My Experience at the 2012 Moving Secularism Forward Conference in Orlando
April 5, 2012
It was my great pleasure to attend the Center for Inquiry’s and Council for Secular Humanism’s joint 2012 conference, Moving Secularism Forward, which occurred March 1–4 in Orlando, Florida, so that I could represent the secular student group, SHIFT (Secular Humanism, Inquiry and Freethought), I cofounded at the University of Utah in May 2009. Florida was a prime location for the conference, given some of the alarming intrusions by religion into politics there that have been and are occurring this year. The conference consisted of a great lineup of speakers, ranging from the local to the international stage, and fostered a relaxed yet stimulating atmosphere in which attendees could mingle with each other and speakers during intimate and casual social functions and talks. This was my first time attending a conference put on by the Center for Inquiry or the Council for Secular Humanism and I certainly am glad that I had the opportunity to attend this one.
I would first like to express my sincere gratitude to the Center for Inquiry, particularly Debbie Goddard, for providing me with a travel grant to attend the conference, and to the other conference organizers and sponsors for putting on such an amazing event. The travel grant I received paid for 70% of my air travel between Salt Lake City and Orlando, without which I would have been unable to attend the conference, given my meager graduate student stipend. Having attended several Secular Student Alliance conferences over the past couple years, I was accustomed to the youthful energy that can be very inspiring at such conferences, so I wasn’t sure what to expect at this conference, given that the memberships of the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism have a somewhat higher average age by comparison. I wasn’t in the least disappointed, however, as this turned out to be the most overall inspirational and profound conference I’ve attended thus far! What follows will be a summary of my experiences at the conference that led to the unexaggerated statement I just made.
My first night at the conference was marked by a delicious free dinner catered by the hotel and paid for by the conference organizers, during which I met several other attendees who were different from me in age but quite similar in terms of our passion for embracing and promoting secularism, humanism, and freethought. The humanism and generosity of the first attendee I met at the dinner, a retired radiologist, was demonstrated when he insisted on purchasing a beverage for me after we discovered that beverages were only available by cash purchase and that I was a dollar short of the minimum charge. It was also nice to see at the dinner and during the rest of the conference that there was a decent number of younger people attending the conference, with several secular student groups from local universities represented. The dinner that Thursday turned out to be the inaugural event of a fantastic series of talks given by some very brilliant and admirable speakers over the following days.
There were too many talks given during the conference to mention them all, so I will highlight a few of the ones that made the biggest impression on me and just touch on others. Friday began with some talks given by Tom Flynn on ending faith-based funding, Dr. Steven Green on the Blaine Amendments that exist in many state constitutions to strengthen the separation between church and state, David Silverman about the then upcoming Reason Rally, and EllenBeth Wachs about her personal story of horrendous treatment by higher-ups in Polk County, Florida for her atheist/humanist activism and about the then coming Florida vote to rid the Florida constitution of its Blaine Amendment. Later on Friday, some talks were given by members of the elite International Academy of Humanism, including Nobel laureate Sir Dr. Harry Kroto and acclaimed anthropologist Dr. Lionel Tiger, who caused quite a stir in the audience over his talk that was perceived by some to be rather sexist. I thought the drama would end on Friday after Dr. Tiger’s surprising talk, but I was mistaken.
Saturday began with a session on outreach and advocacy strategies, and included talks given by admirable young activist Jessica Ahlquist, who gave a summary of her legal battle with her school over a prayer banner that was hung in its cafeteria, and by the polemic attorney Eddie Tabash, who gave an incredibly inspiring and fear-inducing call to take atheism to the general public and avoid the reversal of secular progress by a possibly soon-to-be conservative-dominated Supreme Court. The second session on Saturday featured a fascinating and unique panel on the different major political views held by prominent humanists/atheists. The panel included speakers holding political views ranging from libertarian, to liberal, to conservative, to progressive. As someone who is very open to and interested in the different views of others, I found this panel to be completely fascinating and a very unique contribution to the conference. Not surprisingly, the question and answer session got a bit heated when the deeply held political convictions of some audience members clashed with those of the speakers on the panel. The day ended with a keynote talk given by renowned philosopher of mind Dr. Daniel Dennett, who talked about whether theists truly believe what they claim to believe and whether we can even answer that question from a philosophical standpoint.
The conference ended on Sunday with a session on what our objectives are and should be as secular humanists. Bill Cooke discussed his experiences with secular humanism around the world as the director of international programs at the CFI and provided the conference’s first definition of “secularism.” Drs. Paul “PZ” Myers and Victor Stenger talked about how we can improve the world through science and how religion stifles such progress. This session was a great way to end the conference, as it left members of the audience with a focus on what secular humanists should be doing and how to best do it and promote their agenda.
Overall, I was very impressed by and pleased with the talks given by such great speakers over the course of the conference. In addition to making new friends, gaining new knowledge and inspiration, and talking one-on-one with some prominent figures in the secular movement, I also got a number of books signed that I brought with me to the conference. I left the conference feeling very satisfied, enlightened, and motivated-what more could one ask for when attending a conference on moving secularism forward?
About the Author: Jason CooperriderJason Cooperrider is a Ph. D. student in neuroscience at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, studying the cerebral and cognitive correlates of exceptional memory in individuals with an autism spectrum condition. He is the cofounder and former president of the University of Utah student organization SHIFT (Secular Humanism, Inquiry and Freethought), which is an affiliate of the Center for Inquiry and the Secular Student Alliance. He is also the secretary for the Humanists of Utah, the current treasurer and a founding board member of the Utah Coalition of Reason, and a founding board member of the Utah Freethought Society.
#1 Gordon Maples (Guest) on Thursday April 05, 2012 at 9:17am
I did enjoy the conference, but boy was it lacking in "youthful energy." There were other students there, but there wasn't a whole lot of intermingling between the bubbles. I lost my voice on the first day, so I quite literally couldn't contribute to the conference socially.
It is easy to point out the uneven racial/age/gender distributions at a conference like this (except among the students, interestingly), but what really caught me was the apparent lack of economic diversity. Apart from the college students, the conference felt in many ways like a donation drive. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it didn't help the atmosphere from the perspective of "broke college student." This was the second CFI network event I had attended, and they both had that bit of a twinge to them. Of course all large organizations do this as well, but it felt somehow more blatant here. It is off-putting and somewhat neutering to feel like you can't contribute after listening to a hit-list of all of the awesome things the organization has done with money, but that they need more (yours) to continue doing it.
Last note on the conference that I have is somewhat anecdotal. I had the chance to speak to Ron Lindsay at one point during the conference, following one of the pleas for donations. I flatly asked him, as a person of somewhat limited monetary means, why I should donate specifically to his organization. His answer was perfectly fine and sensible (CFI does just about everything, so your donation can help all across the spectrum of heathenous stuffs *paraphrased*), but the way he said it made me feel as though I was being talked down to, and in some ways placated. I don't know if this was because he perhaps perceived the question as being aggressive, but I was just aiming for a basic "tl;dr" from the top brass.
In any case, it goes back to that "atmosphere" thing. Although the conference was highly enjoyable and had an outstanding lineup of speakers, it was like one of those couches that *looks* super-comfortable, but you can never quite get the right angle on it for the maximum comfort. Still a mighty comfortable couch mind you, but not as much as it *could* be.
I don't mean for this whole ramble-y comment to come off as overly critical, those were just my honest impressions of the conference itself.
<3's to the CFI|OC peoples.
#2 Dren Asselmeier on Thursday April 05, 2012 at 10:57am
Hey Gordon! I really appreciate how much you thought about this (and I love the couch analogy). I think that it would be pompous to believe that we don't need to consider what we could do better and how our events could be more enjoyable for even more people. I'm going to forward your ideas to our main organizers so that I know they are familiar with some of the possible problems you addressed. Thanks for all that you do!