The Next Thirty Years?

In October 2010, I attended my first ever major non-believers conference, “Setting the Agenda: Secular Humanism’s Next 30 Years,” which was sponsored as a subscribers’ conference for the magazine, Free Inquiry. Since I’ve been a subscriber for at least 15 years, this seemed like a good fit for me. I was eager because there was a remarkable list of secular celebrities on the program and it was touted as a definitive event.

To give you one humorous glimpse into the conference, Mark Oppenheimer with The New York Times observed, “The largely white and male crowd—imagine a Star Trek convention, but older…” My main goal here is to report every unique moment from my trip.
Depending on who you ask, it was a complete “sell out” with anywhere from 325 to 370 people at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in attendance. It seemed that since the CFI (Center for Inquiry) had to schedule this conference back in Fall 2008, at the beginning of the recession, they were forced to organize for a smaller number rather than risk not having enough people to fill the next level of hotel space. I think they could have easily had 100 or even 200 more attendees, but the economy dictated a more prudent choice back then. Amazingly enough, I found a friendly face in the crowd, Douglas King, a NOSHA member who resides in Baton Rouge and who attended our banquet featuring Ellen Johnson in August. The weekend was looking up!
The first plenary I attended on Friday was appropriately called “The First 30 Years” and boasted some of the heavier hitters in the secular movement: James “The Amazing” Randi, whose book Flim-Flam is regarded as a skeptical classic; Tom Flynn, current editor of Free Inquiry; Ed Buckner, past president of American Atheists; and Paul Kurtz, founder of Free Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism and CFI.
Randi was predictably charming and entertaining with his story of appearing on “The Johnny Carson Show” to debunk the faith healing preacher, Peter Popoff, back in the 1980’s. Randi’s technical investigation revealed that “…God is a woman and she sounds remarkably like Popoff’s wife, Elizabeth!” He told us that later that he got a delightful note from someone watching that night who said “I’m so glad that you exposed Rev. Popoff. Now I’m giving all of my money to Rev. So and So.” He found that very sweet and offered this thought to the audience that “…we are part of the remedy for ignorance. No one wants to come forward to say how stupid they are!” I discovered first hand how very spry and delightful Randi is when he chatted with me while I was buying books prior to this panel starting, before it hit me just exactly who this old man was. My luck.

However, sweetness gave way to more acerbic matters when the case was made by Kurtz that atheists are “bad” if they don’t support humanism out right. Clearly, there was a mentality of “us vs. them” being sown by the adherents for both points of view that continued throughout the weekend. Kurtz related an “untapped sentiment in society” back in 1980 that precipitated his pursuit and creation of CFI; there is something more that “mere atheism simply cannot address.” An example of the division at the national level was Flynn’s explanation of his push for promoting National Blasphemy Day, a move that Kurtz adamantly opposed, but nonetheless couldn’t prevent. A few resolute atheists challenged Kurtz that they are no less moral or good than a person who self identifies as a secularist.

In fact, one woman felt that Kurtz was not taking the “cultural wars” as seriously as he should that some of us must wage in parts of the country (where it is not as conciliatory for non-believers). His most memorable statement to me was his describing why he feels so strongly: “It is not enough to destroy, we must provide alternatives.” I happen to agree with this even as I feel we must not shrink from confrontations when they are necessary. The New York Times probably hit upon the best explanation of this divisiveness: “The disagreement was not, then, between atheism and humanism. It was about making the atheist/humanist case in America. A central question was, “How publicly scornful of religion should we be?’”

The next major panel was “Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation?” which was by far the most lively in forcing the issue of how differently each perspective views the conflicts of science and religion in society. Science writer Chris Mooney (and the son of former NOSHA board member, Sally Mooney) admitted that his viewpoint falls more in line with accommodating the potential allies of non-believers, moderate or liberal Christians, and he bases his choice on the latest research into the attitudes of belief. Christians “are rejecting science because of a perceived conflict with moral values.” Like Kurtz, who believes that “the core of humanism is ethics and values” that are relevant to our lives, Mooney argued that “atheists should be mindful of this perception.”

Since believers resist science and the teaching of evolution in public schools because they fear that it will lead to a rejection of morals, this is a huge piece of evidence that cannot be totally dismissed out of hand. He suggests that atheists “should reassure Christians that their faith is compatible with modern science.” As conciliatory as Mooney was (considering that he has been taken to task this past year by the second speaker), noted biologist and well-known combative blogger, P.Z. Myers, wasn’t pulling any punches and is a “confrontationalist” with a capital “C.”

I found it especially refreshing to hear someone suggest that anger is a valid emotion when dealing with the way religion attempts to thwart scientific and social progress in our modern society and one that he feels shouldn’t be denigrated by our more passive supporters. Myers understands why “the new atheists are fed up with fighting the symptoms and want to take on the disease—religion.” Truth is the new atheist’s real value, he said.

Eugenie Scott, also a panelist and the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, was a disappointment for me simply because she seemed like she had so little to offer on this topic when her professional position should obviously demand otherwise. Clearly, she didn’t want to take a side and by that, I assumed, she is a deliberate “accommodationist.” That was a bit of surprise and left me concerned that she is in charge of the very organization that is so often fighting for science education in our schools. How can someone with such a decidedly unmotivated stance defend science against more aggressive and louder opponents? As likeable as she is, she didn’t care to express her opinion either for or against anything Mooney and Myers proposed. And isn’t that why she was invited to this conference? Strange.

Victor Stenger, celebrated professor of particle physics and distinguished author whose latest book, The New Atheism, brought him as a speaker to NOSHA in October 2009, provided more support for people voicing their atheism instead of “sucking up” to Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus “and any others who claim they have some sacred right to decide what kind of society the rest of us must live in—what a human being can do with her own body.”

He feels encouraged that younger generations are less likely to be accommodationists because they are moving away from organized religion and that the United States is on its way to joining the developed world in rejecting religion’s control over our progress. He supports the idea that in order to see change in our society, it takes both approaches ultimately. “If you look at the history of every great social movement, you will see both components. There are people who work within the system to make changes. They often succeed, but usually at a snail’s pace—too slow to satisfy the millions who are impatient to have their inherent rights recognized by the power structure.” This outlook must be how confrontationists get their wings.

Friday evening culminated in a gala banquet where Richard Dawkins, author of numerous books—perhaps most well known is The God Delusion which has sold over two million copies in English and has been published in more than 30 other languages, was presented with the Robert Craggs Prize and over $45,000 to his foundation. Dawkins, who was present for the day’s sessions, spoke briefly and pointedly to the need for non-believers to be insistent that we reject efforts to coddle religion and made it clear that he didn’t share the same opinions as his esteemed dinner companions, Kurtz and Mooney, who flanked him at the head table. He was respectful, but it was clear to me he was “bitch slapping” everyone who fell more in line with the acommodationists’ arguments from earlier that day.

On the Saturday panel for “What can philosophy, ethics, aesthetics and the sciences contribute to our pursuit of the good life in this life?” author Jennifer Michael Hecht offered an interesting observation that there are two kinds of atheists: “…those who attack the silly stuff and those who attack the subtle beliefs” of Christians and others. This may be the source for the concern over how stridently we promote non-belief. Ron Lindsay, who is the president and CEO of CFI, spoke about the perception of humanist ethics and that the method by which we approach deciding many issues has a lot to do with content. People want to make decisions where moral certainty is not always possible, such as the right-to-die for the terminally ill. He gave a nice presentation about the Oregon law and what it means for current efforts. Rev. Barry Lynn with Americans United, delivered a rip-roaring speech on a panel about the separation of church and state and made me truly sad for anyone who had to follow his presentation.

The highlight of Saturday evening (maybe the entire weekend) was the debate between Sam Harris, author of New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation and Robert Wright, who has been named one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy magazine and is also a New York Times bestselling author of The Evolution of God. They were to speak on the subject of where “secular humanists stand today and tomorrow on questions of religion and belief,” but instead Wright baited Harris about his obvious disdain and public derision of Islam and we never made it back to the topic at hand. It didn’t help that Harris’ entourage of body guards put the throngs of attendees through a security detail (because he’s received death threats from both Christians and Muslims), which only hyped the paranoia of the evening!

Wright started off by stating that what bothered him most about the “new atheism” is the claim of being new. He’s also concerned that the new atheists think that religion is a major problem, and that the tendency to over emphasize religion means that “we take our eye off the ball.” I was never sure what the ball actually was to which he was referring.

What provoked Harris was Wright’s comment that new atheists are adding to the anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States. Once Islam was on the table, they never quite gave any time to the original topic, which was very disappointing. I made a note of one fascinating question he posed to Wright: “What would it be like if Dawkins came out as a Muslim?” It is easy to assume that Dawkins declaring he is any religion would cause a colossal stir simply because it would invalidate everything he stands for. So, Harris is concerned that we’ll wake up in a world “where the only people we can trust are our own religious people.” So for him, that is why what people believe matters; beliefs are the “engines of our behaviors” and that is why he is steadfast that Islam as a religion should be scrutinized.

There wasn’t enough time to even scratch the surface of the neuroscience surrounding morality, nor am I completely convinced that Harris does that well at presenting this in person yet. Even though I did and do enjoy listening to him in general. He is one of the “rock stars” for non-believers, after all. (He does have a new book out titled The Moral Landscape where he explores neuroscience in much greater detail). Nevertheless, he makes the compelling and evolutionarily sound proposal that “morality is a product of neuroscience” and that our pursuit of happiness, and that which is good for society, depends on brain chemistry. I do agree with that personally. I just wish he could have talked more about our people and what brain science can tell us about how we can make progress as a movement. That was the “send off” I had hoped for with this conference and, unfortunately, we have many rather large egos to stroke while we search for the answers.