Albert Einstein once said insanity is going to the same conferences over and over and expecting a different result. Or at least he said something to that effect. The National Conference of American Atheists, held recently in Minneapolis, could fit neatly within this maxim, except for one thing: the audience was overwhelmingly, unexpectedly young. When the commencement speaker asked all students to stand, close to a quarter of the seats in the hotel ballroom emptied. Two high school kids sitting against the back wall (free from school in honor of Good Friday, ironically) were so animated that they would have fit in better at a hip hop show than a conference.
Many of the speakers boasted about the large turnout of young people, pointing to a recent Pew report that suggests a growing trend of skepticism toward religion in people under 50. Among the 10-plus speakers, however, only two seemed intent on engaging the younger members of the audience. One, predictably, was scientist and author Richard Dawkins, whose eloquent and erudite manner is overshadowed only by the rationality of his oratory. Dawkins is a go-to guy for atheist talking points, and there was plenty of furious note taking in the audience during his presentation, presumably to stockpile ammunition for future debates. The other was physicist Lawrence Krauss, whose lecture on dark matter and energy was informative and surprisingly accessible to the clueless layperson.
Though widely different in focus, Dawkins’ and Krauss’ presentations had one central similarity: a simplicity of argument. Simplicity is the basis of atheism, and it’s also what many rational thinkers find appealing. There is no room for ritualistic mystery in atheism. It is adherent to the laws of nature and humanism, nothing more. To atheists, the mystery of the universe is not a testament to the power of a god, but a thing to be studied and ultimately unlocked.
Unfortunately, this simplicity was lost on most of the speakers, who were more intent on pointing out the flaws in religion than they were in making a case for the inherent rationality of atheism. The defensive vitriol leveled at the religious powers-that-be effectively muddied the waters. Using atheism as a takedown of religion makes basic belief systems complicated. It is difficult to address the many failings of the world’s religions without entering the labyrinthine, incense-scented halls of ancient mythology. Going down that road serves only to add to the confusion of people unfamiliar with what atheism really is, exacerbating the misled belief that it is a cult or a religion. In fact, atheism is the antithesis of such belief-oriented groups. Next year’s conference would do well to scrap the bathetic victimhood and pointless navel-gazing, and concentrate on nabbing more speakers like Dawkins and Krauss.