Let Humanism Ring: American Humanist Association 2014 Annual Conference Report

The American Humanist Association met in Philadelphia this weekend for its 73rd Annual Conference (“Let Humanism Ring!”), a celebration of the Humanist worldview and an opportunity for the AHA (the foremost organization for the promotion of Humanism in the USA) to update its members on the activities of the year.

The conference began, as in previous years, with a symposium presenting essays exploring aspects of the Humanist philosophy, curated by Humanist philosopher John Shook. The theme of the papers this year was human development and flourishing, with papers exploring human welfare from multiple perspectives, including a number which investigated notions of “transcendence” from a naturalistic perspective. The papers were provocative and well-delivered and marked, in my mind, a step-up from the selections at previous conferences.

The plenary sessions of the conference maintained this level of quality. Some. like Faisal Al-Mutar‘s “Letters from a Young Mesopotamian from Baghdad to Washington, DC”, were exhortations to attendees to embrace Humanist values on a global scale, placing American Humanism in the context of a world in which many struggle to gain recognition of their basic rights. Others were more like mini-workshops, such Mandisa Thomas‘ session on “How the Secular Community can learn from the Hospitality Industry”, which encouraged Humanists to make their groups and communities truly welcoming to visitors using simple but oft-overlooked methods.

The award recipients this year were particularly fun and feisty. Former congressman Barney Frank is legendary for his bluntness and willingness to speak his mind, and he did not disappoint in his speech after accepting the Humanist of the Year award. Frank, who recently confirmed his atheism on the Bill Maher show, spoke out against the disillusionment in politics which leaves many to avoid engagement. “Democracy works better than people think”, he reminded the audience, “if they try to make it work.”

Greg Graffin was honored with the Humanist Arts Award for his work with punk rock band Bad Religion. He spoke eloquently on the need to criticize religion in a thoughtful and interesting way, rather than succumbing to hateful rhetoric, expressing his hope that Bad Religion’s music had done just that.

Jessica Valenti, accepting the Humanist Heroine Award for her work as a feminist (including founding the Feministing blog), called out the misogyny of contemporary society, noting the paradox that “This is a time of wide cultural acceptance of feminism yet widespread disdain for women.”

Also honored were Steve Rade, who received the Humanist Business Award for his long service to Humanist causes; Eugenie Scott, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award for her tireless work with the National Center for Science Education; and Natalie Angier, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning writing on subjects such as the female body (in Woman: And Intimate Geography) and Science (in The Canon) gained her the Humanist Media Award.

If there was one thing missing it was a sense of movement-wide direction and planning. What movements need more than anything is a sense of direction – a sense of movement – and the AHA conference (as well as the other annual forethought community conferences I’ve attended, including the American Ethical Union Annual Assembly) would benefit hugely from a genuine year-in-review keynote presentation. A plenary session in which the president or chief executive of the AHA spoke about what the movement had achieved in the past year, and what it hopes to achieve in the future – complete with a video using clips and photos from Humanist groups around the country, accompanied by inspiring and upbeat music – would go a huge way toward giving the conference (and the movement) a sense of cohesion and progress it currently lacks.

That said, this conference was an undoubted success. Attendance was higher than I have seen at an AHA conference in recent years, and everything was impeccably organized (I didn’t notice a technical hitch or major problem all weekend). The program and conference materials were well-designed and well-produced, and the main conference area was filled with tables representing the broader Humanaist movement. Many sessions of the conference were live-streamed to be viewed online, a boon to those who could not attend and the source of excellent material which can be used in future AHA videos.

I left the conference upbeat, with the feeling that the Humanist movement in America is maturing in a healthy way. We seem to be moving beyond an emphasis on the question of God and on religious criticism to a positive, life-affirming vision of the human prospect – a movement which, if long overdue, is exceedingly welcome. The best expression of this developing attitude was the enthusiastic reception received by The Sunday Assembly, led by founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. If you had told me, when I attended my first AHA conference back in 2010, that I would in a few short years be watching attendees stand and clap and sing in a Humanist revival service, I would have thought you wildly optimistic. Yet when I looked around the room during the Sunday Assembly session which opened the conference’s last day, I saw smiles, and dancing, and an enthusiastic love of life.

Let Humanism Ring, indeed!

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