SSA Conference 2011 Point of Interest 2: Part and Whole

This has been cross-posted at the University of Chicago Secular Alliance Blog.


This is really only vaguely about the conference, but bear with me.

Why does the Secular Movement (or Skeptical, or Atheist, or whatever) exist? Well, that’s an interesting and complicated question, and people answer it in a lot of different ways. The different visions that people have for their own communities or the movement are fascinating, and I imagine that they come out of differences not only in personal expectations, but also experiences of social communities and religious communities and how those are compared. All this is to say that I’m often curious about Secular Student Alliance affiliates across the United States and how they see themselves and the services they provide. I expect that some focus a great deal on their own communities, on their schools and on the community that they can provide for their members, which makes perfect sense in a variety of contexts, including, for example, a highly religious institution where there are few resources other than those who are already in the group. For my group, however, I take a different tack, which is to see our group as part of and inextricably linked to the broader movement. The reasons for this are several.

Firstly, I just think there are a lot of really good reasons to work with other groups and form regional alliances. I actually gave a talk at SSA on this very subject (link to notes here and slides here). For the tl;dr among you, the ideas is all of the resources and ideas you and your group have have analogous counterparts in other groups, and putting those together can help out with all manner of problems, from lack of funds to lack of ideas to hostility from religious groups and people around you.

Secondly, the University of Chicago is a secular university. I don’t just mean that it is not officially affiliated with a religious organization. I mean that ~60% of freshmen who fill out a certain form that asks about a great deal of demographic information every year pick nonreligious, or none, or spiritual on the religion question (unfortunately, I can’t find a citation). That’s crazy. It makes our organization a totally different beast than one at, say, the University of Alabama. Much of our discussions (at least in exec-land) focus on the question of ‘Atheism: So what?’ or, less bleakly, ‘Atheism: Now what?’ because, except perhaps for the new students at the beginning of the year (oh my god the first years all arrived yesterday. SO MANY OF THEM), most people are pretty set on atheism. There are a few agnostics, and there are some philosophical differences in approaches to naturalism and atheism and metaphysics in general, but there are rather extreme limits on the amount that people want to talk about those things, so we have to think and talk about other things. My approach has involved various aspects of thought, action and life that, while not necessarily explicitly atheistic, appeal to atheists in particular, by dint of the way the movement is going (humanism and volunteering) or because once you don’t believe in god, other things become more palatable (transhumanism).

Those are going to be integrated throughout this year, and I want to talk about them a lot more in a different post, but more than all of that, a great answer to ‘Atheism: now what?’ is now people! Now a movement! Now a blogosphere and conferences and people who are thinking further and arguing with each other and creating a community that argues about gender issues and funds Damon Fowler’s college education. And that’s why when I ran for president of this organization, my ‘platform’, as it were, was about connecting us to the larger movement, because there is so much out there, especially when you’ve satisfactorily answered the basic questions for yourself. If you haven’t, that’s fine too, and the community has plenty to offer you if that’s the case, but if there is a fear of running out of things to do or think about or talk about, the community *really* has a lot to offer.

So I really wrote this post in order to gush about the amazing things that are going to happen this year, and how this wonderful community has allowed them to happen. Essentially, I’ve decided that one of the focuses should be on bring in interesting speakers, because they provide us with new perspectives and tend to be really friendly and nice people. I’ve also decided, with help, that many of those speakers shouldn’t necessarily be The Big Bloggers of Atheism, because there are so many unsung heroes who have all kinds of interesting things to say and also while the abstraction we call a community is all manner of excellent, the actual community around this physical location is pretty spectacular too, and so I want to make use of that.

To that end, we are bringing in, at minimum: Serah Blain, Jamie Bernstein, Hemant Mehta, Debbie Goddard (hopefully) and Greta Christina. Ok so it doesn’t look like that many written out like that (although there are many more we have in the works), but it is infinitely exciting to me, especially because of the ways in which these happened. Serah Blain works for the Arizona Secular Coalition for America, and she’s also a good friend of mine, and she’s coming in three weeks (only three weeks!!) to talk to us about activism and lobbying (a great post-answering-the-question-of-no-god activity). And how did I get such a great speaker? Well, I met her at the AHA Conference last April (recap here) and we got along quite well, and then we saw each other at SSA Conference this summer and, while I can’t speak for her, I kind of fell for her (in a mostly platonic way 🙂 ) and we hit it off and now she’s coming! Similarly, Greta Christina, blogger extraordinare and major atheist celebrity, is actually, shocker of all shockers, a person, one who is so much fun to hang out with, and one who wants to come to Chicago and talk to us. And so she is. This is not an Everyone-Should-Go-To-Conferences post, because there are class and education issues with that, but it is evidence of how much the community is already doing for me. Jamie works in the area and in fact just graduated from the University of Chicago, Debbie Goddard and I have been talking about her coming out since the beginning of last year, and Hemant, while a big name, is also a local.

So..MASSIVE EXCITEMENT. Thank you, atheist movement. I think this year will be wonderful for me, and I hope for the rest of the Secular Alliance at UofC, and especially for the new members. First years, I’m looking at you.


SSA Conference 2011 Point of Interest 1: Male Feminists

Three weekends ago, (I’ve been in the midst of writing this for a while) I went to the National Secular Student Alliance for the first time, and boy was it a blast. Doing recaps of multi-day events tends to either be tedious or incoherent, and while that was enjoyable (for me, and I hope for you) the first time, I won’t be doing it again. There are a million other recaps out there if you just want to know what happened and how great it was, but I’d actually like to discuss some things that surprised me and made me think.
First thing: Male feminists. Everywhere. I’m sure I’m getting insanely obnoxious gushing about how awesome this was, because I’ve literally never experienced anything like it. There’s the feeling of finally being around people like yourself, which is comforting and exhilarating all at once, and that comes from going to the University of Chicago, or Comic-con or atheist/secular conferences, and that’s wonderful, especially for people who have always felt left out, different or misunderstood. But there’s an entirely different level of satisfaction that comes from watching certain battles go on without the need for your input. These battles which are important to you, which you’ve thought a lot about, studied in depth and know like the back of your hand, which you think are worth engaging in even for the millionth time, but then not having to engage in them because other people have your back. These other people who traditionally oppose and dismiss you (that is, men) are standing in support of you and your deeply held principles, fighting the good fight on your behalf and also because they believe it’s right. It’s awesome. And oh so gratifying, because you have all of the confidence that the arguments are being made, that the positions are being defended, without the emotional investment or arguing yourself, or the energy investment that it takes to debate and discuss, especially when it’s something you’ve done a million times before.
Not the guy at the conference
And I was totally not expecting it. By now, everyone knows that atheism has a gender problem, though it’s disagreed in what ways and to what extent. I knew that everyone was still reacting to elevatorgate, generally with disdain and humor, and I knew that conferences are often places where women are bombarded with sexual interest and men are sometimes too socially awkward to know when and how to stop. I also know that rationalist communities (though very much not the same as atheist and secular communities) are often very skeptical of feminism. All of this adds up to not a great deal of hope for positive affirmation of a political stance for women and gender equality. But that’s exactly what I found, with several men identifying themselves as feminists without prompting, in the middle of relevant conversations about politics or gender in atheism, with one guy wearing a This Is What a Feminist Looks Like T-shirt, totally respectful and boundary-respecting flirting, and me having a grin plastered on my face at all of it. They spoke up in conversations, argued vigorously but reasonably in favor of feminist ideas and principles and had a clear commitment to defending feminism, talking about it, convincing others, clearing up misconceptions, and listening, acknowledging when they were wrong. Male atheist feminists might just be the best people, according to my limited experience.
Also not the guy at the conference
Even better was the response of men who were not feminists to the discussions. I’ve seen a variety of attitudes to feminists from non-feminists, in particular male feminists, ranging from approving to outright hostile, but at the SSA conference, I mostly just saw interested, and a good bit of nodding. I hope very much that that’s not a result of the fact that a man was speaking, defending feminism, but it was exciting to see nonetheless. In fact, it wouldn’t be so bad if men responded better to men defending feminism, because it’s not always clear who the models for how to be a male feminist are, and men might very much benefit from having them. Especially if their initial impression of feminism involved any hint of man-hating, it might be helpful to see first-hand how untrue that is. And from the brief experience I had at the conference, it seems to work fairly well.
So maybe atheism has a gender problem, maybe it has a misogyny problem, maybe the top is overwhelmingly male. But if the students I saw at the 2011 SSA Conference are the future of atheism, I think we’re on a great track to fix those problems, and I’m so glad to be able to say that after all of the feminist disappointments regarding atheism and atheist conferences of late.
Finally, this is hilarious.