Report from the Secular Society Conference: Day Three

The final day of The Secular Society and Its Enemies had three programs. The first, a panel titled “Secularism: The Next Generation”, was moderated by Derek Araujo and featured several young freethinkers: Matt LaClair, whom I discussed previously; Sarah Stone, a student freethought organizer from Indiana; Mark Antony Smith, a CFI intern from Arizona; Justin Trotter, the director of CFI Ontario; as well as Nica Lalli, the author of Nothing: Something to Believe In.

The panelists discussed several topics, including coming out as an atheist on a personal level, how to deal with religious relatives, and organizing efforts among young freethinkers. Surprisingly, despite polls indicating rising rates of secularism and nonbelief, three of the four panelists spoke of hostility and even, in one case, violence initiated by religious peers. Matt LaClair insightfully noted, “The nicer you are, the more they hate you.” And there was a valuable reminder to American atheists that, battered as it may be, the First Amendment is still a precious bulwark against religious encroachment: Justin Trotter discussed how, in some parts of Canada, religious schools are legally funded by tax money from the state.

Mark Antony Smith, Sarah Stone and Nica Lalli.

After the panel, there was an address by Alan Dershowitz, who spoke about America’s founders and the way the religious right has sought to pervert the principles of separation of church and state which they laid down. The talk discussed many of the usual important pieces of evidence, including the Treaty of Tripoli, the Jefferson Bible, and the delegates’ refusal to add Christian or religious language to the Constitution. Prof. Dershowitz also pointed out that the Constitutional Convention considered a draft of the First Amendment that would simply have forbidden the government from preferentially aiding one religious sect over others (while not prohibiting the government from supporting religion in general), but rejected it in favor of the current, stronger wording. He also spoke of how the “courts are not trustworthy”, and why we must engage in grassroots organizing and not simply trust in favorable court rulings to preserve our rights as Americans.

Alan Dershowitz speaks on state-church separation.

Afterward, there was a book signing. I was chatting nearby and witnessed an ugly scene. A conference attendee who had wanted to ask Prof. Dershowitz a question during the Q&A session after the talk, but didn’t get the chance, instead confronted him at the signing. The man had printed out a CNN article which quoted Dershowitz as supporting the torture of terrorist suspects, and immediately confronted him and started yelling at the top of his voice, berating him for advocating such a thing.

Dershowitz replied heatedly (I’m sure he’s faced far more hostile questioning than this), but stood his ground. He vehemently claimed that the article had badly distorted his position, and offered to pay his interrogator a thousand dollars if he could find any other source that showed Dershowitz expressing sentiments similar to those in the CNN article. The man obviously didn’t want to believe this, but the mood of the crowd was against him, and he finally backed down.

A note to this gentleman: This is not how you handle disagreement. What would have been wrong with putting the article down on the table and saying calmly, “Professor Dershowitz, I’m very disturbed by some of the views this story attributes to you. Can you clarify what your position is on this issue?” That would have served much better than blowing your stack at the first opportunity and disrupting the entire conference only to embarrass yourself. It’s good to be passionate and willing to challenge authority, but passion does no good if it is not coupled to knowledge.

The day’s final event was a panel on Islam and secularism, featuring the scholar Paul Berman and the Islamic dissent Tawfik Hamid. Dr. Hamid, who’s been on Point of Inquiry previously, had a fascinating story. Born in Egypt, the son of secular parents, in his youth he was seduced by Islamic radicalism and joined the terrorist group Jamaat al-Islamiya. During that time, he was a personal associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri – now one of the leaders of al-Qaeda. Fortunately, Dr. Hamid heard the call of reason and renounced the group’s violent ideology before actually committing any acts of bloodshed. Today he’s a secular Muslim working to oppose the spread of Islamism and terrorism and promote a new, more peaceful interpretation of the Qur’an.

During the talk, Paul Berman drew some insightful connections between extremist Islam and European totalitarian movements such as fascism, Nazism and communism. The connections were often literal – many of the forerunners of today’s jihadists studied and were educated in Europe, and consciously adopted the vocabulary and concepts of the European totalitarian leaders. Likewise, each of these movements has a mythology that portrays true believers as an intrinsically superior people, unjustly oppressed by the rest of the world, who will rise up and overthrow the oppressors in a glorious, apocalyptic struggle.

Dr. Hamid (who came to the talk with security present), offered a counterpoint to this argument. He spoke of the violent teachings in the Qur’an and the hadith, and of the historical misfortune that the strictest, most intolerant brand of Salafist Islam took root in Saudi Arabia. When oil was discovered there, many Muslims decided that petro-wealth was Allah’s blessing for the Saudis’ obedience and resolved to do likewise. He also said that education can counteract the teachings of radical mullahs, but that, like other totalitarian movements, Islamism’s ideologues are beyond rational debate and need to be confronted and defeated militarily before a new generation can be made receptive to a more tolerant and liberal strain of thought.

After the talks, I got a few more pictures:

Me with Margaret Downey, the charming and friendly president of Atheist Alliance International.

We bloggers have to stick together. :) With Shalini from Scientia Natura and Tommy from An Exercise in Futility (whose own posts about this conference are well worth reading).

Nica Lalli up close and personal.

All in all, the conference was an amazing experience. The Center for Inquiry did a bang-up job in getting some of the secular movement’s most renowned representatives together under the same roof, and all the events were well-planned, entertaining and highly informative. (By way of gratitude, it’s worth mentioning their ongoing capital campaign to build a new headquarters in New York City – I encourage you to consider donating.) If this event is held again next year, I’ll gladly attend. If secularists and freethinkers can organize to the degree that religious groups are organized, I believe we’d be a political and cultural force to be reckoned with, and events like this one are valuable steps both in building that community, in reinforcing our ideals and principles, and in getting the word out to people who might be persuaded to join us.

New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Spanish Inquisitor

    All you bloggers seems so young! I feel like I’m starting my life over with a better brain, but wondering why it happened so late in my life? I still say that youth, for the most part, is wasted on the young, but you whippersnapper bloggers may belie that. :)

  • Ebonmuse

    Well, if you’re a real Spanish inquisitor, that would make you – what? A hundred and seventy years old at least? I guess I am a whippersnapper compared to that. ;)

  • Archi Medez


    Thanks for bringing us these reports on the Conference. Great work.

  • Eric


    I parrot the above sentiments. Thank you very much for these great reports and updates. Also, on a tangential note, I have been inspired by something i read on Great Christina’s blog. She wrote of how it is nice to receive good criticisms and comments in general.

    I am thanking you for the time, energy, and diligence you put into this blog and forum. In this day and age it is WILDLY necessary and you have provided a focus and outlet. As an atheist living in a very small, rural Alaskan community I have very little access to like minded freethinkers. In fact, in my little town, the chief of police is a born again southern baptist (who took it upon himself to build a new church, without getting the proper building permits, but i digress…). If I even put an atheist t-shirt on, or a sticker on my car I become the lightning rod for harassment. I tred a fine line on “coming out” and being thought of as offensive or “that godless heathen.”

    I thank you for this blog.


  • OhioAtheist

    Sounds like an absolutely fascinating conference. Thanks a lot, Ebonmuse, for providing this summary.

  • Mr Embiggen

    At the risk of creating a flock of parrots, thanks for this overview of things–I wish there were some video as there was with the AA meet not long a ago. I’m hoping to travel from Australia one of these days and take in a few of these amazing conferences that have been taking place over the past couple of months. From TAM, to this one at CFI, and the BB2, it really would be wonderful. Thanks again, tis a most appreciated effort giving us down under a view of the conference.

  • Dawn Rhapsody

    I don’t think one can ever have enough parrots. Thanks for the reports, Adam; like Mr Embiggen, I’m hoping to take a trip out of Australia and meet with some of the great freethinkers of our day. Then, after that, become one myself and continue the work these brilliant people have begun. :)

    I’ll certainly be keeping my ears open for news of this conference being repeated next year.

  • LindaJoy

    Ebonmuse- now that you have met several big names in the atheist,secular,humanist etc. movement, maybe you could suggest something to them. I think it would be great if everyone from these major groups would come together to sponsor a conference in Washington D.C. dedicated to the separation of religion and government. A conference that would represent the millions of Americans that believe that this separation has been eroded terribly and want it to stop. Then invite all the major candidates for President and see if they will come and pander to the church/state separatists like they do to all the religious conferences. It would certainly help us to see where they actually stand rather than trusting them when they say they support separation and don’t act like it at all.