Because it was the Religion Newswriters Association conference, it was pretty much assumed by most people that all the attendees were religious. While I debated wearing my “Hell is Imaginary Too” shirt, I opted for a plain button-down instead. That helped me blend in and go incognito when needed.
There were two types of people at the conference, those who are religion writers and those who want to be written about by religious writers. It was fairly easy to tell them apart. There were twenty different tables of groups who wanted to be written about and if you weren’t sitting at one of those tables, you probably were one of the people doing the writing.
The first thing I did was go up to each of those tables. I would ask the people there about their organization and then ask them about how they got involved and what their personal backgrounds were. Because they wanted to be written about and perceived me as religious (despite my Humanism pin on my lapel), they were quite excited to talk to me and answer my questions. The reporter notepad I had on hand helped establish my role as a writer and my badge listed several media outlets I write for. Most people noticed Huffington Post and ignored Skeptic Ink. That was good because Skepticism is almost synonymous with atheism.
In any case, my questions were friendly, but probing and direct. After a few minutes, if I got too direct or hit on a hot button issue, they might start to ask me questions about what I write about. When in other settings, I might try to couch my answer with something less scary to theists, at this conference I was pretty direct. I would tell them flat out that I write about atheism because I’m an atheist. I said this loudly and proudly.
Still, by the time people had asked me about this, I had already been talking to them for a while and they had already said things that in retrospect they might have wished they hadn’t. So this was phase two of the conversation. At this point, I could hit them with harder questions but I also wanted to make sure that my tone was light and friendly. I don’t want to play into the “angry atheist” stereotype they might hold.
I used this approach as I talked to people at all twenty tables. I also came back to some of the tables later when they had different people staffing them. I really wanted to get the most out of these conversations.
Here are some examples of the conversations I had. At the “Faith Counts” table, I met one of the few persons of color at the conference. Phil was happy to talk to me about his group’s efforts to promote the concept of faith. I asked him his definition of the term and he told me that it is a “strong trust and belief in something greater than oneself.” I told him that I would define faith as a “belief in something on insufficient evidence.” I guess this is when he asked me about what I write about exactly. After I told him I was an atheist he was definitely not as talkative… at least on religious matters. We still found common ground on geography. As it turns out, he lives a few towns away from where I grew up in North Jersey and he seemed much more comfortable talking about that than about faith.
I did press upon him that I promote reason over faith and that I would much rather see far less promotion of the concept of faith. But it was all pretty friendly and we were able to bond over our mutual love of White Castle.
Another great interview I had was with Jamie who was an American journalism student who had attended school in Vatican City. We had a nice long conversation about Catholicism and the Pope. I had asked her what the differences between the current Pope and the previous Pope were and she pretty much said that there is no real difference between them. The main difference is just focus, but they actually agree on the issues. We got pretty far into our discussion before she asked what I write about. When I enthusiastically told her that I write about atheism, she suddenly got less friendly. The conversation didn’t last much past that. I would say that she had the strongest negative reaction that I had experienced at the conference to me being an atheist.
The researcher from the Pew Research Center had the most favorable reaction to me after I outed myself. He was excited to give me a copy of one of their recent reports and then urged me to check out the presentation they were going to do at lunch concerning their new study on Catholicism in America. He made sure to point out that there is a lot in there that atheists would find interesting and then he told me that I could get an advanced copy of the new survey, but that I can’t talk about the findings until September 2nd. He reminded me of this several times in our conversation.
One person who I thought would be friendlier to me was the woman from DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, & Religion). The table had all kinds of magazines about science and she talked to me about how it was important to get religious believers to not be so against science. Awesome! We agree on this and I thought for sure she would be an ally. However, when I asked her how her group could convince religious believers of the importance and validity of science she just said that it wasn’t their mission to do that. Instead she just wanted to have religious believers and scientists to have a dialog and not to actually change anyone’s point of view. She left me confused with her contradictory statements and I kept pressing her on this. After it started to become a bit combative, I politely excused myself.
The ladies at the Loyola Press table were fun to talk to. They were telling me all about how happy they were that a fellow Jesuit was the Pope and how they have so many books about him. I asked them about the difference between this Pope and “Pope Palpatine.” Yeah, in this conversation I actually called former Pope Benedict, “Pope Palpatine” before outing myself as an atheist. They didn’t even catch on and I had to fight the urge not to laugh at my own joke. They agreed with Jamie that the two Popes are pretty much the same on the issues, but acknowledged that the difference in focus was a pretty big deal. We also talked about whether the political divide in the Vatican falls under geographic lines like how the southern United States tends to be more conservative.
When I did out myself, it didn’t really change the dynamic of our conversation much. They were pretty cool about it and said that they thought that the Pope had talked about atheism before. I told them that he had. He had actually threatened to punch us in the face if we mocked his beliefs. They insisted that he must have been joking, but I told them he definitely wasn’t and recounted the story of what he said on the airplane with his aid. Still, I told them that it was an improvement from the last Pope who didn’t much like us at all and who would probably have us stoned to death or something. Of course I said all this with a smile and a chuckle. So while this part of the conversation was definitely harsh, it was still light and friendly. We agreed that Pope Francis’s statement was out of character for him.
The only other African-American at the conference that I saw (aside from Phil) was the gentleman from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. No one was really going to his table and I was honestly surprised they had a table there at all. I asked him why he was there and he just told me that he was asked to be there to let people know that veterans are entitled to a religious burial of their choosing. He said that it used to be that veterans had the choice of either a Christian symbol or a Jewish symbol for their headstones, but now there are 62 different choices. He mentioned without me outing myself or my prompting that Wiccans, atheists, humanists, Muslims, Sikh and many others now have headstone symbols available to them. He regretted that he did not bring with him the full list, but I did find the list online.
Another table that was neglected was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. No one likes to talk to Mormons except me I guess. They were promoting their humanitarian efforts to developing countries. To my surprise they told me that these efforts are separate from their missionary work and that they don’t bring copies of The Book of Mormon with them when they are doing this kind of work. One thing that I thought was funny was that they had a naked baby doll on their table. At first glance it looks like one of those things that the Pro-Life movement would put out, but they told me that this doll was actually used to teach people how to resuscitate newborns. Mormons, they are full of surprises.
Toward the end of the day, I got to talk to the people from Lovell/Fairchild Communications. I know what you are thinking; who the fuck are they? It was tough to find out; there was no one at their table most of the day. They did have packets of information about a film called, “Risen” that they appeared to be promoting. By the end of the day they had someone there to pack up and I got to talk to her. Nancy Lovell was thrilled to tell me all about the film, “Risen” which she described as sort of a sequel to Passion of the Christ. Basically, it is the story of how the evil Jews tried to discredit the resurrection of Jesus. I asked if this was based on any historical records and she admitted that it was completely fictional. I chuckled a little at her admission.
Another person was also listening to Nancy’s pitch and mentioned that there was a lot of push back from the Jewish community claiming that this film was horribly anti-Semitic. She brushed that off and started to talk about this other film that her group was also promoting called, “90 minutes in Heaven” staring Hayden Christensen from Star Wars. Look, my wife describes me as a “Lucas Apologist” because I actually liked the prequels and often defend them and Hayden Christensen’s acting in them. But still, even I recognize that the guy probably has a hard time finding work these days and Christians are always disparate to find famous actors and actresses to star in their crappy films. These guys totally took advantage of Christensen’s desperation.
I played a little dumb with Nancy on this and asked if this was based on the book by the kid who recently admitted that he made the whole thing up. She said, no that this was based on another story.
I got to talk to plenty of other people at the RNA Conference too. Conversations I had with fellow attendees were also very fun and interesting. In an upcoming post, I will talk about my lunch with the Focus on The Family crew and a lengthy conversation I had with an Opus Dei priest. Again, I would like to thank all my supporters who helped to fund my registration fee for this conference. If you are enjoying my coverage so far, please consider donating to Dangerous Talk to help me attend future events or even better, donate to my Patreon page. Don’t forget to comment below and share this article everywhere. Thanks!