Recap: Friday at the 2011 CFI Leadership Conference

We woke up at the crack of dawn and walked 8 miles uphill in the hail and rain, er, well, not so much the crack of dawn, but after a late and rowdy night in the dorms it may as well have been. Despite mild exhaustion and maybe a few hangovers, the general mood as the student leaders gathered for breakfast was of positive excitement for the day’s alluring talks.

After breakfast, we gathered in the main auditorium for a session called “Reports From The Field”. Herein, students from around North America exchanged ideas, successful events and learned knowledge from their groups. This was a bit staggering. There are several dozen people here, students, average age surely not so much more than mine, showing supreme dedication to the cause of secularism. I had no idea there were events like ReasonFest (put on by Kansas Univ.’s SOMA) and Skepticon (by Missouri State University). I’m really proud of what the SAIU has done, and I’ve had a lot of positive feedback about our group’s activities, but there’s more to do. Outside of the 40,000 students on campus, there’s a whole world to change, and all around me here were people doing just that. It was intimidating, humbling and inspiring.

We broke for lunch, and came back to hear Judy J. Johnson talk about dogmatism and the psychological characteristics of a dogmatic person. It was an interesting talk, though I found it difficult to appreciate it beyond the importance of the research that her theory is capable of sparking. Obviously, there are certain characteristics about a person that causes them to think a certain way, i.e., dogmatically, and her talk provided a basis for identifying and understanding dogmatism. This was also important; it sparked a debate on how to deal with dogmatic people, and the value of dogmatism. There’s a lot to talk and think about here. I didn’t find much wasn’t much of an empirical basis in a lot of the things she said, but she was undeniably interesting.

The presentations on event planning, fundraising and PR were enlightening. While contemplating how large of an event I could theoretically pull off while still respecting the laws of physics and civility, I began to question my organizational skills. I’m unashamed to brag that I’m a superb organizer, but I was nevertheless feeling a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work one must do and the sleep one must sacrifice to run a successful event on the scale of ReasonFest or Skepticon. My saviors were these three talks. In the margins of my notes, themselves scribbled almost illegibly, are wavy lines that I think were meant to be ideas. At this point, I may have more ideas than talk notes, which is an impressive feat. I know Jessika feels the same; we’ve been excitedly exchanging thoughts after every presentation.

Next was a talk by the Illini Secular Student Alliance’s Ed Clint on little-I “interfaith” v. big-I “Interfaith”. Very good. I’m continually impressed by the ISSA and what they do. Ed told the story of Draw Muhammad Day, when their group drew chalk stick figures around campus and labelled them “Muhammad”. This caused a lot of controversy on their campus and a lot of tension between them and their Muslim Student Association. After some cooling time, Ed and the ISSA reached out to the MSA and the two groups had a meeting together to exchange philosophies and culture with one another. A debate was held afterwords, formally at first then informally over dinner, on the value of interfaith and, also, Interfaith. For those who don’t know, interfaith is exactly what it sounds like: a dialogue between those of different faiths intended to promote tolerance, awareness and understanding. Big-“I” Interfaith is apparently putting aside differences to concentrate on the similarities (i.e., “we believe in different gods but we both want to help homeless people”). I didn’t really pick up on the dichotomy here, other than that those in opposition to Interfaith seem opposed solely to the institutionalization of interfaith work. I agree, mostly, in the sense that there’s a lot that comes with supporting an Interfaith organization: supporting the leaders, the employees, the special interests and all of the statements and opinions that come out of the group. Little-“i” interfaith work can be done independently of these, and I suppose Interfaith groups promote otherness to the idea of cooperative exchange of philosophies. On that note, there’s no reason at all that any rational person should be opposed to interfaith dialogue; there was a false conflict inherent in the debate between interfaith and Interfaith, and argumentation on the matter seemed to be to be a bit unnecessary.

The start of something good.

After dinner, Rebecca Watson of Skepchick gave a presentation on sexism and new feminism. I was pretty angered by her talk, in the best way possible. She explored the fight for women’s rights from both the legal and social angles. I don’t usually agree with Rebecca about her take on feminism, but she hit the nail on the head with her talk. She didn’t have to convince us that sexism is rampant and females are facing plenty of adversity, so she concentrated on raised awareness for women’s issues such as rape, reproductive rights and discrimination. It’s nice to hear recognition of these things that I’ve faced, the disappointing sexism I’ve felt applied to myself and the nonchalance of sexism in modern culture, especially the special brand of sexism in the niche communities I identify with: nerds, redditors, skeptics, scientsits, etc. She provided this great quote:

“A woman’s reasonable expectation to feel safe from sexual objectification and assault…is outweighed by a man’s right to sexually objectify her.”

I’m not sure about the reality of this, but it’s a thought I’ve certainly had, though less articulately.

The night ended with some entertaining magic and comedy from Brian Brushwood. I lingered momentarily on the irony of someone performing magic at a convention of skeptics, but he handled us well and was impressive and entertaining in his feats.

As we were gathering to leave, CFI staffer Lauren Becker announced to us some great news:

In light of the hope and affection and eagerness and maybe also the sleep deprivation, I teared up at this. I wish I didn’t live in a time when equal rights for people of all sexualities is a major cause for celebration, but the sense of justice in light of the defeat of archaic, religion-based legislature and the success of human rights is powerful, and it’s satisfying. This news set a mood of celebration for the rest of the night and into the the following morning. I think everyone here feels similarly: this is encouraging news.

On a side note, I’d like to shout out to MU SASHA and the Illini Secular Student Alliance, two great groups with excellent blogs. Also: James Croft, blogger of the excellent Temple of the Future, who said some very nice things about the Secular Alliance.