Skepticon Wrap-Up

This was my first year coming to a Skepticon and it was a blast! I meet some cool people, and learned a lot of great stuff. From what I had heard prior, I knew Skepticon was an skeptics convention, though I didn’t know how much it would be about atheism (which I thought was great). Then again, most of the talks had nothing directly to do with atheism–which is great if you have been doing this long enough that the basic atheist arguments and discussions are old hat.

David Silverman set the tone for the entire weekend on Saturday morning with his speech “Skepticism, Atheism, and our Common Movement.” He pointed out, and I agree, that while “atheist” is not synonymous with “skeptic,” the two categories of people have an incredible overlap of people and that skeptics play a large and vital role in the secular movement. He also encouraged the crowd at Skepticon not to be afraid to use the word “atheist” in public whenever the question of religious affiliation comes up. When friends and family know that someone they love and know personally is an atheist, it’s less likely that they will hold negative stereotypes in their minds about atheists. This has worked for other movements, and it can work for us.

Most of the talks were not directly related to atheism, but had to do with science, rationality, and clear thinking in general. There were two talks addressing cognitive biases (Eliezer Yudkowsky) and how our own thinking can go wrong (Spencer Greenberg), a couple of basic and interesting talks on molecular genetics and addressed popular misunderstandings of genes (P.Z.Myers and Jen McCreight), a speech on undercover paranormal investigations (Joe Nickell), the need for critical thinking in math education (Hemant Mehta), and the crazy history and beliefs of Mormonism (David Fitzgerald). There was also a talk on the “Straw Vulcan”–ways in which logic and rationality and misrepresented in popular media  (Julia Galef), and I may write more on that later as I have thought about this a lot before and find the topic fascinating.

One of the more unusual speeches was from Darrel Ray on “Sex and Secularism” presenting the results of a study that queried how leaving religion had affected their sex lives. I think I had even participated in that survey some time ago, but I had forgotten about it. A major theme that Darrel Ray has proposed is that religion roots itself in people’s lives by generating a great deal of guilt about normal and healthy sexual (and other) behaviors, and then also promotes itself as the cure to ease that guilty feeling. That is a bit of a simplification of his thesis, and one day I need to read his book “The God Virus” and examine his idea more throughly.

Without a doubt, the most fun presentation was put on by the “Atheist Evangelist” Sam Singleton, which was in part a parody of a charismatic style  church service, and in part a (semi) serious sermon to secular people about giving thanks to the people who deserve our gratitude. At least, I took it somewhat seriously, because I think it was a great message. Thank you Brother Sam!

The final presentation was the most powerful and incredibly personal of them all. The title of JT Eberhard’s presentation was “Why the Skeptic Community Must Concern Itself with Mental Illness.” In which he came out as someone who has struggled silently for years with anorexia. The whole experience was so heart rending and emotional I find a difficult time describing it. There is such a stigma attached both with admitting that there is something wrong with your mind, and also with seeking help and taking medication to treat it because of a fear that that means  you are weak. He delivered a heartfelt plea to the skeptical community to address the incorrect and non-scientific views on mental illness just the same way as the community exposes the frauds of homeopathy. And for those who have mental illness to come out and help remove the stigma in the same way that we are calling atheists to come out and remove the stigma of nonbelief. Mental illness is not an issue I have had to deal with personally, and he presented a view of this problem that I have never been able to see before. The reception from the crowd was also amazing. We all love you JT!

9 thoughts on “Skepticon Wrap-Up

  1. There are more great talks that I didn’t mention here as well, and I may write more about them later! Especially the talk by Rebecca Watson! It’s great to see someone addressing women’s issues in this venue. That deserves a blog post of it’s own.

  2. This was actually the first skepticon I missed, and reading this post really makes me regret that. Hopefully they’ll have the videos up eventually. Especially want to see Sam Singleton and Richard Carriers sessions.

  3. I thought Silverman’s talk was the low point of the conference. Sad to relate, there are a lot of differences between his organization and skepticism.

    Yes, most skeptics do not have a god belief. That is true. But so many atheists I know are decidedly unskeptical. I know two atheists (who were at the conference!) who buy the pseudoscientific arguments about “too many, too soon” regarding vaccines. One Biology course would cure this, if it were not for their conspiracy theory about vaccine manufacturers. I know other atheists who buy new age energy woo about past lives. And of course Bill Maher attacked science based medicine and supports “eastern” prescientific thinking, yet he still was awarded the Richard Dawkins Award by Atheist Alliance International.

  4. I’m quite sure David mentioned that not all atheists are skeptics. But what is atheism, if not skepticism towards religious claims about God? There is a huge overlap between the two groups, and that overlap is what David was addressing.

  5. Yes, you are correct; he did say that. But his Venn diagram showed two circles of Skepticism and Atheism almost entirely overlapping.

    As to “what is atheism”:

    Atheism can be a rationalist enterprise where reason and logic and a knowledge of human psychology lead one to doubt claims about God (similar to doubting claims about UFO’s, astrology and pseudoscience). But it also can be just an emotional reaction against political enemies or religious oppression. And sadly many atheists just end up substituting one superstition for another.

    Skepticism tries to overcome ALL superstitions.

    I appreciate your blog, but I just wanted be clear that there are those of us who disagree with what some at Skepticon think Skepticism is.

    Silverman’s definition that a Skeptic is a person “who doubts accepted beliefs” is so simplistic, it loses any real meaning. Under that idea, people who doubt we sent men to the moon could be called “skeptics”.

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