Going Undercover at an Atheist Convention

Carolyn S. Briggs, a self-described “wobbly agnostic,” attended the 2011 American Atheists convention in Des Moines and has a lot to say about what she saw there.

I don’t know how seriously to take her, though, since she describes AA president Dave Silverman as “Jake Gyllenhall-cute”…

I don’t know about that. You can decide for yourself:

That aside, it’s a pretty enlightening read from someone new to this whole community:

I swallow hard and listen closer. We’ve been told this is the largest American Atheist convention ever and the audience is buzzing. A gauntlet has been thrown. David Silverman is not holding back. And it’s because he truly doesn’t believe. David Silverman knows there is no God, just as I always knew there was a God. Call us fundamentalists, the two of us. But here’s the difference: I am a reformed fundamentalist. I can now entertain the idea that my truth may not be the only truth. I want to understand, to listen and consider other people’s points of view, even when I find their convictions strange or frightening. That’s why I’m here. If I reject this group’s beliefs without understanding them, then I have not changed from the zealot I once was; But I’m nervous and feel a bit nauseous. I’m waiting for lightning that won’t miss this time.

The audience rises to their feet after this call to support the de-converted — the atheists are very supportive, I will say that. I lose count of the standing ovations throughout the convention. There is also much spontaneous laughter and many atheist jokes. Lot’s wife suffered a particularly cruel fate because she was on a low-sodium diet. One speaker ventures that 90% of the prayers in America consists of “Please, God, help me find my flip flops.” When a speaker screws up and apologizes to the audience, there is a chorus of “Jesus forgives you.”

She enjoyed listening to Greta Christina (“I wonder if she’s pissed off to have the last name Christina…”) and Jamila Bey, and she appreciated how much support the atheists offered each other and to the newly-decoverted.

It’s true that conventions are held to raise money for the host organization and preach to the already-converted, but they’re also a place to get inspired and fired up to do more, and to find out where we’re going and how you can help.

If that’s the takeaway a casual observer got, then American Atheists must have done something right. Looks like they’re not as bad as the media makes them out to be. Shocking, isn’t it?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Call us fundamentalists, the two of us. But here’s the difference: I
    am a reformed fundamentalist. I can now entertain the idea that my
    truth may not be the only truth. I want to understand, to listen and
    consider other people’s points of view, even when I find their
    convictions strange or frightening.
    Hey, I have listened and I have considered, and like many atheists, I used to be religious, but at some point I just have to stand up and say that the arguments being offered by the other side have not been very good, and I have (provisionally) made up my mind based on the evidence available.

    • Kalafarski

      I’m sure even Mr. Silverman would admit he’s not 100% certain though. Although he, like most atheists, believes strongly there are no gods, he should be open to opposing arguments, if any good ones ever came along. That’s an important difference. You can be confident, even certain, if you allow yourself to question your beliefs. 

      For instance, I’m confident there are no goblins. They just don’t exist. But if you show me one, or provide ample evidence of their existence, I’d gladly change my mind.

      • Anonymous

        I’d like a better argument for what a fundementalist is and why Silverman qualifies.  Other forms of fundementalists seem to seek to force their beliefs on others at all costs.  The accused “Atheist fundementalists” don’t seem to be the kind that are trying to take away people’s holy books, crucifixes, dreidels, etc. by any kind of coersion.  Most of them are just trying to prevent religious coercion on the part of governments.

      • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

        Even Richard Dawkins is no atheist.
        On a scale of 1 to 7 he calls himself a 6.99999999999er

  • http://twitter.com/luciferadi Adi Rule

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s a great article. All my life, I’ve never “believed” in anything (okay, Santa . . . and Nessie . . .), and it was so illuminating to be able to get inside the head of an articulate, honest, borderline(?) believer.

    What I took away from this is that atheists as a group are so much more fundamentally scary to believers than I could have imagined. Briggs’s fear was so real and heartbreaking. *We* know we are regular people who watch TV and walk our dogs and use coupons, but to some believers, this might — amazingly — come as a surprise.

    It made me realize that, as angry as we are — and as we have a right to be –, and as frustrating as it is trying to have a rational debate with “them,” it takes a lot of guts for a believer just to *listen* to us, never mind de-convert. (Briggs’s feelings about her nametag were especially eye-opening to me.) This article brought home the fact that it’s never the wrong choice to be welcoming, supportive, and friendly. There will always be time for battles and hard questions, but the journey from faith to reality is an unimaginably difficult one and we should do our best to give those travelers the understanding they need.

  • Ogre Magi

    Jeez, Dave Silverman ain’t nearly that cute. Her vision must be wobbly too!

    • guest

      Well, to be fair, that’s not Jake’s WTF face.

    • Anonymous

      Maybe she had a few drinks too many

  • Davesilvermaniscute

    What Dave Silverman lacks in cuteness is more than made up for by the fact that he has not appeared in any of Jake Gyllenhall’s terrible movies.  Also, though, he is cute.

  • Doug

    “David Silverman knows there is no God”

    I was somewhat perturbed by this assertion. It may be true of David Silverman, though I hope not. From my recollection Penn Jillette is the only 7-out-of-7 atheist celebrity. In any case, this doesn’t appear to be anything Silverman actually said in his speech, but merely her interpretation of his strong opinions and activism. In my opinion, this is an incorrect inference. One need not KNOW there is no God in order to dismiss the unevidenced claims made by religious people, or to think that religious belief is problematic.

    • Kevin S.

      7-out-of-7?

      • Anonymous

        On the scale Dawkins uses in The God Delusion.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    David Silverman knows there is no God, just as I always knew
    there was a God. Call us fundamentalists, the two of us. But here’s the
    difference: I am a reformed fundamentalist. I can now entertain the
    idea that my truth may not be the only truth.

    This immediately called this comic from XKCD to mind…

    • Revyloution

      Im starting to believe that there is an XKCD comic for every possible conversation.

      • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

        Quite possible. This one alone already covers about 99% of online conversations.

  • Evan Clark

    What I think is so amazing about this perspective, and what we can learn from it, is the importance of perception.  

    Take the scientific community for example when they talk about Evolution.  They use scientific terminology and articulate their points with stellar precision, even great enthusiasm, however the general public still consistently perceives their views as not convincing enough, or foreign.   People’s perceptions of what is being said continues to be different than what the scientist is actually saying.  I think a similar situation happened here with regards to David’s talk.   

    Often we like to blame the general public, or the individual, for not being educated enough or paying attention enough when this happens (which I hope this comment thread doesn’t turn into), but maybe the real problem was in how it was communicated.  

    Whether you’re a scientist, a teacher, a parent, or a friend, I think it’s very important to always be reminded that what we say isn’t always what people hear… and once we recognize that, hopefully we’re smart enough to fix what we’re saying the next time around :)

    Thanks for posting on this Hemant! 

    • Reginald Selkirk

      but maybe the real problem was in how it was communicated.

      I think the “real problem” is that Fundies innoculate their children against scientific thinking from a very early age. Otherwise you would have to suppose that science educators in the USA are phenomenally poor communicators compared to educators in other developed countries.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-Hickey/30117548 Patrick Hickey

    ““Raise your hand if you’ve read the Bible cover to cover.” My hand stays
    up and again, I’m not alone. Swarms of hands. I look at the atheists
    who have read the Bible and I wonder. Have any of you ever kissed the
    Bible? Have you ever cried as you read it? Did your insides light up
    like a pinball machine? Did you annotate and highlight and earmark and
    bookmark and run to the phone to call your girlfriend because you found a
    Scripture that was God speaking to you?”

    This quote was strange to me.  I guarantee that there were people in that crowd who have cried when they read the Bible, but not for the reasons she mentions.  There were people in that crowd who read the Bible and sobbed, who’s insides felt like ice, who annotated and highlighted and earmarked and bookmarked and who called no one because what they read demonstrated to them that everything they once believed was a lie and none of their friends and family would be emotionally capable of listening and understanding.  And who then went to an Atheist Convention, because at least there they could be around people who knew what they knew, and understood what they went through as they left the faith.

    • Anonymous

      Yup… I had to go back and read that part aloud, answering each of those questions myself.  I didn’t see it as strange, per se.  I know my mother, a very devout woman, has done those things, though in a different way than I have.  I’ve cried over the bible, but out of frustration.  My insides lit up like a pinball machine out of anger.  I highlighted and earmarked and bookmarked verses to use in a non-belief scrapbook to illustrate why it’s bogus.

      I just tried to read the entire thing from the eyes of a person who is seriously doubting but has not yet made it to where I am… I was there once and it was a trip back in time to read it.

      • http://www.bblss.org Miki

        “I just tried to read the entire thing from the eyes of a person who is seriously doubting but has not yet made it to where I am… I was there once and it was a trip back in time to read it.”

        Which is why I’m going to give her a pass on those portions of her essay I find passive-aggressive, patronizing and dramatic.  Clearly she’s still struggling in her emergence from intellectual arrested development.

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      Absolutely. And moreover,  some people have gone through both phases at different times in their lives. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/melaniedawn.molinawood Melanie Dawn Molina Wood

    From Carolyn’s article: “I excuse myself and use the restroom. There are atheists in there discussing American Idol and what happened the night before. That helps me calm down a bit. Okay, okay. They like James Durbin, too. Lovely James with his Tourette’s and his crystal clear voice. I add my opinion and one woman tells me she loves my shoes. Common ground at last.”

    That, more than anything else, is the key in my opinion.

  • Drew M.

    Holy purple prose, Batman!

    She writes like a sophomore who has a crush on her creative writing teacher.

    • Nick

      Say what you will about her writing, but she penned the screen play of the movie based on her own memoir.

      • Drew M.

        If that magically makes her writing any more bearable, I’ll let you know!

  • Cody Darkstalker

    Of course Dave is cute! he’s smart, a good leader, and vaguely reminds me of Commander Riker from Star Trek The Next generation. Other then that, i find it hard to read what this woman had to say.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    This quote made me go aarrrgh:

    “Do you know the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?” [the president of Iowa Freethinkers]
    asks. “Atheists mark out the ‘In God we Trust’ on their money.”

  • DrMatt

    I, too, once believed.  I was an ardent true believer — several times — as I went from church to church, fundamentalist to evangelical to pentecostal to ….

    I am gun shy to committing that strongly.  While the deistic apologetics are lame, I am loathe to shut the door to the vague possibility of someone having the absolute truth.

    The ardent true non-believer is scary.  For right now, those are the best answers I have.  I understand the fear. 

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    This seems like a fair piece from someone who is seriously on the fence. Of course, I’m an agnostic leaning atheist who regularly goes to religious services for comfort reasons and habit so I may not be a very good job.

    I think this is slightly more negative to the atheists than would be necessarily reasonable. I don’t think she appreciates how many people really did become atheists because they finally sat down and read their own holy texts. 


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