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The Controversy over the Mythicist Milwaukee Conference

By Karen Garst ~

When I got enraged at the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, I wrote a book about why women should leave religion: Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion. I started this blog and named it Faithless Feminist. I had always defined feminist as gender equality between men and women. Three years ago, I had never heard of third wave feminism, intersectionality, social justice warrior, atheism plus, or elevator gate. Needless to say, I have learned about all of them and more since then.

Last spring I was contacted by the folks planning the Mythicist Milwaukee Conference (MMC) and asked to help advertise it by giving out free tickets to some of my blog subscribers. I had been on their podcast and did a presentation for one of their meetups and was happy to help out. In exchange, I was given two free VIP tickets for the Saturday, September 30 event. I called one of my best friends in Wisconsin and she was interested in going with me. Cool! I will admit I didn’t pay much attention to the line-up of speakers. I did notice the movie preview of “Batman and Jesus” which looked interesting. I made my airline and hotel reservations and didn’t give it another thought.

Then a few weeks ago, the shit storm hit. It turned out that David Rubin, The Rubin Report, who was initially scheduled, had dropped out and a substitute had been made – Carl Benjamin, also known as Sargon of Akkad. I had watched a couple of his videos and some debates people had had with him. He is controversial to say the least. Several people point out the problems he had caused in the past and others called on the organizers to not put him on stage. I did attend and would like to make this report.

Freedom of speech
If the organizers of MMC wanted to invite certain people to their conference, that is their business. I can choose to be interested and attend or I can choose not to. Yes, there was an expectation that they would focus on atheism and skepticism. Their vision is “a world free from religious oppression and bigotry” and their goal is to promote “dialogue about culture, religion and freedom of thought.” But like most people, I hadn’t paid much attention to the change in speakers until I saw the Twitter and Facebook posts. I still intended to go to the event. I had non-refundable airline tickets and was looking forward to seeing my friend. I also thought it would be interesting to see what happened at the conference. Controversy can lead to the growth and advancement of a movement. We shouldn’t want to spend our time in echo chambers of only people who agree with us. Some attendees, especially well known ones, decided not to attend. I appreciate their reasoning and support any individual’s decision not to attend. There were some very good speakers at the conference including Melissa Chen, Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, and Asra Nomani – all well prepared, interesting, and with differing views. I would in particular suggest watching Chen’s talk about what happened to the values brought on by the Enlightenment. A video of MMC will be posted here. I am going to concentrate my remarks on the debate between Sargon of Akkad and Thomas Smith as it was one of the biggest mash-ups I have ever seen on stage. Most of the opposition to the conference involved Sargon’s presence.

Sargon of Akkad and Thomas Smith
Thomas Smith was originally chosen as an interviewer of David Rubin. When Rubin pulled out, he was asked to “debate” or “interview” Sargon of Akkad. I am not going into all the criticisms of Sargon because you can find them easily enough online and even on his own channel. It is also pretty clear that MMC organizers knew all about him. They mentioned on an earlier podcast that people are tired of “god is dead” debate so they went in another direction. They also called Sargon an entertainer. I am not at all sure that he would appreciate being characterized as such. I think he sees himself as an intellectual commentator on social issues and politics.

The “debate” ended up being about feminism, social justice warriors, and intersectionality. Sargon claimed that gender equality now exists and that any difference in outcomes for people “is an indication of freedom.” He stated that “95% of CEO’s are men because they wanted to be a CEO.” In response to a question from Smith, he added that “affirmative action is discrimination.” He stated that you can’t focus on the group, you must focus on the individual. Now this is a lot to unpack in a short blog post. But it reminds me of the myth of Horatio Alger. Alger was a prolific 19th century author who wrote about how hard work and determination as an individual could get you anywhere. It is now often referred to as “the myth of Horatio Alger.”

But let’s take a look at women’s rights. Did women win the vote because they individually went to the voting booth and asked to vote? No, winning the right for women to participate in the US democracy took the combined efforts of many like-minded men and women who believed women were the equals of men. It took an amendment to the US Constitution to bring it about. How did we defeat the terrible Jim Crow laws in the US? Martin Luther King was a powerful leader, but he could not have won the civil rights battle by himself. Many, many disparate people came together to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. If you want to assert your rights as an individual, you must have some rights in the first place and virtually all of these rights are gained by collective action usually for a group as a whole.

Sargon likes to brand everything he disagrees with as Marxist collectivism. Marxist collectivism is defined as “political theories that put the group before the individual.” In other words, socialism and communism. Just because people come together to achieve equal rights does not make the effort Marxist collectivism. Sargon also claims he is a “classical liberal.” If anything, he’s a libertarian. Do it on your own. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Don’t complain about the ghetto, just get out of it. How naïve. For him if one person has a mountain of barriers to climb and another can just step off the curb, he calls that freedom. If we care about equal opportunity, then let’s look at what it takes to achieve equal opportunity. It’s not Sargon’s version of Horatio Alger.

I was the first person to ask a question about this debate and stated the following: “I am the Faithless Feminist. I believe that religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality. We need to get more women to give up religion. And it’s not going to happen if there are no women on a panel that talks about feminism and intersectionality.” Sargon responded that he would try to come next time as other than a while male, thus making fun of my comment. I guess he is just an entertainer because his groupies all applauded him and laughed. I think a woman should have debated Sargon with a moderator in between.

What bothered me most about his presentation was the response of the audience. In 2016, Sargon had commented “I wouldn’t even rape you,” to a British member of parliament who had been a victim of sexual assault earlier in her life. When Smith asked him if he thought his comment was immoral, Sargon said he didn’t care. The audience cheered and clapped. Sargon had also admitted to harassing women online and to laughing at a report that a woman atheist had been murdered. The people who clapped in the audience were mostly men - young men, white men. It is this which made me the saddest. Ironically, they were doing exactly what they complained about feminism – playing the victim card. Poor us, women are taking over. Is this what an atheism/skeptical conference has come to? Next time, I’ll be more careful when I make those airline reservations.