Maybe it’s because I’ve been sick and grumpy, but I’ve noticed the huge spate of atheist meetings, both past and upcoming, and it’s seemed to me that there are just too many. I know this is a sign of a successful and burgeoning movement of disbelief throughout the world, and I recognize that they give us greater visibility, and I understand that they serve as a useful venue for people to make connections as well as listen to their atheist “heroes.” But to me the speakers and talks have often seemed repetitive: the same crew of jet-set skeptics giving the same talks. And how much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?
I’ve been to just one of these meetings so far: the Atheist Alliance International meetings in Burbank, California in October, 2009. I greatly enjoyed that: I got to meet fellow “bloggers” like Brother Blackford and P. Z., relished the talks of people like Dan Dennett, Carolyn Porco, and Lawrence Krauss, whom I’d never before seen speak in person, and was put into stitches by a Mr. Deity skit and Bill Maher’s hilarious (and straight) reading of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.
Still, a few things bothered me, most notably the air of self-congratulation (which I excused on the grounds of enthusiastic people finding like-minded folks for the first time), the “fanboyness” directed at some of the famous atheists (they hardly let poor Richard alone, and I’m not sure he liked that!), and the lameness of quite a few of the talks. Again, how much new can you say about atheism? And though I had a great time, this conference sated my appetite for a long while, and I’ve refused several invitations since. (I will, however, be at the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s meeting this October).
And now atheist conventions seem to be everywhere. Amazing Meetings, Skepticons, Dragoncons, various local and atheist skeptic groups, etc. And, sadly, the lineup of speakers is always depressingly familiar. Worried that I was being too grumpy about this, I discussed the issue with Grania Spingies, the Secretary of Atheist Ireland and the one responsible for a great deal of the organizing for the just-ended World Atheist Convention in Dublin (kudos, Grania!). She agreed with me on some points, disagreed on others, and wrote me an email about it that I thought deserved posting on its own. I do so with her permission:
Some of the negatives:
- you tend to see many of the same speakers every time
- some of the most popular speakers are showing signs of conference-fatigue for all their obvious professionalism and generosity with their time.
- some (not all) conferences are pricey & therefore exclude a lot of people.
- topics tend to be similar.
- some talks can be predictable in content thanks to previous talks being on YouTube (one of the reasons why the Dublin Conference opted for panel discussions instead)
- encourages fanboi-ism which is embarrassing to watch (and probably really irritating and embarrassing to be the target of) – see this article [note: article is blatantly dishonest as only a tiny percentage of mostly younger attendees did this at the conference; but it gives critics something to sneer at.]
- to an extent, a noticeable percentage of the people attending the conferences are the same each time as well – at least as far as the European ones go. Europeans probably don’t travel to Australia or the States as much though, again mostly due to costs and time involved in traveling.
Some of the positives:
- the extended online community of Gnu atheists gets a chance to meet in real life
- outside of the talks, the after-hours socialising is tremendous fun and often exceeds the amount of time listening to talks
- new friendships are made, conversation is hilarious, always interesting and fueled with beverages of choice.
- new networks are formed (useful for groups lobbying for secular reforms in their respective countries & states)
- you do get to hear some world-class speakers or make contacts that you might not otherwise have the opportunity to e.g. in Copenhagen I heard Victor Stenger, A.C. Grayling and Rebecca Goldstein give talks, I also met people like Paula Kirby; in Dublin I met Maryam Namazie & Aron-Ra.
- the conferences are also somewhat like a themed holiday – on one level it is pure enjoyment of something that I normally can’t do with my non-atheist friends.
- for many people it is the only time they are surrounded by people who will not be offended by their honest thoughts on certain subjects, and it is a very positive experience.
Having said all that, even though I think most people enjoy the non-event parts of the conference as much if not more than the scheduled talks; I can’t see them making the effort to get together across seas and borders if there wasn’t the carrot of hearing famous people give talks.
I don’t know if Conferences are necessary, Gnus have a very well-developed internet network already between websites, blogs, and Facebook. However, I think humans still feel that relationships are that much more “real” if they happen in the flesh, so to speak. Cyberspace still isn’t quite a good enough substitute yet. And we do want community! A great many friendships are struck up inside the internet atheist community. It’s probably a side-effect of the reaction a lot of people must get when they go public about their atheism; and if you can’t get it in your real-world neighbourhood, then you will look for it wherever you can find it.
Smaller more localised groups already meet without needing famous speakers as bait. However, I can’t see people ever traveling long distances to go to meetings without something happening at the end to justify the time & trouble (& cost). Although we got a lot of positive feedback about the panel format we used at the Dublin WAC and as a result a lot of useful-in-the-real-world work is being done (fine legal minds working on Ireland’s blasphemy law, university academics working on lobbying the UN on the lack of non-religious schools in Ireland etc.); it is true to say that a lot of people turned up at the Conference to see the big names and not because there was the potential for networking. Nevertheless, the networking is valuable and probably worth the price of the event by itself.
I don’t know if there are too many conferences. There is roughly one per continent per year, so most will only go to one a year at most. On the other hand, if you get invited to every one it probably feels like too many.
Well, contra Grania, North American has far more than one per year—I’d guess between ten and twenty. But never mind. I agree by and large with what she said, and thought this might be a good occasion for readers to chime in to answer these questions. Are there too many atheist meetings, or too few? What would you do to improve them? (I know that a common answer has been “include more women speakers,” and I completely agree with that. But that issue has been covered in extenso at other websites, so perhaps we can concentrate on other logistical issues.) And maybe organizers of future atheist/humanist meetings might pay attention to what people say here, for it may be salutary.