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Something in Common

When 1,600 atheists and skeptics come to town, the local media pays attention. PZ already linked to this article on Skepticon, calling it positive press, but I don’t think that’s entirely true, at least when you consider the underlying reality.

The first thing you need to know is that we had neighbors in the convention center where Skepticon was held. Here’s what the article had to say about them:

Volunteers have been working since Friday packaging meals for victims of Hurricane Sandy. “We work with all different groups, different churches, non-denominational, cross denominations, just everybody,” says Karen Wood with Friends Against Hunger.

And Wood says the meals a million packathon brought in just that. “We’ve had all different types of groups and they’ve done such a great job working together, we’ve seen kids from nine to 99 help package this meal and you can really see that you’re making a difference,” says Wood.

Quite nice, and almost entirely accurate. Here’s a taste of how we were covered:

“Skepticon is well known everywhere as a place where you’ll find lots of obnoxious and aggressive atheists and skeptics,” says Biologist and professor from the University of Minnesota, Morris, P.Z. Myers.

“Atheists are such an under represented minority so to be able to openly discuss it is a beautiful thing,” says Jack Boyer who drove to Springfield from Manhattan, Kansas to attend the convention.

They let their style guide override the actual spelling of PZ’s name, but it’s not bad. There’s video that makes PZ’s dry humor a bit more obvious. Boyer’s quote is highly sympathetic.

Then there’s the pleasant end of the article:

But despite their differences, “My husband and I are Christian,” says Wood, both crowds had something in common. “It’s so diverse, from what I can tell there’s people from all over,” says Boyer.

Sweet, right? There’s just one problem, though you’ll never spot it in the article. Take a look at Skepticon’s schedule. It won’t take you long to spot it.

From 2:00-5:30 pm, you can help a local non-profit organization pack meals for the hungry.

That was the Friday afternoon of Skepticon. That means that we were one of the first groups to help package meals.

That strikes me as something a bit more important to have in common than having some people who “ain’t from around here”, yet it’s nowhere to be found in the press we got. This is one of those lovely times when the “interfaith” became completely about faith. We are not “non-denominational”. We’re a bunch of atheists who got together for a weekend, some of whom did something good. And who were then completely ignored because they didn’t fit the narrative.

I don’t know that there was anything malicious about it, either on the part of Friends Against Hunger or on the part of the station covering the two events. It’s just one of the risks of doing things that contradict the standard story of who does what good. You become invisible.

At least one of the attendees had some fun challenging preconceptions with her volunteering:

Me to xtian protester.. Did you go make meals for the hungry? ... No ... Well, I did. #sk5 #volunteer #hypocrite
@christina39ap
chris pederson

Comments

  1. F says

    It’s just one of the risks of doing things that contradict the standard story of who does what good. You become invisible.

    More simply, it is quite like any other unexamined, casual bigotry in some respects. It doesn’t need to be intentionally slighting or malicious.

  2. says

    This blog makes a thing about how Skepticon didn’t have more of a connection to the meal packathon going on next door, calling it “distressing” to see so many Christians going downstairs to pack meals while most of the atheists were filing next door to go talk about how they all disbelieve in God.

    Which I think is unfair, dammit.

    You’re not a bad person if you travel many miles go to a con– a con, a gathering of enthusiasts– and attend the con instead of going next door to pack some meals for the hungry. Certainly not in comparison with people who aren’t there for a con and probably came from five miles away specifically to pack meals. That says absolutely nothing about the comparative ethics of Christians and atheists, and everything about the obvious decision of most people to actually attend the (annual, distant) event they showed up for rather than engage in some charity which they could do any day of the year in any part of the country. And probably do.

    Sorry, that just annoys me. And I think it actually adds more significance to that tweet you quoted.

    And Stephanie, I’m also sorry that I got to meet you, but only briefly and without getting to talk. I just asked you to take a picture of Ed and me, which you very kindly did. Thanks again, and I hope next time we can chat a bit!

  3. jflcroft says

    I guess whether it’s an unfair criticism to suggest there should have been more participation in the Friends Against Hunger event from Skepticon attendees depends on what sort of event you see Skepticon as being. To the extent I think it’s a fair criticism it’s because there tends to be rather a lot of “more ethical than thou” speech at these conventions from the podium, and it’s fair to ask “given the opportunity to choose between a fruitless argument with protesters outside the hall and a potentially life-changing chance to pack a few meals for hungry kids, which did you choose, why, and does this express the sort of values that were being discussed at the event?”

    On the other hand, I think it is important to note that many people attending Skepticon see it as a rare opportunity to spend time with people of a similar view, and really need that. And it seems churlish to begrudge them that opportunity.

    I think the ideal situation would be a clearer officially-sponsored connection between Skepticon and some form of service event which all attendees are invited to participate in. Then we could really track engagement much more cleanly and see how much moral energy there really is on our side.

  4. Ron in Houston says

    “Skepticon is well known everywhere as a place where you’ll find lots of obnoxious and aggressive atheists and skeptics,” says Biologist and professor from the University of Minnesota, Morris, P.Z. Myers.

    Positive press? Seriously? Yeah, I’m sure everyone wants to go to a meeting filled with obnoxious and aggressive people.

    No offense but if you think that’s positive press then you’re as delusional as a creationist.

  5. Ron in Houston says

    ^^^
    Follow up to that comment – “you” doesn’t mean Stephanie it means anyone that thinks an article that contains that statement is “positive press.”

  6. MissouriAtheist says

    I went with Chris (the woman in the quoted tweet) to work there. I never got the feeling that we were interloping on faith-based charity work. The materials that they had at the table had no mention of any deity. (The closest mention is this sentence, “The effectiveness of the food has been documented by doctors on medical mission trips.”) There were no prayers given openly at any time. There was a DJ playing music that was standard, safe, wedding reception material. There were two groups of volunteers recognized while we were there. One was from a local high school, the other was from Missouri State. This, to me, felt like exactly the kind of charity work that a local atheist group cold have been behind.
    I find it a little telling that our community seemed to assume that this had to be a religious group organizing the work. While there were most likely church groups there, preparing the meals correctly was the focus not any mythical beings.

  7. says

    To the extent I think it’s a fair criticism it’s because there tends to be rather a lot of “more ethical than thou” speech at these conventions from the podium, and it’s fair to ask “given the opportunity to choose between a fruitless argument with protesters outside the hall and a potentially life-changing chance to pack a few meals for hungry kids, which did you choose, why, and does this express the sort of values that were being discussed at the event?”

    No, I don’t think it’s fair criticism because it reduces those people to that one weekend in the whole year for which they most likely made great sacrifices and when for that one weekend they would meet people they don’t get to see all year.
    Not been to Skeptical conventions, but I’ve been to conventions. To have demands on me and my time at that one weekend of the year acting as if I couldn’t or wouldn’t help and support people at any other weekend of the year is very entitled and denies people their very own needs. They may not be hungry and in dire need of fresh undies, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there to satisfy their need for conversation with like-minded people and their friends.
    It is the idea that each and every aspect of somebody’s life can be scrutinized, criticised and if they don’t live up to the perfect standard then they’re not good enough and especially not allowed to criticise anybody else.
    It would be fair criticism if you could show that atheists never put their money where their mouth is but I think we have a hell lot of evidence of us caring and sharing and donating time, money, place to other people.

  8. says

    I find it a little telling that our community seemed to assume that this had to be a religious group organizing the work.

    It isn’t an assumption. It’s a conclusion, based on how they described in the article the people they were working with. Religion was the salient feature for them.

  9. says

    I don’t think it’s fair criticism because it reduces those people to that one weekend in the whole year for which they most likely made great sacrifices and when for that one weekend they would meet people they don’t get to see all year.

    Exactly. Skepticon is a con, not a charity event. It would have been cool if a charity event had been part of Skepticon, because then people would get to socialize with the people they came there to see while packing meals. But even then, it would be a largely symbolic gesture that ultimately says very little about how ethical a person you are.

  10. says

    And James seems to think that such token displays really are important signifiers of people’s values.

    Not of their values. Of their tendency to act on them. It’s the difference between “I’ll volunteer in my free time” and “I volunteer in my free time”.

    Also, voting and volunteering (or donating) are not mutually exclusive behaviors. They have very different time horizons.

  11. says

    I don’t believe Paul is addressing what James had to say. Paul has a history, some of it with me, of being very good at making points at considerable length that have nothing to do with the conversation as it stands when he enters it. I suspect I know why he’s doing that here, based on what he’s had to say already. I’m curious whether it’s true.

  12. says

    Also, Gretchen, I don’t mean only to comment about stuff that annoys me, though I’m ending up doing it anyway since I’ve come down with con crud and have zero energy. It was very good to meet you too. Part of the fun this weekend was seeing you and Ed finally get to meet and talk in person. I’ll definitely take you up on the “next time”.

  13. Paul W., OM says

    Ugh. I’m really feeling bad about this.

    I should not have let old differences with James bug me so much, and make me respond so unfairly to his post here in the first place.

    Then I shouldn’t have ragged on James more, just to show I wasn’t ragging on him for nothing, or just confusing him with Stedman. He did not deserve that, and it wasn’t appropriate stuff to drag into this thread.

    Stephanie, feel free to delete my posts, and I guess I’d prefer it if you did.

    Again, I apologize to James, and to you and your readers.

    I’m sorry.

  14. Paul W., OM says

    Thank you, Stephanie.

    Trying again, and trying to be a bit more reasonable:

    I agree very much with Gilliel about the first paragraph of James’s comment—I hated it—but the second paragraph sorta seems to take some of it back. The first para is an “on the one hand” thing, and the second is explicitly the “on the other hand” part:

    On the other hand, I think it is important to note that many people attending Skepticon see it as a rare opportunity to spend time with people of a similar view, and really need that. And it seems churlish to begrudge them that opportunity.

    (I think rereading only the quoted first part set me off on an ill-considered rant, since mercifully deleted, because I’d come back to the thread after a delay, and forgotten that James’s whole comment was significantly more balanced on the whole.)

    I still disagree (I think) with James about the first para—I do not think it’s “fair” at all to judge people’s commitment to their principles by their very public displays of do-gooding in unusual circumstances, where their time is especially precious and expensive.

    I especially don’t think it’s “fair” at all to compare amounts of time spent, when one group’s time is far more precious expensive than the other’s—the con attendees have a rare opportunity to socialize and do con things, with travel and lodging expenses and so on, while the local volunteer group’s time is presumably much less precious and expensive—they can get together more easily, cheaply, and often.

    IMO, the unfairness of that comparison doesn’t depend at all on what you see as the purpose of the con. Even if it were a just gathering of volunteer workers to discuss, plan, and promote volunteer work, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect them to actually do a lot of volunteer work at that event—presumably they’d go home and do their volunteer work locally, spending less precious time, and more of it. Prioritizing things that way would just be good planning, nothing to comment about in any moralistic terms at all.

    I don’t think James’s second para really does enough to “take that back”—or just not clearly enough for my taste or Gilliel’s; maybe James can clarify.

    I do think a certain amount of such do-gooding at a con is a good thing, but not because not doing so would actually be morally hypocritical at all, or anything like that—it is not reasonable to use much precious time on something very time-intensive, when you have less time-intensive things on the agenda.

    Sadly, I think that one of the better reasons to do it is for somewhat cynical PR purposes, in a way that’s uncomfortably like ostentatiously praying in public—so that we’re less vulnerable to very bad arguments that we’re hypocritical.

    There are other good reasons, too. One is to model good behavior for the attendees at the con, so that they’re more likely to do it again when they get back home—they may realize that it’s less onerous and more rewarding than they thought, or it may just make the option more memorable and salient. Another reason is of course that it’s actually a good thing to do, even if it is a rather bad time to do it.

    Even so, there are difficult issues of prioritizing people’s precious and expensive time, such that IMO any moralizing about whether a few hours is enough is ridiculous.

    The bottom line for me is that the stuff in James’s second paragraph isn’t really just an “other other hand” counterweight that partly balances out the stuff the first paragraph—it completely undermines the first para, rendering such arguments irrelevant.

    (Maybe James thinks something like that, too—the part about it being “churlish to begrudge them that opportunity”—may mean pretty much that, and be his bottom line assessment.)

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