Years ago I went to two conferences on atheism–one in Chicago, one in Washington DC. I thought I might write an essay about the state of atheism in the country, or find out something interesting about the varieties of atheism, or who knows what. The first, in Chicago, happened to be held on Easter weekend, in what was either a juicy bit of irony or a heavy-handed bit of scheduling symbolism. It took place in a giant, bland hotel, rooms with large windows looking out on a treeless golf course that had not yet recovered from the blight of winter and was notable mostly for being littered with goose shit. The hotel lobby featured an artificial grotto of some kind–foam stones built up into cave-like shape, festooned with fake plants and what may have been an actual functioning waterfall. I wasn’t sure whether it was real because I didn’t get close enough to it to see: it was always surrounded by atheists, and I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want to end up accidentally sharing space in a small artificial cave with any of them.
Some of these atheists were serious, to judge by their bumpers. They were perhaps even evangelical about it. One car featured a vanity plate that read “atheist” which struck me as perhaps overly enthusiastic about the power of reason to calm down a cop. Most of the people I’d known growing up in the south thought of atheists as barely human; to them having that license plate would be like painting “psychopath” or “serial killer” on the back of your car. I had never been to a conference of any kind before, so I wasn’t prepared for the oddity of social life among a densely packed group of people who shared a common enthusiasm.
I also wasn’t sure how to write about something like this: I was comfortable writing academic papers, happy to write short stories–but I was here with the aim of describing whole living people I was meeting when they were at their least normal, probably. Whatever else they might have been in the rest of their life, here they were almost 100% about being atheists: the talk was all about the mystifying lives of people of faith, the outrages that atheists suffered in daily life, the steady encroachment of the religious right into realms of American life that had only recently been won to safety, like public schools. There didn’t seem to be much good news; folks felt embattled, besieged, even though they also said, repeatedly, that the numbers had never been better–more people in America now identified as non-believers than at any time in the history of surveys. If there were people talking about what else they did in their lives—their families or their jobs or the injuries they were recovering from or the books they’d just helped write or the vacations they were taking–I didn’t hear any of it. It was all hard-core talk about rationalism.
Which maybe shouldn’t have surprised me. Of course people who have paid hundreds of dollars to travel to and attend these conferences would want to spend their time talking about the things they probably couldn’t talk about at the staff room at work, things perhaps they couldn’t even admit in their jobs for fear of losing favor. It’s just that I had hoped, I realized, that atheists would be more at ease in the world, less fixed to a set of rigid principles, less wounded-seeming. I had thought maybe people here would feel freer and less conflicted than people out in the world at large. Instead they were just as many raving lunatics here as at any bible retreat I’d ever been to.
The sessions, as I remember them, were mostly pretty boring denunciations of magical thinkers; incredulous catalogs of the kinds of blatantly anti-rational beliefs people still managed to hold in spite of all of the advances of science and understanding. It seemed to me at points that there was very little reason to have a conference of atheists, actually–they were defined primarily by an absence, an opposition. I’d expected that they would also be non-joiners, opposed to group activity, proud independents and loners and weirdos, that getting a bunch of them together in one place would yield fireworks, but nobody here seemed prepared even to spark.
The DC conference—of the Council for Secular Humanism—was the (slightly) more energetic. For one thing, it was in the capital, and it was focused largely on the political danger many saw inherent in the encroachment of religious principle and thought into political discourse and legal theory. Some of the people here were not atheists. One keynote speaker was Barry Lynn, whose day job was running an organization dedicated to keeping church and state separate, but whose motivation for doing so was to protect his faith from encroachment by government, not the other way around. He was an ordained minister, and he was introduced by someone who said that if there were more Christians like Barry Lynn maybe Christianity wouldn’t be so bad, a line that landed with a bit of a clunk at my table, where nobody seemed interested in redeeming Christianity in any way.
Christopher Hitchens also spoke at this conference, which was a thrill. He seemed quite drunk to me; he was dividing his time between the conference and the memorial service for his friend Michael Kelley, one of the first journalists to be killed covering the war in Afghanistan. It was near the beginning of what many people thought of as Hitchens’s apostasy, when he bucked liberal orthodoxy by declaring himself in favor of the war we were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. What became clear when you heard him talk about these wars in the context of a conference on atheism was that it wasn’t politics or fear of terrorism that drove his support for the wars so much as it was his disgust for religious institutions–if a country wanted to be ruled by a cabal of religious zealots then fuck em.
Hitchens was the most electrifying speaker of the weekend, and of both conferences combined. Even if he was drunk and tired (I’m not sure he was the first but he was definitely the second) he was brilliantly articulate and compelling, the kind of person who would make you despair of ever feeling smart again: you’d never come close to his level of erudition and rhetorical skill, and all your efforts after seeing him were bound to feel lame and awkward.
But Hitchens couldn’t touch what I saw by accident walking down the hall to the bathroom that evening. There was another conference going on at the hotel that night, or maybe not a conference but a service, a ceremony. It was a room of men in robes and caps, and I passed it just in time to hear a woman (I think–and I think I heard that it was the first woman ever to play this role in a service, though I may have made all this up) singing or chanting prayers in Arabic before a meal or a meeting…. I don t know what it was. I know that it was a room of people in a posture of devotion, and that in their devotion they made music as beautiful as Bach and it gave me the one jolt of joy I felt on what had otherwise been a beauty-free weekend among people who seemed seemed contemptuous not only of faith but of beauty as well.