This past weekend the Center for Inquiry Transnational and the Council for Secular Humanism hosted a conference in Los Angeles with the impressive title of “Setting the Agenda: Secular Humanisms Next 30 Years”
The conference boosted an impressive line up of speakers and presenters including Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Sam Harris, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Lawrence Krauss, Paul Kurtz and James Randi. It would be hard for attendees to claim they didn’t get their monies worth with such a roster of secular humanists to see and listen to.
And there was a lot of listening to do, as several of the talks and panels were very interesting.
Attendee's mingle at the opening reception
It started with a panel on “The First 30 years” and featured James Randi, Tom Flynn, Ed Buckner and Paul Kurtz. Randi, engaging as always, discussed the perception that believers were stupid and how religious scam artists make huge fortunes and hire legal teams to prevent exposure and negative attention. Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine discussed the issue of blasphemy and how Free Inquiry has a long history of blaspheming. Ed Buckner was the former president of AA and discussed how satire should be used in the freethought movement. Paul Kurtz, the founder of CFI and the Council and Free Inquiry discussed the criticism of religion and whether it was getting nasty. He talked about the distinction between humanism and atheism, one is a moral/ethical system and one is a lack of a belief system.
Lindsay, Randi and Kurtz
After that we had a panel on confrontation or accommodation, moderated by Jennifer Michael Hecht, and featuring Chris Mooney, co-host of Point of Inquiry and author of several books, Eugenie Scott, director of the National Centre for Science Education, PZ Myers of Pharyngula, and Victor Stenger, author or God: The failed Hypothesis. Mooney stressed that we should avoid fighting amongst ourselves, but suggesting a more accommodating approach, saying that when people learn something that goes against their personal views (ie a global warming denier learning about the science behind global warming being human caused, it only enforces their belief that the opposite is true.)
Panel on Accommodation vs Confrontation
PZ Myers hammered the point of what do we get by compromising on the truth, further suggesting that we need to focus on the cause of the problem, not the symptoms, so if creationism is the symptom, religion is the cause.
Eugenie Scott focused on evolution and didn’t have much to say about religion. Basically she said that since ID cannot be tested or meet basic requirements to be a science, its religion and therefore has no place in education. She also said you can believe in God and accept the theory of evolution.
Victor Stenger disagreed to a certain extent, he said that the notion of God guided evolution isn’t Darwinian evolution, its intelligent design.
Practically a presenter in sheer presence, the hotel itself, the Millennium Biltmore, built in the 1920′s was an impressive location for such talks. Its hanging chandeliers and fancy ballrooms made the experience seem extra swanky. At one point, I found myself wandering around with CFI Transnational’s Debbie Goddard, Campus and director of African Americans for Humanism, looking for secret passageways and exploring scary broiler rooms.
Wasn't Ghostbusters filmed here?
Of course the hotel’s fanciness was on display for all to see during the several banquets and gala’s put on. Including one, hosted by CFI LA executive director James Underdown in which Richard Dawkins was presented with the Robert Craggs Prize, a whopping $40,000 and change to be donated to the Richard Dawkins Foundation.
"I'm going to Disneyland!"
There was another interesting panel discussion on ethics and human values that featured Jennifer Michael Hecht, Ron Lindsay, Mark Johnson and Christopher DiCarlo, moderated by John Shook.
I was really impressed with what Jennifer had to say, as I usually am, she pointed out some relevant points about there being two sorts of atheists, those who attack the silly things in religion, the myths and legends. And those who attack the subtler things, which is usually where people who are believers get the most offended by.
She also made a passionate case for why culture and humanity are so needed for humanism. Science alone can’t impart the awesomeness of the universe without poetry and community. Those interested should check the interview I did with Jennifer back at TAM, episode 71.
Ron Lindsay, CEO of CFI Transnational talked about some of the ethical statements of humanism. He pointed out how many of those are actually quite general. Statements that people would have a hard time disagreeing with, who’s against freedom anyway? So he outlined a few issues where not everyone agrees, like the right to die, which facilitated a nice discussion on this topic.
Mark Johnson and Chris DiCarlo both gave talks that sounded very interesting, but I think ultimately went over my head. Sadly, philosophy on that level usually leaves me baffled.
Recent visitor to Vancouver, Lawrence Krauss gave an interesting talk about the Templeton Foundation, an organization that founds a lot of research into science and religion. It’s an understatement to say its got a controversial past, especially with scientists.
Another pleasant surprise was the panel on Church and State. I was particularly impressed with Shadia B. Drury, a Canadian research chair in social justice at the University of Regina. She’s also a columnists at Free Inquiry. She gave a scathing review of American ego-centrism and the harm it causes the movement of secularization. Her position was later characterized as a public relations nightmare by Barry Kosmin the next day.
"I really think I'm right"
In the evening we had the keynote dialogue between Sam Harris and Robert Wright. I had never seen either of them speak before and I really found it riveting. And that’s partly because I was sitting in the second row, directly behind Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, and sitting a few chairs from James Randi and Paul Kurtz and just ahead of Jennifer Michael Hecht and a nearby Michael Shermer. I think I spent a good deal of time glancing around to see how these skeptical luminaries were responding to the talks. This talk was live streamed so you should take a look for yourself and be sure to comment and let us know what your impression was.
Now, as I mentioned on the show, there were a few issues that I had with the conference.
One had to do with the demographics, of all the speakers, only three were women. All of the speakers were mostly, middle aged white guys. While I think it’s hard to reproach anyone being there since if you look at the collective resumes of the speakers, they were all quite fantastic. However, this conference really didn’t attempt to break any stereotypes of humanists either. This was reflected in the attendee’s as well. I’d estimate about one third of the people there were women. And I’d also hazard a guess that the average age was 50+ and it was about 95% white.
When you compare this to say The Amazing Meeting, there is a pretty big difference.
Another downside for me at least was there was no interview schedule. I mentioned this on the show but to recap, I contacted the organizers a few weeks prior to the conference about getting a schedule to conduct interviews with the various speakers, however, no such schedule was created. When I brought this up, I was told the priorities were general media and Point of Inquiry, the official podcast of the Center for Inquiry in the States.
Which I think is really a wasted opportunity. Part of the reason conferences like TAM are so successful is that the podcasts that attend get to interview the speakers and this help promotes the event. Whereas here, no podcast I listen too even mentioned it.
And as most skeptics and humanists know, if there’s one thing we do well, its podcasting. Not taking advantage of this is, I think, a huge fail.
Having only one podcast promoting it, doesn’t help either, because not everyone listens to it, even the people who are interviewed on it. PZ wrote a blog post to quote him “We did an impromptu Point of Inquiry podcast this afternoon, which could appear at any time now …. I’m going to go listen to Sam Harris for a few hours, so I probably will be busy when it goes online. I wouldn’t listen to it, anyway!”
Sounds a little tongue in cheek but still, a missed chance to promote this event and that’s pretty bad on their part.
Of course all this being said, I enjoyed my time in Los Angeles. I got to meet a lot of nice people and even got reacquainted with people I met at TAM and speakers who visited us in Vancouver. There were some pretty special moments like when Tom Flynn was asking the audience for donations to help them reach their goal of $60,000 when to the surprise of everyone, a generous attendee donated $60,000 in one cheque. By the end of the conference they had raised over $100,000!
Another was during the dialogue between Harris and Wright when Dawkins asked Wright a question and then quickly ran back to the mic to ask him a follow up. You don’t see that everyday.
I also got to tour around Los Angeles, visiting the Griffith Observatory and the Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits (although the museum closed early that day) we also visited CFI LA to see their impressive building. I hope one day we in Vancouver have such a location to call our own.
The more I learn about these sorts of conferences the more confident I get that Canada will soon have its own national skeptical/free thought conference, and I look forward to that day.