This weekend I was a guest speaker at ReasonCon One. This was the first ReasonCon, held in Hickory, NC.
I was invited to come and talk about “Analogies.” The main Keynote was Dr. Richard Carrier, who spoke on the historicity of Jesus and the origins of Christianity. The speaker sessions were free and open to the public. Only the social events had fees. The lecture room held 250, and was packed, with overflow guests standing in the doorway of the adjoining room. The turnout was stunning.
After a long day of traveling and connecting flights, I arrived in Hickory, and found the volunteers who were good enough to get me to the hotel, an hour away. Thanks to Gene and Rachael, we all made it to the hotel just a few minutes after the dinner had started. I checked in, sprinted upstairs, and changed into evening clothes. The dinner was buffet style, and amazing, with loads of options, along with a full bar. The hosts, Cash and Love (two of the most hospitable people you could ever want to meet) from Atheists on Air, talked about the event and also presented some speeches and awards—which seemed to be well earned. One in particular went to a woman, Eve, who is in college and has three children, all under age 4, who seems to also be a person who is a tireless volunteer in her local atheist community. I took the opportunity later to find her and shake her hand, to thank her in person for her efforts.
I met so many people who were repeating the same thing: “There really aren’t many events like this in this part of the country.” I met many who drove several hours to attend. One person drove 8 hours, from Jacksonville, FL. It was beyond anything I would have imagined for such a small town. To see what these groups pulled together—created for themselves—was an inspiration. In fact, every time I turned around, I felt inspired this weekend. The people, the event, the attitudes and dedication—were all inspiring.
The next morning was Saturday—the day the talks were scheduled.
Cash opened it himself with an amusing and abbreviated summary of The Bible based on his own deconversion perspectives at the time he was questioning.
Ryan Bell was up first. I didn’t recognize his name until “A Year Without God” was mentioned. Then, I recognized who he was immediately. I remember the first time I heard about Bell. My initial knee-jerk reaction was to think that some Christian preacher was planning to pretend to be an atheist for a year, and then use that at the end of the stint to say he’d tried atheism and it was a fail. Theists who believe they can put themselves in atheists’ shoes, but who honestly aren’t able to consider the world from a secular starting point, are common. Normally they consider, “What if there really was a god, but I didn’t believe in it?” They don’t understand this isn’t how an atheist views it.
I recall reading a little more about Bell later, and rethinking my position to at least the point where I thought “Oh, maybe this isn’t what I thought initially?” Now, after listening to Bell, and getting some brief opportunity to talk with him, I have a much more sympathetic view.
Many atheists have deconverted from theistic religion. Most of them talk about a “journey” they required to move from theism to atheism—where doubts continued to mount until they finally recognized they were atheists. A great number of those people describe situations where they didn’t feel comfortable or safe talking to anyone about their doubts. Their insecurity kept them closeted about their questions, until that final moment when they were sitting on their laptop penning a note to TAE to say “I’ve had doubts for about a year now, but I’ve finally realized I’m an atheist…nobody knows this…how do I break it to friends and family?”
From what Bell describes, it sounds to me as though he recognized some doubts, and decided that instead of studying in secret, he was going to just be out about it, and track his journey. As a pastor, he was in a unique position to do this. But he finally lost his position at the church, simply for saying that he wanted to openly explore his doubts. And this, right here, is why so many Christians hide to ask questions. Just asking questions or expressing doubts is all it takes to land you on the outside, looking in—even if you’re a pastor.
So, welcome to the secular community, Ryan Bell. May you find what you’re looking for and gain some resolution at the end of your journey. And if you don’t—may you at least enjoy the capacity to search and question openly among people who won’t reject you for just saying “I’m not sure what to think.”
Next up was Yours Truly. I talked about analogies. If you watch TAE, you have probably seen them all. The presentations will be available in the future, I’m told, so I can post again when there is a link.
Next in line was a young woman named Nedevah Phoebe Shallar Cahours. Phoebe is a teenager, but has been dragged through countless cultish religions (Amish, Mennonite, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness) by her family. Her story was wild and sometimes confusing—but not due to a lack of presentation skills. Her presentation was clear, interesting, and even humorous. But her life has been anything but clear or simple, throughout this whole mess. At such a young age, she seems to have a good head on her shoulders, and I’m glad she was willing to talk about her past to such a large group of strangers. It’s always an inspiration to see young atheists speaking out.
The keynote was delivered by Dr. Richard Carrier, author and historian (who likely needs no introduction here) who spoke about the history of Jesus and Christianity. The talk was informative and the people were packed in to hear it, including a group of maybe a dozen Christians who were ready to engage. After my own presentation, and after Dr. Carrier’s, they were ready for the Q&A sessions. I was asked about the difference between atheism and agnosticism, and later pulled aside by one of them to have a bizarre confrontation about an extremely off-hand comment I’d made about Solipsism—which had nothing to do with anything. Dr. Carrier was asked to explain why historic records of people like Tacitus, Pliny and Josephus are not counted as evidence for a historic Jesus. Unfortunately, at least one of the visiting theists seemed to have a great deal of difficulty understanding why simply repeating stories others have told you does not count as evidence. Dr. Carrier was actually tied up in Q&A for quite a long session after his talk, and was very generous about allowing additional time to the crowd.
Also on Saturday, I was able to convince Gene Elliot (from Hickory Humanists) to take a group of us out for North Carolina styled BBQ at his family’s restaurant nearby. I had seen some North Carolina cooks competing on the television program, Pit Masters, and couldn’t miss the chance to try it for myself. If you’re ever in Hannah’s Bar-B-Que, be sure to get the baked beans as a side. Baked beans are not even a favorite side of mine, but these were unbelievable.
Saturday night was a full on blast. Both nights we had a live DJ, Alex, who volunteered to keep the tunes going while the rest of us drank and talked—and danced. Oh, how we danced—at least it appears that way from some of the photos I’ve been tagged in online from the event! Then later—as in much later—I was called down to participate in a collective podcast event that had been improvised on the large stairwell of one of the hotel’s empty lobbies. I remember most of the conversations—much of it surrounding morality. And I know someone has those recordings. I believe they will be released sometime in the near future. Just bear in mind as you judge the content, that some of us were operating on a good many straight up double Scotches. A few of the podcasters I believe were there representing included Scathing Atheist, Bar Room Atheist, No Religion Required, and Atheists on Air.
I felt a little bad about one discussion I had where someone interjected “I’m sorry” several times and even noted something like “I didn’t mean to offend you.” Sometimes I can seem, let’s just say, intense, in personal conversations. However, my intensity really isn’t offense. A lot of people are only familiar with my work on TAE, and have no insight into my personality outside of those public presentations. I hope I didn’t put anyone off, and if I did, let me say here, it was not intentional. I honestly enjoyed the conversations overall, even the ones that frustrated me somewhat. I do not take anything like that personally, and I hope others had a similar perspective on the conversations. But I might benefit, on some occasions, from remembering that people have different comfort levels with confrontation.
By the time I got to bed Saturday night, it was 3:45 a.m. and I was being picked up for the airport at 6:45 a.m. I was a zombie on the way home—but that didn’t stop me from continuing the morality discussion with Gene on the way to the airport.
I have nothing but positive memories of the event. Everyone was exceptional. Everyone was friendly. It was sometimes a bit bawdy and rowdy. But a positive, sincere, and fun group—all the way around.
I’ve been asked if I would be willing to do it again next year—and the answer to that is “Bring it!”