What Can We Learn from the Cancellation of the Global Atheist Convention?

On paper, the 2018 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, Australia should have been a huge success. Scheduled to take place this coming February, the guests included keynote speakers Salman Rushdie and Richard Dawkins, along with an assortment of science writers, comedians, activists, and ex-preachers.

SalmanRichardGAC

The same convention in 2010 included Dawkins (perhaps near the height of his post-God Delusion fame) and PZ Myers (whose Pharyngula website was head and shoulders more popular than any other atheist blog at the time). Approximately 2,500 people attended the event.

In 2012, not long after the death of Christopher Hitchens, the guests included the remaining “horsemen” (Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris). They were joined onstage by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The other presenters included philosophers Peter Singer and A.C. Grayling, physicist Lawrence Krauss, and science advocate Eugenie Scott. That event drew over 4,000 attendees.

If the Atheist Foundation of Australia was ever going to hold another convention, one organizer told me, they wanted it to be even bigger and better, and 2012 was going to be hard to top. They didn’t mind taking time off until they could comfortably surpass the expectations. That’s why an organizing committee began planning the 2018 event only after they could answer a few questions in the affirmative:

Did they have big name speakers? Yes. Rushdie and Dawkins would surely be huge draws. Initially, they also had Hirsi Ali on board (though she later had to cancel). But having those speakers as the basis for a large atheist convention made a lot of sense.

Did they have a reliable group of organizers? Yes. Their team included people who were responsible, enthusiastic, and capable of putting on an event of this magnitude. No problem there.

Would they have government funding? Yes, and this was a bigger deal than you might think. Simply put, the Melbourne Convention Bureau wants large groups to hold events in the city because it brings tourists to the area, and that’s good for everybody. (In 2010, for example, the Parliament of the World’s Religions received $2 million in funding from the government group.) The Global Atheist Convention organizers received some money in 2012 because the bureau’s chief executive Sue Chipchase said the event would “deliver an economic boost to the state of $7.6 million.” That was a reasonable estimate since about half of the (4,000+) attendees that year came from outside Melbourne, according to one person I spoke with. Most of the guests presumably spent money outside of the conference area and traveled around the region. That’s why, for the upcoming convention, the GAC team was excited to once again receive some funding from the government.

All the important boxes were checked off. Plans were coming along very well. And while many conferences experience a surge of ticket sales as the event draws nears, organizers have to make important decisions much earlier based on the interest they’re generating months ahead of time.

So what do you do when ticket sales are lagging compared to where they need to be?

About a month ago, the Australian organizers faced a looming deadline. They had already put a down payment on the venue, but they were contracted to pay a substantial portion of the originally estimated amount (plus catering charges) regardless of attendees… unless they canceled by a particular date.

They saw the ticket sales. They did the math. And they didn’t like the way things looked. As it stood, they had two options: Keep the event going, knowing that they were on track to end up deep in red ink… or cut the losses early and try again in the future.

They took the only realistic option. The organizers announced earlier this month that they would cancel the event and refund any tickets that had already been purchased.

ReasonToHopeCanceled

Conservative media outlets have had a field day with that news, suggesting it was a sign of a lack of interest in atheism and that the tide was turning back towards religion.

They have it completely wrong.

Here’s the thing: For those of us in the U.S. who weren’t planning on making the trek to Australia, we’ve seen a similar decline in attendance for some huge atheist-themed events over the past few years, and it’s reasonable to jump to those same conclusions.

But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen organizers of different atheist conferences to find out whether the problem really is a “lack of interest.” Over and over, I found the opposite to be true. Whatever problems there are — and there are legitimate concerns — the primary issue doesn’t seem to be that people are getting over atheism.

I’ll get into those problems in a moment, but it might help to look at where we used to be and what things look like now.

Maybe ten years ago, there were only a handful of major conferences about atheism, and they were sponsored by a few larger national organizations. You had to fly out to wherever the event was being held that year or hope they’d schedule the event in a city not too far from you. These conferences were the biggest and best ways to see other atheists in meatspace.

That changed around the time of the “New Atheism” boom. Smaller regional conferences began popping up around the country. They didn’t all have big headliners, but they brought in some well-known atheists, were run by local leaders, and drew in hundreds of people at a time. And this was happening in cities that rarely hosted a national event. It got to the point where regional conferences were essentially competing with ones run by national groups since not all attendees could go to every event.

At one point, in 2010, several leaders of the larger atheist organizations thought it might make sense to cooperate and bring as many people together for one massive party instead of fighting each other for speakers and attendees. The logistics were worked out and the Reason Rally was born. It’s perhaps the closest parallel Americans have had to the GAC… and even that event has experienced a major drop in attendance.

While crowd numbers are hard to come by, the 2012 Reason Rally brought an estimated 10,00020,000 people out on a rainy day to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to hear the likes of Dawkins, Adam Savage, Greta Christina, Penn Jillette, Tim Minchin, and Eddie Izzard. (I also spoke at the event.)

The idea wasn’t only to bring atheists together to celebrate “reason,” it was to motivate them to vote in the 2012 elections for candidates who supported science and reason.

Because that event was reasonably successful, representatives of some of those same groups eventually began working on a 2016 Reason Rally. But on that hot, sunny June day last year, the crowd was clearly smaller, even if no official estimates were ever released. I certainly noticed a difference in person and offered my own thoughts at the time for why the event didn’t attract as many people: Some of the famous headliners canceled at the last minute (Dawkins, for health reasons; Johnny Depp, for personal reasons), the list of speakers and performers may not have inspired the most vocal atheist activists to come to D.C., and large communities of online atheism weren’t represented on stage.

The low attendance surprised me at the time. With a presidential election months away, there was plenty on the line for science advocates and proponents of church/state separation. This should have been a huge gathering for those who cared about these issues… but people didn’t show up. (Tragic foreshadowing for November, I suppose.)

If anything, there should have been more people. That’s what the demographics suggested. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a remarkable “rise of the Nones,” in which the percentage of American adults who don’t belong to any organized religion essentially doubled. The research group PRRI found that the percentage of “religiously unaffiliated” people went from 14% in 2004 to a remarkable 24% in 2016.

PRRIReligiouslyUnaff2016

The numbers are getting even more dire for religion when you look at a younger demographic. Nearly 40% of people under the age of 30 no longer have a religious affiliation (even if they believe in some “Higher Power”).

While those numbers were increasing, the number of people showing up to large atheist events appears to be going down.

So what’s going on? Why aren’t atheist conferences the draw they used to be?

There’s no single answer, but based on my conversations, I would point to a number of theories as to why this is happening. I also have some suggestions afterwards for how this can be fixed.

(A couple of caveats to all this: I’m not focusing on annual conventions put on by national groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation or the American Humanist Association. Their events may draw outsiders, but they’re focused on their own members and their events will likely go on no matter what other trends may suggest. Also, there are bound to be counter-examples to what I say below. It’s not some definitive list. They’re just some ideas that I believe go a long way toward explaining why many conferences aren’t as successful as before.)

1) The novelty has worn off.

Seeing a “big name” speaker talk about why atheism make sense, or why religion ought to be abandoned, no longer has much shock value. People pointing out the problems with religion are a dime a dozen these days. Hell, even some religious people make a very compelling case for that.

It’s been a decade since the “New Atheists” released their books. And you know what? They achieved one of their goals which was to normalize atheism to people who might have been afraid of it. Saying you’re an atheist no longer raises that many eyebrows. Society understands that some people don’t believe in God and that’s no longer weird. When Rep. Jared Huffman came out publicly as non-theistic this month, it barely generated headlines in the political media. When NFL star Arian Foster came out as an atheist a couple of years ago, it wasn’t really seen as controversial. (He was later traded for reasons that had nothing to do with religion, and it was an injury, not his beliefs, that pushed him into an early retirement.)

There are, of course, parts of the country where atheism is just as controversial and polarizing as ever (hello, Alabama), and it’s not easy for atheists in those areas to be public about their beliefs. But the number of places like that continue to dwindle. Ask high school students if they know an atheist, and I suspect just about all of them, anywhere, will say they do. There was also a time when a lot of people couldn’t name one person in their lives who was openly gay; that’s hardly the case anymore. A similar diffusion has occurred with atheism.

Which means going out of your way to be surrounded by other godless people can sometimes be more of an inconvenience than a necessity.

Atheist gatherings used to be, for many of us, the only places where we could let our guard down when talking about religion. That’s just not the case anymore.

2) We no longer have a shared goal.

What’s the point of atheist gatherings?

At one time, it was to fire people up about the scourge of religion, to inform them of what Religious Right groups are doing, to share arguments for why people shouldn’t believe in God, to criticize religious texts in a way you couldn’t hear anywhere else.

Very few conferences nowadays really focus on those issues, because they don’t have to. That kind of criticism can be found all over the place. Just look at the response to the Religious Right’s embrace of Roy Moore despite allegations of pedophilia. It’s not just atheists pointing out the glaring hypocrisy of so-called “family values” voters.

Earlier this month, the free-to-attend Skepticon conference took place in Missouri. A glance at the schedule showed a variety of speakers, many of whom were not talking about atheism directly. If anything, they were discussing next steps. How do you start a podcast? What are specific concerns for ex-Muslims? How do you lobby politicians? How do you handle the loss of a loved one when you don’t believe in God? There were also talks about self care, mental health, making allies with other groups, critical analysis of drugs and how the media reports on them, etc.

Maybe some of that’s interesting to you. Maybe it’s not. But notice the difference in those topics compared to those in Skepticon 2 in 2009, most of which were directly about atheism, criticizing religion, and debating God’s existence. The organizers of that event have made a conscious decision to get away from talks strictly about giving up God.

I think that’s a positive change, even if Skepticon’s attendance has gone down over the years, but it’s also necessary for the sake of relevance. If you want to learn about why religion is wrong, or the Bible isn’t a “Good Book,” or what the New Atheists get wrong, there are plenty of free resources available for anyone who knows how to use Google (or a library). I don’t need a speaker to tell me why God doesn’t exist when I can find that information on my own. I certainly don’t need to travel out of my way to hear it.

There are (ostensibly atheist) conferences that are focused on social justice issues (like Skepticon), and women’s issues (like Women in Secularism) and general skepticism of irrational ideas (CSICon). There was even a recent conference, under the banner of atheism, that promoted ideas critical of feminism. (More on that in a moment.) I think you could make a case to have an event about issues like criminal justice reform and gun safety with the foundation rooted in Humanism and evidence.

On their own, those conferences don’t attract thousands of people. But those who attend are inevitably passionate and dedicated to those particular causes.

The point is: We’re not just talking about atheism anymore when we get together. We’re heading in all different directions, for better and worse. That makes it much harder to appeal to the masses. The 2016 Reason Rally was intended to reach as many people as possible by not catering to specific niches… but that thinking may have backfired since the most passionate activists had little to get excited about.

3) The most well-known speakers become lightning rods.

Here’s a question a lot of conference organizers have nightmares thinking about: Who should we invite as a speaker? The most popular names may attract the most ticket buyers… but those speakers almost always come with their own baggage.

Last year, one group with a focus on science and skepticism faced serious backlash after they invited Richard Dawkins to speak. His invite was rescinded, then un-rescinded, and it was chaos all around.

He’s not unique in that regard. Christopher Hitchens was roundly criticized for things he had written about women and politics, and if he were around today, you can bet people would be both delighted and furious to see him headlining some large atheist event. Sam Harris gets frequent criticism for what is seen by some as anti-Muslim bigotry (hi, Ben Affleck) despite his insistence that he’s only criticizing ideas inherent in Islam. He’s also been slammed for inviting people with bad ideas on his popular podcast. (I should point out that Harris rarely talks about atheism as a stand-alone topic anymore.) But inviting Harris also means inviting controversy.

Inviting a prominent feminist or “social justice warrior” will surely lead to online harassment of both the speakers and organizers as well as those attempting to discredit the entire event. I was told the Global Atheist Convention received more pushback for inviting one well-known feminist than they did for inviting Dawkins (though both remained in their lineup until the event was canceled); it’s unclear, though, if anyone actually refused to buy tickets because of her inclusion. Even Rushdie has his critics.

It’s not just the world-famous authors who are this divisive. Name a popular atheist on YouTube, or with a podcast, or with a blog, and the same rules apply. There’s not a single atheist speaker I can think of who will be universally praised even by a crowd of atheists. Some have more general support than others, but inviting anyone is now a game of how organizers will deal with the backlash if and when it comes.

So if you’re putting together an event for atheists, the sort of people (within a reasonable budget) who might attract a crowd may also inspire a lot of backlash to the point where some people just don’t want to come. Organizers have to decide how much time and energy they want to spend pushing back on the inevitable criticism.

That affects attendees as well, since going to a conference suggests you support the speakers at that event. Even a free conference with “controversial” speakers wasn’t worth the cost for one person I spoke to, because she knew she’d have to defend her decision to friends later on. She didn’t want to put herself through those discussions. When the joy of sharing a picture of yourself at an event on Facebook turns into a comment war about what one particular person said onstage, it’s easier to just step away from it all.

4) These conferences can be a financial drain.

For many organizers, the goal for hosting a conference is just to break even. Spend whatever money is necessary to book a venue. Fly in speakers. Provide food. And then try really hard to make the difference back in ticket sales.

When hundreds or thousands of people are registering for the event, that’s entirely possible. You might even make some money, which can be put toward a future event.

That’s happening less and less these days.

I recently attended the PA State Atheist/Humanist Conference (PAStAHCon) as a speaker. It was run extraordinarily well, had compelling guests, and included an event to help feed the hungry. Attendees I spoke to appeared to have a wonderful time. It was everything you’d hope a regional conference would be.

But when I spoke with an organizer of the event afterwards, I learned they lost money on the event because the number of registrants didn’t match the number they had planned for.

Maybe there’s an argument to be made that PAStAHCon didn’t get much attention ahead of the event because it wasn’t controversial — and therefore it wasn’t hyped up enough — and that resulted in lower-than-predicted turnout.

The opposite end of that spectrum, then, would be the Mythicist Milwaukee conference, which included a number of controversial speakers and faced a protest from people who wanted the event cancelled entirely.

The organizers of that event told me this year’s conference brought in 570 paid attendees (far more than the 330 they had in 2016)… but they also lost money. Roughly $12,000. (Their expenses went up, they said, because they needed to hire additional security.) It took a GoFundMe campaign after the conference to make up the difference.

The Gateway to Reason conference in St. Louis has been on all sides of the financial issue. Organizer Thomas True told me his first event in 2015 broke even in terms of cost. When he planned a second event in 2016, however, he faced the same problem the Global Atheist Convention faced this year: Move forward with an event when registrations are low and risk a huge debt later on… or cancel early before any further penalties are incurred. As much as it pained him to do it, he canceled the event and assumed he would never try to run another conference. He was fully expecting to dig into his own bank account to make up for the losses in 2016.

The only reason he was able to cover those losses and host another conference this past summer was because a donor with a generous checkbook got in touch with him. That person was willing to take the financial hit. (And there was a hit.) The 2017 conference needed about 400 paid attendees to break even. There were fewer than 200.

Thomas is working on improving that number in the future, but he’s able to do that because someone else is willing to take the risk.

5) We’re suffering from atheist oversaturation.

Why didn’t Dawkins’ name sell more tickets in Australia this year? Has he really lost his ability to draw a crowd? It’s possible… but it’s also worth noting that Dawkins (and Lawrence Krauss) will be visiting Australia next year as part of an event hosted by Think Inc. So it’s not like you needed to attend the Global Atheist Convention to see him.

Why did thousands and thousands of people attend the 2012 Reason Rally? Maybe, as one organizer told me, because it was billed as a “once in a lifetime” experience.

Why did thousands and thousands of people not attend the 2016 Reason Rally? Maybe because the “once in a lifetime” experience was happening for the second time in four years.

The fact is that atheist events are no longer all that unique. If you miss one, there will probably be another in your area before too long within driving distance. That means less incentive to buy a ticket for any one particular gathering.

And if you miss those, there’s still probably an atheist Meetup group, or college group, or national organization’s affiliate group you can visit if you just want to be around other like-minded people.

And even if those events aren’t your thing, the speakers may still be coming your way. Plenty of colleges and other conferences host authors/speakers like Dawkins and Krauss and Hirsi Ali and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

And if you’re not a fan of human interaction, there’s no shortage of atheist-friendly spaces online.

You don’t need conferences to see these people or hear these ideas. They’re nice, but they’re not the only game in town.

Many organizers I spoke to used to run yearly conferences. But even some successful ones, like FREEFLO in Florida, have switched to hosting them every other year or every few years.

6) Bad conference experiences ruin them for everyone.

There are well-intentioned organizers who don’t know what they’re doing, who get people excited about an event then fail to deliver.

There are organizers who mishandle or flat-out ignore allegations of abuse or harassment, leaving victims to fend for themselves.

There are speakers who waste everyone’s time, attendees who hog the question-and-answer sessions, and awkward people who make everyone else uncomfortable.

These aren’t issues unique to atheist conferences, but they happen more often than we like to admit, and they turn off people from ever wanting to attend similar events.

In an ideal world, we could hire professionals to take care of these things for us, but most smaller events are run by volunteers who are sometimes in way over their heads. Some conferences have given a lot of responsibility to people with no experience, who are just eager to take on the role but who don’t have proper oversight. It often creates more problems than it solves.

Everyone thinks they can run a successful event. Very few actually can.

(Just to elaborate on the harassment issue, not a single organizer I spoke with said that allegations of abuse were the main reason people weren’t coming to their events, at least based on what they were directly told. It’s entirely possible that some attendees, having heard rumors or being victims themselves, chose not to attend those events. It’s not like they owe anyone an explanation. Most atheists conferences these days have policies in place to address potential harassment problems — thanks in large part to women who fought for those changes to be made.)

7) Many organizers and attendees are dealing with “activist fatigue.”

Not everyone can be an activist all the time. You only have so much energy to give to issues you’re passionate about. The Women’s March was amazing. The Science March was great. I can’t do it every damn week.

As someone who has been involved in organized atheism for more than a decade, I’m much more interested right now in getting candidates I like elected at all levels — and pushing for them to make the right policy decisions — than trying to convince other people, including harmless believers, to let go of God. I’ll happily vote for a religious liberal, as I’ve done my whole life, and save the theology debates for later.

We’re in the middle of an administration that sucks up so much energy from everybody. For atheists who routinely advocate for science education, church/state separation, and evidence-based reforms, every week seems to include five-alarm fires and it’s tough to expect people already devoting time and money to these causes to give up another full weekend to celebrate godlessness. It seems almost frivolous given the other issues at stake.

As one organizer told me, our current political realities may be really bad for atheist conferences… but they’re not bad for atheists. That’s because many of us are working with other special interest groups that also stand to lose a lot under this administration. In other words, we’re part of a broader group of Americans trying to set our country back on the right track. We’re no longer the pariahs we used to be. If that means giving up one way we used to celebrate our identities, it’s a small price to pay for what we hope to achieve.

8) We’re victims of our own success.

This may be the running theme in this whole post. The fact is that there are more atheists now than ever before and less stigma attached to the word. The Religious Right continues shooting itself in the foot, politically speaking, and saying you’re not part of that crowd is welcome by many regardless of what label you use.

That means there’s less of a need today to gather as atheists.

There’s plenty of reason to gather as liberals, or social justice advocates, or critics of racism, or defenders of free speech, etc. But the most important things we ever fought for as large groups of atheists — like defending science and promoting church/state separation — have by and large been adopted by other larger movements. When you’re working with religious liberals to advance those shared goals, trying to convince everyone to stop believe in God just doesn’t seem like as big a priority. There are bigger concerns we need to worry about. We can get to God later on.

So where do we go from here?

Despite these changes in the landscape of atheist conferences, they continue to have value. We do so much of our activism online that meeting each other in person and sharing ideas with a live audience is vital to our community’s health.

Not that anyone’s asking, but if you wanted me to put together a successful atheist event, here’s what I’d do to avoid some of the issues I’m talking about.

  • I would make sure I have a small group of dedicated, trustworthy, knowledgeable partners committed to working on the event from start to finish.
  • I would run big decisions by experienced organizers to get feedback.
  • I would schedule it and publicize it at least a year in advance. By doing this, I hope to avoid conflicts with other events and give attendees a chance to make arrangements. (The other details of the event may take time, but announcing the date needs to happen early.) You can see a list of other events happening across the country here, here, and here.
  • I would want money in the bank that I’m prepared to lose as a buffer in case things go wrong or I don’t sell as many tickets as I had hoped. (How much? Depends on the size of the event.)
  • I would distinguish the conference by selecting a theme based around action or entertainment or activism. Give people something to get excited about. Make sure they’re coming with a sense of purpose. Make sure they can leave with a list of what they learned and did. Just saying it’s an atheist conference isn’t enough anymore.
  • I would bring in a couple of notable speakers (with relatively affordable speaking fees) to draw in a crowd I wouldn’t normally reach. I would have as many diverse local speakers as possible, talking about whatever they’d like (around the theme) for no more than 20 minutes. I’d fill more time with activities that make a difference (blood drives, food drives, etc).
  • I would try to invite reasonable people with different opinions to share their thoughts. That could be a pastor who disagrees with the focus of atheist activism, or an atheist who believes we’re wrongly in lockstep on certain ideas. It’s good to be challenged before we can fall victim to our own dogmas. And it facilitates more interesting discussions later on.
  • I would advertise the event everywhere, among all similar-minded groups in the area, and I’d promote the hell out of it on Facebook. I would do that throughout the year. I would hit up every podcast, blog, group, YouTuber I know and ask them to promote it. Hell, tell local churches about it, too, in case they want to see an atheist event first-hand. Just putting on the event and expecting people to show up is naïve. Advertising is important, yet it’s not always taken as seriously as it should.
  • I would make sure all the talks are videotaped and recorded professionally (even if I don’t post every single one online). It’s worth the cost. Doing this isn’t just a way to spread the ideas. It’s perhaps the best advertising you can create for any future conference. And then I could release selected videos slowly throughout the year or as the next event nears.
  • I would experiment with structure and location as needed. No conference needs to be in a hotel, with speakers talking for an hour, catered meals, and expensive tickets. There are excellent events that involve short talks, that latch onto larger conferences, and that do just fine on a shoestring budget.
  • I would make sure the event lasts no longer than a single day.

If it goes well, you build it up from there.

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