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!