The New Humanism Conference Recap April 23, 2007

The New Humanism Conference Recap

Rebecca Watson has a nice writeup of the event, so I’ll just link to her and add a couple comments.

Also, spazeboy says he will have an mp3 of “The Next Generation of Humanism” panel (which I sat on) sometime this morning. If he has it, check it out! [Update: Here’s a link to the audio]

Here’s one minor complaint, and it’s not just from this past weekend. Ever hear of the term “blogwhoring”? It’s when someone posts a comment on a popular blog, but they don’t say anything useful. They just plug their own blog in a shameless effort to get people to visit their site. I suppose the term applies in other instances as well.

Like conferences. During the Q & A portions of the panel discussions/speeches, there were a number of people who seemed to think it was a perfect time to plug their websites.

If Salman Rushdie is answering questions, you ask him something worthwhile. I guarantee he’s not going to go home and check out your site. Neither are the panelists in a panel discussion. And in the process of your blogwhoring, you just end up pissing off the audience.

Stop that.

Moving on… Rebecca had one criticism that I wanted to comment on:

The only conference lowlight I’ll mention is one that may apply overall to the humanist movement, though I’m not sure: it was a disturbing trend of kowtowing to religion. As an example, there was a teleconference with a Southern Baptist convention, during which time Greg [Epstein], the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard, referred to the planet Earth as “the Creation.” This was repeated in the conference pamphlet. The Creation? This came mere hours after one speaker criticized the way some people redefine “god” to mean “love” or “nature” — why use that language? It’s useless, and worse yet confusing.

The “kowtowing” word may be too strong– Greg would be the first to tell you he would never back down from “atheistic” ideals and everything he was doing (or allowing to happen) was secular. Still, Rebecca’s sentiment was shared by many people.

In fact, on Saturday morning, there was also a “benediction” to give homage to those who weren’t able to be there with us because of their passing. It was led by a (secular Jewish) Rabbi. There was also a poem that everyone was told to recite together. While there was no mention of God or the afterlife in any of this, it turned off a lot of students.

Some of that came from the “stench of religion” that Rebecca alluded to. One friend also said that she didn’t like being told to recite words along with the crowd. She hadn’t had a chance to read through them for herself beforehand to see whether or not she agreed with what was written. That mentality of going-along-with-the-crowd instead of thinking-about-what-you’re-doing is what drove her away from religion in the first place.

On the upside (and there are plenty of them), there were a number of students in attendance who had never before attended a conference like this. I’m looking forward to reading the review forms they filled out, but from what I heard, they appreciated the speakers and the “activist training” they received. The best parts of the weekend, though, might have just been the lunches and dinners, when students were able to socialize. While the planning stages of a lot of conferences include trying to have the best content possible, it may be worthwhile to just set aside time mid-conference so students can get to know each other better. The content went late into the night Friday and Saturday, so going out with a group afterwards was difficult since so many people needed sleep for the next day’s activities.

[tags]atheist, atheism, The New Humanism, Rebecca Watson, spazeboy, The Next Generation of Humanism, blogwhoring, Southern Baptist convention, Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain, Harvard, Creation, benediction, Rabbi[/tags]

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  • Here’s the post where your readers can listen to the MP3 of the panel on “The Next Generation of Humanism.”

    This comes dangerously close to blogwhoring, so I’ll add that this was my first conference of the type and that I enjoyed myself. I hope there are more to come.

  • Mriana

    That’s one reason why I don’t add my website link to my posts. It’s not a blog, but it has no relationship to Hemant’s site either, not even the general writings section of my website.

    I also agree, substituting words for God or Earth does not change the meaning much, esp if words like “the creation”. “The creation” infers there was a creator and if Epstein is not backing down from Atheistic ideals, then he should speak out about this. Although I do understand the struggles with finding new words for Spiritual when talking about feelings transcendence, which is really a chemical reaction in the amygdala and/or frontal lobe along with some other parts of the brain triggered by an external stimulus or stimuli. I experienced this many times and esp with my first new born son the first time I held him and we looked into each others eyes.

    However, the external stimuli was that I was holding a new life in my arms, that I gave birth to, for the very first time and not some sort of divinity interacting with us. There was no god involved with the feeling of transcendence seeing my newborn son for the first time, but rather awe and wonder at what I had done and the beauty of my son that triggered a chemical reaction in my brain. Those who have had children know exactly the feeling I am talking about, yet we have no words in the English language for that except the traditional words referring to feelings of transcendence and even then it’s a struggle to find words that don’t sound religiously oriented.

    This neuro-chemistry has been shown in brain scans and even Sam Harris has discussed this at least once (his article with his trip to the Holy Lands), so there is a science to it, but even he says there is not deity involved. So, the question is, and this is being discussed on some other Humanists boards as well, to describe such things without sounding like we are referring to a religious experience?

    I’m wondering if that is the struggle they had with this “benediction” and alike. Although they could have called a spade a spade and instead of saying people passed [away], said they had died. There is no religious inference to the word “died”. Spiritual Humanism does not include a belief in the supernatural nor does it necessarily use religious words either. In fact, it makes every attempt to find different words. Now Religious Humanism, like Sea of Faith, doesn’t seem to make much attempt to avoid such words.

    So, maybe the issue is, with all the different forms of Humanism- Secular, Ethical, Spritual, Religious, etc,- finding a common means of communication that we all can agree with. “The Creation” is not going to get it though. I think just saying “earth” is the best choice. If you mean love then say “love”, but don’t use it for substitution for something else. That seems like a cover up to me and what did a deity have to do with this gathering anyway?

  • Leah

    It was a wonderful conference.

    I left with many thoughts and questions and ideas. One of them, regarding “community”— how is that fostered in a nonreligious group?

    On that note, I appreciated that you came over to people, including me, on Friday, to introduce yourself. I was feeling a little lost and it meant a lot to me that you did that.


  • Ben

    I thought that the (very aptly put) ‘kowtowing to religion’ was at its worst during the (hideously long) dinner Saturday night. I can’t say I remember it all very clearly (the table I was sitting at was having a much more stimulating conversation) but I seem to remember one speaker referring to us as “doing God’s work,” and another that “we were all gods.”

    –this was supposed to be a humanist conference, right? Did I miss something?

    Incidentally: did Dar Williams ever take the stage? We all got up from the kids’ table after the first ‘bonus’ hour of speeches was over.

  • Bill Young

    I just wish that we could all stop playing word games and making broadside generalizations about religions and get on with our own non-theistic messages.
    Incidentally, I agree with Ben that we shouldn’t be using the “God” word because it detracts from the reality that “God” is just an idea that some people have in their brains and that those of us who don’t have this idea can simply ignore it.

  • Ephrem Hagos

    Dear Mr. Mehta,

    The supernatural cannot be easily brushed away. I am sorry to say that you were actually barking the wrong tree in your efforts to explore church. You see these churches are not what they are supposed to be. Personally, I do not belong anymore to any one of them.

    If you really want to explore firsthand the supernatural, I suggest that you visit and judge, after examining the evidence, whether or not there is something really scary in the “cause and effect” of Jesus Christ’s death. If you fail to personally experience the supernatural in this incident, I should be very happy to join your movement.



  • Mriana

    OK this seems like the best place to comment since you mentioned Rushdie and it is about the conference.

    I was reading this article here about the conference:

    Rabbi Wine ticked me off!

    Rushdie, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, and the Rev. William Murry (a Unitarian Universalist minister and scholar) represented Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in the “Towards an Abrahamic Humanism” panel. Wine talked about presenting humanism to those whose behavior is secularized, but who still identify culturally with their religious heritage. “They belong to us, but we don’t know how to reach them. We only know how to collect the wounded.” But, he warned, “They are turned off by meetings of the wounded. They don’t know how to relate to a militant group of secularists.”

    I don’t belong to anyone! 😡 Does Christianity have a culture? I didn’t know that it did. I know Judaism does, but not Chrisitianity. Just because I went from Secular with some influence of religious relatives, to whatever my mother became when I was a teen, spent 20 years in the Episcopal Church as an adult and finally became a Humanist doesn’t mean I belong to the Episcoplains or whoever. There is no freakin’ culture there! And if there is, I’ve rejected most of that. I’m a Humanist. I do not want to go back to any of that.

    Nor do I want anyone to play tug-of-war with me. 🙁 I made this choice as an adult after a lot of research and self-educating. I know where I came from and I know where I’m going (or I hope I do). I don’t belong to the religious, but I can deal with the more liberal religious. I am not anti-religion or anti-God, I just don’t want to be there anymore. I don’t belong to anyone, but I choose to be a Humanist.

    Who IS this Wine person anyway? Sounds to me like more church dominance and THAT is one of the things I rejected.

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