A weekend spent with people who don’t believe, anything
So I went to the international skeptics convention in Las Vegas last weekend looking for freedom from existential oppression and enlightenment divorced from superstition.
Mostly what I found instead was a UFO convention where no one believed Earth has ever been visited, an alternative medicine convention where everyone thinks homeopathy is a scam, and a religious conference where no one believes in anything supernatural.
Saddest of all, I found a movement that refuses to move because it’s so busy standing up against everything, it can’t stand for anything.
“The Amazing Meeting 9,” gets its name from James “The Amazing” Randi, the famous debunker of tricks masquerading as magic and all things paranormal, who, now at a white-bearded 82, is a Moses figure of sorts to the more than 1,600 attendees. More than half of them were first-timers and most of those were under 30. All were extremely intelligent, though not as many as you’d think were stereotypical nerds.
The conference draws big television celebrities including Bill Nye the Science Guy and astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, who, speaking in a giant conference room at the South Point Hotel and Casino, decried scientific illiteracy in the U.S. in funny, yet ominous ways.
Two-thirds through his speech, the host of PBS’ Nova gave the audience the red meat it craved.
“I try to stay out of the religion thing,” he said. “But I know it’s what you want to hear.”
Tyson brought up a news item from a couple years back when a New Jersey high school student recorded his science teacher telling the class that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s Ark and that each of them needed to give their lives to Jesus. This re-ignited the science vs. religion in the classroom debate and Tyson powerpointed a four paragraph letter to the editor he wrote for the New York Times. You could feel the inertia of a thousand salivary glands churning into motion as Tyson’s letter argued that the science vs. religion debate was beside the point. The bigger issue being ignored was that it was factually impossible for dinosaurs and humans to have co-existed.
This drew gushing applause, but all I could think was, no, that, too is beside the point. The shocking story is that I’m watching 1,600 people with IQs over 130, including Tyson, who has the mass media appeal to do whatever he wants, let themselves be hijacked and consumed by some knuckle-dragging schoolteacher in New Jersey.
Why give the opposition so much power? Why imagine they’re more indomitable than they are when the scientific analysis tells you their trend is sloping downward while yours is rising? Why so willfully let them keep you down?
The consensus of TAMsters I talked to guffawed at the possibility of becoming a powerful cultural and political movement. Many cited an increase in fundamentalism among American Christians as a sign that the deck is still stacked against them immutably. To which I counter: “That means you’re winning! Your science is tearing down thousands of years of the very thing they raised their children by and entrusted their eternal souls to and you expect them to be cool and rational about your attack? You should be disappointed if they did go down without a fight.”
What I realized is that most at the conference really don’t want power and really don’t want to lead. They would rather sit in their treehouse of ironic superiority and laugh at the ridiculous things the mortals do and then explain them away scientifically.
Hemant Mehta, who authored the book “I sold my soul on eBay,” got where I was coming from. He pointed to a poll taken during the 2008 election that showed 25 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds ascribe to no religious affiliation, a generation that for the first time includes a high number of second generation atheists.
Mehta, whose soul was finally purchased for $504 by a Seattle-area pastor who assigned his subject to visit and observe churches in his hometown of Chicago, likened the subconscious fear atheists may have of becoming mainstream to another social trend that’s taken an ostracized group and made it common.
“It’s going to be like being gay. It just kind of happened that it wasn’t a big deal to be gay anymore,” Mehta said. “What happens when you say, ‘I’m an atheist,’ and they say, ‘oh, me too.’ Oh my God, what do you do when you say you’re an atheist and no one cares anymore?”
Mehta, now a math teacher in the Chicago area who authors the blog “The Friendly Atheist” has more affection for churchgoers than most of his fellow conventioneers. He believes there are things the skeptic community can learn from churches to grow and be more marketable, something he discovered first-hand when in college he formed the campus network SWORD (Students Without Religious Dogma).
“We don’t have hope to sell,” Mehta said. “We can’t give them that, but we can give them the biggest thing — the blunt truth. … If they want false hope, they’re not going to get that from us.”
One such convert is Fergus Mason, a Glasgow native whose first time at TAM was the highlight of his first trip to America. He discovered the skeptic movement while working as an intelligence gathering contractor in Afghanistan, killing the long and lonely hours of downtime listening to skeptic podcasts.
“I was a conventional Christian in the Church of Scotland,” Mason said. “But I don’t think belief is a good thing anymore. I’d rather know than believe. … If you fear the unknown, learn. Don’t trust, don’t believe, learn.”
To replace the hope and empowering sense of magic religion has given adherents through the years, most forward-thinking atheists point to the small feeling one gets when looking at the endless expanse of a night sky and the even greater humility one encounters when studying the infinitesimal place human life holds in the known universe.
“I was dead for 13.7 billion years and then I was born. I have one moment of sun on the Earth — it gives you a sense of urgency,” Mason said. “We’re a part of something so awesome, I can’t describe it.”
Mason rejected my contention that skeptics stand against plenty but stand for nothing proactive.
“We are for thinking, for questioning,” he said. “Very often we’re seen as a negative movement, a reaction to something, but it’s not. We’re evolved to think. Put us up against a chimp and we lose in every department except the ability to think. What makes us more adaptable is we can think, and too many people don’t think.”
Perhaps the youngest attendee at the conference was 13-year-old Connor Drescher from Woodland Hills, Calif. He did his first TAM two years ago when brought by his mother, a lecturer in the psychology department at Cal-State Northridge, who was among the presenters last weekend.
A bright-eyed and precocious youngster, Connor is not optimistic about seeing a mainstream skeptical movement in his lifetime.
“It really depends on whether we keep going in the direction and whether the skeptical movement is big enough in a few years. Today, people are extremely naive and anti-science,” he said. “At school, the kids are all jerks. The smart people wind up secluding themselves even more. But hopefully we can make ourselves known.”
If James Randi is the Moses of the skeptic movement, and Bill Nye, Neil de Grasse Tyson and Penn and Teller are its celebrity prophets, then Richard Dawkins is its messiah.
You ignoramouses in TV land may know Dawkins from the spoof of him in the two-part South Park episode “Go God Go” where Cartman is transported into the future to discover a world where Dawkins-worshipping otters rule the world and fight pointless wars over which group of otter atheists bear the proper nomenclature.
The Oxford-based evolutionary biologist gave the most highly anticipated speech at TAM 9, and surprisingly, and perhaps to the dismay of some who wanted him to spend the hour throwing snowballs at creationism, his message was profoundly proactive and forward-thinking.
Dawkins gave a preview of his soon-to-be published children’s book designed to address tales and fables told to children about why things are the way they are and then gives the scientific reason for them. Then, on a weekend where those who speculate and dream about extraterrestrial life largely wound up being ridiculed, Dawkins used Darwinistic assumptions to imagine what the alien life forms will look like.
“Perhaps we’re not totally in the dark on what life might be like on other planets,” Dawkins said before guiding a long and fascinating tour through evolutionary anomalies. “They will have evolved through some gradual process. You can’t suddenly manifest organisms of complexity out of nothing that carry the illusion of design.”
Matt Hickman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was edited at 10 a.m. July 30 to reflect that Drescher’s mother is a lecturer at Cal-State Northridge.
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