This past weekend I was in Springfield, Missouri for Skepticon VI. This is my third year attending Skepticon, which is far and away my favorite of all the annual atheist conventions.
I didn’t go to all the talks this year, but the ones I did see were very good. Debbie Goddard told the funny and moving story of her deconversion (when she came to the conclusion there was no god, she was so excited she wanted to tell everyone, starting with her Catholic school teachers – with predictable results). Dr. Monica Miller analyzed the humanist themes in the music of Jay-Z and Kanye West; Richard Carrier presented an argument for why philosophy is progressive in the same way as science; John Corvino shot down “natural law” arguments against same-sex marriage; and J.T. Eberhard hailed some of the unsung heroes of the secular movement.
But I have to extend special recognition to my friend Miri Mogilevsky, who taught a workshop on consent on Friday afternoon. We traveled together, and an airline fail meant that we arrived in Springfield literally five minutes before the start of her workshop, after a long day of travel with no breaks for rest or food. Plus, the projector she’d been planning to use for her slides fell through, and there was a last-minute scramble for a replacement. But you’d never have known it if I hadn’t told you. As soon as we got there, she was instantly the consummate professional, and a good thing, too, because the room was packed! It was a much bigger turnout than I think anyone had been expecting, which makes me doubly glad we got there in time.
I also got to meet Shelley Segal, the marvelous singer-songwriter, and see her perform live for the first time. Seriously, if you haven’t listened to her atheist album, go buy it! It’s the least you can do for a person who’s talented, friendly and gracious, who’s passionate about the secular movement, and, oh yeah, who traveled all the way from Australia to Missouri to perform for free.
One other bit of amusement: On Saturday night I went out to dinner with Rebecca Watson and Amy Davis Roth, along with some other friends. When we passed a blind gentleman who looked a bit lost, Rebecca and Amy doubled back and asked him if he needed help. It turned out he did, and they very kindly helped him cross the street and conducted him to a nearby restaurant he’d been searching for. I posted about this on Twitter, not knowing it’d ruin their carefully crafted public persona:
— Rebecca Watson (@rebeccawatson) November 17, 2013
On a hilarious side note, one of Rebecca’s internet haters accused her of paying me to fabricate this story. What’s that famous Voltaire quote about how the only prayer he’s ever uttered was a request to God to make his enemies ridiculous?
There was one ugly incident to report, although it took place downtown and not at the convention: Dave Muscato, the PR director for American Atheists, was menaced by another attendee who made an explicit death threat while brandishing a pistol. No one was hurt, but the police were called and the threatener was permanently banned from Skepticon (and will probably be blacklisted from other secular conventions as well).
It’s disappointing that a fellow atheist didn’t know better than to behave in such a criminally stupid way, but there are a few bad apples in every bunch. More puzzling was the reaction from the usual slimepit anti-feminists (who weren’t at the convention, just spamming the Twitter hashtag) who argued that this proved… well, I don’t even know what point they thought they were making. Judge for yourself:
Hey #skepticon If a GUY who is DRUNK waves around a GUN, the problem is with GUYS and GUNS right? Party on, assholes!
— Mykeru (@Mykeru) November 16, 2013
— Sara E. Mayhew (@saramayhew) November 16, 2013
Man gets gun pulled on him at Skepticon and still feels safe; woman sees unflattering T-shirt at TAM and suddenly feels unsafe.
— Skepdigger (@SkepDirt) November 16, 2013
To state the obvious, no harassment policy can deter all misbehavior, at a conference or anywhere else. What matters is how the organizers respond. In this case it appears they took every reasonable step, including offering Dave a security escort. But when harassment or threats are reported and the conference organizers do nothing – or worse, blame or ridicule the person who made the report – then there’s good reason for attendees to feel unsafe. Skepticon has been very good at dealing with this kind of incident; other conferences, like TAM, haven’t.
But I wouldn’t want this ugliness to be the last word on what was otherwise one of the best weekends of the year. There were brain-expanding talks, reasonable revelry, excellent Midwestern craft beer, and the opportunity to meet and converse with some of the brightest and most fascinating people in the secular movement, in some cases into the small hours of the morning. If you’ve never been to Skepticon and have the chance to go, I highly recommend it. I always leave conventions like this feeling like a cup filled to overflowing!