On June 19, 2008, Alison Smith, 26 and aflame with commitment to her cause, was at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, working for the James Randi Educational Foundation as part of the staff for The Amaz!ng Meeting. “TAM,” as everyone calls it, was started by the foundation in 2003 and is a four-day annual convention of what’s loosely called the freethought movement, comprising atheists, agnostics, debunkers of pseudoscience, and others promoting rationalism over superstition, and reason over religion. What Comic-Con is to X-Men fans, TAM has become to freethought: an intellectual mixer, a party zone, and the place where the average fan can meet his or her heroes.
The featured speaker in 2008 was astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, now the host of Cosmos, the update of Carl Sagan’s classic miniseries. Christopher Hitchens spoke that year, and the illusionists Penn and Teller, heroes to the freethought movement, performed. Yet one of the biggest draws was Michael Shermer, a swaggering historian of science who, after an earlier career as an ultra-long-distance bicyclist, founded Skeptic magazine. He now contributes columns to Scientific American, speaks all over the world, and writes popular books like Why People Believe Weird Things, which are just what you should give to a friend who needs to be deprogrammed from a belief in fundamentalist Christianity, alien abduction, or bogus homeopathic remedies. He is a freethought celebrity, an exciting person for a young activist like Alison Smith to bump up against — which she did, at an after-party on the first night.