This post is the second part of a three part series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist convention. For a rundown of my favorite sessions from the session, check out “The Good” post.
Though in number the sessions that I would call “good” succeeded those I’d call “bad,” I’d say that, for me, overall the bad outweighed the good. The talks detailed below seemed to represent the sentiments of a majority of convention participants – they often got the heartiest rounds of applause and articulated things akin to what I heard the majority of pariticpants saying in both Q&A sessions and in my individual conversations – and, as you’ll both see below and especially in tomorrow’s “The Worst” post, their negative attitudes overshadowed the more prevalent, positive outlooks of the other presenters. As Massimo Pigliucci said in his talk (as referenced in “The Good” post), “if we’re part of a community of reason we need to take members to task when they say things that aren’t that reasonable.” And so: I’d like to call out the negative (but not the worst) parts of the American Atheist Convention.
After a morning full of good, relatively inoffensive speeches that focused on Atheism’s room for growth instead of just focusing on the limitations of religion, things took a turn for the worse in the afternoon of the first day of the convention with Darrel Ray’s “Exposing the God Virus” workshop. In this session, he discussed his 2009 book The God Virus: How God Infects Our Lives and Culture.
Ray came out swinging, saying that “religion is an infection of the mind… So you need a strategy to combat it.” He said that he wasn’t opposed to people being religious, but went on to contradict himself, saying that he wanted to inform everyone of the dangers of religion and wanted to see it eliminated someday. Said Ray: “Anywhere that religion is, expect manipulation. Ask anyone about their religion, and you’ll see an observable, behavioral change [in the way they talk] as a direct result of the infection.”
To watch for this change, he suggested engaging with religious people by using “the exorcist test.” Ray said that when you talk to someone you know about religion, “you’re not talking to [your friend] anymore, you’re talking to the God virus… his [sic] personality literally changes. You’ll get 5-7 year old logic, not adult logic… Besides, [your Christian friend] doesn’t know the Bible because he hasn’t even read the Bible.”
He did a pretty offensive mimic of a Christian preacher, then said: “If you saw a guy talking like that, you’d say he needs to be institutionalized. Yet people do it every day in churches.” He deemed churches “emotional infection centers,” warning convention attendees: “If you walk into one of these, you should know that you’re entering an emotional infection zone. This is where they teach you to feel guilty for the things you do.”
Ray focused on guilt a lot in his speech. He said that religion’s message is a simple one: “You are never good enough.” He then began to sing a mocking version of “Amazing Grace,” calling it “guilt bullshit.” Ray said that “religions are looking for ways to open you up and infect you. You can’t be infected without a channel or key, and religion creates a guilt pathway.” He claimed that “religion takes things you already do and teaches you to feel guilty about it. You already eat, so let’s make you feel guilty for eating pork.” Instead of acknowledging the cultural roots of religious traditions, he used a wide brush to portray the traditional comports of religious mores as manipulation tactics; in this respect, not only was his perspective historically false, it favored being inflammatory over being intellectually honest. He tried to say that any guilt feelings we have internalized are the fault of religion. My critique is that some of our guilt feelings are culturally conditioned, certainly, but some also just occur organically or are unrelated to religion. It is simply too absolutist to approach religion and guilt as Ray did.
Ultimately, he seemed to be advocating for Atheistic isolationism:
Be careful how you communicate with this demon called the God virus when it comes out. That’s the time to back off because you’re not going anywhere with that person. Their brain’s not working anymore. Religion reorganizes the brain… his brain has been reprogrammed around that one specific thing. He might even be a scientist, but he’s been infected. Religious people don’t even know they’re infected. Remember: they’re infected, not you.
On a disturbing sidenote, a member of the audience asked Ray during the Q&A why “more women [seem to be] infected by the God virus.” Ray responded that his best guess is that it is because “women are more often ‘feelers,’ and religion is about emotions.” This essentialistic approach to gender and religious belief, though disturbing, was unsurprising after his similar approach to religion on a larger scale.
Constitutional Lawyer and Eddie Tabash gave a talk titled “Taking Atheism to the General Public, The Time is Now.” He spent a good deal of the talk saying that religion received special treatment from inquiry and should not. His argument was that people think that religious claims deserve critical isolation, which he called a double-standard, decrying the idea that religious claims deserve “respect” in response.
Too many people in our country take it for granted, as a horrible premise that is never even examined, that religious claims deserve some special insulation from critical examination and doubt. This is a vicious double standard in which folksy common culture approves of deep skepticism directed against all paranormal claims, unless those claims are safely housed in the context of religion. Then, this same common culture expects even the most outlandish claims to be met, at a minimum, with respectful silence and an artificial forfeiture of the critical examination that would automatically be applied to anything else.
While I too think that religion should be open to critique, I think that, like any critique, it should always be done respectfully.
As in the session before it, gender came up in a problematic way. Tabash said that “there can be no true equality for women as long as the majority of society deems our moral values to be undergirded by an ultimate force that has issued revelations requiring male hegemony.” This is a point in which we are in fundamental disagreement. As often as religion has served as a justification for gender hierarchy, it has functioned to deconstruct gender distinctions. For every verse in the Bible that can be used to say that men are superior, there is a verse akin to Jesus’ proclamation that there is “neither male nor female” in his community. You cannot hold contemporary religious communities accountable to their texts alone – we must instead look at how they function today. My former church had both a male and female minister; in many places, religion houses some of the most visible female leaders in the community. And at the Interfaith Youth Core, a religious leadership organization, the women on staff outnumber the men.
Again, Atheism’s superiority complex came to the foreground in Tabash’s talk. His talk of “folksy common culture” felt extremely condescending and, unlike Pigliucci’s humble claim that he doesn’t “pretend that [his] position is the only reasonable one,” Tabash said: “We represent the world’s most important philosophical revolution. [Never forget] that there is no more noble effort to be undertaken than explaining to society-at-large why no supernatural being or beings exist.” Really? There is no more noble effort? Not caring for the needy or working to end the great illnesses of the world? Tabash continued: “If we succeed, we Atheists will have dispelled the greatest falsehood to ever permeate the world and will have replaced it with the light of truth.” That sounds eerily like the language I heard when I converted to Evangelical Christianity. As a community of reason, I believe it is essential that we remain open to change and greater understanding and retain a humble spirit. This talk, in its boastful nature and absolutist narrative, represented the antithesis of that.
Near the end, Tabash declared we should offer “sympathy” to religious people – no, wait, sympathy for the religious people that we are able to convert to Atheism over the mourning they will undergo for the loss of their faith. And how should we approach those who do not leave their religion? Well, besides warning that we should prepare for “severe” and sometimes “violent”backlash, on this, Tabash was silent.
Openly Atheist politician Cecil Bothwell gave a speech on his experiences getting elected to the City Council of Asheville, North Carolina, and as an investigative reporter who wrote a book on Billy Graham. He talked about how there was an archaic clause on the books in North Carolina that says one cannot be sworn into office if they do not believe in God. Bothwell won the challenge launched against his candidacy and went on to serve on the council. I thought his engaging speech was inspiring and contained some nice ideas like when he said “I think everyone is entitled to their beliefs,” but he said one problematic thing that burrowed itself under my skin and made it challenging to appreciate the rest of what he had to offer. Citing an uncovered statement by George W. Bush in which he refers to his religious beliefs as a reason for engaging in warfare with Iraq, Bothwell said that “religious beliefs are the reason that [political leaders] treat soldiers like canon fodder… Atheists might take their nations to war, but at least they don’t delude themselves with divine persuasions.” I cannot help but ask: how is that any better? Those soldiers are still “canon fodder” either way, are they not? This comment was disturbing, distracting, and again represented the moral superiority that permeated this convention.
Though it got off to a good start, I felt less and less a part of the convention community as it progressed. When talking to participants about the need for religious literacy, both in our community and in greater society, I got a lot of comments like “I know the Bible so I can heckle believers” or “I have a Bible so I can use it to roll joints.” Most people couldn’t understand why I would be interested in interfaith work, one going so far as to call me a traitor to my face, saying that I was working against the Atheist cause and for the “other side.” At one point a man asked me about my blog on a break, saying, “So, do you use it to rant about how terrible religion is at three in the morning?” When I responded that my blog actually aims not to be anti-religious, the tone of the conversation changed swiftly. I tried to share my opinion but was talked over or ignored. It ended when he forcefully said, “I think religion needs to be done away with altogether” and turned away from me and began speaking to another person.
In my work, I’ve been accused of alienating atheists. If I am, perhaps it is because I wasn’t even allowed to speak in the first place.
Check back tomorrow for another account of the American Atheist Convention, in which I detail the incident that left me so offended that I nearly walked out and didn’t come back. For more on my adventures on the Eastern Seaboard, follow me on Twitter.