While filling our cups with coffee and tea, one of my fellow conferrers quipped that perhaps this isn’t a leadership conference, but rather a psychological study of the effects of sleep deprivation on atheists. I can’t seem to disagree with the possibility, perhaps only because I too am sleep-deprived.
First in the day was a panel of high school activists. This was highly intimidating and thoroughly inspiring. Their personal stories were powerful. It’s heartwarming (barf) to hear articulate, intelligent kids fighting and winning against fundamentalism and the theocratic tendencies of small towns. They all seemed to be very put-together and rather good humored about their struggles. In high school I was still scared of the dark because I thought there might be dark spirits roaming about my bedroom at night. I spoke last night with Susan Lantzer of CFI-Indianapolis, and she remarked of how agnostic enlightenment and activism is catching on with younger people now. I sense the same trend, that the staunchest subscribers to the religious right are older. I recall Judy J. Johnson’s talk yesterday, in which she described how by age 30, our personality is nearly set in stone. I don’t like to think that the people of my parent’s generation are incapable of reason, and will always be opposed to the intellectual activists of the Millennials. It’s a false prejudice I’m a bit ashamed to have. I suppose one can’t hold any demographical prejudices; an activist must activate. I was very impressed with these young people; they and the other young activists I’ve met and read about make me hopeful for the future of the secularism movement.
A great point brought up by Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island student who fought legally against a prayer banner displayed in her school: battles against prayer banners, creationism in textbooks, and commencement prayers are not small battles. A lot of people in the atheist movement find these to be bad PR, and the notion that prayers and creationism and sectarianism are things that are unimportant is false. We are not a Christian nation, and allowing people to feel comfortable with thinking that we are is anti-progressive. Standing up for our rights in small arenas and simply reminding people to uphold the Constitution are acts that promote secularism, and they’re just a small part in the broader struggle for secularism.
After the panel was James Croft, a Harvard Ed.D candidate, student of the philosophy of education, president of the Harvard Humanist Association and blogger of the (excellent) Temple of the Future. I really like James. He’s articulate and insightful (and British), and I’ve been looking forward to his talk all weekend. He talked about being Good Without God and the “humanist responsibility to serve”. Now, if I may be proud for a moment: service is an important part of the Secular Alliance and it’s something all of our members enjoy. Hearing James talk about service didn’t inspire in me any feelings of inferiority. Certainly, James and the HHA are doing great things, not to belittle them. For the size of our group and the amount of active members, we do a lot of service. I have a lot of pride for the fierce humanism of the group of people with us, but I’ll stop with the lovey-dovey. I think James enlightened a lot of people to something I feel is overlooked too often: that humanism is fundamental to atheism in the sense that atheism promotes a worldview based on reason and intellectualism which, in the opinion of many, is more ethical and humane.
Dan Kahan took the stage after lunch to give a fascinating talk on methods of cultural cognition and science communication. We all have a cultural predisposition that affects the way we not only form values and opinions, but also the way we perceive truth and fact! Confirmation bias works even subconsciously; we even have the tendency to devalue experts who disagree with our opinions (i.e., people who see global warming as a high risk tend to mentally discredit scientists who think of it as a low risk). This is obvious in retrospect, but shocking to hear. Dan works with the Cultural Cognition Project, based at Yale Law School. Their website is here.
“People want to form the views that will help them get along in their lives.” – Dan Kahan
Next up, Desiree Schell lead a workshop about activism in defense of reason. An interesting point she made was that the unspoken goal of a lot of atheist events is indeed activism. Draw Muhammad Day, the 10:23 protests, etc. are activism in defense and support of reason, something very valuable. The abandonment of reason leads down undesirable roads and has an effect in the way we’re treated by our government and our fellow humans; promoting reason is an issue very relevant to us, as reasonable people, not just as James said earlier because we have a responsibility to serve our fellow humans, but because it’s healthy for us to want to live in a reasonable world. Desiree introduced an effective style of event planning that, in retrospect, seems obvious but in context is profound.
After dinner, John Shook took the stage and floored everyone with a beautiful talk on “healthy humanism”. It was highly supportive of a positive, almost revivalist humanistic point of view and a sort of condemnation of the harsh tactics and the “simplistic and crude naturalistic arguments” that some atheists use when dealing with religious people. “God is big,” he said, “but religion is bigger”. He paints religious people as a group who, more than anything, want to feel protected and not alone or small, and that humanism can appeal to them when approached from the Saganesque “we are made of star stuff” angle. It’s possible to be honest about naturalism and still appeal to the part of a religious person who wants to feel big and included and of worth. This is so important. Confronting religious people in a shocking way is terribly ineffective and closes their mind even more. Shock and negativity feels good, because we like to exaggerate our differences and assert our perceived intellectual superiority and flaunt our mental stability in light of a supposedly “meaningless” reality, but these things can scare people. When dealing with religious people, we need to remember most of all that we are dealing with human beings: complex people who are not separate from or less than us. Sensitivity and positivity are key.
Later on, John took a few of us on a tour of the amazing CFI library, which includes several dozen thousand books on anything related to the CFI’s mission: history, religion, math and science, philosophy, social issues, political science, etc. It was rather overwhelming and very impressive; most of the books were donated by professors and collectors over many years, and, well, being an intellectual it was really like being a kid in a candy store.
Everyone headed back to the dorms exhausted and intellectually stimulated. I get the feeling that everyone here is leaving with a more refined and focused energy. I, for one, am overwhelmingly eager to apply my new skills and my many ideas to change IU and Bloomington and to affect the world. That’s what drives the people at this conference, the members of their groups and intellectual activists everywhere.
This conference has been great. I’m so thankful to all of the speakers, all of the attendees, Lauren Becker, Debbie Goddard and CFI. When I come back next year, hopefully I’ll be able to brag about the long list of awesome things that my group has done in the interim.