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Skepticon Wrap-Up: Day 1

As promised earlier, here’s a full wrap-up of my weekend attending Skepticon IV in Springfield, Missouri. I really have to give tons of credit to the organizers, who not only put together an amazing convention, they did it as a part-time volunteer effort and made it completely free! They’re rock stars, and I sincerely hope the atheist movement can find them full-time jobs doing this kind of stuff, because we need people with those sorts of skills.

Here are some highlights from the weekend:

Some outside shots of the Gillioz Theater, where the convention was held.

The registration line on Day 1, just before the first talk began. The theater, which has over 1,100 seats, was filled to capacity.

David Silverman of American Atheists opens the convention with a rah-rah talk on why we should all be out-of-the-closet atheists and what we can accomplish by speaking out and fighting back. (Also, he’s gotten a ridiculous amount of mileage out of that Reddit meme.)

Eliezer Yudkowsky of Less Wrong (also the author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality) discusses human irrationality in decision-making and why Maxwell’s equations are a simpler explanation than thunder gods.

One of the best parts of Day 1 was a panel discussion on how atheists should approach the topic of death. Yes, we had a death panel! Participating were Julia Galef, Greta Christina, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and James Croft of Harvard, with Jesse Galef of the SSA serving as moderator. Much illuminating discussion ensued of cryonics, death as a deadline, and the musical Rent.

Dan Barker of FFRF talks about his own deconversion from life as an evangelical Christian preacher, the Clergy Project that’s helping closeted atheists trapped in the pulpit, and the good news that you don’t have to go down to the torture chamber in his basement.

Julia Galef discusses the difference between Hollywood’s idea of rational decision-making, as depicted in Star Trek and other media, and real rationality. Capsule summary: People who think you can be “too rational” don’t understand what “rational” means.

The one and only Greta Christina brings the house down with a barn-burner speech on why atheists should be angry. She got the biggest standing ovation of the entire convention; I’m pretty sure she could have whipped us up into a torch-wielding mob if she had wanted to. Luckily, she uses her powers only for good.

Lauren Lane and Katie Hartman, two of the awesome organizers of Skepticon, on stage in between talks. However much credit they got, it wasn’t as much as they deserved.

Rebecca Watson speaks about the religious right’s war on women. It wasn’t a feel-good talk, but it was a necessary one, and it made me happy to see that it was warmly received.

PZ Myers took the stage, but before starting his talk, he and some of his readers had a surprise: a box of gifts for Rebecca as a way of showing her we’re all on her side despite the ridiculous and disgusting misogyny that’s been aimed at her for standing up for women’s rights.

PZ changes into his superhero identity, which I have to assume is Squid-Man.

PZ shows how much of the human genome is junk DNA. In the night’s niftiest demonstration, he passed out a hundred-foot-long rope, stretching all the way around the auditorium, that served as a scale model of the human beta globin gene. Just a few inches of pink, scattered along the entire length of the rope, represented how much of that gene is actually transcribed into protein. The rest is genetic junk that gets spliced out and thrown away.

The night closed with a rollicking revival in grand holy-roller style by Brother Sam Singleton, the Atheist Evangelist. There was singing, hollering, preaching, testimonials – but no altar call for people to come forward and confess their sins, because as he said, “Y’all look all right to me!” Katie Hartman had an epiphany on stage, as you can see.

After the first day of talks, the atheists stormed the Farmers’ Gastropub in downtown Springfield. We just about drank the place dry, and as we found out later, they had their best single night ever thanks to us. It’s nice for someone to welcome nonbelievers for a change! Pictured (L to R): JT Eberhard, PZ Myers, Greta Christina, Ed Brayton, Richard Carrier, Jen McCreight.

Freethinking feminists rule. Pictured (L to R): Jen McCreight, Rebecca Watson, @aynsavoy, Amanda Marcotte, Greta Christina, Lindsay Beyerstein, @girl_noir.

There, um, might have been some arm-wrestling around the end of the night. JT destroyed me in a best-2-out-of-3 matchup; it’s just possible that the man is a Terminator in human disguise.

Coming up: Day 2! Also, I’m on Twitter now; follow me and say hi at @DaylightAtheism.


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