AHA 2011 – A Recap

I spent this last weekend at the American Humanist Association national conference. It was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that I have a lot to say about it, and according to JT Eberhardt and Jesse Galef (more on these folks later), I really ought to be blogging more, so there will be quite a flurry of posts coming up.

First, a recap:
As the secretary of the University of Chicago Secular Student Alliance, I get weekly emails from the wonderful Lyz Lyddell. A few weeks ago, it included an interesting tidbit. “Have breakfast with Richard Dawkins (at the AHA conference) for $49 (which is the registration fee for students)!” my email offered me, ever so alluringly. (Hilarious: when told this (minus the parentheticals) at the conference, Richard Dawkins himself said, “I feel like a prostitute!”) Of course, I couldn’t resist, and signed up. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve only been to one conference, and that was ISHE (International Society for Human Ethology) with my father last summer, which turned out to be a lot like the University of Chicago all grown up. Nerdy scientists walking around, asking interesting questions and making psychology-related jokes. But what would a conference of atheist activists look like?

As it happens, oddly similar.

I arrived on Thursday evening and went straight to my aunts’ house and caught up with one of my aunts and my cousin while raiding the fridge (garbage salad + ice cream is delicious nighttime snack) and playing monopoly. My cousin, who’s been homebound for a week after knee surgery, has gotten problematically good, but I survived with my Secret Socialist Strategies of making alliances and putting on my puppy face when it looked as if things weren’t going my way. You should try it sometime. Anyway, I got to bed and set my alarm for the terrifyingly early 6:45 so I get get out the door by 7:30 and be at the conference for registration at 8:30. And in fact, that’s what happened, except my aunt drove me part of the way, and the bus came in a timely fashion, and I was at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge by 8:15. Me? Early for something? I must have been really excited.

I registered, walked to the restaurant to grab some coffee and immediately started meeting people. It was a pretty welcoming crowd the whole weekend through, which was certainly reassuring. I ran into my friend Josh Oxley, who’s the graduate advisor to Rockefeller Chapel back at UChicago. Eventually, it was time for the first breakout session, and on the way there, I ran into none other than Greta Christina. I almost freaked out. That’s a lie; I did freak out, but in general I kept it together. She was incredibly sweet, waving my silliness away when I ‘admitted’ to being boringly cis and straight and even recognizing my name from the comments. We then walked over to the breakout sessions, which varied in topic and quality.

In the middle of the day, I was invited to have lunch with the “Feminist Caucus” which seemed like a good idea, with Serah Blain discussing the difficulties that mothers have in going to meetings and conferences and others bringing in ideas about gender and technology. Unfortunately, it was pretty disorganized, so I have no idea what’ll happen with that.

After the first session of the afternoon, I got to meet Jen McCreight of Blag Hag and Lyz Lydell, Sharon Moss and JT Eberhard of the Secular Student Alliance, which made me really happy. Then, on the way over to the next breakout session, I went by the SSA table and saw Jesse Galef, the Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. As it turns out, he’s my second cousin, so I introduced myself and we ended up talking straight through the session and the afternoon plenary. How things work when you read all of the same blogs and have many similar interests.

After the plenary, they brought out fruit and cheese and other nibblings for noshing, and I got to briefly meet the wonderful Debbie Goddard, with whom I’ve been exchanging email for a while. More on her later. Also, Roy Zimmerman. Now, let me explain this. Roy Zimmerman is a liberal satirist songwriter who as far as I’m concerned is this generation’s Tom Lehrer with a more partisan (as a compliment) bent. He’s excellent. I’ve been listening to his songs obsessively for years. And then he was there! In the room! Much taller than expected! Which I told him, in an effort to defuse my overwhelming fangirliness. But he was great, and we had a fun conversation in the midst of a massive swirling of hungry people about the use of music and art to broaden the conversation surrounding political activism (to which Debbie said “We need to be friends”), especially in his series The Starving Ear. I also asked him about the use of satire in difficult circumstances, as in The Sing Along Second Amendment, when he references the Columbine tragedy. He responded that he felt that humor engaged people and challenged them, especially when it was about difficult topics. I was impressed by how much he’d thought about these things, as evidenced by his deep sincerity when we discussed a time when he hadn’t used humor (or perhaps it’s simply black humor), in his song the The Last Man. He just seemed to feel that his humor was his contribution, but also saying that songs often wrote and rewrote themselves, allowing him to just follow along and see where they led. I also complimented him on his measured response to the commenter on that song who seemed offended (though I felt he’d misunderstood the lyrics). To me, it demonstrated that Roy really sees his songs as a medium through which to transmit a message, not just to poke fun at people he doesn’t like. He could certainly get caught up in the idiotic flame wars on youtube in general, but he lets his faithful commenters do that (see: To Be A Liberal).

Eventually, things wrapped up, and because I was on a student registration, I wasn’t invited to the evening banquet, so several of us students went off to try to find food in Cambridge. It ended up being me and Josh, as well as several excellent folks we had met throughout the day, namely Serah, Josiah, Thomas (a 21 year old computer science PhD!) and Kaeleena. We found a pub/bar and started to get comfortable when we discovered that the upstairs, where we had been seated was 21+, which was a problem for Serah, who had forgotten my ID and me, as I had also ‘forgotten’ my ID. When obstacles like that used to come up, it was always strangely awkward, so I was relieved adults tend to handle themselves better. We just up and left and found an Indian place on Mass Ave. Interestingly enough, most of us were vegetarian or vegan, so that was quite convenient. We talked about that as well as the relative benefits of nuclear power all through dinner.

Afterwards, everyone except Tommy and myself went off to have a good time, but he needed to go home, and I needed to get back to my aunts’ place. Given my awful sense of direction, I was lucky that a Green Line station was close, so we both got home just fine. My aunts were still awake, despite the lateness of the hour, so I got to talk to them about the conference and what humanism meant to me. I actually didn’t know what their beliefs were (we’re a family of generally secular Jews, but it varies), so I explained it all in the most diplomatic way possible. They seemed to really take to the idea and were really supportive and interested, which just strengthened my convictions about the worldview I’ve chosen for myself. In particular, I think they took to the notions of the harms of religion towards women and gays and other marginalized groups throughout history. When I told them the statistic about atheists being the most mistrusted group in America, they were genuinely shocked. One of my aunts eventually went to bed and I spoke with the other about the different approached to humanism and atheism, making sure to emphasize the positive elements. Much to my surprise, she wanted to know more about Dawkins, Hitchens and their respective books, so maybe she’ll turn into one of those evil ol’ confrontationists🙂

The next day, there were more talks. There seems to be a lot of talking at these conferences. I missed the early morning plenary because the Boston public transit system was not nearly as helpful as it had been the previous day. Something to do with it being Saturday, and late, and I had to take a different bus, it was all kind of a mess. Luckily, I have a somewhat intelligent phone, so I downloaded the bus schedule as a pdf and boy does the BTA’s site not have a mobile version. Also, the pdf only showed the arrival time to one stop along the entire route besides the end points, and it happened to be mine. What if I’d been somewhere else? Am I supposed to be able to calculate all that? This is why I don’t like public transportation #firstworldproblems.

Anyway, talks and food (pizza party for the students, at which we got much free schwag from the Richard Dawkins foundation including two A-pins, which I’ve been wearing around everywhere). Because I go to a largely secular university where self-deprecation rules all interactions, no one minds or is offended by the symbol or message (once I explain it), but they all think the ‘scarlet letter’ thing is much too earnest and clever for its own good). Afterwards, I ran into Debbie Goddard again, and I took the opportunity to ask her about the different movements within The Movement, and she told me the story of Skeptics and Humanism and Atheism and Secularism and how those map onto the Council for Secular Humanism, the Center for Inquiry, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Secular Coalition for America and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. We also discussed race and the way in which cultural privilege can blind much of these movements to the wariness of, for example, the black community to medicine and science, which we see as unequivocally good, not having in our cultural narrative Tuskegee and AIDS. She also pointed out that the science as a force for good narrative is also tempered by the great destruction it has wrought, and separating the science from how it’s used isn’t always easy. We transition from all that into our stories, though hers is much more interested than mine. Eventually, we’d been talking about science, secularism, atheism, activism, queer issues, race, genderqueerness, identification and all manner of other things for two hours, and then: more talks!

After the talks, there was yet another banquet, but this time, we students were invited, though with a different (cheaper) meal. Luckily, as a vegetarian, I got this delicious stuffed something or other. And cookies! Then, Roy Zimmerman came on stage and performed a prayer to God or Goddess or Gods or gods or none of the above, To Be A Liberal, Creation Science and few other hits. He was on fire; the crowd loved it. Then Steve Wozniak gave a speech. Now, Steven Wozniak is a very intelligent man, and that’s an understatement. But I’m pretty sure he has no idea how to give a speech. He switched topics every 3 minutes or so, ranging from how you don’t need religion in your daily life (duh) to how morality is the study of ethics revolving around truth (what?) so engineers are the best kind of people (double what?). It was strange, so I left before the Q&A and headed over to the restaurant. There, I had a series of conversations about rationality, morality and religion with Jesse Galef, John Shook, Annie Calicotte, Woody Kaplan and others. The problem with conversations like this is that they last a while, in this case until 2:30 in the morning, when only a few of us were left talking (I think it ended with me, Jesse, Chris Stedman and Josiah talking about community service and interfaith work).

I thought about staying at the hotel, but my aunt had been so sweet as to text me telling me to call her to open the door at whatever hour, so I called a taxi, which failed to come for quite a while, and when it did, had a driver upset that I was asking him to take me to Boston. This left me quite confused and thinking about Mandelbrot sets. Does he want to drive me to the border of cambridge and leave me there to grab another taxi into Roxbury? I think not. Eventually, very late, I got back, crashed, and woke up three hours later for the last day of the conference.

I’d tell you about all the closing sessions, but I don’t know anything about them. Public transportation failed me, coming infrequently on Sundays and then being almost an hour late, so I got to the hotel rather late, and then spent the entire morning talking to Jesse, Jen McCreight and Sandra Korn, who came up from Harvard to see me! We had a good time talking about the importance and drawbacks of outspoken activism, and I got to ask Jen whether group selectionism is actually taken very seriously in evolutionary biology (answer: no) or whether punctuated equilibrium vs gradualism is a matter of some debate (answer: no, they’re just useful for different types of analysis). I also got to express my admiration for the inclusiveness of the community, and how they’d all come together despite being bloggers from opposite sides of the country. Jen acknowledged that the grassroots nature of their work added to the conferences made for deep friendships that easily brought in new people (like me? I sure hope so).

And that’s actually one of my main takeaways from the conference. Atheism, as Debbie Goddard pointed out, doesn’t actually say much. It just means you don’t believe in god or gods. It doesn’t mean you’re a liberal, or scientific, or rational, or political, or an activist, or a humanist or kind or fun to be around. So I was worried that bringing lots of people together under such a minimal banner wouldn’t necessarily create a supportive and challenging and exciting community, and I was so thrilled to realize that, at least in this case, it did. It made me want to get all the more involved and energized and be a part of this excellent, thriving, diverse (somewhat; we’re working on it) community, filled with opinionated people of different persuasions, bringing their experience and thoughts to bear on making our movement broader, bigger and better.

Things started to end around noon, so I said goodbye to all the incredible people I’d met, sad to leave, but excited to go back and bring all of my new ideas to my community. Sandra and I went off to lunch, talking about our blogs and the interaction between rationalism/intellectualism and politics/activism, which she thinks a lot about as well. She took me to Harvard, where she goes to school, so I could see her room and meet some of her friends (many who were Christian, interestingly, but also one “secular, hard agnostic, socially liberal, fiscally conservative Israeli nationalist.”) When they asked about why I was in Boston, I got to grin widely and tell them a tidbit or two about the magnificent American Humanist Association National Conference, and in the case of her friends down the hall, launch into an overly excited analysis of the different words (secular, humanist, atheist, bright etc.) that are used in the movement and what separation of church and state has done for religiosity in this country (Hint: helped, at least according to Tocqueville and many religious people).

After saying goodbye to Sandra, I made my way back to Roxbury, with a fair amount of difficulty and mostly barefoot (my heels and feet were giving out; I’d been doing a lot of walking over the previous days), said goodbye to my wonderful aunts and cousins, got into a cab and got to the airport, luckily in plenty of time. Josh was already there, but he elected to grab some vouchers and stay another few hours, so I got back alone, and didn’t stop grinning for several days.

Who knew conferences could be so amazing? I’ll certainly be going to more in the future.

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