I attended Reasonfest 2013 at Kansas University in Lawrence this weekend. This conference was my first official atheism/skepticism/secularism conference. (I have spoken at regional Skepticamp events and on debate and interfaith panels, but this was my first ever event with big names of the atheist movement all congregating in one place.) I made the nine-hour drive with the president of Colorado State University’s Leaders in Free Thought, Stephanie Kaiser, and we stayed with Keiv Spare and Nevin Godfrey of KU’s Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics (we owe many thanks to Keiv and Nevin).
The conference fit my expectations almost perfectly. The seats were populated (though not densely) by enthusiastic secularists, eager to hear from their favorite Internet atheists. The biggest names at the event were Matt Dillahunty (The Atheist Experience), Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog), JT Eberhard (WWJTD), and Seth Andrews (The Thinking Atheist). Those familiar with the movement also would likely recognize Keith Lowell Jensen (comedian), Nate Phelps (son of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps), Dave Muscato (American Atheists), Jerry DeWitt (Hope After Faith), and David Fizgerald (author/activist).
Some of the speeches and events were very well done and entertaining. The theme of the conference was “Modern Morality,” and some of the speakers incorporated secular ethical decision-making into their talks. Greta Christina, for example, gave her popular “Atheism and Sexuality” talk, in which she explores how atheists can make moral decisions about sex without relying upon religious morality found in holy books. Seth Andrews focused his talk on religious indoctrination of children, and the not-so-subtle changes churches are undertaking to attract the youngest generation. Matt Dillahunty and JT Eberhard participated in a debate with Mark Miravalle and his son Dr. John-Mark in which the two sides tried to establish whether atheists or theists had the better grasp of the necessities for morality.
However, some of the talks were underwhelming. For some odd reason, the conference started with Fred Heeren, a Christian who claimed a desire to stop the Christian attack on science. For such a proponent of science, however, Heeren was astoundingly dense when it came to turning the microscope on his own beliefs. Obviously frustrated with Heeren’s intellectual dishonesty, Eberhard questioned how Heeren could simultaneously be committed to scientific advancement and belief in the miracles of Jesus. Heeren’s answer: without a scientifically consistent universe, we wouldn’t be able to identify Jesus’ miracles as that. What the hell?
The bigger problem I had with the conference was its tendency to turn into a real-life version of /r/atheism on Reddit. Though the popular subreddit provides a platform for atheists across the world to voice their opinions, rarely does anyone float a real solution. At Reasonfest, we heard from many speakers who were eager to criticize religion (which does need to keep happening), but I wanted to hear more about how atheists could work to see the changes we want.
Dave Muscato was perhaps the best at giving practical ways atheists could make a difference. As the PR guy for American Atheists, Muscato revealed his approach to publicity, issues management, and media relations for one of the most recognizable atheist organizations in the country. He also hosted a workshop for debating, at which he imparted his knowledge of tactics and what is known as “amygdala hijacking.” Everything Muscato said was profoundly useful.
Most atheists – especially the ones dedicated enough to attend a conference – are well aware of the harm of religion. We’ve seen the detrimental impact it has on politics, science, and equality. Sure, it’s funny when we rattle off the absurdities of religion; but when the laughter ends, I want to know where we go from here.