How Conferences Kill Critical Thought

In the last few days, voices upon voices have emerged raising accusations that some leaders in the atheist movement are perpetrators of sexual violence.  These assaults aren’t the product of just a few “bad apples,” and the fact that they have gone unheard of and unprosecuted until now isn’t a simple accident. That sexual violence runs rampant and unnoticed is a systemic problem, sanctioned by the structure of this movement itself. That structure: the (ironic) worship of our heroes.

I’ve been to several conventions put on by atheist and skeptic organizations over the four or so years that I’ve been a part of the political movement. As my views and understanding have drastically changed in those four years, so has my experience at these cons—I think it’s fair to say that I have grown consistently more cynical about my con-going experience.

Our movement, centered around critical thinking and challenging dogmatic authority, is grossly quick to defer to the interests and ideas of the powerful and subvert minority voices.  It seems that if a speaker has enough blogging clout, all it takes to get an applause break is to include a meme in their powerpoint and reiterate how atheists are smart, religion is dumb, and We are the future. Largely absent are discussions on issues such as how our movement should engage in social justice or even partner with other religious minorities. An underrepresentation of diversity views in these secular spaces have made me feel a bit ostracized in conference settings.

This problem is embedded in the structure of conferences, reflected in the mantra that certain speakers have more draw, therefore those speakers deserve that draw.  Atheist conventions in general (probably based on how conventions of any sort are typically run) relegate speakers either to one large space or one of several smaller spaces, putting the more powerful voices in the larger space to accommodate what they assume will be a bigger audience. But whether or not those sorts of speakers would draw that big a crowd, they’re still implicitly given the privilege of the big platform, which itself sends the message “my ideas are important, you want to see me.” Some people will go anyway, whether they know the speaker or not, whether they want to hear what they have to say or not, because in the end, they won’t want to miss the Important Ideas coming from the Big Important person.

Conference speakers, standing on a podium looking down at an applauding audience, are in an environment that social psychology holds clearly to be anything but conducive to critical thought. And when particular movement leaders occupy a sort of A-list elite, the ideas they speak into a microphone are more likely to go unchallenged by the riff-raff beneath them. This divide—between those who are ostensibly the “best” at atheistic critical thinking and those who are lesser—is as much a threat to intellectual integrity as is having the same sort of divide in a religious community.

I recently attended Secular Student Alliance conference in Columbus. Though this was a student conference where students were meant to share ideas with one another, headlining talks from prominent (nonstudent) bloggers and organization employees were largely double-booked with student talks. At one, the Atheist Community of Austin’s Matt Dillahunty admitted that he had nothing to offer on organizing debates (his talk was billed as a how-to-organize-debates-as-a-student-group), but instead shared what amounted to a BuzzFeed list of the common arguments against God’s existence. This talk essentially functioned as an opportunity for a popular blogger to perform in front of the student community, at the expense of members of that community sharing more tangible and practical ideas about actual problems facing student activists.

Later in the night Amanda Marcotte spoke on how atheism should align itself with feminism (a very fair and true point) to fight the religious right. As legitimate a topic as that is, the talk was even more out of place than Dillahunty’s, insofar as it barely touched on students at all. Again, a popular blogger performed. Thankfully, there were several questions in the audience that did address student concerns. “Should men be careful about stepping on women’s toes in feminism?” one student asked. Marcotte shrugged it off, saying yeah, we should be careful, but more than anything we should all fight religious misogyny. Applause.

Both of these speakers ignored student concerns, particularly concerns that are immensely relevant to, for example, a movement where men seem to be caring more and more about women’s issues, yet do so in a way that does step on women’s toes (earlier that day, I noticed one male student consistently interrupting and centering himself at the “Safe Space for Women” lunch discussion table). These speakers clearly weren’t asked, “Please address student concerns primarily in your talk, considering you are non-students entering a space that should be student-focused.” Quite the opposite: the nature of the conference legitimized these nonstudent voices and allowed them to speak without challenge. Students, some of whom paid for travel and housing so that they could attend and speak at the conference, who do the gritty work of organizing and came to share that knowledge with their peers, were relegated beneath the microphones of bloggers who already have immense platforms that they write from everyday.

Such a challenge would have been nice when some voices offered up particularly violent sentiments couched in friendly language (the most insidious kind of violence).  In the last talk on the first night of the conference, Todd Stiefel discussed the many virtues of Thomas Jefferson. Stiefel is not a historian; he really has no claim to a particularly insightful understanding of Jefferson’s philosophy. And so, we see the systemic problem out front. When slavery or racism or sexual violence are presented as parts of religious doctrine, we rightly hold them to be absolutely revolting. But Stiefel was on a platform, in a big room, with a big audience, and a big seal of approval by the conference where he was speaking, so he was entirely shielded from being held accountable for the fact that we’re propping up a figure who owned and raped slaves, with no mention of it whatsoever. Stiefel spoke on his honorable value system, and how he is a marker for our movement, and we are expected to temporarily ignore a particularly morally indefensible dimension of his character. No consideration was given to the experience of victims of sexual violence or racial violence in the audience, who could well have taken issue with the fact that we were revering a racist sexual assailant. Worshipping Jefferson in this way, subverting his moral failures to uphold some virtuous image of his good ideas, would without hesitation be denounced by the atheist community were it done in a religious context. Yet in a nonreligious conference room, it was given a standing ovation.

Furthermore, Stiefel offered up a quote that got several enthusiastic tweets during his Q&A: “If your identity is wrapped in fiction, it doesn’t deserve to be respected.” How nice. And how easily that could be interpreted as “Islam isn’t real, so if you are a Muslim, you don’t deserve respect,” particularly in our incredibly Islamophobic society (and see Richard Dawkins for more on the atheist movement’s Islamophobia problem). How easily that quote could be read to justify disrespect for an identity that experiences an immeasurable amount of violence in our society today. And how easily Stiefel was able to say it publicly, because there was no accountability for his statements whatsoever.

As we hear more and more of the heartbreaking stories about those who have been victims of sexual violence in our community, as we wonder how movement leaders could get away with something so horrible, it just becomes clearer and clearer: our movement loves its heroes. We love our big names. We love our popular bloggers, skeptical authors, and organization presidents. Unaccountability, intransparency, and corruption have split the atheist movement on class lines. Even if we say that we should always “question authority”, we still give them the privileges they don’t deserve. We still reserve the best for those with titles, for those with clout, for those with money.

For some reason, it’s okay for conferences to open a door for sexual violence, to make the word “student” synonymous with “secondary,” or to allow for someone on a platform to tell a crowd to disrespect minorities and to erase the moral revulsions of historical figures. This stems from a system where power isn’t challenged, largely out of a fear that the powerful will strike against us. Yet we easily forget that they already have, and will continue to until they’re checked.

EDIT: The registration fee at this year’s SSA con was waived for all speakers, and about 70% of student speakers, according to the SSA, received financial aid to cover travel/housing costs.


Walker Bristol is a nontheist Quaker living in Somerville, Massachusetts. A rising senior at Tufts University reading religion and philosophy, he covers social activism and class inequality in the Tufts Daily and has organized in movements promoting religious diversity, sexual assault awareness and prevention, and worker’s rights. Formerly, he was the Communications Coordinator at Foundation Beyond Belief and  the president of the Tufts Freethought Society. He tweets at @WalkerBristol


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