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.

Edwin Kagin

kaginAs 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.”

conventionI 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.

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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.

Conversations

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.

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