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A Harvard Student's Experience at the Secular Student Alliance Conference

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Andrew MaherAs an officer for the Harvard Secular Society, I had the opportunity in June to attend a major humanist conference in Washington, DC, thanks to some generous funding from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and the Secular Student Alliance (SSA).

This conference was held jointly by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the American Humanist Association (AHA), and the SSA. The IHEU is an organization that includes Humanist, rationalist, secular, atheist, and other non-theist groups from all over the world. The AHA is a domestic organization that aims to promote the ideals of humanism, and the SSA seeks to mobilize young people to become activists for secular causes. The other Harvard attendees were Kelly Bodwin, an undergraduate; Jon Figdor and Sebastian Velez, graduate students; and Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain.

AHA Con LogoGoing into the conference, I had a few goals. First of all, I wanted to gain a better understanding of humanism and its role in the worldwide non-theist movement. Second, I wanted to meet other young non-theists from different parts of America and the world. Third, I wanted to come up with some good ideas for the Harvard Secular Society next year.

I arrived at the humanist conference in the early afternoon on Friday, June 6. After registering and taking care of a few logistical matters, I was ready to get started. Most of my experience of that first afternoon consisted of listening to speakers and panels in the main ballroom. The first speaker I saw was Matt Cherry, the head of the United Nations Committee on Freedom of Religion of Belief. His talk about the freedom of conscience being a fundamental right was commendable, though I did leave with some questions about how the UN is actually going around enforcing this ideal.

Maryam Namazie, the spokesperson of the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain and an Iranian women's rights activist, followed with a fascinating talk about the dangers of political Islam and how expression is restricted when certain ideas and practices are protected from criticism solely by being deemed "sacred."

The speaker that best caught my attention was Eugenie Scott, the head of the National Center for Science Education, who gave a very thorough and informative overview of the evolution vs. creationism debate when it comes to public school science education. As a student interested in pursuing science as a field of study and possibly as a career, I was really shocked by some of the statistics Scott showed in her presentation. If there were one very specific area in the quest for spreading humanism that I would like to pursue more as an individual, it is this topic of evolution vs. creationism/intelligent design.

Student DinnerOne of the most fun experiences of the conference was interacting with other students through the events planned by the Secular Student Alliance. That night, all the students had a dinner together at a restaurant near the hotel. I was able to meet a bunch of fellow young humanist activists, especially a large group of students from Berkeley who were very interested in hearing from us about how to grow their club and branch out into bigger events. That dinner was also the occasion for Kelly and me to start spreading the word about her idea for a National Secular Service Day in the coming year. To our great excitement, there was near-unanimous enthusiasm among the other leaders of student secular groups.

The night ended with us hearing a stirring speech by Jamie Raskin, a Maryland state senator and noted advocate for civil liberties, and a fairly humorous speech by Congressman Pete Stark, the first member of Congress to publicly admit a lack of faith in god. While I was impressed by Congressman Stark's courage to "come out" as a non-theist, I was discouraged to hear that there were 21 other high level politicians who described themselves as being some sort of non-believer but were unwilling to be open about it publicly. I can't wait for the day when the political climate changes to the point where politicians can be honest to the public about their non-theism.

Saturday was a productive day on many fronts. Kelly, Jon, and I all attended a session with the SSA designed to inform us about ways to expand the role of our secular groups in our communities by coordinating with other nearby secular groups and being more open to interacting with people of all ages. Since part of my job as vice-president of the Harvard Secular Society is to coordinate with other secular groups in the Boston area, I will take this advice to heart and plan on having some joint events with other student and non-student groups in the coming year.

Following that session, I was honored and delighted to experience a stirring panel discussion between Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein and Washington, DC, journalism icon Sally Quinn. It was interesting to hear about Ms. Quinn's website "On Faith," which provides a forum for discussion about faith among noted intellectuals ranging from atheists like Richard Dawkins to evangelicals like Cal Thomas. Ms. Quinn recounted her remarkable story about her relationship with belief/non-belief, even though to me her claims about goodness and love and other positive abstract ideas forming a divine entity seem kind of fluffy.

AHA Conference Student Pizza DinnerThe day ended with more socializing and discussion with young humanists (pizza was involved) and another award ceremony for important humanists, complete with almost comically long and intricate introductions. Philip Pullman, the author of one of my favorite books as a child, The Golden Compass, gave a nice speech about the importance of using one's imagination even in the absence of belief in a god. But I was truly fascinated by the images of Saturn and its moons that Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist and Imaging Team Leader for the Cassini space mission to Saturn, showed at the ceremony. Those Cassini photos make Earth look so insignificant and tiny on that grand a scale that I believe they can capture anyone's imagination about what lies beyond current understanding.

Sunday was a short day, during which I only attended one event: Christopher Hitchens's keynote address. I was expecting a fire-breathing tirade from the noted anti-theist author about how we atheists should be aggressive in our denunciations of believers. Instead, he gave a mild-mannered address about the virtues of atheism without really stepping on the toes of the more conciliatory Humanists. I was pleased, but not totally blown away by his performance.

Once the conference was over, I reflected on whether or not I had achieved the goals I had set coming in. The SSA session had provided good focus for organizing a larger secular student community moving forward. And I had indeed met a slew of young Humanists from all sorts of locations, from California to Sweden. What was interesting was that they all had slightly different tilts when it came to their take on humanism, which brings me to my other goal of gaining a better understanding of the movement.

And to tell the truth, I think I've come away with more questions than answers. For example, I noticed a serious age gap in active humanists. This was epitomized by Saturday night, when I went from a laid-back student event where a bunch of teenagers and people in their twenties mingled and talked about student challenges to a fancy award ceremony honoring elderly people who already had impressive titles and credentials. It has since come to my attention that it is difficult for people in the middle-age range with families and jobs to take several days off for a conference, which makes sense. So as my understanding of humanism evolves with every event I attend and book I read, I become more and more and enthused with what lies ahead. I thought that the conference was great and very helpful, and I appreciate being given the opportunity to attend.

Andrew Maher

Andrew Maher, who was raised in the small town of Bow, New Hampshire, is a sophomore at Harvard University where he currently serves as a vice president for the Harvard Secular Society. He plans on majoring in chemistry, and his interests include campaigning for Democratic candidates, playing the trombone in various musical ensembles, watching the Red Sox, and being an active atheist and humanist.


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