Skepticon is here again! North America’s largest free conference for of atheists, skeptics, agnostics and Humanists has begun again for another year, and the conference proper is starting with a bang. Greta Christina’s bespectacled face is filling a large screen at the front of the Springfield Expo Center, and her mellifluous tones are filling the hall like the voice of God.
She starts with a note of thanks: for the technologists who developed Skype and the doctors who operated on her cancer (robotic arms ftw!), noting that while her situation sucks, it has been immeasurably improved by science and technology. Her theme for today: how her atheism has held-up and given her comfort during her recent struggle with cancer and the death of her father.
“There is no part of me that has wanted to turn to religion at any part of this shit-storm…It is tremendously comforting to see this shit-storm as physical cause and effect.”
She outlined the lessons she is beginning to learn from her experience: “What I do have is the real power to learn from the experiences life has handed to me…both the awesome ones and the shitty ones.” She stressed, too, how her skepticism – particularly her knowledge of how the human mind is imperfect and subject to bias – has helped carried her through the storm. This is an important message: too often we are sold the lie that religion is necessary in a crisis, and provides a unique form of comfort. By exploring the “comforts of skepticism” Greta showed how the naturalistic, skeptical outlook can genuinely assist people deal with challenging situations.
Her description of skepticism as a “practice” was particularly great, in my view. By viewing skepticism as a practice, a habit of mind which can be pursued and honed throughout one’s life, makes the important point that skepticism isn’t simply a matter of knowing a certain set of facts but is a constantly evolving way of going about one’s life which requires hard work and, yes, practice!
“The atheist community has been a tremendous comfort…I got financial support…and the response was overwhelming…I got emotional support and psychological support in droves…I cannot tell you how important that was to me.” Religious community is not necessary for people in a crisis, she said: the atheist community has developed to such an extent that it provides its own support networks.
I asked Greta whether her views on death had changed since she spoke on the Atheist Death Panel at last year’s Skepticon. She said her views on death had been tested and refined by her experience, but not changed: her grounding in atheist, naturalist, and Humanist philosophies of death stood her in good stead through the death of her father and her cancer diagnosis. She also suggested the atheist community explore grief more, and think more deeply about how we can deal with the death of others. “I don’t think atheists need to be afraid of the topic of death. We tend to concede the ground back to religious believers…Religious beliefs about death are only comforting as long as they’re not examined…[atheist views] don’t cause cognitive dissonance.”
She also stressed the significance of promoting atheist local communities – something I’m passionately in support of through my work at the Humanist Community Project! “A lot of what we need to do is create an in-person community”. People don’t go to church for the theology, she argued, but for the community – the music, the childcare, the sense of human connection – and atheist communities can work to create secular spaces which fulfill those needs.
Toward the end of her talk Greta revealed one of he first thoughts after she learned she had cancer: “I can’t die! I have to go to Skepticon!” I think I can speak for all gathered at Skepticon that we are delighted that Greta didn’t die, and that she continues to be part of the atheist community which she has given so much to.