The Atheist Alliance International Annual Convention, held this year in Burbank, California (at the Marriot Hotel Convention Center next to Bob Hope Airport), happened to be not too far from where I live, and so I went. Ironically, the Marriot Convention Center was, just two weeks prior, the host to a UFO convention. (I went to that convention also. See here.)
In any case, I’ll take you on a little photo tour of the event. Here’s the Convention Center from the outside:
As you can see, it’s not a terribly large complex. The room that the conference was held in has a maximum capacity of 800 people, and the event attracted perhaps 700 people. Not bad, but no speaker (except Richard Dawkins in the evening) managed to fill the room to the gills. By comparison, the UFO conference that I attended in the same building a few weeks previous drew somewhat fewer people (perhaps 300-400). So it might be inferred that, in Los Angeles, atheist culture is a bit more popular of a draw than UFO culture (though not by much). No doubt some megachurch within a couple of miles of the Marriot Hotel pulled in more people on Sunday morning (and by orders of magnitude) than Atheist Alliance International managed to draw over a whole weekend (and that even with top-rate scientists and intellectuals speaking, and Richard Dawkins heading the bill). Of course, donut shops also vastly outnumber bookstores in Los Angeles. Nobody ever said the world was particularly just.
I like bumper stickers, and I noticed that the parking lot was giving off a nice Southern California liberal sympatico vibe:
And here was a car parked at the conference that had Arizona license plates (which I do not show in the photograph):
And inside were atheist vendors selling their atheist wares. The vendor below was selling a combination of atheist titles and libertarian/Ayn Rand titles. Free market libertarians make a respectable showing among atheists. You might be looked upon askance if you go to a homeopath, but not if you’re into Ludwig Von Mises. Skeptic magazine publisher, Michael Shermer (for example), seems to also be a Reason magazine kind of atheist guy:
No, the dude with the beret isn’t Michael Shermer. Here’s Michael Shermer (giving an interview, perhaps to a podcaster, just outside of the conference building):
The Libertarian book stall had political competition, but it was weak. The Marxist left had a little table with “Power to the people!” and “Communism is wonderful!” book titles, but it was a small set up, and off in a low trafficked back corner, and looked lonely. Ironically, it was nearly the only place where you might find nonwhites at this “international” atheist conference. By the average age, affluence, ethnic, and gender makeup of the conference (more men than women), you might well have imagined that you had stumbled upon a conference of Republican activists. I thought it was ironic that the nearly all white and affluent crowd mouthing off about the evils of religion were being catered to all weekend by a coterie of working class Hispanics who, on Sunday, would no doubt be at Catholic Mass or in attendance at one of the local Protestant megachurches. As the workers moved about the conference hall serving up salmon, beef, or vegan dishes to the comfy attendees, the workers didn’t seem to be listening (or caring to listen) all that closely to what was being said from the stage. Oh, and there were lots of “Darwin fish” around:
And here was the Skeptic magazine vendor area. I bought several DVDs, one of which was of a debate on the Anthropic Principle that I attended a dozen or so years ago at Cal Tech (where a lot of Skeptic events have occurred in the past):
This woman’s name is Priscilla Herochik. She’s an attorney, and she wrote a humanist positive novel, and was selling it. I bought her book:
There were also young bohemian atheists, mostly Gothic in their dress style, selling t-shirts, necklaces and bumper stickers. They were wise in where they set up their tables and racks (next to the bathrooms). Older men. Enlarged prostates. Lots of toilet runs. Ka-ching! Here were some of the bumper stickers that they sold:
And here’s the necklaces that some of them had made by hand. They were $18 dollars. You gotta make a living, right?:
Okay, so that was outside the conference hall proper. What happened when you entered the inner sanctum? Here’s what that looked like:
And as you approached the screen, it was like entering the theater of Dionysus, with all the chief priests of atheism gathered at the front and center tables closest to the stage, and sitting together in a clubby way. The best tables were reserved for VIPs. Some people had VIP on their name cards. Perhaps they made big contributions to the event. The rest of us were losers. We were not very important people. This two-tier system was at work throughout the day (or you might think of it as a three tier system if you count the virtually all Hispanic conference staff). Whatever else atheism is, it’s not a critique of hierarchy. Hierarchical religion may be bad, but hierarchical irreligion is, well, natural. Every train needs a caboose. And you gotta network, right? Here’s biologist Jerry Coyne and philosopher Russell Blackford at the center front table closest to the screen:
Sure they’re happy! They’re right up front with all the cool people. Indeed, they are the cool people. Atheism is great! Just like high school. At supper time, when all the nonwhite hotel workers were moving around vigorously, I noticed that Michael Shermer and PZ Myers were sitting together also, chuckling it up. Seeing all this front and center social bonding, I couldn’t help but think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. (Oh, so this is what the victorious revolution will look like!) And when you turn around at the charmed alpha-male center stage area, you might find yourself bumping into uber-atheist biologist Richard Dawkins, physicist Lawrence Krauss (who gave, by far, the most interesting talk of the weekend), and philosopher Daniel Dennett (I’ll avoid making any jokes about these three being one):
Krauss’s talk, by the way, was so intellectually stimulating (he talked about the multiverse hypothesis and the expansion of the universe, among other things) that, after he spoke in the morning, the rest of the talks on Saturday felt like let downs. Biologist Jerry Coyne, for example, said little that was fresh about evolution. (He rehearsed for a crowd that already believes in evolution the basic converging lines of evidence for evolution. Ho hum. It was like having a historian lay out the converging lines of evidence for the Holocaust to a gathering of Jews. We’re with you, rabbi. We get it.) Likewise, Daniel Dennett was not especially enlightening in his talk about the religious uses of language, and Richard Dawkins was, uncharacteristically, flat as a pancake, reading from his book, rehearsing his slides, and posting on the screen (too long) quotes from Darwin. By this point in the evening, some in the crowd seemed visibly distracted and bored. (In his defense, Dawkins had been introducing people on the stage all day, and he was probably tired).
In the late afternoon, there was an effort to break up all the inner sanctum intellectuality with some music. The organizers (or rather the Hispanic hotel workers) put out a wooden dance floor, and the guitarist below played some songs with atheist lyrics in them. Some people watched, but nobody danced. Too many ironists in the crowd to let go, I suppose:
After Dawkins’s talk ended around 9:30, I was pretty much done. I left a bit disappointed, and not really stimulated intellectually (as I had hoped for the day). Maybe Krauss’s unusually stimulating morning talk set too much expectation in me for how the rest of the day would play out. As I left, the dance floor was still not being danced upon. Perhaps people started dancing later in the evening, but I doubt it.
As an agnostic hanging out with committed atheists for the day, how did I feel? A bit like I needed a shower. I didn’t want to leave this way. From the start, I tried to stay Buddha-open to new ideas, compassion, and surprise. But (at least for me) there’s something dead about atheism that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it is its vampire like reductionisms (“we murder to dissect”), or its generally dismissive shrugs toward paradoxical and poetic language (Dennett called religious languages “deepities”. They appear deep, but don’t really say anything.) It feels like atheists (to echo the poet AR Ammons) walk the floor of existence even as they display little genuine astonishment that there is a floor to experience in the first place. Existence just is. It’s a quantum fluctuation. An inevitability. No big whoop. Now embrace the blind machine. I asked Dennett, over the lunch break, what he thought of qualia, and the best that I could get from him was: “Define qualia?” He knows what qualia are, and what I meant by the question, but he obviously didn’t care to deal with it. Qualia, he said, is “like God.” In other words, it’s another deepity for Dennett, something to shrug at, to pass over in silence. The ontological mystery, if spoken of at all, becomes just another function to deconstruct.
I drove home listening to my audio collection of poets reading poems. It was my way to detox. I might have danced.
Good to know that I can still be a follower of Ayn Rand if I ever choose atheism. That should make the transition smoother ; )
Red or yellow, left or right, you are precious in the atheist’s sight. Atheists love all the people in the world. (In short, there’s a place for you. And bring your checkbook.)
I checked out your blog, by the way. Interesting thoughts. Good job.
Thanks for the tour and interesting comments. I found this one quite insightful: “I asked Dennett, over the lunch break, what he thought of qualia, and the best that I could get from him was: “Define qualia?” He knows what qualia are, and what I meant by the question, but he obviously didn’t care to deal with it. Qualia, he said, is “like God.” In other words, it’s another deepity for Dennett, something to shrug at, to pass over in silence. The ontological mystery, if spoken of at all, becomes just another function to deconstruct.”
Thanks for noticing that observation. It is probably the chief thing that trips me up concerning atheism (the reduction of the ontological mystery to a function, accompanied by a yawn of indifference).
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As an atheist poet and publisher of 2 atheist poetry collections, I have to disagree with your assertion that atheists do not appreciate poetic language… Nor do all atheists insist they know there is no god. Merely having no belief in a deity is enough to be, literally, an atheist.
As an attendee and exhibitor at this convention I would characterize this blog to be a very negative, critical, one-sided and jaded view of what happened at this convention. Where are the pictures of the positive, activist, and community oriented exhibits – the only exhibits pictured are the vendors, which made up only part of all the exhibits. And, exactly what speakers did the blogger see? There were a number of breakout sessions where three speakers were making presentations simultaneously, so clearly the blogger had no idea how to choose who to listen to. No mention was made about the Friday night event either, which I suspect the blogger didn’t even attend, which was fun and about community. Conventions aren’t just about intellectual stimulation, they are also about community. Clearly, this blogger does not feel a part of this one.
You set up a straw man by implying that I offered a universal assessment of atheism with regard to poetry. If you had read what I said fairly, you would have noticed that I qualified my critique. I said atheism offers “generally dismissive shrugs toward paradoxical and poetic language.” Then I offered an example of a prominent atheist (Dennett) engaging in precisely this kind of dismissiveness.
I’m pleased that you have an atheist poetry press, and I hope that you succeed in bringing a greater aesthetic dimension to your movement. But it is also true that you have your work cut out for you. To my knowledge (and I was at the conference and saw most of the Saturday events), there were no poetry readings scheduled or offered. One musician played. No creative independent film was shown, nor, aside from the display of some jewelry for sale, was there much in the way of art being exhibited. Maybe the New Atheist movement is too small to have a vibrant aesthetic culture to accompany the intellectuality. Maybe you are at the vanguard of this part of the movement.
I’d also note that, over history, there have been many great atheist poets (Shelley and Larkin are two obvious examples). My point is that the New Atheism, at least by those heading the movement, shows a cranky impatience and suspicion toward the paradoxical and poetic. They suspect them as routes by which religion sneaks “woo” past people. I understand the concern, especially in analytical debate, but it’s also possible to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
It is true that there were a few exhibits on display that were not selling something. But the fact of the matter is that they were in the minority, and were not well trafficked. There was, for example, a table that had one brochure on it (promoting an atheist film festival), and there was one (lonely) person at that table, but only infrequently. It wouldn’t have made a compelling picture, and I didn’t think to take a shot of it. And as for all these break out sessions that you refer to, the reality is that most of what went on Saturday was in the main banquet hall. I attended all the main speakers on Saturday in the banquet hall, and that’s where everybody appeared to be on Saturday. The event only drew approximately 700 people. And Saturday was my sole day of attendance, so I don’t know how Friday night or Sunday morning went. Sunday’s morning schedule may well have been in break out sessions, but that’s not when I was there. I hope those went well, and I wish your community well. As an agnostic, I’m simply offering my take on the convention, and why I found the atmosphere less than compelling for me.
What, for example, did you make of the clubby central front stage atmosphere of the gathering, with VIP sections? Is it just human nature for the elites in a movement to set up VIP sections and hang with one another, networking, and leave the other atheists in the background? The more famous atheists might have mixed a bit more with those in the back parts of the room, don’t you think? Or is the hierarchy okay with you?
To Dennett’s credit, he did have lunch in the back area of the gathering (which is why I took an opportunity to ask him a question), but by the late afternoon he had gravitated into the “charmed front circle” with the other VIP famous atheists. It just seemed like, in a room only holding 700 people, the leaders might have given the impression that they, well, liked to mix with average atheists. You know, to promote community. Instead, I couldn’t help but get the impression that they were acting like the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm.
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My wife and I attended the conference and enjoyed many of the talks. I, too, found Lawrence Krauss’ talk particularly intriguing. (NOTE: Many of the talks are now uploaded to youtube: search for “aai 2009”.)
I didn’t share your displeasure with the two or three reserved tables up at the front. The rest of the room was first come first serve as far as seating… I arrived about 5 minutes late for Lawrence Krauss’ talk, and didn’t feel like a “loser” for having to sit in the back of the room, any more than I felt like a “winner” for arriving early to subsequent talks and sitting up near the front.
I think Daniel Dennett’s response to your question about qualia can be understood in the context of his existing publications on the subject. His 1988 paper, Quining Qualia, is available on the web, and he devoted a chapter in his 1991 book Consciousness Explained to the topic, under the heading Qualia Disqualified–at 42 pages, about 10% of the book.
So it is far from accurate to state that Dennett simply regards qualia as “another deepity […], something to shrug at, to pass over in silence.”
Additionally, when you describe yourself as “an agnostic hanging out with committed atheists,” I feel you have perhaps overstated the case a bit. Most of the prominent so-called New Atheists I’m familiar with have on numerous occasions–in their books and in a debate setting–made a point of highlighting the observation that it isn’t strictly possible to be an atheist from a scientific point of view. By stressing this point I may seem to be quibbling over a trivial distinction, but I feel it is rather important.
While I’ve little doubt that some portion of the attendees may have felt comfortable with an absolutist stance in their concept of atheism, the more scientifically inclined would be obliged to avoid claiming that they *know* there is no god or supernatural agency connected with the universe.
Indeed, Sam Harris spent most of his talk at AAI 2007 (which I did not attend but viewed on youtube) arguing that use of the term ‘atheist’ should be discontinued–for various reasons, ranging, if i recall correctly, from its intrinsic inaccuracy from a scientific perspective, to its tendency to carry a certain amount of baggage in the form of cultural preconceived attitudes toward the word. And I recall Harris pointing out somewhat amusingly that in any case, ‘atheist’ is simply a word we shouldn’t need, any more than we need a word for someone who is a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist or a non-racist.
But, to date, the word is still used by both those who would say “I KNOW there is no god”, as well as those who would use it as a shorthand for, “I have as yet seen no evidence advanced by a fellow primate that makes a convincing case that there are non-natural forces at work in the universe.”
Technically, the latter are agnostics. One-percent agnostics, perhaps, but I think it’s an important distinction. The key as I see it being the conviction that it would be an error to claim certainty about something which is unknown (or possibly unknowable.)
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