For me, waking up early on a Friday morning usually means a long day ahead at work or taking classes. Instead, on this particular Friday, I woke up early to go on an adventure: I was going to Columbus, Ohio with my fellow VAA friends Scott and Tori to attend the 2013 Secular Students Association conference. Needless to say, we were excited, as none of us had attended a VAA-related conference before.
Knowing that we had a long road ahead to Columbus, we stocked up on science podcasts, which made the long and monotonous stretches of interstate driving fly by. We made a detour to Blacksburg to pick up Dan Linford, a fellow conference goer who needed a ride. Dan was a philosophy and ex-physics graduate student at Virginia Tech whose thesis was about atheism in the eighteenth century, with a focus on the works of proto-neuroscientists like La Mettrie. In his words, one day he hopes to make a living debating theists. After stopping for lunch at a Cracker Barrel in West Virginia — our waitress mentioned she was taking her kid to Vacation Bible School later that afternoon, so we thought it best not to tell her of our destination — the rest of the drive to Ohio was relatively uneventful, save for Dan’s constantly fascinating musings on philosophy and religion.
We arrived at Columbus late in the afternoon, and at that point we were just glad to get out of the car after a nine-hour drive. The conference was held at Ohio State University, which, like our beloved UVa, was quite empty in that summer weekend. We met up at the conference building with our VAA member Frank Bellamy, who came all the way from Wichita, Kansas (he had an internship for a legal non-profit there) to attend the conference and also to give a talk on the subject of the legal rights of student groups in institutions of higher learning.
After registering, we got pizza and headed downstairs and sat with some of our fellow conference goers. “You guys want to play cards?” one of them asked. While we were playing “Viet Cong,” on the piano by the corner a duet was singing a number from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Along Blog. I didn’t really know what to expect from the conference, but I was happily surprised at the levity and casualness of it. If anything, the picture in my mind was a serious conference where serious people talked about serious things. There were certainly moments like that, but I think for the most part everyone was just happy to hang out and meet like-minded people.
The rest of the weekend had a similar feel. Even though we VAAers didn’t know anyone at first, save for Frank, there was a great sense of camaraderie in the air: the conference wasn’t so big that you were anonymous, yet at the same time it was big enough that there was a palpable sense of being in a movement, of being a part of something important. It reminds me, ironically enough, of the many times as a kid when I went to church. Both are gatherings that foster community bonding, but for once it was a nice feeling to be a part of a large group that stood to fight for ideas that you personally deem important, ideas like critical thinking and free inquiry.
Progressivism and Diversity
There were many talks during the conference — some serious, some funny and lighthearted, all great. Frank’s talk on the legal rights of student groups was very informative, and it made me glad to be at an institution such as UVa, where VAA can function peacefully without fear of censorship or dispossession, something that cannot be said for other institutions. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.
Perhaps my greatest takeaway from the talks is that the so-called secular movement isn’t as monolithic as it seems to be at first glance — and that’s a good thing. Sure, there were overarching goals that nearly everyone in the conference agreed upon, like keeping the strict separation between church and state (which, by the way, is the only political stance that the SSA officially endorses), but the beliefs to which people subscribed varied. Secularism, it turns out, comes in many “flavors” — people self-identified not just as atheists, but also as agnostics and humanists. I even saw a talk by Reverend Barry Lynn, a minister of the United Church of Christ and one of the most famous advocates for the separation of church and state. Yes, there were jokes about Rev. Lynn being the “only theist on our side” — or at least the only theist willing to speak against the overreaching influence of religion in public life to a nonreligious audience — but his talk was actually my favorite. It was then I realized that, by aligning with the broader progressive movement, the secular movement can gain many allies willing to fight for the same ends.
I was glad to see that the diversity at the conference did not just constitute a breadth of ideological beliefs — many of the attendees were also feminists and members of racial minorities. Again, since these groups often have the same progressive goals as secularists, this was not surprising. For example, as one speaker pointed out in her talk, the secular movement is in concert with feminists in rallying against the abstinence-only sex education espoused by the religious right, which is not only ineffective but also, among other grievances, promotes traditional heteronormative relationships to the exclusion of open communication about alternative lifestyles, deemphasizes the importance of consent in sexual activity, and frames sex and relationships as inherently adversarial, perpetuating the common conception that men are the active seekers of sex and women are merely passive gatekeepers of it.
However, that doesn’t mean that there is no longer room for improving diversity. Debbie Goddard, the director of African-Americans for Humanism, made the point in her talk that there is still a lingering public perception that atheism is a “white thing.” The so-called Four Horsemen of New Atheism, for instance — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens — are all white men. That perception, she argues, makes some minorities hesitant to identify themselves as being secularists. This is unfortunate, since there is a well-known religious tradition in the African-American community — the black church was the nexus of the Civil Rights movement, for one — and yet the corresponding African-American secular humanist tradition is by and large unknown to the public. Much can be done to ameliorate this corrosive perception, hence the need for organizations like African-Americans for Humanism, which fall under the umbrella of the secularist movement but also caters to the specific needs of certain minority groups.
The talks we heard galvanized us. Our lunch and dinner conversations were times for reflection on the state of the VAA as a club and also brainstorming sessions on how to implement the new ideas we’ve learned. One of the most exciting plans that came about from these conversations involves inviting speakers to give a talk on the intersection between secularism and other areas of interest, some of which include black humanism, feminism, and atheism in Hindu sects. By making VAA an intellectual hub, we can increase our profile within the University and simultaneously make our club more inclusive and diverse.
Sunday morning came quickly, and before we knew it we had to leave for Charlottesville. Overall, the conference was a great experience: not only did we have fun with cool people in a cool city, we also came back with a lot of great ideas to try for the next year. As much as I like the tranquility of summer, I’m very much looking forward to the school year; there’s much to be excited about in VAA’s near future.