2010 American Atheist Convention: The Ugly (or, When I Cried)
April 7, 2010
This post is the final installation in a series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist Convention. For my favorite sessions from the convention, check out “The Good” post; for those that were bad but not the most offensive, check out “The Bad.”
Throughout the course of the 2010 American Atheist Convention I had extensive conversations with attendees around a single, significant question: what kind of Atheist community are we building? Some of these conversations were constructive; others weren’t. Yet even in the most productive there was considerable disagreement. How do we best assemble a community of non-belief? Is it by contrasting our identities to those of others? And if so, in what ways do we go about this? By mocking them, or by forging our own unique, singular identity based on the values we hold in esteem?
From these conversations, I have come to better understand how my “accomodationism” turns some off in the same way the blasphemy model offends my sensibilities. All the more, I gained key insight into the pragmatic problems of unifying these perspectives; just as it would be challenging to get all Christians under one roof and have every party in agreement, Atheists struggle to come to a consensus about community priorities.
Yet I still cannot help but wonder: how can we bemoan being such a hated minority, as nearly all speakers at the convention did, while practicing hate toward others? This way of community constructivism – dismantling another’s identity to build one’s own – strikes me as the easier but more fundamentally limited model, and it was out in full force at the convention. The American Atheist Convention seemed, in some ways, to aim to offend. In this respect, it hit its target with force. And one moment in particular, on the first day of the convention, left me feeling so assaulted that I nearly walked out of the room and didn’t return.
As he was introduced it was said that, with his acts of blasphemy, American Atheist National Legal Director Edwin Kagin strikes a “fine balance of seriousness and making fun of this silly crap [religion].” Kagin’s introduction also included a rousing commemoration for his late wife, which was exceedingly moving. The fact that his wife recently passed makes it all the more difficult for me to say so, but I found his session the most offensive by a landslide – and, in hindsight, it seems clear that this was his intention.
Kagin opened by referring to Ireland’s recently passed anti-blasphemy law (as I reported on). He was understandably bothered by that, and offered an opposing definition for “blasphemy” out of his book, Baubles of Blasphemy. Per Kagin, blasphemy “is the crime of making fun of ridiculous beliefs someone else holds sacred.” With that, I had some idea where his talk was headed. But even I, with all my initial trepidation about this convention, couldn’t have predicted just how far he would go.
From the get go Kagin had little to no regard for offering ideas on how to bolster Atheistic communities or for making an intellectual case against religion – he was perfectly happy to simply shout at those in the audience about how religion ought to be brought down. “We can use their nonsense against them,” Kagin said, only offering the mocking of religious ideas and identities as a way of engaging them. “And it is nonsense, profound nonsense.”
Continuing with this theme, he quoted Martin Luther as saying “reason is the greatest enemy that faith has” and referenced that Luther believed that the world was relatively young. As with every religious reference he made that day, Kagin of course did not contextualize these statement; Luther said a lot more about reason than that, and was working within a limited understanding of the world, while today we have a much greater capacity for reason and have used it to determine that the world is much older than Luther believed. But instead of using this reason to philosophize about empathy, Kagin was happier to mock the religious by turning them into caricatures, selecting the things that are easiest to critique instead of taking on the significant, worthwhile task of working to find a way to reconcile the realities of religious lives with his own reality. But this obviously wasn’t the aspiration of the man who arrogantly announced: “I don’t want to be unduly condescending to ignorant people, but I do distinguish between ignorant and stupid… You can fix ignorant but you can’t fix stupid.”
Referring to the response to these kinds of claims as made in his book Baubles of Blasphemy, Kagin took a moment to congratulate himself mid-way through his speech. “People thought I was mocking that religion… and you know what, I was,” Kagin said proudly. “Some things need to be mocked, and to not do so is an abomination. You know why? We are right and they are wrong!”
Though I will argue against the mocking that occurred there that day, to label one who chooses not to engage in such behavior an abominationist was a clear sign that my beliefs were not welcome in that room. Kagin seemed to suggest that blasphemy is a powerful political tool and that any Atheist who does not employ it is not doing his or her Atheistic duty. And in some respects he is right. Blasphemy certainly can be impactful (just ask Martin Luther). But what kind of impact do we want to have? The answer in that room seemed to be greater isolation from the rest of the world – myself included.
But what disturbed me most is that no one else in the room seemed even a little fazed. Instead, they leapt out of their chairs, rallied, cheered, and rushed forward to be “debaptized.”
That’s right – in what sounds like the punchline of a joke caricaturizing Atheists, there was a “debaptizing” ceremony in which Kagin dressed up in a costume that was supposed to resemble a Middle Eastern man and took a hair dryer to anyone interested in having their “waters of baptism” blown away while he bellowed contemptuous religious references. I spoke with several individuals after and asked them about the ceremony – what it symbolized for them and why they did it. Some indicated that they had been baptized before and wanted to essentially “take it back.” But the majority said that they participated because they found it funny.
And yet, to me, the “debaptizing” ceremony wasn’t even the most odious part. Worst of all was a nasty segment in which, immediately prior to the ceremony, Kagin blew into an animal horn and called for “his wives,” at which point a group of three young white women entered the room dressed in Burkas, or traditional religious garb for some Muslim women. They sang a song Kagin co-wrote called “Back in their Burkas Again” about women and Islam. I don’t mean to sensationalize but I couldn’t help but wonder if what I felt in that moment was akin to what it must be like to be a non-racist white person at a community meeting who suddenly realizes she or he is in fact attending a Ku Klux Klan rally, watching with frozen horror and nausea as the organizers parade men in blackface before an audience that hoots and hollers with glee.
At this point, I wanted to walk out. Hell, I wanted to storm out. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more offended to call this my community. They announced that ABC News was there to film the ceremony and my face reddened with embarrassment as I imagined how many people would witness this and feel justified in how they’ve stereotyped Atheists. “This is supposed to redeem the world?” I asked myself. “If this is what it looks like not to be religious, I’m not sure I want to call myself secular.” To quote Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun’s reflection after attending the Global Atheist Convention: “I’ve never felt more like believing in God… Is this what morally superior people do when God has gone? In that case, bring God back.”
I stuck it out the whole time, even though – and I am terribly embarrassed to admit this because it rarely happens – I began to cry. I remained for the sake of journalistic integrity – to hear it out from start to finish to be fair before offering my account – and for the sake of a full awareness of the state of affairs of the largest Atheist group in America. It took a lot of willpower to stay fixed in my seat. I honestly can’t recall the last time I felt such shame. I felt so wholly wrong for sitting quietly in the back of the room instead of speaking up. I wanted to say something but didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I still don’t.
Look – I have a sense of humor. I enjoy certain strains of blasphemy as much as the next secular person. Saved! and Dogma are two of my favorite movies. I spend at least half of a given day joking around with friends – yesterday, for example, I participated in a particularly debaucherous pun exchange about dinosaurs and sex that I won’t share here (but oh, how I wish I could). But Kagin’s speech was anything but funny. There is nothing humorous about hate embodied.
As his speech came to a conclusion, it became clear that Kagin wanted to light a fire beneath Atheists. He was trying to incite, using incendiary language to rally the troops. “By weakening our nation and our understanding of science, [religious people] are engaged in acts of terrorism,” Kagin boomed. “By teaching our children things are other than the way they are, they are engaged in child abuse.” Kagin predicted an upcoming American religious civil war and followed up this forecast with aggressive, anti-religious rhetoric. With talk like his, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a conflict is in fact realized. You want to avoid a religious civil war? Try respectful, engaged interfaith dialogue. All Kagin seemed to be doing was fanning the flames. “If it weren’t for these fools we’d be at the stars by now.” Funny, because I’ve never felt further from the heavens.
If there are nearly 20 million Atheists in America, as Kagin suggested, it begs the question: where are they? They weren’t at this conference, which probably had a few hundred at most. I can only speculate, but I imagine (and hope) that their absence signifies that such a scene would hold little appeal to them. Atheism doesn’t have to come at the expense of respect and basic decency. Many speakers throughout the convention lamented the lack of traction Atheism has gained in America, in spite of vigorous attempts to assert itself in the public realm. After this day, the underlying reason couldn’t be any clearer. I’ve never wanted to call myself an Atheist less.
My feeling is that many in that banquet hall had been burned by religion at one point or another in their lives. I sympathize – religion has been a catalyst for significant pain in my life. But what happened in that room was painful, too. As I sat there watching three women don holy Muslim dress and sing an offensive song about a rich tradition, I understood that they had good intentions. The song was intended to call out the repression of women in some forms of Islam. But I also couldn’t help but think of a dear friend who wears the hijab because it makes her feel empowered and in touch with the tradition of her people, and how grossly this song misrepresented her. Though it perhaps intended to serve as a form of liberation, the song represented profound oppression. With all of the smart and kind people in the room, I could not believe the enthusiasm it aroused. I’ve quoted him before and I’ll quote him again; as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This type of behavior seems like self-sabotage in Atheism’s quest for acceptance and justice.
In his talk, Eddie Tabash said “that there is no more noble effort to be undertaken than explaining to society-at-large why no supernatural being or beings exist.” I for one could not disagree more. I couldn’t help but wonder when passing a group of low-income housing units on the train en route to the conference: Why aren’t we non-religious doing more to organize and help those in need? Perhaps it is because we are too busy decrying religion – what some Atheists see as “the root of the problem” – to deal with the pressing issues of our present reality. Meanwhile, religious efforts to help those in need far outnumber secular ones. Are these our priorities? Blowing a hair dryer in one another’s faces and laughing at how clever we are while thousands of people suffer every day and religious people are on the frontlines offering them respite?
Even as I put forth my strong critique here, I want to make it known that I didn’t come to the 2010 American Atheist Convention to pick a fight – as we recently saw on this blog, that is rarely fruitful. I went to learn. I went because I wanted to know what the current state of affairs on Atheism was. And though there were moments that weren’t as offensive, and models of dynamic and foreword-thinking strategies for promoting Atheistic agendas in a respectful manner, Kagin’s speech was so egregious that I left with little hope for the Atheist movement. The speakers at the convention spent a good deal of time lamenting how disconnected from the rest of the world Atheism is, and then Kagin built up another barbed fence. To me, this community couldn’t feel any more isolated or any less interested in collaboration with others. It is no wonder the rest of the world despises Atheists – we mock them and then stomp our feet when they don’t accept us with arms wide open.
You think religious people are keeping you from approaching the stars, Kagin? Maybe it’s because you’re trying to build a spaceship alone.
This post was the final installation in a series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist Convention; you can read the first two here and here. Stay tuned: this upcoming Sunday – Tuesday (4/11-4/13/2010) I will be in Rochester, NY for an Interfaith Understanding Conference, and the following weekend I will be in Boston for the Secular Student Alliance Leadership Summit. I’ll be posting reflections and reports here, and I’ll also be tweeting about my experiences. Also, check out an archive of my interview with Vocalo / 89.5 FM WBEW about my experience at the 2010 American Atheist Convention, and tune in next week when I report live from Rochester.