Recap of the 2011 Student Leadership Conference.
June 27, 2011Carly Casper, president of the Secular Alliance of Indiana University, recounts her experience at this year's Student Leadership Conference.
This article was originally posted on the Secular Alliance of IU blog president Carly Casper.
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.
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 this 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.
About the Author: Carly CasperCarly Casper is an undergraduate student at Indiana University studying creative writing. She is an active humanist and currently serves as the president of the Secular Alliance of Indiana University.
#1 sevandyk on Tuesday June 28, 2011 at 9:47am
I think you must have gotten the Rebecca Watson quote wrong. As is, it sounds like she said that men have to the right to make women feel unsafe and objectified, and that's certainly not what she said... :P
Anywho, great post.
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