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TAM7 and the Skeptic Community

As many of you know, I recently took a bit of a last-minute opportunity to dash off to Las Vegas and attend The Amazing Meeting 7, the annual conference of the James Randi Educational Foundation. Due to time restraints and other duties (like being a bridesmaid), I didn’t have the chance to engage much with the conference sessions and workshops. But I still took away from TAM a clearer understanding of something I think I’ve been trying to define here in central Ohio for the past year or so – namely, what exactly it means to be a skeptic community.

TAM is the largest official gathering of skeptics in the world, and, for a skeptic, it’s a pretty fun and comfortable place to be. There’s over a thousand people in one place to whom you know you can talk freely about those certain things you might have to censor at work or with family. You can also trust them to challenge you to keep thinking and questioning. They also, generally speaking, know how to throw a party.

Of course, as with any community, even one created with a common mindset, there’s plenty of room for dissent and discussion about just what we’re trying to accomplish, and, even more often, how exactly we should accomplish it. We all have slightly different backgrounds, passions and goals. I heard a lot about these at and in connection with TAM. Some were disappointed with the choice of speakers, or the variety of sessions. Some disagreed with others’ politics, or dress, or tendency to party. Some are wary of the larger personages of our movement falling into a hero worship trap. Some want to talk more about God (or the lack thereof) rather than science, and vice versa. Some are more concerned with strategic skeptic outreach rather than internal community-building, and vice versa.

None of these are inappropriate topics for discussion, nor are they at all unfamiliar, because I’ve heard many of the same things mentioned in the central Ohio skeptic group, and often I’ve wondered what was the best way to resolve them. I’ve now begun thinking that there’s nothing I can do myself to work toward resolution that isn’t already being done by myself and the rest of you. I feel that I want to step back and congratulate us all on the larger picture – which is the fact that we already have a community together that cares enough to discuss these things and that cares so much about for which we’re working.

In our particular little group, we’ve talked a lot before about how we as a society would solve problems, both minor and major, if we were suddenly without a religiously-based support structure. Where would the benefits, both material and otherwise, of community, morality and law come from if not from traditional spiritual guidelines? But, while removing the current non-skeptical structure like magically pulling out the tablecloth out from under a full place setting without disruption is impossible, it seems we are already, on a small scale, slowly building an alternative that could conceivably one day smoothly supplant that structure. We’re already building bonds, forming friendships and layering conversations. We gathering together for conferences, meetings and parties. We’re celebrating secular marriages. We’re discussing how to raise our children with critical thinking skills. We’re helping out when others’ loved ones are lost. We’re kind, enthusiastic, passionate and giving, and we’re all that normally, without a supernatural impetus or threat to be so. We’re proud of our like-minded skeptics who are writing books, producing television shows and educating the mainstream through entertainment and performance. We’re already out there, creating a new structure that is flexible enough to allow for our desirable differences while still strong enough to build on our common conviction that we can construct worthwhile lives for ourselves and our families based not on unquestioned tradition or superstition, but on our human capacity for reason and rational thought.

And that’s what I learned at TAM7. The more time we spend together, however seemingly frivolous the activity, the more we are reinforcing and establishing a different way of living, and proving in the process that it’s fulfilling and rewarding. The details, I think, will resolve themselves as we keep building.

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