The Course of Reason

2014 Leadership Conference Reflection: Jonathan Solis

August 13, 2014

Philosophers struggle to make sense out of the apparent impossibility to accurately describe sensations – like perceiving the color blue – to people who’ve never experienced such a sensation before. They call it the ‘explanatory gap’. In reflecting on the Center for Inquiry’s Leadership Conference, I’m unsure how best to bridge that gap. The gist is…it was a really good conference. For the longer and hopefully more helpful insight into the conference, I’ll share a few points I took away, and we’ll see how they tie together.

My first impression of the conference, for me, a first time attendee with no idea what I was really getting into, was seeing the actual, physical place that is the Center for Inquiry. The sharp, glass-paneled CFI headquarters, with its intimate, yet dynamic conference room was smaller, yet more magnanimous than I would have imagined. It gave my visual cortex something to sink its teeth into. For most people, especially if you’re a visual person like me, there’s something about just being there in person that brings real life to an idea. Part of the conference was spent in a reading room, with display cases, art, and bookshelves of science, philosophy, etc. It seemed to be displayed in a way that made it not just a functional library, but also a celebration of knowledge, art, and human achievement. The modern building sported some lofty windows, letting natural sunlight light much of the interior. It occurs to me now how well the building reflects their mission for reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. When I was Mormon (Yeah, I was Mormon), my church building had a yellowish chapel with garish lighting, no decorations except some fake plants in the rafters, weird half-carpeted walls, and very few windows. I raise this observation because it helped set the tone for me. CFI, which stands opposed to the harmful symptoms of religion, holds their meetings in rooms open to the world around it. Inside the chapel, the outside world is shut out.

The attendees were (more so than I might have expected) diverse in gender, race, and age. Beyond that, I discovered – much to my delight – a variety of interests. People were interested in science, feminism, politics, skepticism, LGBT rights, charity and service work, philosophy, lobbying, and more. All of these topics have a camp in the larger secular movement, and seeing people come together over them was refreshing, to say the least.

Most of the content of the conference is available on video or audio, I believe. The speakers were well selected and each gave pointed advice useful to anyone in a leadership position. Among the talks, I gathered some general takeaways that I thought might prove useful to our particular application at the University of Iowa. Of course, it is impossible to give direct advice to both student and community leaders on these topics, as situations can vary dramatically. My first takeaway came from the Friday morning workshop led by Michael Cardus, entitled, “Creating and Sustaining Teams”. As someone who’s been working on that task for almost a year now, the workshop was both educational and diagnostic. It helped give a face to some of the problems that plague new groups; namely, the importance of completing a project by first setting goals, building trust and understanding of member’s roles, and then committing to do certain things before even starting the “doing” portion of it. Our advisor likes to say organizing atheists is like “herding cats”, to the effect that building trust and community is often a tricky task for freethinkers. Tricky as it may be, it’s vital to sustaining strong teams, and something I’ll be investing in this semester.

The conference presented a diversity of speakers, all seasoned in some way on their topic, who spoke about pragmatic, group-building nuts and bolts. Some of my favorites included Stef McGraw’s talk on group succession, Max Nielson’s how-to on hosting political demonstrations, and Michael De Dora’s workshop on effective advocacy. I left each of these with a clearer idea of how our group can do better. Cody Hashman’s talk, “Do Better, and Other Practical Tips”, helped to prioritize some basics that I think are easy to forget: do lots of tabling, focus on freshmen, be more professional (watch his talk for why that’s important), don’t hold yourself to a rigid structure of weekly meetings, and focus on individual events, do purely social stuff, and amplify what’s proven to work and scratch what fails. Sound advice that I look forward to implementing.

Besides the practical advice, tips, and workshops, there were also some inspirational talks from the CFI staff who are at the front lines of secularism. They were powerful compliments to the pragmatic pointers offered by the Field Organizers. Ronald Lindsay, CFI President and CEO gave a talk called, “The Scope of Humanism”.  Eddie Tabash, Chair of the CFI Board of Directors spoke passionately about reaching out to the wider community by uniting ourselves for the common cause of separation of church and state. Both talks were surprisingly emotional, even cathartic, for me. As someone who suffered years of cognitive dissonance, guilt, and confusion from my religion and the familial and community pressure that necessarily comes with it, there was something deeply gratifying in hearing people with more clout than myself speak directly and cogently about atheist, humanist, secular, and skeptic values.

In his workshop, De Dora showed a video of a CFI representative, Josephine Macintosh, at the United Nations Human Rights Council this past June. In the video, Saudi Arabia tries desperately to silence Macintosh’s statement on the country’s imprisonment of a Raif Badawi, a freedom of speech activist who currently stands to receive 10 years in jail for hosting a website with critical writings on Islam. Several countries including the US, Ireland, France, and Canada step in to defend the Center for Inquiry, and allow her to ultimately deliver the statement. It was a bone-chilling display of religiously motivated oppression, (on the UN Human Rights Council!). But the display of solidarity from the other UN members was even more powerful, and enough to raise goose bumps in all the right ways. It lent gravity to the work we’d done so far. We really are a part of something bigger.

I’d be remiss to mention that they all had great food the whole weekend. We were fed from beginning to end. I had some pretty excellent conversations over the lunch and dinner. Getting to know your compatriots is always served well by sharing good food together.

The conference then, was an effective mixture of down-to-earth practical pointers from people who’d been there and done that, and skin-tingling presentations from inspirational, passionate leaders fighting for secular values in society-at-large. I like to call them secular values as a concise way to say separation of church and state, humanism at work, human rights, and the advancement of science and skepticism. I’m happy saying that by the conclusion of the conference, I felt better about how to lead a secular group, and equally important, why to lead a secular group. I think the secular community has a lot to offer humanity, and I left the conference feeling more invigorated, more connected, and more empowered to help do that.



About the Author: Jonathan Solis

Jonathan Solis's photo
Jonathan Solis is a soon to be graduate from the University of Iowa where he co-founded Secular Students at Iowa, a CFI On Campus and SSA affiliated student organization. He’s currently Administrative Organizer of the group. When he’s not being openly secular, he develops web software, reads old books, and plays ultimate Frisbee. Follow him on twitter at @athaax.




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