August 9, 2013

Divisive Bloggers at Atheist Conventions

Convention crowd - Chicago  (LOC)
Convention crowd - Chicago (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Two of the big atheist conventions recently announced their lists of speakers: American Atheists' 40th Annual Convention and Skepticon 6. From a quick perusal of the lists, it is apparent that these conferences are selecting a different sort of speaker from those featured at TAM 2013. While many potential attendees are undoubtedly thrilled to have yet another opportunity to hear from their favorite bloggers, others are asking whether conventions interested in promoting a cohesive atheist movement might be making a mistake by selecting speakers with a reputation for being divisive within the atheist community.

Good speakers are often controversial, as they tend to be opinionated and passionate about what they do. It is difficult to imagine a good atheist speaker who will not rub some people the wrong way. Of course, we are not terribly worried about atheist speakers who rub religious people the wrong way. This is why I italicized the words "within the atheist community" in the paragraph above. The concern some have expressed with some of the speakers these conventions have selected is not that they may be seen as divisive by religious individuals but that they have been divisive among atheists

The Concern Over Speaker Selection

Here is how Lee Moore (A-News Reports) explained his concern with American Atheists' selection of speakers:

Two of its headliners are known promoters of the infighting that has plagued our movement. I am of course speaking about PZ Meyers and Greta Christina from Freethought Blogs. Atheists who have continuously used their popularity and platforms to promote the idea that some of us are worse than others by misrepresenting their fellow Atheists (such as unfounded accusations of racism to detractors or PZ’s infamous attack on a heroic figure like Justin Griffith ) and misrepresenting our movement by claiming that it is hostile to women. This infighting has turned many new atheists away from our common cause and made us look like a joke to some of our theist adversaries.
Moore goes on to note that he plans to skip the American Atheists convention and that he has seen others saying that they plan to do so too. However, Moore says that he is in no way calling for a boycott of American Atheists, an organization he continues to support. He also does not ask others to skip the convention, asking instead that those who share his concerns but are attending might consider skipping the talks by PZ Myers and Greta Christina.
All in all I am disappointed that some of our major groups continue to look the other way when popular speakers damage our community. We have quite a large list of Atheists who are willing and able to speak well at these events and who have never sullied their good names in the muck that is our infighting.

I think he is right that we have many atheists who would be amply qualified to speak at such conventions and from whom attendees could learn a great deal. I also tend to agree with Moore that it is disappointing to see American Atheists inviting a couple of speakers who are known for contributing to "the shit" Silverman has condemned. Still, there are several other interesting speakers on the list. If I was interested in attending the American Atheists' convention, I would not let the presence of a couple of divisive bloggers stop me. It would be fairly easy to skip them and find plenty of other interesting speakers.

As discussion around the speakers picked for American Atheists' upcoming convention has intensified, American Atheists' president, Dave Silverman, recently posted on Facebook that he is tired of hearing from those who are planning to skip the convention because they do not like a speaker or two. I can't say I blame him. On Twitter, one of his replies indicated, "And yet I'm getting it from all 'sides.'" It is an unenviable position.

I have read quite a bit of discussion and debate among those who are upset at seeing PZ Myers and Greta Christina on the list of speakers. Among the options I have seen being discussed are:

  1. Skipping the entire convention
  2. Attending the convention but not presentations given by the individuals named above
  3. Attending the convention and the presentations by the above named individuals with plans to engage them during the Q&A portion with what would probably be perceived as hostile questions or comments
Personally, I think #3 is a really bad idea and hope that nobody opts for it. The upside of doing this seems virtually nonexistent and the downside quite massive. Fortunately, it also seems to be far less popular than the other two. As for the other two options (e.g., skipping the entire convention or just the talks from speakers in which one is not interested), I think both have their respective pros and cons.

Skipping the Convention

I agree that it is difficult to reconcile what Silverman said on Brave Hero Radio and what I have seen him tweeting since with inviting PZ Myers and Greta Christina to speak at the convention. Even if one could have overlooked the decision to invite PZ before, it becomes almost impossible to do so in light of his recent allegations against Michael Shermer. I can see how attending the convention might lead one to feel that one was indirectly promoting PZ. I can also understand why some people would prefer to dissociate themselves from any organization that provided PZ with such a platform.

For those insisting that it is crazy to skip a convention just because of a speaker or two, I can't help wondering if they would feel the same way if a convention they wanted to attend had invited a known holocaust denier or someone who had recently made undeniably sexist or racist statements in a public forum. My guess is that few would think twice about skipping a convention who invited such a speaker.

I am also reminded that a large number of people recently called for a full boycott of the Center for Inquiry (not only skipping future conventions but canceling membership) around the Ron Lindsay flap. This happened in spite of the fact that most of us did not find anything Lindsay said in his opening remarks at Women in Secularism 2 even remotely objectionable.

I do not think that anyone choosing to skip the convention should feel guilty about doing so. While my decision would likely be different, I can understand why some would decide to skip the convention and possibly even withdraw their support/membership from American Atheists. While this would not be my choice, I find no grounds to condemn those who would make a different one.

Attending the Convention and Skipping Certain Presentations

I would hate to think that someone who was really excited about attending the convention and looking forward to every other speaker would skip it simply because of a speaker or two. This would almost seem like one was allowing PZ Myers and Greta Christina to chase them away from an experience they would otherwise enjoy. For those who support American Atheists in spite of recent events and want to attend their convention, planning to attend makes good sense. In fact, making a point to skip certain presentations might even communicate something of value to those who are in charge of selecting speakers.

If one values what American Atheists does and one wants to be involved in the organization, I think that one should be able to do so in spite of a couple of poor choices of speakers. Many of the speakers seem like solid choices, and of course, American Atheists is more than their annual conventions. Those who want to influence their course will probably have more success doing so as participants than those who remain on the outside in the hope that their lack of involvement will prove a point.

I do not think that anyone choosing this option should feel guilty about it. While this probably would be my choice, I recognize that it is not the right choice for everyone. I see no reason to condemn those who would make a different choice.

Dave Silverman

I'll wrap up by saying that while Dave Silverman is not perfect and has made some mistakes in how he has handled "the great rift" plaguing the atheist movement, I would not wish his job on anyone. I think he's likely doing the best he can to champion a movement that often seems determined to destroy itself. Maybe we can make an effort to accompany whatever criticism we might send his way with some real solutions. Maybe we can stop expecting him to be some sort of superhero and see what we might be able to do to turn the corner on this sad chapter.

This post initially appeared as two separate posts in 2013. They were later merged into this post with only minor editing.