Walker Bristol says atheist conferences kill critical thought. I firmly disagree.

Oh how I hate linking to Chris Stedman’s blog, but sometimes things just can’t be helped.  Walker Bristol has a post up over there expressing his cynicism about atheist conferences.

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.

I think this is factually wrong from the start.  Sure, speakers can get applause for pumping up the crowd.  That’s part of good public speaking – keeping the crowd passionate and attentive so they are paying attention to your ideas.  Having a humor or a rah-rah moment doesn’t preclude the inclusion of deeper ideas in a talk.

As far as no discussion on social issues, I cannot help but wonder what conferences Walker is attending.  At American Atheists, one of the bigger rah-rah type conferences, there were talks from Richard Carrier, Greta Christina, Tony Pinn, and more on that very issue.  Ditto for Skepticon.  Ditto for just about every major conference ever.

As far as how to align ourselves with religious minorities, again I’m baffled.  There have been interfaith panels or talks at just about every major conference this last year (including the SSA conference I spoke at and which Walker criticizes greatly later in his post).  I was on an interfaith panel at Reasonfest and James Croft, a big interfaith name, was present at SSA East, Skepticon, and more.  I think the entire premise of Walker’s post is factually lacking (that’s not to be taken as a stab at Walker, since I think he’s ok, but just at his post).

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.

I think Walker has it backwards.  The message isn’t sent from the stage to the crowd as “you want to see me”, but rather it’s sent from the crowd to the stage/organizers as “we want to see this person.”  The organizers are meeting the demand, for the students, not creating it.

And the “Big Important person” usually hasn’t gotten that way by declaration of some conference organizer, but because they have demonstrated capability or success in activism/debate/whatever field on which they are speaking.  So yes, it makes sense that people who may not have heard of a particular speaker would go hear them if they’re a big name.  There were many times in college a singer I’d never heard of would be brought in by the school for a recital and all my friends would tell me “Dude, you need to go see this person” (George Dyer was my favorite example, holy cow that guy was amazing).  It wasn’t because the singer had the stage, but because the singer had done the work to merit the stage.  I never thought “the school is doing this for the singer and the music students are just secondary.”  It was always clear that these people were being brought for my benefit.  Conferences are the same way.  Often attendees ask me about a speaker they’ve never heard of and often I wind up telling them which ones I think they definitely shouldn’t miss because I admire their mind and/or their work.

What’s more, even if a speaker were to give a completely rah-rah talk, so what?  Are motivation and inspiration commodities of no value?

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.

Walker has a very low opinion of that “riff-raff”.  Because some people are admired does not mean they are worshiped.  Of course some people are admired – many of them deserve to be.

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.

Does Walker imagine that there is no such thing as experts?  In any field there are people who have achieved greater success than most or who have deep knowledge bases from which other people can learn.  Acknowledging this does not make us like a religious community.  We do not worship the speakers.  In fact, at the SSA conference that Walker attended speakers were often challenged in the Q&A on what they said.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Matt Dillahunty is an expert on debate from whom most people can learn a lot, or that Richard Carrier is an expert on history, so on and so forth.  It doesn’t mean they’re more valuable as a person, but that they have an area of expertise.

I’ve long said that being a public speaker does not make somebody better than any other activist.  It’s a different role with a different skill set, but not a more valuable role.  That’s why I dress down for all my talks.

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.

And students did share ideas with one another, but this was not the only point of the conference (or any other conference).  While students shared ideas on activism, they were also there to learn.  Does your average student know as much about lobbying congress as Amanda Knief?  No.  So Knief was brought in to educate.  Sure it’s tough for students to get a draw when put up against the likes of Amanda Knief, but that fact does nothing to validate Walker’s charges throughout his article that the students are secondary.  The students were given a host of options on a variety of relevant subjects.  Are we to criticize the SSA for failing this mission because some of the speakers were some of the most eminent names in those fields?  This seems like a success on the part of the organizers to me, not the failure Walker is making it out to be.

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.

Perform?  Matt is famous because he has great, common talk rebuttals for damn near every apologetic under the sun.  If you think the information and ideas in his talk amounted to essentially “performing” then we were not at the same talk.  That information is valuable to the students who focus on dialogue with religious people in the interest of convincing them that their religion is untrue/dangerous.  Just because it didn’t appeal to your own pet causes doesn’t mean that it was mere performance or that it was not valuable to other students.  Does Walker not believe that dealing with apologetics is not an “actual problem facing student activists”?  Does he think that rebuttals to the arguments you’ll invariably hear from religious people are not “tangible and practical ideas”?

It seems borderline dishonest to brand Matt’s talk as “essentially performing” – and this is coming from somebody who studied music and made a living performing.

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.

It touched on an issue activist students are likely to deal with and it educated and informed.  That is relevant to many student activsts.

Again, a popular blogger performed.

This is the most disingenuous description of Amanda’s talk I could imagine.  Walker seems possessed by the idea that Amanda was listened to because she’s popular and not for the ideas and sharpness that made her popular.

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.”

They were there to educate, which is a concern of student activists.  They did not ignore the students, they were there expressly for the students.

Quite the opposite: the nature of the conference legitimized these nonstudent voices and allowed them to speak without challenge.

Strange, I remember challenges in the Q&A of some of the talks I went to (including my own).  I also do not recall anywhere in the conference handbook where people were forbidden from challenging the speakers.  Perhaps I just missed it.  Or perhaps the speakers were perfectly able to be challenged, both during Q&As and in person afterward, and Walker is simply pulling this out of thin air.

Students, some of whom paid the SSA 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.

Oh rubbish.  We all do gritty work, from David Fitzgerald to me to Walker to each and every organizer and activist student at the SSA conference.  Some came to share knowledge with their peers and they were not prohibited from doing so (in fact, they were empowered to do so).  Some also came for inspiration at the hands of their heroes whom they’d only ever known through their writing or videos and they received it.  Others came to learn from experts in their fields, and those students received it.  Walker, you do not get to speak for every student and why they were there.

I would’ve ordinarily been only miffed with Walker’s post, but one of the last lines really bugged me:

For some reason, it’s okay for conferences to open a door for sexual violence, to make the word “student” synonymous with “secondary,”…

Wait, what conference has said that sexual violence is ok at the conference?  That’s flat out hyperbole that I think does cross well into dishonest territory (which makes its presence on Chris Stedman’s blog all the more appropriate).

And there is no conference and no organization that puts more of an emphasis on what students are doing and empowering them to do it than the SSA.  The students are the very reason for the organization’s existence as well as for their conference.  If you can look anybody in the eye and say that they are making students secondary your ability to assess even the most basic and obvious facts should be thrown into doubt.  Matt Dillahunty was brought to Columbus for the students, not for Matt Dillahunty.  Greta Christina was brought to Las Vegas for the students, not for Greta Christina.  Hemant Mehta was brought to Columbus for the students, not for Hemant Mehta.  All of these speakers (to my knowledge) waived their honorariums because they believe in the SSA’s mission.  I cannot fathom how a person who attended that conference, who is otherwise in my estimation a pretty sharp young man, can suggest that the conference was put on for the speakers rather than for the students.

To say that I was disappointed with Walker for this article would be the zenith of understatement.

Ugh, visiting Stedman’s blog makes me eager to go back to reading Mark Shea…

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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