I went to Skepticon 3 this weekend and it was a blast.
John Corvino had an excellent talk comparing atheist and homosexuals’ rights movements. This is a tricky topic, needing to avoid trivializing the gay rights struggles while not minimizing the issues faced by atheists in communities of believers either. John struck this balance deftly — I’m not sure someone who was not both an atheist and GLBT activist could have pulled it off.
There were interesting talks on skepticism’s relationship with feminism and sexuality, and another on diversity inside the movement. The Con had a good gender balance, but was very, very white. Part of this has to do with the location in a less-diverse part of the country, but much had to do with the white-skewed demographics of the skeptics movement. Unfortunately, the talk on diversity was lacking when it came to concrete suggestions.
The first day ended with a panel discussion on whether skepticism begat atheism. James Randi brought up that there were two types of atheists, the first who believed there was no god, and the second who didn’t believe that there was a god (ie, actual belief in nonexistence vs. lack of belief in existence). D.J. Grothe segued from this to say he found the arguments in favor and against the existence of god lacking, so he disbelieved, pending new information (so far, so good) and didn’t think there were really type 1 atheists, or maybe a very few. This statement was “WTF?” for me, so at the Q&A I pointed out that there really were people who believed there was no god, because of the problem of natural evil or other arguments. And the next day, during his talk, Grothe made this “no type 1 atheists” claim again! At Q&A Corvino called out again that plenty of atheists have real belief in god’s nonexistence. I’m disappointed in Grothe — he knows better, so claiming that “strong atheism” is a fringe of the atheist movement is simply dishonest.
Before that panel was one on accomidation vs. confrontation. This seemed to quickly settle on a consensus of “we should pick our battles wisely”, and lacking dispute consequently wasn’t that interesting.
The second day had a talk on faith healers by James Randi, which was entertaining, but was mostly video clips. Alas, Randi seems to be suffering from his age. A talk on debunking ghosts and cryptic creatures and spontaneous human combustion was interesting. Dan Barker’s story of going from faithful to faithless was touching. P.Z. Myers talked about teaching genetics by analogy with poker, but I found it unconvincing. Then there was a talk by Rebecca Watson on the so-called War on Christmas, which was hilarious.
The third day was easily the weakest. Victor Stenger’s talk used unsettled cosmology, and was weak. It’d been better if when he’d gone into elementary particles and their wave functions, talk about how the waves interfere and their particles interact. And at least gone into quantum interpretations a little. These are the bits of QM that “quantum spiritualists” misuse, and the talk gave little ammunition to combat them.
Sam Singleton was amusing for his gimmick of impersonating the affect of an evangelical preacher, but that wore thin quickly. His grandfather dying from snake handling was a sad story, another grain in the immense pile of suffering religion has caused. J.T. Eberhard’s was the best of the day, funny, and absolutely true to how talking atheism to the religious runs.
Not actually part of the conference, I spent the non-conferring parts of the weekend wandering Springfield, MO’s city center. I was struck by how utterly inactive the city was. But not like a dead city: The businesses were open, not shuttered, but there was very little traffic, pedestrian or automotive, very strange.
I had a great time talking with complete strangers also there — lots of friendly and intelligent folks. I’m overall very impressed with the conference. I’ve been to industry technical conferences that weren’t run as well. That a college freethinkers group could pull this off without even charging admission is doubly impressive.