We’ve got a ways to go

I hear that the big American Atheists conference in Austin had an attendance of about 900, which is a good number, and of course, let’s not judge the quality of an event by the number of attendees. By all accounts, it was an excellent conference (I keep seeing these gushing comments on twitter about AC Grayling’s talk, making me very envious.)

But…perspective. I’m at a middling-to-good-sized SF convention, which is one of the larger regional events.

Attendance, I’m told, was about 3000 people. Costs for the two events were roughly comparable to attendees. There’s absolutely no comparison with the big national events like Comic-con and Dragon*Con.

I’m sorry, but I think secularism, humanism, and atheism are of greater relevance to people than comic-books. What can we do to grow our audience?


  1. laurentweppe says

    I think secularism, humanism, and atheism are of greater relevance to people than comic-books.

    Haha: your geekophobic elitism is finally displayed for all to see! After all, the only reason you talked about this was to express your east-coast liberal elitism toward the oppressed white-male-nerd proletariat! [/sarcasm]

  2. says

    But I also think you’re touching on part of the problem: how do we make atheism entertaining? Or important? Or relevant? We need to expand the human values it touches.

  3. kevinalexander says

    When atheists get super powers and can turn green and huge and awesome and tear up gods….
    Wait, that was in the last Avengers movie.


  4. marcoli says

    The expectation of having fun. People go to have fun at comic-cons, not to think and debate. They go to look at the weird people, to be entertained, to encounter some celebrities. They probably also buy swag from row upon row of vendors.

  5. Ashley says

    Price is definitely a limiting factor for me. I got two Dragon*con passes for $130 this year, but one admission to Women in Secularism 2 is $249. I know Skepticon is free, but travel costs to get there and find a place to stay are prohibitive. The skeptic track at Dragon*con has to do for me.

  6. says

    Are we more interested in getting the folks that already identify as movement atheists to attend or getting more atheists interested in the movement?

  7. frankb says

    My family and I have seen PZ and Rebecca Watson at Convergence, a SF convention. The only other place we would be willing see them is a TAM, but that is too far away and too expensive. Entertainment is what draws us. Can we link atheism to steam punk, vampires, and space travel. (Yah Oxford commas.)

  8. Kengi says

    Brainwash all of the nation’s youth in liberal, godless colleges and universities using legions of godless liberal professors.

    I should mention, that wasn’t my idea. I just don’t remember where I heard it.

  9. Randomfactor says

    What chigau (not my real name) said.

    Or we could try making the gatherings a bit more friendly to, say, women.

    Nah. The costume thing.

  10. moarscienceplz says

    The expectation of having fun. People go to have fun at comic-cons, not to think and debate.

    What? You’ve never gotten into a “Who’s faster: Superman or The Flash?” debate?

    Seriously though, I went to NAPcon in South San Francisco a few weeks ago. It was my first biggish Atheist meeting (except for seeing PZ lecture at Stanford a couple of years ago). I had a blast. The one thing I think I would have changed is to break up the lecture series every couple of hours with some sort of mixer, like perhaps asking the audience to tell funny stories about encounters with religious folks. This kind of stuff was done at the after party, but it would have been nice to have earlier chances to get to know some of my fellow atheists.

  11. Trebuchet says

    Everyone dresses as their favorite atheist.

    My thoughts exactly, except you don’t even have to dress as an atheist. Go as Darwin. Or Einstein. Or do Jesus as a zombie. Go as Barney — he’s a disnosaur, after all. Perhaps he’s a transitional form! Dress as Bigfoot. Or a ghost. So many possibilities!

  12. Larry Poppins says

    When I think of atheist conventions I think about a lot of “sit and get.” If I imagine a fan convention I’m thinking costumes, vendors, famous artists and actors, maybe some cool after parties, which sounds like more fun. There is an atheist con coming up in my backyard that I am trying to figure out if I can make it to. I like the speakers list; PZ, Greta, Jessica Almquist. I anticipate a lot of time sitting in a chair listening which doesn’t exactly sound like a lot of fun. However if I do go I will have the chance to introduce my wife to some of the people I have been following on the ‘net and maybe meet some local folks who aren’t worried about dividing the movement. The field trip to see the Space Shuttle is a big selling point for me on that one too.

    Since the time and money that I have to devote to conventions is very limited I’m certainly not going to support conventions that feature speakers that I don’t want to see. Richard “zero bad” Dawkins, David “Mohammed was a pedophile” Silverman, Michael “more of a guy thing” Schermer and Sam “no end to the stupid shit” Harris certainly come to mind when I think of names that would ensure that I found something different to do that weekend even if the convention were free and right across the street.

    Do you really want me there? How about making sure the kids program is cool, like Camp Quest, so I can bring my son. Is there some entertainment? dancing? women speakers? That’s what would interest my wife. Oh, and microbrews.

  13. Lausten North says

    I know it is asking a lot, but break out sessions, where people like yourself engage 30 or 40 at a time in conversation, conversations about what people are doing locally, and are given feedback. Also, the data for how to argue, how to raise your children, and how fundamentalism began is out there in many forms. Not that all speaking should be ended, but it should not be the only thing offered. One area atheism as a movement could gain some credibility is in charitable actions. I would love to go to Haiti and help build a school or something, but don’t know of many non-religious groups that are going. Could we get groups like Doctors Without Borders to one of these conventions?

  14. ravenred says

    A couple of people have touched on it… Atheism conventions give the impression of being worthy rather than fun. They’re pushing a barrow (one that, yeah, I agree with) with a bunch of polemicists up on stage, with the most exciting part of the evening perhaps a witty choice of powerpoint slides or slice of “Life of Brian”. And at the risk of sounding like De Botton, religious festivals and services (yea, even the megachurch variety) is an example of how to get arses in seats and brains in the correct gear. Another element is the social wandering around element, which is something that Sci-Fi and Comic cons do brilliantly, enabling a grassroots sense of community and identity that is addictive, and can be communicated to others.

    Now I’m not saying that the best solution is that we all join hands for a Tim Minchin singalong followed by some Brechtian Christians-to-Lions performance extravaganza, but that an occasional nod to the visceral, and a once-over from some theatrical types might increase the emotional payoff for attendees. Just a thought.

  15. says

    PZ, you are doing one of things necessary, going to a non-secular events and exposing many to our way of thinking. Less preaching to our choirs by our “famous” atheists and more to other choirs.

    Also as more people come out as atheist, isn’t there some exponential growth to be expected, we just need to keep the pressure up and the welcome open? By pressure, I mean attempts at exposing the illogical thinking and actions of religion, what is that phrase Dawkins used? Awareness raising? In the media and locally.

    Is our audience growing fast enough? No. Am not content. I am openly atheist in my conservative work environment because I can be. And I occasionally troll #teamjesus, #christianity, #islam, etc… hoping some observers will see the exchange. Like Greta Christina says, you can’t tell if what you do is accomplishing anything, but it probably is in ways you don’t anticipate. I think conventions are only a small part of it, effective and efficient but not everything.

  16. Larry Poppins says

    break out sessions, where people like yourself engage 30 or 40 at a time in conversation, conversations about what people are doing locally, and are given feedback. Also, the data for how to argue, how to raise your children, and how fundamentalism began

    That sounds great too. I’m all for bringing in secular charities like MSF as well

  17. lesliegriffiths says

    Tell you what, we should do it fairground-style, with Ray Comfort in stocks and we get to throw rotten fruit at him.

    I’d pay for that.

  18. whheydt says

    Just to add another data point… I help run a regional gaming convention (DunDraCon) and we had a bit over 1700 people this year.

    A some problems that may be inhibiting atheist conventions are (1) the word about them may not be getting out very well (never heard about NAPcon in SF until this thread…and I live in the Bay Area), (2) there may be a lot of atheists that aren’t into being organized or going to cons (I read SF for *years* before I ever went to an SF con, for instance), and (3) in an era of internet communications. newsgroups, and social media there may be less need for cons to be able to find and converse with like minded people when one is part of a small or smallish minority.

    On the whole, probably what is needed is to keep the cons going and let the word spread. On the part of the cons themselves, be sure to put together able committees who can organize a con so well that the attendees never realize the amount of work that has gone into getting it going and making it run smoothly. Most particularly, get a *really* good hotel liason to help keep the costs down and hold the hotel to what they’ve agreed to (in part by knowing just what a hotel *will* agree to).

  19. Lofty says

    Doh, you need sideshows.
    A coconut shy featuring the heads you would most like to insult.
    Pin the cracker on the donkey.
    Shoe throwing contests
    Even have thunderfool showing dirty movies in a black tent somewhere.

  20. Ichthyic says

    Atheism needs to have some good cult movies made. Where atheists with mutant superpowers triumph over evil religious dominionists.

    Is Troma still in business?


  21. says

    Cosplay’s good, but you gotta let the other artistic types get in on the action. AMV (Atheist Music Video) and fan art contests. Oh, and maybe a panel on who would win in a fight, Richard Dawkins or Superman?

  22. okstop says

    As much as I hate to say it, I think the numbers for the atheist cons are pretty good, especially if the cons are actually worth our respect. How many fanboys actually go – at least in part – specifically for the “booth bunnies” or other misogynistic pandering? There’s a long way between a couple thousand at an atheist con and the fifty-thousand-plus that DragonCon draws, and I’m sure there’s room to grow, but there’s also a large contingent of D*C attendees that we will never get and wouldn’t want.

  23. says

    *casually flips “Canadian” toggle to ‘on’ position*

    Never underestimate the draw of bacon.

    Or poutine.

    Bacon in poutine. Replace the “booth babes” with “booth bacon”. Cheesy, melty, bacony fried deliciousness.

    Yeah, that’s it.

    Now that I’ve solved that one, I’m off to bring peace to the planet.

  24. laurentweppe says

Everyone dresses as their favorite atheist.

    Nononononono What they need is to do convince the (male) speakers to do some unrealistic “sexy” poses.


    Never underestimate the draw of bacon.
    Or poutine.
    Bacon in poutine.

    Kevin Bacon in Poutine may indeed be a way to draw in the yaoi fangirls

  25. says

    Kevin Bacon in Poutine may indeed be a way to draw in the yaoi fangirls

    Kevin Bacon!

    How could I have missed it?! Good catch, laurentweppe.

  26. moarscienceplz says

    MakerFaire draws a huge crowd, at least here in the Bay Area, and it’s sciency without cramming the science down your throat. Maybe there could be some Atheist/Maker cross-pollination. Certainly atheist cons could have Mentos & Diet Coke explosions, but also some robotics hobbyists could be invited to show their stuff, Steampunk cosplay, etc.

  27. Acolyte of Sagan says

    From the OP

    What can we do to grow our audience?

    Wait for the comic-book fans to get interested in grown-up stuff?

  28. mikeyb says

    I know I will probably get flack for this, but I really have never liked the atheist label. Not that I’m not an atheist or even an accomodationist in any way. I don’t mind being referred to as an athiest – its perfectly appropriate – its just terribly incomplete. Essentially I take a naturalist – scientific and rationalist point of view and as such – there is no evidence for a god or gods, so as a biproduct I am an atheist.

    If I’m in a room without a mirror, I don’t go around exclaiming “there is no mirror – i am an amirrorist” that would be silly. Seems to me atheism is in part a protest movement label against particular forms of theism their irrationality and harmful social consequences – primarily Christianity and Islam. If I were in India perhaps I would be an Ahiduist or aBuddhist. Also I could be an atheist who believes in tarot cards and wicca, and be perfectly consistent in calling myself an atheist. If our society were rational, the need for the label would be pointless.

    I prefer naturalist or rationalist because to me it is more descriptive. I think promoting scientific and rational points of view is the main point – atheism nearly always falls out naturally as a byproduct but so does giving up multiple other superstitions not covered by the atheist label.

  29. says

    I think part of the problem is that movement atheism as a whole is divided, and a conference with speakers, topics and policies that attract people on one side of the divide is also going to deter people on the other side. Atheists are already a minority, and right now we’re a divided minority. For the time being, I don’t think the differences can be reconciled, especially not while there are big names (like Dawkins) saying shit that makes marginalized people feel unwelcome in the movement. Larry Poppins mentioned not wanting to attent a conference where certain people, including Dawkins, are speaking, and I share the same sentiment. Not only do I not want to spend what little money I have to support someone like him, I’m also concerned that the sort of people he would draw to a con are the same kind of people who already make me feel unwelcome in movement atheism, and thus could really ruin my own experience there.

    I don’t have a solution for this type of problem, and there may not even be a solution other than to try and make these guys see the proverbial light (for those who have the energy and will to engage them), and… wait for attitudes to change, I suppose.

    Other than that, try to keep con costs as low as possible to ensure that as many people as possible who want to attend can afford to do so. It may also be worthwhile to hold a con in different cities every year, rather than sticking to the same venue. This way, if the con you really want to attend is just too far away one year, you might be able to attend the following year, or something. Plus it’ll mean local advertising in different places, getting the word out to more people, and so on.

    Feeling a bit of fatigue right now, so I hope this comment makes sense to somebody other than me. I need to go jump-start my brain.

  30. David Wilford says

    Atheism isn’t about story-telling, so it’s little surprise to me that it isn’t as appealing as science fiction and comic books.

  31. John Morales says



    I know I will probably get flack for this, but I really have never liked the atheist label. Not that I’m not an atheist or even an accomodationist in any way.


    If our society were rational, the need for the label would be pointless.

    So you dislike the label, but nonetheless you find it needful, and accordingly you bemoan this circumstance.


  32. says


    Never underestimate the draw of bacon.

    Or poutine.

    Bacon in poutine. Replace the “booth babes” with “booth bacon”. Cheesy, melty, bacony fried deliciousness.

    Eww. The goal is to bring more people to the con, not send them running to the bathroom with indigestion or something. Poutine’s just nasty.

    Here in Nova Scotia we have garlic fingers. If we’re going to draw people in with delicious food, we’re gonna need some garlic fingers, for sure. You can put bacon on them, but be sure to leave plenty without bacon, too.

    Either way, though, I think Kevin Bacon is gonna end up covered in melted cheese.

  33. Ichthyic says

    If our society were rational, the need for the label would be pointless.

    Mikeyb, I hate to say it, but the answer to your complaint about the atheist label is right there in the middle of your post^^.

  34. Moggie says


    Have you looked at comic books lately? 90% of them are pure dreck.

    To be fair, 90% of everything is pure dreck.

    Larry Poppins:

    I’m all for bringing in secular charities like MSF as well

    If you mean inviting speakers, I think in many cases even secular charities like MSF would be reluctant to be seen to align themselves with explicitly atheist events. But bringing charity into the picture is good. Charity auctions, perhaps?


    Atheism needs to have some good cult movies made.

    Theism has plenty of bad movies, so some kind of MST3K-style event might be an attraction.

  35. pensnest says

    I’ve never felt the urge to go to an atheist convention. Partly, because atheism is not something I do for fun, it’s just how I think about the world. For fun, I’ve been to a bunch of science fiction media conventions. Some are of the ‘famous people will stand up on stage and talk’ kind. Meh.

    At the best convention (Redemption, in the UK), there is an enormous variety of options. It isn’t a huge event, but there are four or five tracks of programming, ranging from guest appearances by actors, via science talks by competent people, to discussions about particular books, shows or themes, to workshops that cover writing, Photoshop, folk dancing… all kinds of stuff. Those discussions are generally led by a panel of attendees (not Guests) but the intention is not that the panel impart their views to the audience, it’s that everyone in the room contributes, and the panel is really there to get things going and keep the conversation on track.

    I don’t get the impression that that kind of discussion happens at the atheist cons. My impression of atheist conventions is that people will stand up on stage and tell me stuff, and honestly, I’d rather read the blogs. A convention with a multi-track programme could accommodate *so* many different interests, and give people a chance to connect with other people who share those particular interests (and those of us who find it hard to strike up conversations in the bar would be able to mix). Throwing in an occasional random workshop on belly dancing, or making your own chain mail, or knitting a Flying Spaghetti Monster hat, that’d go a long way to adding fun into the mix.

    Chris Clarke @ #28: Ahaha! There were ‘turkey readings’ at the most recent convention I went to. You could start a war show competing videos, with the audience paying to make them stop. Awesome fund-raising opportunity.

  36. Lofty says

    The trouble is that atheists come in such a variety of flavours that any large convention would immediately be riven with deeep riiifts. I’ve said to other social groups I’m in (when faced with the endless quest to increase membership) what do we want all those non dedicated people for? I’d rather have a small cohesive group of useful people than a horde of divisive sub groups tearing apart the whole thing. Quality not quantity.

  37. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    I was at a sci-fi con this weekend up until last night. It’s a small one, but there was a good turnout and had some nice stuff running the whole weekend, though not the “ask famous people stuff and get photos” kind of thing.

    Points I liked? Inclusiveness, giant harrassment policies posted right on pillars in the hotel con space, the fact I was offered an escort through the suburb at night to get to my nearby hotel even without having to ask… Oh, and just general fun-ness :)
    It was so refreshing to go to an event that I didn’t feel unsafe at, even being alone in a suburb with a stabby reputation and having to walk between hotels.

    Inclusiveness is GOOD.

  38. says

    Not that I’d know how to accomplish it or how feasible it is, but involving science fiction/creators of science fiction in godless cons might be a good idea to try and expand the fan base. Many SF authors are/were themselves godless and many of their works explore future scenarios where societies or cultures approach moral, ethical, political, technological or even existential issues godlessly. He’s sadly left us, but Asimov’s Foundation series immediately springs to mind as a potential topic for discussion, given that it’s a science fiction scenario that plausibly combines science and prophecy by way of a kind of meta-psychology.

    As to current heroes, imagine Iain M Banks delivering a talk on how his heathenism affects how he writes his Culture novels (if indeed it does), Joss Whedon waxing lyrical on theology inherent in the Buffyverse or Margaret Atwood (self-proclaimed agnostic and apparently under the impression that atheism is a religion *sigh*, but still worth a shot because her SF is awesome) opining perhaps on the effect of religious fundamentalism on ecology and conservation. I’d pay to see any of that.

  39. says

    Is there anyone who lists or reviews gatherings? Obviously there must be some near me, but I don’t know of them.

  40. karpad says

    see, smhll at #3 got it in one.

    Atheist conventions, if they are going to be of any real worth, are professional conferences, not scifi conventions. Scifi cons (comic cons, anime cons, gaming cons whatever) are places about hobbies. Superficial understanding and interest is okay, because the primary purpose is for people who are passionate to get together and be a seller’s market: Buy merch, books and DVDs. the speakers, panels or tournaments are a draw, but not the actual reason for the event, which is to indulge materialism around a particularly enjoyed hobby.

    Atheism isn’t a hobby, and there isn’t really anything to be sold, money wise. The purpose here really actually IS the speakers and panels. They might both be called “conventions” but this is definitely an apples and oranges thing.

    Probably a more valid comparison would be to compare an Atheist Con to an Old-Tent-Revival. Why aren’t Atheist Conventions as popular as those? Well, fewer hollow platitudes, fewer promises of direct benefit. The showmanship could be addressed.

  41. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    What can we do to grow our audience?

    Uh … hold a panel or track or whatever they call them at Comic-con or Dragon*con ?

  42. smhll says

    Apparently a number of us are full-fledged hedonists, and we go wild and dance any day of the week, and thus don’t have to wait for the big revival to writhe in ecstasy. (Speaking for myself only.) All the happiness we have the rest of the time may make us jaded and hard to thrill with special events.

    Yeah, I haven’t read comic books recently, although my son forwarded this webcomic, which I think online atheists can relate to. (About online discussions, cough.) http://xkcd.com/1166/

    I also live in the SF Bay Area and don’t seem to hear about local atheist happenings until after they happen. Please don’t be shy or modest about promoting stuff. (Unless I should get wise and subscribe to something informative channel that I don’t know about.)

  43. says

    I agree with the point that atheist conferences are typically presented as professional conferences. That’s the point: if that’s what they are restricted to, their audiences will be limited. Maybe we should consider different kinds of events to broaden their influence.

    I’m not complaining about the current collection of atheist conferences. I’m saying there are other avenues that we’re not exploiting.

    Oh…there IS a skeptic track and Dragon*Con. We’ve also put one together at Convergence.

  44. lowkey says

    I just got back from my first-ever American Atheists convention – my first non-work-related convention of any sort, actually. I went for a short vacation, so see Austin, and to find ways to energize my local atheist group. Aside from some idiocy at the comedy show, I had a great time. Someone above suggested break-out groups – that would have been great! There was an awful lot of sitting and listening; my butt was sore by the end of the first day. I suggest including activities that help you make more personal connections with the other attendees, the specifics of which are beyond me.

  45. robro says

    I don’t understand the appeal of comic/SF conventions, or even MacWorld. I assume these events are entertaining to people, so (as noted) that must be the key. Here’s an interesting example:

    This weekend, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence held a Zombie Christ Haunted House Easter event to raise money for their important work of making religion as ridiculous as it is, and for funding good causes in our community.

    I’m yet another atheist living in SF who doesn’t know where to get together. I’ve searched MeetUps but haven’t seen anything that seemed very active, much less compelling. This is surprising. I’ve mentioned this lack before and was told to start something, which I am in a poor position to do.

  46. says

    good god. Some troll named Uberfeminist just tweeted a reply to this post at me.

    1. There is a particular audience that thinks cosplay is more interesting than panels about ‘misogyny’ in some online forum they’ve never heard of. Go figure.
    2. It seems documenting every negative interaction you have at a secular conference on your blog has a negative effect on attendance numbers.
    3. Turns out that “we have a harassment policy” is not a winner of a tag line.
    4. When SkepChicks support DragonCon so much they can’t bring themselves to immediately cease supporting a child abuser, we may have a problem.
    5. Skepchick has always embedded its alcohol-fueled love fest in sci-fi convention CONvergence, which is really a terrible statement in regards to the status of typical ‘skeptic’ conventions.

    The terrible reality is that the PZ Myers “FreeThought” bloggers have completed their coup d’etat of the secular community. Everybody not on board with their program is labelled a ‘misogynist’ or ‘harasser’.

    1. Yes, there is a range of playful activities at cons.
    2 & 3: What a dumbass. SF cons have more stringent anti-harassment policies, and they’re usually very prominently displayed at multiple locations in the hotel. We’ve suggested a small fraction of the rules that other meetings take for granted.
    4. Errm, what? Skepchick says there is a potential problem; Dragon*Con has been arguing that the pedophile no longer has an active role in the con. Assessing and seriously discussing concerns is now a bad thing?
    5. CONvergence has a Skepchick sponsored skeptic track — a large collection of presentations on science and skepticism. I’m part of it. What is the problem? This “alcohol-fueled” nonsense is simply a lie. We sponsor a party room: if you’d ever been there, you’d know it’s a grown-up party that serves alcohol, but the primary motivator is fun and conversation.

    I’m amused at the idea that we’ve executed a coup d’etat. FtB has no administrative power over the freethought community at all, nor has it tried to acquire any.

  47. says

    The terrible reality is that the PZ Myers “FreeThought” bloggers have completed their coup d’etat of the secular community.

    Hey, I didn’t get the memo! Who is in charge of the memos around here? :taps foot impatiently:

  48. redwood says

    If you want to attract bigger audiences, you need a bigger variety of things for them to do. @43pensnest recommends having a multi-track programme to appeal to more people. This makes the most sense to me. The Dawkins dislikers can enjoy doing events that he’s not involved with while his fans can enjoy watching him speak. To catch more kinds of fish you need more kinds of bait.

  49. Larry Poppins says

    Upon further consideration and consultation with my wife, who has no history or involvement with atheism, breakout groups as the focus of a convention sounds like something we would both be enthusiastic about.

  50. cyberCMDR says

    This is a bit of a different slant, but what about a con in a virtual environment like Second Life? Anyone could attend, and no costs involved. The only thing that worries me is having the con crashed by militant christians, since it is a lot harder to keep disruptive people out in that kind of environment.

  51. trina says

    Not familiar with Dave Silverman- is he bad for any reason other than pointing out that Mohammed was a paedophile? Which, he married a child, so I don’t see the issue with the label.

  52. okstop says

    It seems like the most people have pretty much nailed the obvious problem – atheism conferences tend to be more like professional conferences. Panel discussions, informative lectures, etc. There’s much less entertainment value for non-pedants in the average atheism con. The question isn’t how we can grow our audience – it’s obvious that we need more “whiz-bang” if we want larger attendance – but rather how we can get more “whiz-bang” without diluting the value of the con. So what can we add to the cons that doesn’t count as “selling out?” karpad (#51) touched on this, but, unlike him, I think we can maybe make the cons more entertaining without undermining their value.

    Unfortunately, the best way that presents itself off the top of my head is also costly: inviting celebrities who are also “out” atheists. Give them an award or something. Let them talk a little – doesn’t even have to be about atheism. Let them bring merch, if they have any. But most will still want an appearance fee, and that’s gonna be hard for most atheist cons.

    Another idea is a movie room: lots of fancons have a room that shows movies, sometimes 24-7, on themes related to the focus of the con. Maybe an atheist movie room? Invention of Lying, Jesus Camp, The Golden Compass. Etc.

    The flip-side of this: an “MST3K” room, showing “documentaries” about ancient aliens, “Bible truths,” etc. Post a sign noting that heckling is encouraged. This could get out of hand, though, so maybe not.

    A lot of illusionists are skeptics. Maybe magic shows?

    I’m reaching, here.

  53. dgrasett says

    I am new to this. About 18 months.
    I went to Kamloops – friendly, earnest, and interesting. It was part of a trip to see my brother on the west coast.
    I arranged to go to TAM. Much discussion over TAM. All over the blog site. OK, but I have attended more friendly FanCons in Toronto. (Many years ago.) OK, Done that once, I have no need to do it twice.
    Attended at Ottawa. Nearby – friendly. I will probably do that again. Or not.
    I have arranged to attend at Washington. (same time as Kamloops, awkward) we will see.
    Less fighting. Less fuss. Less whining from males who figure that their G given right to find someone to S is being impinged upon. I don’t have enough life left to bother with that. I am less than impressed by males insisting that females getting equal rights will result in the withering up of their male parts. If that is so, then get on with it, and hush up. In any event, the whole thing should be about doing a better job at living without unnessary and harmful mythologies. (Mind you, sexual harassment is not a problem I expect to have to face anymore, and I apologize, ladies, but so long as no is understood to mean no, my generation has always considered it to be a compliment – If Queen Elizabeth I can be complemented by the raising of a codpiece, surely so can I)
    Am I disappointed, disillusioned, and disgusted? Somewhat.
    If you want me, try more science and more solutions. I know the world isn’t perfect – far from it.
    TAM, especially, left me feeling that you didn’t really want ME. And that is deadly for any movement. The godbotherers may have it wrong, but they are very very good at welcoming outsiders.
    That said, I have appreciated the Athiest movement. I especially appreciated Minions. I will regret seeing it die. And barring Minneapolis, that is what is happening. It is up to you people to fix the problem – if it can be fixed.

  54. pensnest says

    I’ve been pondering this, and have a few extra thoughts.

    Firstly, what is the purpose of an atheist convention? What is the point of them?

    If they’re for ‘professional’ atheists to network, they’re probably fine as they are.

    If they’re for converting the unconverted, they’re probably pointless, as the unconverted won’t be attending.

    I suspect neither is true. It appears to me that an atheist convention is ‘for’ allowing atheists to get together with like-minded people. But. Is atheism, of itself, a thing most of us “do”? My atheism forms a lot of my world-view, but I don’t “do” atheism beyond reading particular blogs and, er, not going to church. And, you know, I went to Weight Watchers for a while, years ago – and gave it up because being in the same room as a bunch of other fat people did not enhance my life in any way. Literally the only thing we had in common was that we were overweight. And someone would talk to us and give us Useful Recipes, etc. There needs to be a better basis for making a connection.

    If an atheist convention is not to be somewhat like a Weight Watchers convention, it has to appeal to people’s broader interests, not just to the fact that they self-label as atheists. (NB I’m coming from a UK point of view, and here, I’d say atheism is pretty common and normal.)

    This goes back to my suggestion at #43 of multi-track programming. Obviously there would be a demand for big name speakers, but you can do a lot of programming without them. You don’t need a vast supply of Big Names to run all the panels, etc. Many of the attendees will have specialisms and special interests—and general interests, too—and would be willing to run an hour’s discussion in a not very large room. Ask the attendees for ideas for discussion groups. Like… Stage Combat, Religion in SF and Fantasy novels, Long Sword Dancing, Forensics in fact and fiction, an ongoing game of Cluedo, Women as Heroes, Massage workshop, Web design, Which SF weapons would actually work, and what not. More on-topic, a discussion on Representations of Atheists in Television Shows would have a lot of potential, and you don’t need to be a big name to have an opinion on whether or not Bones gets it right.

    You could have dancing – a barn dance, ceilidh or other ‘called’ dance is great because everyone who can walk can join in (possibly wheelchair users too, depending on the dance). You could have a wine tasting session, or a coffee tasting. Run The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Silly games, like Whack-A-Mole (or an irreverent variation) and Twister. A paper aeroplane competition. The Redemption con has ‘Ruler of the Universe’ elections—I bet there’d be some interesting candidates at an atheist convention!

    Now, for all I know these ideas are already in use. If that’s the case, you need to do a much better job of telling potential attendees what they’ll be getting. It’s not the impression I got from PZ’s recent report on the American Atheists 2013 National Convention. That sounded interesting, but it also sounded as though most of the time, it came in an Important-Person-Talks, Others-Listen format. Which is fine part of the time, but if you want people to get involved, get them participating.

  55. Larry Poppins says

    trina @ 63

    When someone can provide evidence, other than religious texts written centuries after he is said to have lived, that Mohammed:
    a) existed
    b) had a primary sexual attraction to children
    then it will be okay to make such a statement publicly. As it is now the only support for this claim rests on religious texts that claim that he had many wives of different ages. Of course the purpose of “pointing out” that Mohammed was a pedophile is to “point out” to Muslims that their beliefs are despised and they are not welcome.

  56. says

    * Activism main topic for the con.
    * Information presentation session focused on the topic
    * break out workshops
    * The con is the face to face meeting for longer term internet follow up (blogs, forums, working groups)
    * Entertainment and plentiful breaks and locations for hobnobbing. Especially fundraising.
    * The con is where working teams are formed, contributions made, planning and steering meetings for projects.
    * Engagement

  57. David Wilford says

    karpad at #51, while there are some SF cons that are very much commercial in nature, there has long been a community that isn’t all about the merch but is instead about the genre, where readers and writers of SF have had a long and very interactive relationship. There’s nothing else quite like it in all of the literary arts.

    I am a bit amused to think of how atheists here are indulging in a sort of “cargo cult” science by thinking that if only they could imitate the trappings of SF cons they would somehow magically have more appeal. Sorry, there’s a difference between being a track of skeptic programming at a con like Convergence in Minneapolis and an actual stand-alone event that has a broader appeal, and I don’t think anyone here is really getting what that difference is. Atheism is a respectable (and I think correct) philosophical position about the existence of theistic deities, but where’s the sense of wonder in that? Seriously, you have to engage imaginations, not just lecture people about how right you are.

  58. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    How about game sessions in which empiricism is the key to success – either events like the “Murder mystery” evenings people go to (but with a wider range of themes based on the central idea of deducing what must have happened from current evidence); or online versions of the same – possibly some existing multiplayer games would be suitable? “Pub quiz” type events (are these just a British thing? Small teams compete in several rounds of answering questions on general knowledge or some specific theme, with prizes)? Stand-up comedy from atheist performers (or even from Christian ones willing to enter the lions’ den and make fun of the lions)?

    None of these would be that much of a draw to me; the prospect of a weekend of talks and discussions appeals more, but I suspect that will long remain a minority taste! I think the efforts that some are making in the direction of inclusivity – effectively enforced anti-harassment policies, attention to diversity in selecting speakers, assistance for less well-off people to attend, childcare facilities – are the best bet for increasing the draw of the more conference-like events; though even there, a leavening of other activities might help.

  59. postwaste says

    I agree with Ashley. My wife and I had planned to go, but the cost was too daunting. I spoke with several people who thought the same thing. I understand the costs involved in putting one of these on, but perhaps lower cost per person would increase overall turnout.

  60. UnknownEric is GrumpyCat in human form says

    the PZ Myers “FreeThought” bloggers

    I liked their early albums best, before they sold out and signed with a major.

  61. scienceavenger says

    Personally the biggest issue by far is cost. When I attend these events I often get the feeling that their purpose is to extract as much money from me as possible. $55 to attend a costume party? Why?

    I’m no marketing guru, and I love the intellectual talks as much as the next person, but I’d say make the conferences more FUN. More small informal events to help grease the socializing wheels. There was a chessboard set up in the hotel bar…why not a speed-chess tournament, or a karaoke contest (not my personal favorite, but people seem to like them)? Encourage the well-known speakers to socialize with the minions more. Show people around us that atheism is FUN. IMO the atheist movement doesn’t come close to maximizing the advantage of not having silly religious rules fobridding various flavors of enjoyment. We are going to get the “hedonist” label attached to us anyway, might as well live up to it.

  62. says

    I have a few thoughts about this, which I’m going to write up in a more organized fashion tonight, but yeah, I was definitely not feeling the extra charges to attend evening parties and festivities. Also, expensive food! I attended a conference for social justice organizers and activists last year, and the price of the conference included lunch and dinner both days, with speakers scheduled just after the meal. So, this became a great opportunity to meet new people and network with them, since you had to sit down and eat a meal usually with at least a few strangers, even if you were sitting with your own friends and colleagues, since the tables were fairly large. Having people split off for mealtime made it feel a bit fragmented for me.

  63. drosera says

    @ Larry Poppins,

    trina @ 63
    When someone can provide evidence, other than religious texts written centuries after he is said to have lived, that Mohammed:
    a) existed
    b) had a primary sexual attraction to children
    then it will be okay to make such a statement publicly. As it is now the only support for this claim rests on religious texts that claim that he had many wives of different ages. Of course the purpose of “pointing out” that Mohammed was a pedophile is to “point out” to Muslims that their beliefs are despised and they are not welcome.

    Would you not call Mohammed a prophet because you lack evidence that (a) he existed, and (b) was doing things prophets do?

    What is wrong with despising harmful beliefs? Isn’t that what atheism and skepticism is all about? To then conclude that Muslims are not welcome is to make an unwarranted accusation of bigotry. As if atheists are by definition xenophobes for criticising Islam, or any other religion. I could with more justification claim that you are a child rape apologist.

  64. scienceavenger says

    Oh, and drop the blackball mentality many here have expressed (“I won’t attend if so-and-so is speaking”). Disagreement within a movement, even on serious issues, is GOOD. Set up debates on these issues. Give attendees a chance to question the debaters. Add value to actually attending, as opposed to sitting at home and watching a podcasst. Get people involved. PZ and Greta vs Thunderfoot and Abbie Smith would fill the room IMO, and be highly entertaining as well. Purity of agenda is for Teatards, not us.

  65. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Yawn, debates, whether with creationist or misogynists, only serve to give them status. Not worth seeing, as the tendancy of the creobots or misogynbots is the preach their theology, not discuss and truly evidence their opinions.

  66. says

    I’ve been a long-time attendee of Norwescon. We are so big because, early on, we diversified. Some come to learn about writing, others to break into the field of literary or science artist, some to play games, some to socialize, some to learn about science, some to sit and sew fantastic costumes with like-minded people, some to show show costumes they’ve work hard on during the last year, some to bask in the glow of big names, some just because WOW, there so much to do and geek out about that just making decisions on what to do next is fun.

    Make the majority of talks and activities NOT about atheism and secularism. Have panels on how to be a successful blogger (and not just a successful blogger about atheism.) Have panels on how to start a soup kitchen. Have panels on combating pseudoscience. Have panels about genetics and medicine and repurposing thrift-store clothes and sustainable living.

    Have activities for children: maybe a workshop on how to forecast the weather by learning to recognize different types of atmospheric phenomena, or introduce them to genetics and Mendel by planting different types of peas that they can take home with them. The conference is held at Easter: is there anything like an egg hunt for the youngsters? Develop a non-religious narrative that includes many of the cultural traditions of spring, and run with it.

    Maybe do an art show and allow attendees to buy items. Hold a charity auction, or collect canned food for a local food bank. As we say about writing, SHOW, DON’T TELL. Don’t just talk about atheism and secularism, exemplify it. And do so while providing a wide set of options.

    Conferences cost money, and often times, budget is a big factor in limiting how big a conference can get. Norwescon is able to stretch their budget by providing only for our two to five Guests of Honor (we always have a Writer and Artist; usually a Science; and occasionally one or two Special.) We pay for the GoHs’ travel, lodging and board, plus give them an honorarium for their time. All of our other panelists are there for the joy of speaking to people about topics that interest them: the only recompense they get is a convention pass for the whole weekend and a nice Green Room where they can relax between talks, get coffee or a soft drink, and refresh with snacks or a light meal. While we do lose out on people who cannot cover costs on their own, we still get a lot of people, almost 200 panelists and just over 400 hours of programming content this year, according to the preliminary after-convention report that was made last night. Two or three headliners and 50 other speakers will likely bring in a lot more people than just 10 or 12 speakers alone.

    As I recall, the AA conference moves every year. This usually means a new group of untrained, inexperienced people putting it on. The organizers might want to create a specialist crew to help local organizers with logistics and planning: while each venue will still have its issues, the org will have some institutional memory of what worked in overcoming similar issues in the past. It is amazing how much a reputation for smooth operations will encourage people to return year after year.

  67. says

    As the organizer for Sacramento Freethought Day, I wanted to chime in as this is a topic that is very important to me.

    For those unaware, Sac Freethought Day is a completely free event. We make our money through a fundraising reception the night before, sponsors, and a $20 suggested donation at the door.

    In the past two years, we’ve averaged about 300 in attendance. Some see that as great, but when I look at other conventions I know we could be doing better.

    I encourage others to look at our website (www.FreethoughtDay.org) where we still have everything up from last October. You can see the activities we arranged, speakers, prizes, entertainment, etc. I thought we did a pretty good job but there’s always room for improvement and I’d love suggestions.

    For marketing, we promote the heck out of it on Meetup and Facebook, and I even visit each of the local college campuses and help them promote it too. We send out actual invitations via post to anyone we have an address for (about 200) and at least two emails each (about 700 people).

    We always get great feedback and people who actually attend love it. I already have people asking about this year (October 12th). It’s getting people there to begin with that seems to be the challenge.

    I also want to point out that mass gatherings like this for other topics exceed ours by exponential factors. Here’s a few examples:
    * A random local church gets 100-1000 people every Sunday
    * A radio summer concert event gets 10,000 people paying $50 each
    * A boring work conference gets 1000s if the location is right
    * A local wine tasting event might pull 3000 people or more at $50 each
    * A local fundraiser for animals or the homeless or whatever might bring in 300 people at $100 each
    * Over 1000 people paid $500 each to see Sarah Palin speak last summer at a local university

    I realize these are apples-to-oranges comparisons, but I still think we need to look deeper into getting our attendance numbers up.

    Maybe this really is more of a marketing issue and we just need to put more money into it. Or be more creative about it. I don’t know. Before I start rambling, what suggestions do others have?

  68. says

    PZ, I just read your post about having different kinds of atheist conferences. So how about a brainstorm….

    Let’s design an atheist conference for the Pacific Northwest, Seattle or Portland, or maybe Vancouver. It is one of the most atheist parts of the country to begin with, and with all the science fiction conventions, we have a large body of people who already know how to put on successful events. The focus would be to get together and have a lot of fun with other atheists, skeptics, free-thinkers, etc., while still having some Serious Talks for those who want them. Family friendly, with activities for the little ones (skeplings?) A little science, a little charity, a little sustainable living. A charity auction. A sing-along. A dance/social.

    What kind of activities, specifically? What time of year? What location? And more importantly, would anyone be interested in coming to something like this?

  69. says

    I think another thing to add, and something that makes SF conferences work, is less reliance on the sit-down-and-listen-to-big-name-speaker thing. Make it (or part of it) an unconference — get the attendess to suggest topics and form panels and lead the discussion.

    I do this with CONvergence every year: FtB and Skepchick send in a long list of proposals for panels, and the programming crew winnows through them (and has a public meeting to discuss all proposals) and puts together a program built around volunteers ideas for what would be good content. Atheist cons tend to be much more top down.

  70. MadHatter says

    I’m a lifelong atheist but only recently (last couple of years) have I really read about it as a movement. I’ve been to SF/anime/comic conventions. And I’m a scientist, so I go to conferences regularly. It’s just me I know, but I have yet to see something that makes me want to spend the money or time to go to a convention that’s designed just for atheism/skepticism. I suppose it’s not very clear to me what I might get out of it.

    Doesn’t help that I’m naturally an introvert so I don’t even manage to socialize at the conferences/conventions that I go to due to a targeted mutual interest. So I’m probably not the target demographic. Though, I liked Gregory’s ideas @80.

    But…why is increased attendance a necessity?

  71. says

    The point has been brought up more than once, but I’d like to add my support to cost. The registration itself, plus hotels & transportation, plus getting time off work for travel time all add up to making it prohibitively difficult for me to attend the few cons I’m interested in attending.

    It’s only the fact that next year’s AA con is going to be local (hooray Salt Lake City 2014) that I’m planning on attending.

  72. seanhart says

    TAM, as an example, is much to expensive for a paycheck-to-paycheck schmuck like me (plus getting a room? Yeah, never, ever happening for someone like me. I mean N-E-V-E-R). You have to have some serious money for that. Just admission is nearly my entire budget for Dragon*Con, including room, travel, and hitting the dealer rooms (but not including costumes, which is something I spend a little here and a little there as I can afford it throughout the year). The folks that can afford to go to TAM are folks that have already been reached by skepticism, you aren’t going to reach the folks that are saying “well, that sounds interesting, we should see what that is all about.” My honest opinion is it is elitism – I am not good enough to go because I cannot afford to go. You aren’t going to reach poor, working class folks that are looking for any ray of light or hope, and finding it at a convenient price from scammers, charlatans, and preachers filling their coffers.

    I do go to some of the skeptic and science tracks’ panels at Dragon*Con if they sound like they will be interesting, but if they don’t, there is always something else to do while there.

  73. frankb says

    5. Skepchick has always embedded its alcohol-fueled love fest in sci-fi convention CONvergence, which is really a terrible statement in regards to the status of typical ‘skeptic’ conventions.

    Spoken as one who has never been to CONvergence obviously.

    My family which consists of my wife, two daughters, and a son have a very long tradition of attending SF conventions in Minneapolis. We attended the old Minicon for many years then after the break up attend CONvergence regularly. They are definitely family friendly events. The open room parties, one of which is Skepchick’s, only serves alcohol in very small quantities. There are a lot of private room parties that are more condusive to greater alcohol consumption. I am sure convention staff reacts quickly to open displays of drundenness. So I don’t recall ever seeing an overtly drunk attendee at these conventions. This person’s criticism and ignorance is not appreciated.

  74. Larry Poppins says

    Drosera @76

    Would you not call Mohammed a prophet because you lack evidence that (a) he existed, and (b) was doing things prophets do?

    I would call Mohammed a prophet the same way I would call Midas a king or Merlin a wizard.

    I could with more justification claim that you are a child rape apologist.

    You are free to claim whatever you want. If you want me to give a fuck about what you think you will need some evidence. Either way if you want to continue this discussion take it to Thunderdome.

  75. says


    Oh, and drop the blackball mentality many here have expressed (“I won’t attend if so-and-so is speaking”). Disagreement within a movement, even on serious issues, is GOOD. Set up debates on these issues. Give attendees a chance to question the debaters. Add value to actually attending, as opposed to sitting at home and watching a podcasst. Get people involved. PZ and Greta vs Thunderfoot and Abbie Smith would fill the room IMO, and be highly entertaining as well. Purity of agenda is for Teatards, not us.

    PZ and Greta verses Abbie Smith and Thunderf00t might fill a room, but it would be a disaster of epic proportions. I’m not familiar with Abbie Smith too much (mostly just her slimy fan club), but from what I’ve seen here regarding thunderf00t, I don’t see him getting on stage with PZ and Greta without getting personal, and the moment he does, everything will just continue downhill. I imagine his fans and the pitters will start trying to shout down speakers, and I can’t be entirely certain that people on this side of the asile won’t do the same, especially once they get going. A talk like this would just be chaos.

    It’s like I mentioned in my first comment: it’s not just the presence of certain speakers that makes me say that I won’t attend if Dawkins, or Smith, or whatever thunderf00t’s real name is (I don’t remember, and I don’t care), it’s also their fan club that’ll keep me away. They’re magnets for misogynists, and any con with a large presence of slymepitters is definitely not going to be a safe place for someone like me. I imagine the same goes for other marginalized people. Invite people like that, and you’ll just get more of the same people attending cons as do, now: cis, straight, white guys. If you want the movement to branch out, then it becomes necessary to tell the people who make marginalized people feel unwelcome that those opinions are likewise unwelcome.

    In addition to that, I don’t want to attend a con where certain speakers are present because I feel that’s one way to get the movement to change. If enough people express such an opinion, those speakers won’t be invited to speak. Over time, my hope is that they’ll lose their influence on the movement as a whole, at which point people who are not the typical cis, straight, white men that make up today’s atheist movement will feel more welcome. You’ll see more women, more people of colour, more LGBT people… and if you cut out the ablist language, scienceavenger- which I do not appreciate one bit, by the way- maybe there will be more persons with disabilities, too. These are the people that movement atheism needs to reach out to, and it’s failing badly at that, and it will continue to fall so long as some of the “big names” in the movement who are known to behave like assholes to anyone who doesn’t have privilege remain “big names”, the movement will fail to reach those currently alienated by it.

    So, I stand by what I said: if a speaker at a con is a misogynist, homophobe, racist, transphobe, and so on… then I will not be in attendance.

  76. chigau (not my real name) says

    (probably violating the Reset Rule)
    Larry Poppins
    drosera is not new here.
    pharyngula drosera
    will provide some information.

  77. Esteleth, stupid fucking starchild Tolkien worshiping douche says

    I really think that PZ hit the nail on the head @83.

    This past weekend, I drove 300 miles (each way) to go to a con. This con is a fantasy/SF con that is by, for, and about women, both in terms of the creators, and the fans. The theme is pervasive, from the blatant harassment policy (which is not just posted, all people are required to sign it when they get their badges) to the fact that one of the biggest panels this year had the title “Tits or GTFO” and was an unpacking of that phrase, its variants, and how it is used.

    The biggest event, though, was a six-hour marathon of “watch a clip of a bad movie, vote on whether it was better or worse than the clips on either side.” This included voting on whether “chupacabras are the left-behind pets of aliens” is a stupider concept for a film than “leeches living in the river where the juiced-up swim team practices have grown to the size of terriers by ingesting so many steroids and now are hungry.” There’s also a popular workshop on drop-spindle spinning.

    Which is to say, there are things going on that have squat to with fantasy, SF, feminism, or anything, but are included because many years ago there was a side thing going on that proved popular (the spinning workshop was originally “if we give you a room, will you stop sitting on the floor in the hallway?”), so the organizers allowed it to expand.

    In all honesty, if you want people to come to cons, ask them what they want. Already on this thread people have cited the cost of getting in. Try to drop the cost. See if financial aid is something that you can offer. Is there interest in a “best beards of FTB” contest? Let it happen. Even if Ed wins. Air clips of Ken Ham blathering, and provide free projectiles for people to throw at the screen. Allow voting on which of n things he says in the clip are the wrongest/funniest. Be serious about having a stuff for children available, whether that is a supervised playroom or kid-friendly panels and workshops.

  78. smhll says

    The terrible reality is that the PZ Myers “FreeThought” bloggers have completed their coup d’etat of the secular community. Everybody not on board with their program is labelled a ‘misogynist’ or ‘harasser’.

    Yep. If you don’t already have a warning tattoo on your ass, we will insist on gluing a label on your forehead as part of the registration process. But your choice whether you’d prefer the M-word or the H-word. See, we’re not unreasonable!

  79. says

    5. Skepchick has always embedded its alcohol-fueled love fest in sci-fi convention CONvergence, which is really a terrible statement in regards to the status of typical ‘skeptic’ conventions.”>

    I’m with frankb, have you been to CONvergance or any other con that allow room parties?? I’ve been one of the volunteer drink mixer/slingers at the Skepchick room party two years running, and I’ve seen nothing in those parties that you wouldn’t find in any other room shindig at the con; people enjoying themselves, conversations all around about all kinds of topics, people wondering in and out. Exactly what “terrible” statement is there?

  80. drosera says

    @ Larry Poppins,

    I have no wish to go to the Thunderdome back alley for a brawl. Besides, since you confirmed my point I see no reason to continue the discussion.

  81. John Morales says



    Exactly what “terrible” statement is there?

    It kinda makes sense if you imagine you believe that a social gathering where alcohol is available must perforce degenerate into rampant boorishness and bonobo-like behaviour and you’re a prude.