On Christmas Eve, I received an email invitation to speak at this year’s Mythinformation Conference (or “Mythcon”), an atheist conference held every year by Mythicist Milwaukee. Upon reading it, I laughed. Let me explain why.
Early last September, criticisms from progressive secular humanists began to surface on social media directed at Mythcon, an event I had never heard of before then. After skimming bits and pieces of commentary that would appear on my timeline, I gathered that an atheist group was planning to feature a few controversial speakers who decry the merits of seeking social justice.
I didn’t care enough to learn the specifics since atheists disparaging social justice is as common as men being convinced an issue involving sexism has absolutely nothing to do with sexism. It wasn’t until someone asked me a question related to Mythcon that I took the time to look up details about the conference and those involved. And then…I saw. I saw an organization that touts humanism and ideas of equality as core values going out of its way to solicit social media shock jocks who peddle ideas that undermine aspirations inseparable from humanist principles and the pursuit of equality.
With seemingly extraordinary indifference and, to paraphrase Matt Dillahunty (host of the weekly webcast The Atheist Experience), with more concern for attention than truth or decency, the Mythcon organizers hosted an event that has been described as a debacle (twice) and a disaster. Perhaps that has something to do with the “highlight” of the conference involving a mocking reference to rape that was repeatedly cheered and applauded by an overwhelmingly white male audience.
And now, three months later, I had received an invite from that same organization.
So yeah, upon reading the email, I laughed. I then put my phone away and continued to enjoy my holiday weekend mainly unplugged. And that’s what also made it humorous; the invitation was sent on Christmas Eve—because apparently sending event invites during the holidays is how Real SkepticsTM get down. I initially decided that the request didn’t warrant a response.
Several days later, I was reminded of the email. There was a part of me that wanted to be petty and reply with a meme, or a gif, or a video clip, or a one-sentence response like “I’d rather eat a mayo sandwich,” or even a one-word response like “Nah.” I ended up resisting this urge since I couldn’t decide on a single petty response, and I didn’t want to go overboard with a copious display of petty, because with pettiness, less is more.
Instead, I reread the email, zeroing in on the following:
We are reaching out to see if you would want to be a speaker at Mythcon V. Our idea for your event would to be part of a discussion on “The effects of social justice activism in the African American community” [sic] This topic title is not final. The idea is to have you on stage with someone that would hold opposing views. We would have a moderator that would be present just to keep the conversation moving along.
Even if this group hadn’t completely soured me with their previous conference, I still would’ve refused because the nature of this indecent proposition insinuates that there’s something to dispute. As far as I’m concerned, it’s tantamount to saying,
We’d like for you to explain the importance of activism that seeks an increase in sociopolitical power for communities that have endured systematic disenfranchisement in a way that has pathologized them and has restricted their access to the rights, resources, and opportunities that are made fully available to white people ever since this nation was erected on stolen land. We also think it’s a good idea to have you argue against someone who will represent the predominant sentiment of white America, and who considers your form of political engagement divisive.
Or, as secular activist Alix Jules paraphrases the request that he also received: “Please justify your existence, anger, and rage, while defending your humanity.”
I will not negotiate my humanity. I will not play accomplice to interrogating the significance of Black liberation to indulge the white gaze.
This leads me to a point many who consider themselves a part of the atheist movement may not want to hear: the misguided audacity Mythicist Milwaukee has displayed reflects aspects of an ethos deeply entrenched within organized atheism communities.
It isn’t like Mythcon 4 is the first time atheists or self-described secular humanists have misapplied the right to free speech to express or celebrate dehumanizing views. It isn’t like Mythcon 4 is the first time atheists or self-described secular humanists have trivialized the struggle for a more just world and dismissed it with terms like “identity politics.”
I acknowledge that these elements are alive and well within the humanist movement, one made up of a non-monolithic variety of outspoken individuals, groups, and organizations who share mutual interests but also embrace diverging goals. I’ve gradually disassociated myself from organized atheism (outside what’s necessary for work) because it’s too common to meet those involved in this movement who not only don’t prioritize matters of social change for collective liberation, but also regard those who value these ambitions with contempt. Those aren’t my people, but more than that, they’re obstacles to my work.
I don’t want to waste time and energy trying to convince people why they should examine their allegiance to unjust ideologies, or why they should want to act in solidarity with marginalized communities. I prefer to invest my time in communities of people who acknowledge that there are major social problems that demand solutions.
The American Humanist Association is working to be part of the solution by hosting Secular Social Justice 2018 in April. Secular Social Justice is a conference dedicated to providing tools to better recognize and dismantle various systems of injustice. The nonbelievers and believers who embrace the humanistic principles supporting this type of organizing are those I consider “my people.” I want to build with my people. I want to grow with my people. Rather than reinforcing values that contribute to our oppressive culture, my people understand and value the need to transform our oppressive culture. Secular Social Justice is about transformational change—and that’s the type of proposition I can get behind.