2010 American Atheist Convention: The Bad…

April 6, 2010

This post is the second part of a three part series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist convention. For a rundown of my favorite sessions from the session, check out “The Good” post.

Though in number the sessions that I would call “good” succeeded those I’d call “bad,” I’d say that, for me, overall the bad outweighed the good. The talks detailed below seemed to represent the sentiments of a majority of convention participants – they often got the heartiest rounds of applause and articulated things akin to what I heard the majority of pariticpants saying in both Q&A sessions and in my individual conversations – and, as you’ll both see below and especially in tomorrow’s “The Worst” post, their negative attitudes overshadowed the more prevalent, positive outlooks of the other presenters. As Massimo Pigliucci said in his talk (as referenced in “The Good” post), “if we’re part of a community of reason we need to take members to task when they say things that aren’t that reasonable.” And so: I’d like to call out the negative (but not the worst) parts of the American Atheist Convention.

Darrel Ray

rayAfter a morning full of good, relatively inoffensive speeches that focused on Atheism’s room for growth instead of just focusing on the limitations of religion, things took a turn for the worse in the afternoon of the first day of the convention with Darrel Ray’s “Exposing the God Virus” workshop. In this session, he discussed his 2009 book The God Virus: How God Infects Our Lives and Culture.

Ray came out swinging, saying that “religion is an infection of the mind… So you need a strategy to combat it.” He said that he wasn’t opposed to people being religious, but went on to contradict himself, saying that he wanted to inform everyone of the dangers of religion and wanted to see it eliminated someday. Said Ray: “Anywhere that religion is, expect manipulation. Ask anyone about their religion, and you’ll see an observable, behavioral change [in the way they talk] as a direct result of the infection.”

To watch for this change, he suggested engaging with religious people by using “the exorcist test.” Ray said that when you talk to someone you know about religion, “you’re not talking to [your friend] anymore, you’re talking to the God virus… his [sic] personality literally changes. You’ll get 5-7 year old logic, not adult logic… Besides, [your Christian friend] doesn’t know the Bible because he hasn’t even read the Bible.”

He did a pretty offensive mimic of a Christian preacher, then said: “If you saw a guy talking like that, you’d say he needs to be institutionalized. Yet people do it every day in churches.” He deemed churches “emotional infection centers,” warning convention attendees: “If you walk into one of these, you should know that you’re entering an emotional infection zone. This is where they teach you to feel guilty for the things you do.”

Ray focused on guilt a lot in his speech. He said that religion’s message is a simple one: “You are never good enough.” He then began to sing a mocking version of “Amazing Grace,” calling it “guilt bullshit.” Ray said that “religions are looking for ways to open you up and infect you. You can’t be infected without a channel or key, and religion creates a guilt pathway.” He claimed that “religion takes things you already do and teaches you to feel guilty about it. You already eat, so let’s make you feel guilty for eating pork.” Instead of acknowledging the cultural roots of religious traditions, he used a wide brush to portray the traditional comports of religious mores as manipulation tactics; in this respect, not only was his perspective historically false, it favored being inflammatory over being intellectually honest. He tried to say that any guilt feelings we have internalized are the fault of religion. My critique is that some of our guilt feelings are culturally conditioned, certainly, but some also just occur organically or are unrelated to religion. It is simply too absolutist to approach religion and guilt as Ray did.

Ultimately, he seemed to be advocating for Atheistic isolationism:

Be careful how you communicate with this demon called the God virus when it comes out. That’s the time to back off because you’re not going anywhere with that person. Their brain’s not working anymore. Religion reorganizes the brain… his brain has been reprogrammed around that one specific thing. He might even be a scientist, but he’s been infected. Religious people don’t even know they’re infected. Remember: they’re infected, not you.

On a disturbing sidenote, a member of the audience asked Ray during the Q&A why “more women [seem to be] infected by the God virus.” Ray responded that his best guess is that it is because “women are more often ‘feelers,’ and religion is about emotions.” This essentialistic approach to gender and religious belief, though disturbing, was unsurprising after his similar approach to religion on a larger scale.

Eddie Tabash

tabashConstitutional Lawyer and Eddie Tabash gave a talk titled “Taking Atheism to the General Public, The Time is Now.” He spent a good deal of the talk saying that religion received special treatment from inquiry and should not. His argument was that people think that religious claims deserve critical isolation, which he called a double-standard, decrying the idea that religious claims deserve “respect” in response.

Said Tabash:

Too many people in our country take it for granted, as a horrible premise that is never even examined, that religious claims deserve some special insulation from critical examination and doubt. This is a vicious double standard in which folksy common culture approves of deep skepticism directed against all paranormal claims, unless those claims are safely housed in the context of religion. Then, this same common culture expects even the most outlandish claims to be met, at a minimum, with respectful silence and an artificial forfeiture of the critical examination that would automatically be applied to anything else.

While I too think that religion should be open to critique, I think that, like any critique, it should always be done respectfully.

As in the session before it, gender came up in a problematic way. Tabash said that “there can be no true equality for women as long as the majority of society deems our moral values to be undergirded by an ultimate force that has issued revelations requiring male hegemony.” This is a point in which we are in fundamental disagreement. As often as religion has served as a justification for gender hierarchy, it has functioned to deconstruct gender distinctions. For every verse in the Bible that can be used to say that men are superior, there is a verse akin to Jesus’ proclamation that there is “neither male nor female” in his community. You cannot hold contemporary religious communities accountable to their texts alone – we must instead look at how they function today. My former church had both a male and female minister; in many places, religion houses some of the most visible female leaders in the community. And at the Interfaith Youth Core, a religious leadership organization, the women on staff outnumber the men.

Again, Atheism’s superiority complex came to the foreground in Tabash’s talk. His talk of “folksy common culture” felt extremely condescending and, unlike Pigliucci’s humble claim that he doesn’t “pretend that [his] position is the only reasonable one,” Tabash said: “We represent the world’s most important philosophical revolution. [Never forget] that there is no more noble effort to be undertaken than explaining to society-at-large why no supernatural being or beings exist.” Really? There is no more noble effort? Not caring for the needy or working to end the great illnesses of the world? Tabash continued: “If we succeed, we Atheists will have dispelled the greatest falsehood to ever permeate the world and will have replaced it with the light of truth.” That sounds eerily like the language I heard when I converted to Evangelical Christianity. As a community of reason, I believe it is essential that we remain open to change and greater understanding and retain a humble spirit. This talk, in its boastful nature and absolutist narrative, represented the antithesis of that.

Near the end, Tabash declared we should offer “sympathy” to religious people – no, wait, sympathy for the religious people that we are able to convert to Atheism over the mourning they will undergo for the loss of their faith. And how should we approach those who do not leave their religion? Well, besides warning that we should prepare for “severe” and sometimes “violent”backlash, on this, Tabash was silent.

Cecil Bothwell

bothwellOpenly Atheist politician Cecil Bothwell gave a speech on his experiences getting elected to the City Council of Asheville, North Carolina, and as an investigative reporter who wrote a book on Billy Graham. He talked about how there was an archaic clause on the books in North Carolina that says one cannot be sworn into office if they do not believe in God. Bothwell won the challenge launched against his candidacy and went on to serve on the council. I thought his engaging speech was inspiring and contained some nice ideas like when he said “I think everyone is entitled to their beliefs,” but he said one problematic thing that burrowed itself under my skin and made it challenging to appreciate the rest of what he had to offer. Citing an uncovered statement by George W. Bush in which he refers to his religious beliefs as a reason for engaging in warfare with Iraq, Bothwell said that “religious beliefs are the reason that [political leaders] treat soldiers like canon fodder… Atheists might take their nations to war, but at least they don’t delude themselves with divine persuasions.” I cannot help but ask: how is that any better? Those soldiers are still “canon fodder” either way, are they not? This comment was disturbing, distracting, and again represented the moral superiority that permeated this convention.


Though it got off to a good start, I felt less and less a part of the convention community as it progressed. When talking to participants about the need for religious literacy, both in our community and in greater society, I got a lot of comments like “I know the Bible so I can heckle believers” or “I have a Bible so I can use it to roll joints.” Most people couldn’t understand why I would be interested in interfaith work, one going so far as to call me a traitor to my face, saying that I was working against the Atheist cause and for the “other side.” At one point a man asked me about my blog on a break, saying, “So, do you use it to rant about how terrible religion is at three in the morning?” When I responded that my blog actually aims not to be anti-religious, the tone of the conversation changed swiftly. I tried to share my opinion but was talked over or ignored. It ended when he forcefully said, “I think religion needs to be done away with altogether” and turned away from me and began speaking to another person.

In my work, I’ve been accused of alienating atheists. If I am, perhaps it is because I wasn’t even allowed to speak in the first place.

Check back tomorrow for another account of the American Atheist Convention, in which I detail the incident that left me so offended that I nearly walked out and didn’t come back. For more on my adventures on the Eastern Seaboard, follow me on Twitter.


8 Responses to “2010 American Atheist Convention: The Bad…”

  1. Tom Hand said

    Hey, Chris. I’m the Alabama Atheist you mentioned in conversations on the previous post. I’m a member of NAFA, to be precise: North Alabama Freethought Association. I enjoy seeing your thought process on the speakers- and at certain points I agree and disagree with your conclusions. Instead of going point by point- which, at least anecdotally, so often leads to an eventual semantic argument- I have some questions about your general perspective on the Atheist community.

    1) Conventions tend to be for the highly motivated, the highly motivated tend to be the ones who are more likely to be opinionated. You yourself hold your opinion(s) to be the correct ones, with dissenting opinions being less correct, or less correct for yourself. Don’t feel discouraged about it, as I maintained before we need the shotgun approach more than the laser. You do valuable work, and if it’s the work you can stomach, then nevermind the buzzcocks- as they say.

    Sub-point: However, you do seem to be pretty exclusionary towards any one who is (to turn their phrase back on them) “anti-accomodationist”. To be completely against them would seem to fall into the absolutist category. I’d like your commentary on my perception, especially if it is wrong.

    2) There are those who would be offended by the language used, if not the points being made. Even Kurts and Pigliucci said words like “fuck”, “bullshit”, “goddamn”. Why should we tone down our language, to lessen the offense (euphemistic language does not change the connotative intent, my assertion being the connotative portion is the truly offensive bit, not the word used to express it)?

    3) That’s my main position. Weasel words, like “virus” instead of “meme”, have their place in our advertisement crowded society. Yes, they do turn off some people, but they motivate others. Do we need to pay attention to what Hutaree or Fred Phelps says about how/what we’re saying? To use a less extreme position- as I don’t mean to illustrate your position as extreme- should we care about what we say to people who don’t care what we say? Coming from Alabama I see a broad base of people, especially here in Huntsville. There are a lot of people who don’t care what we say, what we do, or what evidence we can present for or against a position. Should we be taking their reaction to our opinions into account? Here we get a lot of people who don’t care to listen to our opinions or our facts, and simply wait until it’s their turn to speak at us.

    Further, I was always taught, one is wisest to not care about what other people think about him or her, per se. When Darrel Ray presents a vastly shortened speech to a convention of atheists; why should he be as worried about what he says or how he says it, as when he presents the hour and a half version to the general public?

    4) I need some clarity. Are you trying to say, take Darrel Ray who I’ve already mentioned several times (might as well run with the theme), he said stupid/uniformed things about gender, therefore he’s wrong? How is that different than the people you appear to disagree with who say that Francis Collins is a danger because he doesn’t separate his religious and scientific viewpoints? (Their premise being: we can’t trust him because he believes in a god, ignoring any scientifically accurate things he might say as incidental.)

    I apologize if I’m overstating the point, but allow me to attempt further clarification. On Cecil Bothwell, you say you agree with and like what he said- except one part. One point of (political) disagreement puts his whole speech into the Bad category. This is “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. How is this not just as bad as the use of negatively-connotative weasel words (“virus” instead of “meme”)?

    5) A statement: I disagree with Massimo Pigliucci. Truth is immutable- though not necessarily dichotomatic, or absolutist. Science is an objective understanding of the probability of events (a point we agree on). Philosophy, according to him is MORE important in morals than science. Which would imply that if the science said that the morals were not conducive to societies, but the philosophy disagreed that we should continue advocating the philosophical position- despite the evidence to the contrary. (We already use science to inform our moral positions at least as much as we use philosophy: we know in group vs out group is bad because we have SEEN it, and our objective review of the observational evidence proves the point. Though philosophy- especially game theory- says the problem of the commons can be reduced/eliminated via in group vs out group dynamics. [Optimal strategy during any finite and recurring prisoner’s dilemma is to be the first to betray.]) If nothing else this would show that philosophy disagrees with itself, and we need some way of saying that one philosophy is better than another. I.E. How do we know absolutism is a short-sighted philosophy? Because we can prove it scientifically; we can show our work. All of that is to illustrate, that I see science making important and decisive (though not necessarily absolutist) statements about reality (i.e. TRUTH), and that reality is more important than our feelings about it (illustratively: most of us think life would be better if it were “fair”, yet reality continues to not give a flying [insert word of choice] about what we want/like). Ipso facto, truth is more important than our feelings about the truth, or how it’s presented. If the truth is that there isn’t any god, we should treat that truth and the people who proclaim its opposite, the same way we would treat someone who says “1+1=3”. There comes a point when we must acknowledge the unwillingness of the advocate to change their demonstrably false premise, and we must move on to different tactics than simple education. (simple not meaning easy.) This I see as the fundamental difference between my position and yours- and I am assuming that the majority of speakers you consider “bad” would agree more with me, while the majority of the “good” would agree more with you.

  2. […] NonProphet Status « 2010 American Atheist Convention: The Bad […]

  3. Misha said

    I just want you to know how deeply I appreciate your wisdom, here. I have a difficult time identifying with fellow athiests as well, because of all the vitriol that sometimes gets spewed at ‘believers’ of all kinds. I find it as offensive as the condescending attitude in the VERY conservative, fundamentalist evangelical faith of my youth. I’m encouraged to know that I am, in fact, NOT the only one who loves and respects people who fall onto different areas of the belief spectrum than I. We are all on a journey, and none of us has THE ANSWER. THe sooner we embrace that, and each other, the better. THANK YOU, again, for your acceptance and love, on behalf of all the Bible Thumpers in my family, who enrich my life and make me laugh, and love me enough to pray for my blackened soul. 🙂

  4. Cecil Bothwell was fascinating. You neglected to mention that his reporting lead to federal charges against a sherrif who is now in jail. You failed to mention that his book on Billy Graham lead to his losing his job at the newspaper. His courage continues to be on display as an openly atheist politician.

    For you to condemn him over a statement about a hypothetical atheist leader only shows your hypocrisy in your claims of moral superiority.

  5. […] off a generally bad experience at the 2010 American Atheist Convention (AAC) (see reports: 1, 2, 3), the tone of Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC) was […]

  6. […] New England Leadership Summit. My first conference, AAC, was a mixed bag at best (1, 2, 3). The second, IUC, was consistently excellent (1, 2, […]

  7. […] Similarly – and I’m sure you’ll love this – one of the presenters at the convention was asked during a Q&A session why “more women [seem to be] infected by the God virus.” His response? […]

  8. […] New Jersey. After it was over I published a series of reflections on the experience (The Good, The Bad, and The […]

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