An Atheist Conference Is Being Criticized for Noting Its Diverse Speakers

As someone who has attended and written about atheist gatherings for more than a decade, there’s been a noticeable increase in diversity among speakers over the years. It’s a really wonderful thing. Not because it’s “politically correct,” but because different speakers can talk, from experience, about different issues. Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali never give the same lecture, and anyone who’s listened to both will tell you they appreciated hearing their perspectives. The same thing applies to speakers who are LGBT or Hispanic, or those who left non-Christian religions, or who aren’t college professors, etc. The more, the merrier. Most organizers are aware that inviting a broader range of speakers will inevitably lead to a broader range of attendees. And that’s a big deal in a movement that is stereotypically white and male.

David Diskin had that in mind when he was planning California Freethought Day 2017, taking place this October. I don’t know how many people he invited, but the list of speakers who accepted was just released, and there’s a broad section of the atheist movement represented on it.

You have authors, a poet, community organizers, a podcaster, a protestor, group leaders, and more.

The website includes a brief description of what each person is best known for — so Sikivu Hutchinson is listed as an “African-American Feminist Author” because those are the issues she’s best known for writing about. Larry Decker is described as the “ED of Secular Coalition for America” for obvious reasons. David Tamayo is the “President of Hispanic American Freethinkers.” You get the idea.

But one atheist sees all this as nothing more than a symptom of the Regressive Left, and he made a video condemning the descriptions. I’m pretty sure my mouth was wide open the entire time I watched this.

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The person who made that video, Michael Garber, is very concerned that some people are described by their skin color because that’s nothing more than Identity Politics and atheists shouldn’t be doing that. He blasts organizers for saying Hutchison is African-American (“I don’t know why they needed to specify African-American, as if that was relevant”) while ignoring race when describing Decker (“Why didn’t they give his race? Is he white? Is he Hispanic? What’s going on there?… Must be white”).

I guess he doesn’t realize that people are usually described by what they’re best known for. If you are considered an expert at discussing the intersection of Black America and religion, saying you’re an African-American author makes sense. If you’re known for hosting a podcast, like David Smalley, it’s not necessary to say he’s white. And that’s how the website treats all the speakers. For example, Victor Harris is known for his poetry, which is why he’s listed as a “poet,” even though he’s black. Same with Candace Gorham, who’s listed as “author.” This isn’t racism or reverse-racism.

(By the way, pay special attention to Garber’s video when he comes across the names of Harris and Gorham.)

As Garber comes to find out, there’s even one speaker who’s openly transgender, but that person is better known as an author, not someone who speaks about LGBTQ issues, so the description doesn’t mention anything about her orientation. It’s not relevant.

The goal of the website is to describe speakers briefly and accurately. Sure, there are always things they can revise, but it’s not like organizers were deliberately pointing out the skin color of non-white people just for the hell of it. They noted it when they felt it was helpful to mention. (It’s the same reason I’m typically listed at conferences as a blogger for this site and almost never as “Indian American.”)

David Diskin had the right idea with this response to Garber: “Perhaps your followers will be less concerned about the last names and ethnicities of our guests, and enjoy our event.”

This whole issue is a reminder that organizing these events is a thankless job. People are always going to find something to complain about. Let’s celebrate the fact that these organizers did a really good job of bringing together a range of excellent speakers. I hope that doesn’t go unnoticed by people who are considering buying tickets.

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