are also doing something such as participating in the public school debate or even better popularizing science as something for the common citizen whether they are in school or out of school.

    I don’t want to take away from what people are accomplishing and I personally appreciate knowing there are large groups of nonbelievers. But conferences need to be part of a package of social networking and political organizing. Otherwise, it’s just talk and talk which is probably a repeat of what’s on youtube like the article has mentioned.

  • Kent Schlorff

    As a relatively new atheist, I can say I’ve never been to a conference. I’m still a minor, and travel is difficult. However, we need as many conferences as we can get. The more conferences, the more aware people become of atheism. We need those conferences to establish ourselves and to attract the attention of the general public, so we can reach closeted atheists and religious zealots alike. Also, conferences allow us to becone more educated in science and reason, and those two things are the mark of this new atheism: we HAVE to be educated.
    If there is no noise, there is no need to listen to us. Hopefully the day will come when atheism stops being a movement and starts being the natural state for most people; but until then, we have to be loud.

  • Craig

    I like the number of conferences, and would like to see one near me, but I agree we need more diversity of speakers and have their personal experiences shared. That’s how it stays relevant and fresh.

  • JimG

    I’m with Reed and Kent. I live in Georgia (the state, not the Caucasian republic), and my job often makes it difficult to make travel plans. I made it to the second half of Skepticon last year (after an infuriating flight delay), and can’t wait to go back – but without a variety of gatherings to choose from, I doubt I’d be able to make any specific one. I know the same goes for several of my friends.

  • Greg Marshall

    I have only been to one conference (The Harvard Humanist Conference in April of 07). While I can see what he says is about the bad, I think overall it is good because it has the potential to give more people a chance to attend.

    Hopefully I can swing it so that I can go again.

  • Siamang

    I’ve never been to one. I’ve toyed on and off with going to a TAM, but never made it. And I’m a magician! That’s the ultimate Magician/skeptic cross-over meeting.

    Ultimately I think these things are boring. Why should I pay to go somewhere and see someone say the same things they say on their blog every day? As much as I’d love to meet PZ or Greta Christina in real life (TM), ultimately I have more interesting interactions with them on a daily basis online.

  • Danielle

    I live in the bible belt, and we definately need more of these types of gatherings. I’ve met other atheists in this area because they do exist, but because of all the discrimination people are more likely to keep it to themselves. If we had more gatherings, these people could realize that others do exist, and in great numbers, making it easier for them to come out. The idea of reducing the number of conferences quite frankly scares me, because there are obviously not nearly enough in many places.

  • Douglas Kirk

    I’m not alone in saying this, but I want more conferences in more cities with more speakers! Not necessarily more speakers per conference, but definitely a much longer list of individuals who are divided up between the conferences. I think the atheist blogosphere is sipe with people who have famous or mildly famous or infamous blogs who would be perfect presenters at various conferences. In fact I think Ophelia Benson has been pounding the interwebs trying to get invited to speak places…

    You just gave a talk in Grand Rapids, MI which I hear went well, and I’d love to see more speaking events in my city, again, and smaller cities all across the US. It would be a great way to get internet atheists meeting each other in the real world.

  • Mike

    I go to ‘em to find a date.

    Well, not seriously.
    I’m part of a freethinker group that meets up maybe once a month or so, and it’s about the most stimulating conversation I can get.

    That’s pretty much why I go.
    It’s great to hear whatever speakers there may be, to speak with them and such.
    But ultimately it’s getting to meet with people who I can honestly share opinions with on some of the things I read and study between meetings.

  • Red

    So when will you be coming to Texas, Hemant? We get the occasional atheist/skeptic to attend some events in Austin, but aside from seeing Dan Barker at UNT (once) and the Texas Freethought Convention, there is a dearth of events and particularly well known speakers here.

    I don’t mean to be a dick, but considering the sway Texas has over the public education of the entire country, I’d expect damn near every big name in the atheist ‘movement’ to give talks here almost non-stop.

    Sure, it’s nice to go to California or New England and have a large, welcoming audience, but if you really care about the damage that religion can and does inflict on the country, Texas ought to be ground zero for atheist gatherings.

    Plus, DFW airport is at most a 3-4 hour flight from anywhere in the country.

  • PJB863

    If people are willing to show up for these conferences, there are not too many of them – there’s obviously a demand. Yes, many times the speakers are people you’ve seen & heard before, as well as the attendees.

    But one thing that can’t be measured at these conferences is that they tend to re-energize people working in the cause – much like a religious retreat does in the theist world. The exchange of ideas may seem repetitive/redundant, but every now and then, when you get the right combination of participants and the right combination of circumstances, a new idea comes out of it. From this new idea a new strategy or even a new philosophy can emerge.

    A parallel (probably not the best one, but hey): Almost exactly 42 years ago, cops were raiding gay bars in New York City on a regular and frequent basis. It was a different establishment(s) every week, but many times it was the same patrons and even the same cops. This had been going on for years. One night, however, something clicked – the cops raided the Stonewall Inn, the patrons fought back, a riot ensued, and the modern gay rights movement was born. Every year, usually at the end of June, there is a celebration and parade to commemorate the event in most major cities, and more and more smaller cities.

    Fast forward 42 years, and from an LGBT perspective, we are living in a world unimaginable in 1969 – legal protections and gay marriage a reality in some places, and more soon to follow (hopefully). I can’t picture an Atheist riot to galvanize the movement, but you just never know…..

  • http://wcdbfm.com Ryan Farrell

    Don’t forget religious organizations have weekly conferences in virtually every town in the country.

  • Anonymous

    Craig:

    I like the number of conferences, and would like to see one near me, but I agree we need more diversity of speakers and have their personal experiences shared. That’s how it stays relevant and fresh.

    Agreed. People it would be great to hear more from: the women from the Atheist Experience and Ask an Atheist shows are terrific (and, okay, the men too ;P), Ophelia Benson, Paula Kirby, Hassan Radwan from Council of Ex Muslims of Britain, Susan Jacoby, Razib Khan from Gene Expression, Nate Phelps. If they would accept an invitation to an atheist event: Alvin McEwen from Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters, Pam Spaulding from Pam’s House Blend, Joe Jervis from Joe My God, Shmarya Rosenberg from Failed Messiah.

  • Jon Rage

    all these new atheist are trying to fill a void that not being connected to religion has created. we need to make this movement about more than just unbelieving and arguing with our opponents, but about fixing whats wrong with the world.

    atheist need to find a cause that they can be passionate about and pursue it. we need more scientist, doctors, politicians, after school programs, atheist bible studies, the list is endless.

    now that we’re free from religion, we need to use our time and energies for the good of humankind.

  • Chris

    I think atheists have some things in common, not just the lack of belief in gods. Most are very serious about keeping church and state separate. A lot are liberals. Many are supportive of the LGBT movement. I think these are very important issues and if we keep uniting, someday we will be a powerful political force.
    Oh, I would like to see a conference come to eastern Washington state.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp razib

    i’m gonna speak at the council for secular humanism event in march 2012. some panel where i offer the ‘secular conservative’ perspective.

  • Peter Mahoney

    WAY too many churches everywhere.

    WAY too few atheist meetings anywhere.

    So for atheist conferences: keep ‘em coming!

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    @Chris

    I think atheists have some things in common, not just the lack of belief in gods. Most are very serious about keeping church and state separate. A lot are liberals. Many are supportive of the LGBT movement.

    There is nothing about atheism that says these things. Educated people tend to favour equality, tend towards liberal politics, tend to be law abiding and tend to be atheists yet these are correlations and trends, not causal relationships.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    I don’t think that there are too many conferences. I think that conference organizers should constantly strive to bring new speakers into the movement, and they should also constantly look for innovations and new ideas in how to make their particular conference the best yet.

    The real danger is not having too many conferences; the danger is having too many conferences that have fallen into a rut or no longer provide a good return on the money that the attendees invest to be there. In actuality, having all of these conferences promotes a healthy sense of competition, as organizers strive to bring in speakers who are interesting and haven’t already appeared at many nontheist conferences already.

    I think that a good area of future growth would be more regional conferences, like the Secular Student Alliance holds, and like a few other organizations have done as well. Travel is expensive, and some of these national conferences never make it out to certain areas of the country, but regional conferences provide a good answer to that, so people of a particular region still have a great opportunity to network and hear great speakers without too much cost.

  • Peter Mahoney

    Regarding the request by “Lost Left Coaster” that there be more “regional” conferences…

    Do the college campus groups of Secular Student Alliance open their events up so local atheists can attend? If so, how do they advertise? (e.g., could we beyond-college folks get on lists with local SSA college groups to ask that we be notified when they are bringing in a speaker or having some other event? )

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesskaar Jim Dorey

    me, i’d talk small scale steam technology and computers.  though i probably wouldn’t bother going to a meet for either of those, or for an atheist meet, a meet that has more than just one focus would interest me.  being one of the less educated, low income filth that roams the world from my computer, i’d need to have something nearby, within city bus distance certainly(dartmouth, ns), or with an easy virtual attendance.


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