Afternoon InquisitionReligion

AI: Keep Religion Out of Our Secular Events

Sam can’t come to the Internet today. He is busy distracting republicans away from my uterus with a song and dance routine about Jesus and fried rice. Don’t worry he will be back next week. I just needed a few minutes to jump in and ask you a few questions before I run off to Fort Brag for Rock Beyond Belief.


Remember these guys?

Yeah, those are the people who claimed to be secular-atheists at the American Atheist Convention in Bethesda, Maryland last weekend. That is Rebecca interviewing them. They spent the weekend saying essentially, and to quote Amanda Marcotte, “If you poke it you own it.” In other words, as soon as a man has sex with me, be that by consent or by rape, then I have no say as to what happens to my body after that. Abortion is not an option because you don’t throw away green bananas and keep the brown ones. Yes, that banana story was an actual argument I heard over the weekend insinuating that a baby has MORE of a right to my body than I do. So if said baby might kill the mother, meh give the green banana a chance. It’s more valuble. It's new. Rebecca discussed some of this topic earlier this week.

This is another one of the people who took the anti-choice stance at the table:

They made a lot of people very upset. The girl in the hat said to me, and my friend when my friend raised up her hands to stretch, “Praise the Lord”. You know, cuz hahaha! My friend raised her hands up to stretch, like you would do in church I guess, so obviously, praise-the-Lord pops in your mind!

Yeah… they definitely weren’t entirely atheist or secular and that also has a lot of people rather mad. Personally, I am more upset by the misconstruing of the science to further their belief system than the fact that they actually lied about being atheist.

Some people say that religious organizations shouldn’t be allowed to have tables at our events. That the sole purpose of religious orgs at atheist events is to be aggressive and further their beliefs- that they come in to threaten and bully and to upset this minority group of freethinkers.

It’s true that some women had tears in their eyes when the issue of spontaneous abortion and the efforts of the religious right to accuse women of murder if they miscarry came up. * That may have been me in tears.

I'm about to get to the part  where I ask your opinion oh-my-darling Internet friends. And I ask this question on the eve of my leaving to go to an event where I have been told that certain religious people want to kill the entire lot of us evil atheists for participating in a secular music event at a military base. That we are better off dead than having a clear view of science, reality and well… music I guess. 

SO: Should we try to exclude religious organizations or people from our events in an attempt to protect ourselves? Should these people been asked to leave when it was found out they were not-so-secular. Or should we continue to welcome openly aggressive and angry organizations to picket and argue at our venues? 

I may not have too much time to weigh in because I have to pack for Rock Beyond Belief but I wanted to give a taste of my opinion with this photo I took of Phil Ferguson. He had the table next to the pro-life table. He did not interact with the other table much if at all but instead got a cardboard box and wrote in big letters in sharpie on it: “Donate to Planned Parenthood”. This photo shows the money he raised.



The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET


All photos by me.


Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Unless they're actively disrupting the event – not just hawking their own views, the same way most tables probably were – absolutely not. Kicking out dissenters is what they do..

      1. Remember what happened to Jamie Bernstein at the Autism-One conference last year.
        We shouldn't do that kind of stuff.  That's what they do.
        But I think it depends on what kind of event it is, and whether they are they are being disruptive or are lying about who they are and why they are there.
        For example, if it's a public event and they say who they are and that they are presenting their own counterviews, or are just observing, I would have no problem.  If it is a limited-space event and they lie about who they are to get in, that's another story.
        I think it is a good precedent if we want to attend their events if we can honestly claim not to be exclusionary or intolerant.  (Though why we would want to attend most of their events is questionable, if Ray Comfort was coming to town to discuss bananas or crockoducks, I might want to attend.)

    1. In some sense I agree with you, but I don't think that groups that get thier place by deceit deserve our respect.  If they represented themselves as a secular organization, but in fact were a religious organization, then I think they should be removed.
      Please, come picket and argue, but be honest about it.

  2. Depends on the event. If you wanted a community building exercise, then having people being dishonest about ACTUALLY being part of the community isn't really helpful.

    1. Yea that's kind of the breaking point for me. Although the individuals at the table may be secular/whatev it really doesn't seem like the organization actually is secular. And to me I think that shows enough of a deceitful front for potential exclusion from future events (pending additional research and background on the org).
      If they are secular and they have solid, factual science to support their points then they should be allowed.

  3. There's a certain level of protest we can't regulate, like picketers outside your event, but if we want people to feel safe coming to our events, we need to make sure the event is a safe environment. That dosn't mean that we have to shut down all disagreement, but it does mean that we need to have standards for presenters and people operating tables. In the tech community, many conferences have standards about what is and is not ok, in order to keep their events inclusive to minorities in the U.S. technology fields.
    I think all events should adopt and enforce a code of conduct and an anti-harrasment policy and make theirs redily available to presenters and attendees. If a conference wants to allow this kind of psudo-scietific crap in so that attendees can debate them, fine, but make it clear. As a regular conference attendee, both professional and for entertainment, if I was suprised by this kind of booth, I would not come back. If I knew the confrence allowed this sort of thing in advance, I would moderate my expectations and use that as part of my decision making process. Spending my entire confrence time in a blind rage is something I would likely choose to avoid.

  4. Unless you're completely misrepresenting yourself or disrupting the conversation, I see no reason why we should kick people out. I thought the free exchange of ideas was what we secularists are all about?

    1. Imagine if the people, even though they were being polite and friendly and pleasant to talk with on all other topics, were advocation segrgation of LGBTQ and non-whites and removing the right to vote anybody not whiite, male and heterosexual. Would you let a group like that in to set up a table? Remember, other than those 2 topics, they are wonderful people to have a beer with.
      A convention/conference like this is essentially a private space. It's not a corporate/commercial convention to sell you things, it's not an academic conference, either. Skeptic and atheist conferences are known for their strong friendships and that feeling of coming home to a family that understands you like the rest of the world and even your real family does not. That privacy and safety of cameraderie deserves to be protected and disallowing a group that does not agree with your organizations from setting up a table is not shutting down dissenters as they can engage with us in public or in specific events designed for that confrontation.
      That they got that table under deceptive means is reason kick them out without returning their table fee and disallow them with prejudice for any foreseeable future conferences.

  5. I don't understand how you're so sure they were not atheists. It's entirely possible to be an atheist and be opposed to abortion for non-religious reasons. Just like it's quite possible to be an atheist and still have strong beliefs about morals and ethics. The fact that one girl made a "praise the lord" joke is hardly proof. I make "praise the lord" jokes all the damned (hah!) time.
    Don't get me wrong, their arguments are pretty ugly, but there's nothing overtly religious about them.

    1. Some people at the event looked into them. Starting about here: in the comments on Rebecca's post goes into more detail. And their website has a lot of god-speak in it. I suppose it is possible that one or more of them could be atheist and not at all skeptical. Rebecca thinks that perhaps the man at the table was atheist. I'm not sold on any of them.

  6. I don't think people should be shut out for merely holding a dissenting opinion, but I think they should be kicked out if they're deceitful or disrespectful about it.  That is to say, I don't think there's anything wrong with a religious table, group, or attendee, unless they're pretending to be a secular group or bullying/harrassing the secular associations and individuals. 
    I think if they're making an honest effort to respect, or even to respectfully disagree with, conference-goers, there's no reason to kick them out.  Belligerance, dishonesty, and harrassment are things we shouldn't tolerate from any conference-goers, and no special exception should be made for religious dissenters.

    1. I got the same impression when I read Rebecca's post earlier.  These didn't seem like religious infiltrators but rather run of the mill, attention seeking, a-holes.  They probably fit into that category of sadly deluded people who think, "Only I see the TRUTH!" but the only truth they convey is that they are morally reprehensible.

  7. If I were to put on my event organizer hat, here's how I would probably handle it. I would let anyone attend the conference. In fact, I would be thrilled if people with dissenting opinions were to attend. I think the discussion and argument is a healthy thing, and encourage it, at least up to the point of it being disruptive, but there's no reason to think that this would necessarily happen.
    On the other hand, I would feel no obligation to allow a religious organization to have a booth at the event. The point of an atheist conference is not to be fair and promote all sides of an issue. The point is to promote atheism, and if a group has goals that do not align with the conference, they do not get a booth. Let them organize their own events. That's not to say there would be a prohibition against religious organizations having an official presence, but it would need to be taken on a case by case basis, just like any other application.

  8. In a private event, the organizers have the right to decide who will and will not participate. I don't see this as an issue of free speech or censorship, it's about the organizers' right to decide what kind of event they want to have. And it seems reasonable to want to organize an event where atheists can be unburdened by the pressures that arise when they are surrounded by a religious majority. If people disagree with this policy, it's certainly their right to protest or boycott. Just like I would boycott a women's music festival with a "womyn-born womyn" policy, but wouldn't say the organizers didn't have any right to instate that policy.

  9. They should be allowed there under the following circumstances: ONE they called ahead of time and asked permission TWO they will be there to promote understanding and less hostility between groups THREE they will not push their agenda but rather reach out to find a compromise. If they violate any of these terms, and especially if they pretend they're something they're not, they should be thrown out. I imagine atheist groups would be grateful for the opportunity to attend a religious event, so why not allow it.

    1. Luna, I think you havve it pretty much nailed. Everything depends on the nature of the event. I was a union rep for a long time. If, for example, we were hosting an educational event, teaching members how to apply for FMLA leave, protestors or people showing up to simply argue against the existance of a union are inappropriate. If we had an open pizza-lunch-Q&A at a site to drum up interest in the union, union opponants are welcome, preferably smart ones with good questions. A conference may have sessions where dissenters showing up for the sole sake of expressing their dissent might be appropriate, although in some cases I saw that devolve into a loud protest robbing a scheduled panel member from their opportunity to speak– not cool. Dissenters actually complying with the rules, and having a pre-arranged table seems fine. Pointless, maybe, but fine.  A rally is just that– whether it's a rally for the troops, a high school pep rally, rally for choice in DC, whatever else– where the actual purpose is for people of like mind, or shared interest, to gather and build morale, and show their numbers. Protesting OUTSIDE of a rally is not only fine, but historically to be expected. Protesters infiltrating a rally for the purpose of disruption? Nope. I also take the idea that somone shows up at a rally to hear different point s of view than their own with a very hefty dose of salt. Some may, but if you are actually interested in learning about a different view, there are many better ways of doing it than listening to speakers at a rally.

  10. In a blog post on their site the person there said they grew up in the methodist church but now doesn't really care about religion and is apathetic. Assumeing they hold similar beliefs it only reinforces the fact that you can be an atheist and still have silly beliefs.

  11. I am not going to ever say that events should be exclusionary and kick out dissenting opinion but I would also like to say something.
    I was personally so upset by the pro-life table that I literally had tears in my eyes because it was a trigger that reminded me of my miscarriages and how helpless and worthless those events made me feel in my life. It was very upsetting to me because one of the anti-women arguments is that I could potentially be accused of murder for these events. That being said, I agree that the pro-lifers have a right to advertise their agenda even when it goes that far down the rabbit hole. I am rational enough to counter these arguments.
    However, there was one other woman at the event who broke down and cried too, but she did so for another reason. She had recently left her religion and in doing so lost most of her friends and family. This is not a new story. This alienation often comes with loss of religious views. This woman was crying because she was afraid and also because as she told me, this was the first time she felt like she had found a "family" since she left Christianity. The event showed her that there were other people like her, that would show her support. She could find friends finally. We need to be aware that there are people who are feeling afraid to come out. They arent particulary of a skeptical mindset and they are often afraid. Atheist events should be welcoming and safe. We have to be mindful of how fragile some people are and avoid becoming yet another hostile environment for newly rational people in search of enlightenment.

    1. Yeah, I have to also say…the religious get to be on every tv channel. They get to overwhelmingly infiltrate politics. Sports. Entertainment. There are thousands and thousands of churches, mosques, synogogues, etc. How many religious marches, rallies, conventions are there anyway? Is it too much to ask that secular events get to stay secular for the brief time they occur?
      It's like when Christians complain to the Atheist Experience call in show that they should have a Christian co-host, or more Christian guests. Why should they?

    2. Amy, I agree and I personally don't think a pro-life table should ever be allowed at an event. But, I wanted to add this: I think a large number of people are unfairly characterized. The Unitarian church in our town are very pro-women, and I could see them setting up a pro -choice table at that event. I could see them backing up the ban on Creationism in schools and wouldn't that be great to have those numbers on our side. I had a devoted Christian cell biology professor who shut down Creationist so fast it would make your head spin, and my Christian friend in grad school specialized in evolution of wild cats and climate change. Maybe it's from being in a liberal area but I see more churchgoers using their faith silently for personal strength while fighting for all the same causes as atheists. I don't really care one way or another since I have no faith but it's not just atheists who are pro-choice and pro- science. I also prefer to call myself secular because as a scientist myself, I think science should be stood up for but also neutral to such conflicts, open for anyone to defend.

  12. I feel like I have to do a ton more research on American Atheists to understand just how far out of line they were in hosting these 'nozzles. So far it isn't looking good for them
    But from a more general standpoint… like PZ Myers has said on numerous occasions, and to an extent what we were getting into in the comments on Rebecca's post about these folks, is that dictionary atheism isn't enough. Lacking a belief in gods is the beginning, but it's not nearly enough. If your atheism isn't for something then it isn't worth anything. If an organization like American Atheists doesn't take stands on issues of civil rights outside of a VERY narrow reading of church-state separation issues, then maybe they shouldn't have a table at their convention adressing abortion on either side of the issue. But if they DO take a stand for more general civil rights even in principle, then they should screen the people allowed to have tables set up in their convention to make sure that all participants meet their standards. Just slapping the name "secular" on your group doesn't mean that you hold to the same principles as American Atheists, and participants should be screened for that.
    And no, I don't think AA or any other group needs to provide a forum for dissenting opinions at every event. Not every situation is an appropriate venue for a debate, and it isn't like theists (especially Christians) don't have other venues to air their views.  

  13. My take:
    For an event like this, I'd say that during the initial sign-up, there should be a simple statement:  "At this time, we are only accepting applications from atheist, skeptic and secular organizations and groups.  This is because this is an event for such groups to have outreach to the community.  If your group is religious in nature, we ask that you refrain from registering for a table at this time.  If it appears that we may have space, we will be accepting applications from religious organizations starting on [such-and-such date].  As a matter of policy, any such organization must identify itself honestly in signage at their booth, large enough to be seen at a distance.  Groups which cannot abide by these terms, or which obtain table space by duplicitous means, will be ejected, and a sign identifying them and detailing their disregard for these rules will be put up in that space."  This policy should be adhered to and enforced.  Ejections for misrepresenting themselves should occur with vuvuzelas and other instruments of shame.
    If there's more than one or two tables that get taken this way, they should also be corralled into a single Faithhead Alley or somesuch (it can have a more respectful 'official' name, if desired), easily avoided by participants with no desire to debate them.  It permits access by honest faithful who want to have a debate (and gives attendees the opportunity to sharpen their daggers–I mean, arguments–on friendly turf), while still accommodating those who would just as soon avoid dealing with the religiously inclined and making certain that the purpose of the gathering is given preeminence.

  14. I say that an atheist/skeptic event is under zero obligation to give groups like this a table. If they want to stand outside and holler, that's their business. Inside needs to be where the community can flourish essentially undisturbed. I know as skeptics we like to carefully weigh evidence and consider all possible information (and viewpoints, if they're worth considering,) but we are just as entitled to echo chambers as majority viewpoints are, particularly if it's just something like a weekend conference or gathering. I'd much rather see that table space offered to someone that wouldn't leave me or my fellow skeptics in tears of frustration — there is enough of that out in the rest of the world. I know this is an emotional argument rather than a rational one, but dammit, sometimes I just want to escape and be with like-minded people for awhile. I don't think that's too much to ask for.

      1. Absolutely. Anyone may attend as civilians, but I don't see the point in offering an 'elevated' or 'protected' space of sorts to religious or anti-choice groups just for the sake of being 'balanced' or fair. It's not really upholding balance if their entire position flies in the face of science and fact.

    1. I'm going to assume that you are joking but violence is never an acceptable solution and violence directed at women is not something we condone on this blog. So please refrain from such language in the future or you will be banned. Thanks.

      1. Does not the phrease 'violence directed at women is not something we condone' implicitly condone violence directed at men? Can we not just have no violence directed at anyone at all?

        1. I am pretty sure my statement that "violence is never an acceptable solution" covers men as well. It covers sloths and jackrabbits too. Had he offered to bind and toss a man in a dumpster I would have made sure to be more specific. 

  15. Amy, yes, I was joking. The admonisment was entirely sufficient and the followon threat was totally uneccesary. Don't worry, banning will not be neccesary, I just won't be back.

  16. I think these guys should come with a trigger warning. It's perfectly acceptable for religious people to come to these events (and have tables, etc), but they should definitely be honest about who they are and what type of opinions they seek to bring to the table.
    "Semi-Secular Pro-Life Group" should be BLARINGLY obvious. Maybe a short bulleted list of what they consider to be immoral. Atheists and skeptics should be conscious that "Pro-Life" in and of itself is going to be offensive to us. There are few pro-life arguments that don't demonize or remove the uterus-holder from the equation.
    They totally have the right to be there, but we also have the right to get away from hearing their opinions. We deal with it all the time, and we deserve a 'safe' space.

  17. As a general rule, I don't think you need to go to any particular length to ban or allow religious groups. I suppose it would depend on the event's purpose.
    However, for groups like this 'secular' pro-life group, I believe that you have to give them enough rope to hang themselves with. Doesn't have to be allowing them into conferences or similar, but their house of cards will collapse pretty quickly once people see their actual position.
    The concept of a non-religious anti-abortion group isn't unheard of, however this group is *almost* definitely not one of them and it only becomes apparent once you read/hear what they have to write/say. Notably that they are very welcoming to religion and don't differentiate themselves from religious groups at all and perhaps most bizarrely; They seem to support the violent protests and harrassment of religious extremists, which is the main objection most secular (and even many religious people) people who morally disagree with abortion have with existing groups.
    You wouldn't notice any of this if they were just written off immediately

  18. The problem I'm seeing here is that this isn't about them being secular or religious–these people are misogynists.  I do not believe it's possible to promote an anti-choice agenda (secular or not) without also sending the message that women are worth less than a clump of cells and do not deserve the basic human rights of determining what happens to her body, and that is simply not acceptable.
    If these people had shown up with a table promoting naturopathy or something, this discussion would make sense.  But these people are anti-women, and it is no more acceptable for them to have a voice at the conference than if they were sending a racist message. 

  19. I think it's awesome that the guy in the next booth raised so much money for PP.  Hell yes.

    I don't think it's a bad thing to ban certain booths or groups from conventions in the name of having a welcoming, safe environment.  That group proved that they could NOT be respectful to women (Being pro-life doesn't mean you can't be respectful of women, it just USUALY goes that way) so they shouldn't be allowed back.  Some nerd conventions ban booth babes because it's not welcoming to a lot of female attendees.  There should be a ban on groups and booths that are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc because if they're horribly direspectful towards a large segment of attendees then why the fuck should those people come back?  What would they be adding to the convention?

  20. Here's my problem with allowing religious people in to the conference, especially the vendor's rooms.
    If they are not being charged for the table space, then we can expect an increasing presence of these parasites, and they will end up squeezing out the people we do want to hear. They become spam.
    If they are being charged for table space, there is the benefit that it brings money to the hosting organization, and the more theists ponying up cash, the better for the good guys. However, in that case, they are effectively competing and  driving up the price for legitimate vendors.
    I see no upside to letting inappropriate vendors/speakers into an atheist conference.

  21. Ok, the banana argument is a new one to me.  What is it with weirdos using bananas to argue everything?
    But it's a bad analogy because I'd much rather have a brown banana than a green one.  If I buy green bananas, I'll wait a few days to eat them.  But if I got a green banana along with a meal, I would likely throw it away rather than carry it around all day because I certainly wouldn't eat it.
    But it's a bad analogy in other ways.  If I had a wonderful, perfectly ripe banana, I'd want to keep that banana around.  I wouldn't want to sacrifice it for some green banana that may or may not be useful to me as food someday.  I value things that are already good over things that have the potential to be good.  And I really loathe bad analogies.

    So if said baby might kill the mother, meh give the green banana a chance.

    I know this is nitpicking, but can we refrain from automatically calling a pregnant woman "mother"? It plays into their hands to use their terminology.  A woman isn't a mother the second she gets pregnant.  "Life of the woman" is a better phrase, IMO.  That includes pregnant women who already have children and those who don't.

  22. To me, these people seem like real life Internet Trolls.  The went there expecting to reveal their Amazing Truth to others, or at least ti reveal how much atheists are just a bunch of big meanies.  So I don't think we have any obligation to accomodate them.  From my own experience with Evangelicals, I know this is a common thing to inflitrate events that aren't about them.  They say it's to break it down from the inside, but it also serves to reinforce to their own group that the Others are bad and scary.

  23. I don't see any issue allowing them a table if they are open and honest about their intentions.  As long as they aren't trying to disrupt things or preach than I think that is ok.  It is also a great oppetunity for us to show then that we are not baby eating, narasistic, or evil, but good, decent people.

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