Skepticon and Renewed Challenges

Author Zach Lorentz

Zach is the current Director of Public Affairs of the Secular Student Alliance at Missouri S&T. His interests include sexual freedom, reproductive rights, LGBT equality, and advocating for proper scientific education and understanding.

I had the awesome opportunity to spend last weekend in lovely Springfield, Missouri. Springfield is about twenty times larger than my current city of Rolla, but still only has a population of about 440,000. Despite its puny size, about 1500 skeptics and atheists descended upon the town like a plague of secular locusts to celebrate Skepticon 5.

Skepticon is a free (!) conference, organized by students, and brings in a wide variety of speakers. From perennial Skepticon staples like Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, Greta Christina, and co-founder JT Eberhard; to high-profile first-timers like Jessica Ahlquist, Matt Dillahunty, Keith Lowell Jensen, and Sean Carroll; to refreshing and relative unknowns (at least to me) like Tony Pinn, Jennifer Oulette, and Deborah Hyde. With no green room, attendees and speakers mingle together, conversing between talks, chatting at the merch tables, and chortling over drinks at the afterparty. Of all the conferences I’ve been to, Skepticon will still hold a special place for me, as my first and the nearest geographically speaking.

The talks varied wildly and enjoyably, from Richard Carrier tackling historical critical thinking, to Jennifer Oulette talking up the medicinal applications of hallucinogens, to Amanda Knief explaining the legalities of anti-atheist workplace discrimination. I was also lucky enough to attend the workshops on Friday, where I learned about basic lobbying from the Secular Coalition for America and picked up some consensus building strategies from Dr. Darrel Ray. I also patronized some skeptics conference only vendors, picking up a “My Body My Choice” Surly for my lady friend and a Keep the Thor in Thorsday shirt for myself. I got a chance to meet many online personalities in real life and had the great pleasure of reconnecting with a bunch of secular student friends.

Skepticon gave me a few lessons, some intentional and others not. It certainly emboldened and informed my skepticism about a variety of topics: sex, gender norms, drug usage, history, and “woo” science. Seeing hundreds of others with similar passions to my own further strengthened my resolve. However, the conference also provided a good snapshot of the secular community’s current status, how far it has come, and what it needs to push further on.

Skepticon did gender relationships well in speakers, workshop presenters, and especially attendee demographics, with about an even split among those in the crowd.  A clear and easily enforced harassment policy protected not only women, but other minorities as well, and it specifically made sure to condone polite disagreements about beliefs, an essential to a skeptic conference. Some persistent online voices were displeased with some of the attendees and speakers, but the conference saw no visible animosity.

The hot takeaway from Skepticon, though, was racial and ethnicity representation in the secular community. The conference was heavily caucasian in both attendees and speakers. Hemant Mehta and Tony Pinn were the only speakers of color, and Tony Pinn was the only speaker to directly comment on race relations in our community. An unfortunate series of coincidences conspired to put Pinn last on the lineup, whenever most people had to leave for logistical reasons, so few people were able to hear his advice on how to better reach out to racial minority communities. His advice, very simply put, was that philosophical arguments against deities don’t interest communities that are hurting from systemic inequality. Our community’s growing self awareness on this race issue, exemplified by Pinn being invited to speak in the first place, is a good start; going forward we need to continue to listen to the voices of minorities and take steps to carry out their suggestions, while still being diligent to listen to them on issues other than race relations.