June 28, 2012
After a good deal of time to rest and reflect, I am excited to report back on the amazing success that was the 2012 Center For Inquiry Leadership Conference: An intensive weekend for leaders of affiliated groups who share in their mission of promoting science, reason and secular values. From open to close, it was clear that the organizers of the conference were dedicated to providing the tools necessary for the assembled participants to be more effective leaders in the future.
Also we got this bitchin’ design on a shirt.
One of the stand-out talks from the first day of the conference was a presentation by CFI Campus Outreach Coordinator Debbie Goddard. It consisted of a veritable laundry list of who’s who from around the country and around the world to highlight student leaders as the future of secular organizing. Another main point was the ongoing global struggle to promote secularism in government and skepticism in society. One story that was repeatedly mentioned throughout the weekend was that of current Indonesian prisoner Alexander Aan, who is facing years of imprisonment and thousands of dollars in fines for sharing Facebook posts that promoted atheism. Although a later speaker would suggest nonreligious activists should forego traditional concerns about secular governance (deemed “white people problems”) for progressive issues, the story of Aan and others drove home the point that there is still much work to be done in promoting freethought around the globe.
James Croft of the newly-renamed Harvard Humanist Community was also on hand to share his expertise in the field of effective communication. While he noted the importance of logical arguments, Croft stressed that there was a lot of work to do in making the emotional connection necessary to make audiences into allies of secularism. We then had a chance to put his principles of communication into action, recreating the University of London Muhammad cartoon controversy, crafting responses from the atheist student group to the broader campus community. The fact that the whole presentation was done in extended Star Trek and Star Wars metaphors certainly didn’t hurt in making Croft’s workshop all the more enjoyable.
Master Ingersoll says: The phrase hokey religion” is an audience turnoff!
A great deal of conference time was spent on how to effectively sway public opinion and policy to achieve goals. This theme was kicked off in style with a 3 hour workshop from activism guru Desiree Schell, who put us through the paces in designing a PR campaign using the principles she taught us. Amanda Knief, former lobbyist for the Secular Coalition of America and current American Atheists Administrative Director, was present along with Michael De Dora of CFI’s Office of Public Policy to discuss the efforts being undertaken by secular organizations to promote humanism in policy initiatives. The speakers voiced the importance of demanding action from our elected officials at every level, as well as voting. If you haven’t done so, take a moment and register to vote. It’s OK, I can wait!
The weekend was also an opportunity for CFI to put forth their vision for what we should do now, promoting a year of Secular Service during which groups will pledge volunteer hours to be counted towards an overall goal. One specific project mentioned was a joint effort with Foundation Beyond Belief to participate en masse in the Light the Night walks to support The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The first $500,000 will be matched by the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, with the total goal for secular involvement in Light the Night set at a million dollars!
Hey! That’s me!
CFI also took time to recognize the achievements of the past year with an award ceremony honoring those who have been outstanding contributors to the cause. ISSA is thrilled to have been among these with an award for our Diversity Initiatives, including our fall debate “Does the Black Community Need God? A Debate on Race, Faith and Culture” and work with the campus Women’s Resource Center. Individual ISSA bloggers Melanie Cornell (”Top Four Presidents That Probably Shouldn’t Have Sworn in on the Bible”) and Sam Shore (”Religion’s Insidious Marketing”) also picked up nods for their articles.
Of course, it wasn’t all work, with the assembled heathens spending a healthy amount of time chatting each other up and exchanging ideas. Even though we had to be up bright and early each day for presentations, student leaders socialized late into the night. By the virtue of a few charitable souls, (shout-out to Dave Muscato and Aaron Friel!) late-night fuel in the form of some of the largest pizzas I have ever seen was not in short supply. While the speakers were electrifying, the opportunity to forge relationships with other student leaders was by far my favorite part of the weekend.
Secular activism is srs business
But what’s a get-together of atheists without some good, wholesome fun? For Sabbath entertainment, fresh off his two sets at the Reason Rally, Jamie Kilstein provided a display of manic rage at everything broken about American culture hilariously punctuated with personal anecdotes that would have been downright depressing were it not for his brilliant delivery. Though I had previously been vaguely aware of Kilstein’s work, I am now a full-blown fan. If you’re looking to waste an hour or so online, you can’t go wrong with checking out his stand-up on YouTube or listening to Citizen Radio, the current events podcast he hosts with his wife.
If it hasn’t yet been made abundantly clear, this conference is a superb way to spend a weekend if you want to be a leadership force in the secular community. The Center has phenomenal resources at its disposal, the attendees could very well be the best friends you’ll ever meet, and the passion of the organizers is clear in the quality of the event they put on. Thanks for everything you do, CFI. Hope to see you again next year.
This article was originally posted on the Illinissa website.
About the Author: Samuel Shore
Sam Shore recently completed his B.A. in History from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While taking a brief hiatus from academia, he continues to be involved in the skeptic movement as Social Media Chair for the Illini Secular Student Alliance.