The Benefits of Ballrooms - Why Attend a Humanist Conference?

I type this entry as I sit on the runway at Boston-Logan Airport, about to take to the sky for a 6 hour journey to San Jose. I will be traversing a distance of almost
2700 miles. If I were to go 600 miles farther, and in a different direction, I
could be in London, my hometown – this is a serious distance I’m about to
travel. Why am I doing it? Because I am attending, with a stalwart group of
Harvard Humanists, “Humanism 2.0”, the 69
th annual conference of the
American Humanist Association (AHA).

This will be my first conference related to Humanism and, although I’ve attended and presented at many academic conferences, I’m not sure what to expect at this
one. What, after all, is a conference on
Humanism hoping to achieve? Presumably most of the attendees will already
consider themselves Humanists, or why would they make the trip? So growing the
movement is probably not a primary goal of the event. Some may be hoping to
learn more about the ideals and aspirations of Humanism, but those with the
commitment to travel to a conference may well feel they already have a firm
grasp of the basics. And then there’s that intriguing moniker, “Humanism 2.0” –
what is this supposed to mean? The reference to “Web 2.0” is clear, but the
connection between the new generation of web tools and the Humanist movement is
hazy to me. So, I approach the conference (literally, now, as we’ve taken off)
with a certain amount of uncertainty.

This uncertainty regarding the purpose and nature of the conference is not inconsequential – how we Humanists represent ourselves to the public, and the
sorts of events we choose to organize and endorse, will serve to shape the
image of our movement in the public eye. As Sam Harris argued in a 2007 speech
to the Atheist Alliance in 2007, “in accepting a label, particularly the label
of “atheist,” it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky
sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that
meets in hotel ballrooms… as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion,
and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has
been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with
both feet.”

Can Harris’ critique of the moniker “atheist” be fruitfully applied to “Humanist”, and do his concerns regarding our being marginalized as an “interest group which meets
in hotel ballrooms” skewer Humanism 2.0, which is being held at the Doubletree
near San Jose airport? Harris certainly thinks so – in the same speech he
exhorts the nonreligious to “go under the radar”, avoiding any particular label
(including “Humanist”), and simply “
be decent, responsible people
who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.” In other words, to label oneself
a “Humanist”, as I do, and to go meet in hotel ballrooms, as I’m about to, may
in the long-run be a misstep. So why am I taking this flight?

The problem in Harris’ argument peeks through in his concept of being “decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we
find them”: essentially, he seems to view being “decent” and “responsible” as
fairly unproblematic, and the primary project of those of us engaged in the
Humanist or atheist movements as the destruction of “bad ideas”. But what if we
are interested in the very questions of the nature of a decent, responsible
life? What if, as well as destroying bad ideas, we want to promote a positive
vision of humanity, exploring our capabilities and promise, and asserting our
ability to make a better world? For that, we need do more than “go under the
radar”: we need to meet, organize and advocate until our dreams for a more
humane society are fulfilled – even if that means spending a few days in hotel

Therefore, in attending the AHA’s annual conference, I have three clear goals for myself. First and foremost, I want to describe to as many people as possible the
extraordinary work done by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and to tell
those stories which express how important the Chaplaincy has been in my life.
It would be a blessing if every campus in America had as strong and positive a
Humanist presence as that afforded by the Chaplaincy at Harvard, and I hope to
encourage those I meet to lobby for the creation of such institutions in their
colleges and alma-maters. If I can raise some money for the Chaplaincy while
I’m at it, so much the better (we’re fundraising, and you can donate here –
we’re grateful!).

Second, I’m excited just to meet and speak with Humanists from around America – to hear about their work and lives, and how they experience their Humanism in this very
religious country. Sharing stories with other Humanists is one of the greatest joys in my life, and
I’m particularly excited to hear from those striving to create nonreligious
communities which provide fellowship and community for nonreligious people.
This is important and underappreciated work, especially in such a deeply
religious nation (so different from the UK!) and I want to hear from those who
are busy doing it!

Third, I want to develop my skills and knowledge so that I can become a more effective leader in the Humanist community. As I make Humanism a more important part of
my life (assistant editing The New Humanism, for example), I realize that this
must become more than a hobby. My passion for spreading Humanist ideals across
this nation and across the world only grows stronger the more time I dedicate
to it, and I want my efforts to be well-targeted and powerful. I hope I can
find inspiration at the conference which will help me achieve this aim.

To keep the readers of The New Humanism (and the folks at Atheist Nexus and Think Atheist!) in the loop, I’m going to blog at least twice a day throughout the conference,
ensuring that you get the full details of what the Harvard group is up to. And
this more frequent blogging will continue when we return, with regular updates
from the Chaplaincy and thoughts on Humanist news and ideas. We hope you will
join us for the next few days as we explore “Humanism 2.0”, and stay with us
afterwards to!

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