This past weekend I attended my first atheist/skeptic convention, Apostacon, and I had a blast. I’m not much of a “joiner” and I’m not one to voluntarily attend session after session of someone-else-talking. Maybe it reminds me too much of church or high school, or maybe I’ve just become far too A.D.D. (thank you, internet). But this weekend was fun because the people who put it on are fun people who appreciate the need for grown-ups getting to cut up and cut loose for a few days just to enjoy the company of a bunch of like-minded people all crammed into one place. Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke the first night and Lawrence Krauss delivered the keynote address the next day. There were comedians, scientists, activists, a poet, and familiar faces and voices from multiple corners of the secularist movement presenting more workshops and messages than one person could possibly take in. Thankfully the talks were all recorded so they’ll be available online soon for anyone interested in hearing what was shared. Anybody and everybody will have access to those, but in order to have face-to-face conversations with the people on the other side of your computer screen you have to actually go there. I’m glad I did.
I met so many great people I had already come to love before I had ever met them (again, thank you internet). It meant a lot to me to finally be able to sit down with virtual friends and be able to hug them in person and thank them for their encouragement. Seth Andrews said it perfectly when he said that many of us will grow to become like family through our time spent in conversation both online and in real life. I used to disparage virtual community but I’ve since changed my mind. I still see limitations to having your closest friendships require an internet connection. But I can’t deny how crucial to my own psychological well-being these online communities have become. It’s because of those relationships which I’ve formed over social media that I had either the motivation or the means to get to this conference in the first place. Several friends helped me out in very practical ways, and without their help I would have never been able to make the trip.
[Listen to a local radio promo for Apostacon done by myself and Victor Harris, the MC/DJ for the weekend]
Once I got there I was also immensely encouraged and deeply touched by the warmth and support I felt from so many of the headliners there at the conference. I’m still very new to this subculture, and I’ve got an awful lot to learn about it—where it’s been and where it’s headed. I’m sure I’ve already made plenty of newbie mistakes myself but you wouldn’t know it from the way anyone there treated me. They made me feel quite welcome there, and the sincerity of their generosity was evident. It meant a lot to me. I could list a ton of names but it’ll probably sound more like bragging than appreciation so I’ll just tell them thank you and you probably already know who you are.
A Conference for Grown-Ups (or Maybe Growing-Ups)
It’s ironic that half of the time it felt like we were cutting up like children, dressing up like pirates and wenches and all kinds of other crazy things because the content of what was said over the course of the weekend was very grown-up. The sometimes puerile behavior (google it) of speakers and attendees alike only thinly veiled the depth and maturity of thought in what they were saying. We touched on heady stuff and one speaker after another tackled big picture issues with grace and insight that I found refreshing. I didn’t witness any petty fighting or disruptive behavior (well, except from one drunk Catholic who staggered in one night shoving books and posters off of tables because, as he put it, “This f***ing pisses me off!”). On the contrary, I heard speaker after speaker address long-term directional questions about what we as a movement are about, and about how to avoid some of the pitfalls you encounter whenever you take part in a movement.
We tend to oversimplify a lot of things that really are far more complex. For example: Does religious extremism cause violence, or should we blame socioeconomic and political factors for those things? The answer is yes. We like simple, singular causes but few things in life really boil down to one thing alone. It’s immature to try to force everything into simplistic categories when most important things are complex, and grown-ups know the solutions are often equally complex, requiring that we take the time to listen to multiple sides tell what they know about what’s happening. It doesn’t benefit anyone when we shut out voices we don’t like and caricature our opponents as if our perception of them cannot be mistaken. Our movement is filled with an awful lot of highly intelligent, well-educated people. In some ways that’s great but sometimes it makes us cocky. People who are smart get used to being right. It helps to realize that lots of other smart people disagree with you and it pays to remain open to hearing what they have to say.
We live in an increasingly polarized culture full of competing echo chambers (once again, thank you internet) that aren’t really communicating with each other. How about we decide as a movement to be different? Why don’t we decide we can do better than that and learn to talk to people who think differently from us? I tell my Christian friends to do that all the time. Can we do it ourselves? I think that we can. And this weekend I heard a number of people hit that note which encouraged me to hear.
After all that we dressed up like freaks and imbibed and danced like only recently-evolved hairless apes because come on…you can’t be grown-ups all the time, right?
Incidentally, all of the talks and workshops were recorded and will be made available in the coming weeks, so as soon as that happens I’ll be sure to post links here. But first…