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#SSAcon 2015 Recap

#SSAcon 2015 Recap July 13, 2015

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I’m on my way home from Columbus, Ohio, where this weekend I was at the 2015 convention of the Secular Student Alliance. I haven’t been a student for a good while, but you don’t have to be one to attend! Columbus is a hip midwestern city with great art, music, food and drinks, and the weekend was full of friends old and new from the blogosphere and from past speaking trips in Ripon, Wisconsin and Mobile, Alabama (who drove more than sixteen hours to be there!).

There were nuts-and-bolts talks on group organizing and atheist activism, but also many good general-interest talks by ex-Muslims, queer and transgender activists, feminists, and people of color – a worthy showcase of the changing progressive face of the atheist movement in general and the SSA specifically. Here are some that made the most impression on me:

• While most of the talks were great, there was one unfortunate exception that I wanted to get out of the way first: a presentation by Catherine Sevcenko of FIRE, a legal group that fights unconstitutional speech restrictions at public colleges. Of course, I’m a big fan of free speech, and as long as there are petty tinpot-tyrant administrators who don’t understand the First Amendment, there will be a need for groups like FIRE. There are cases where their intervention was undoubtedly helpful, like the college that barred students from handing out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day, or the campus with a designated “free speech zone” the size of a parking spot.

The problem was when she lumped harassment codes together with unconstitutional infringements on free speech, implying that they were all the same kind of thing and could be used to criminalize harmless jokes or a picture of the Venus de Milo. This led to some awkward contortions, such as when Sevcenko lavishly praised the SSA’s (very good) conference anti-harassment policy while strongly implying her group would sue a college that tried to implement the very same policy.

I’m not saying this is an easy thing to get right. It can be hard to find the right balance between protecting controversial ideas and forbidding harmful harassment. But Sevcenko’s speech didn’t acknowledge that there was any complexity to be found here, instead taking the flippant stance that all restrictions on speech are the same and that abolishing them is always the right answer. (For the record, she also said that she was opposed to the Supreme Court decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez and argued that campus groups should have the power to discriminate, such as a Christian student organization that wished to bar gay members.)

• Moving on, one of the standouts of the conference was a fantastic, hilarious talk by Lucien Greaves of the Satanic Temple. While I still think Satanism as a concept is silly, I have to admit that the Satanists are trolls in the best possible sense. Whenever some religious-right lawmaker proposes granting special rights to religion, the Satanists can be counted on to pop up asking for the same, which invariably provokes a sudden reconsideration.

One example is the Satanists’ plan to put a statue of Baphomet next to the Ten Commandments in the Oklahoma state capitol. Greaves spoke about their dealings with arrogant, Christianist lawmakers, including one, Jason Rapert, who thinks that human rights are generously granted by the majority and can be revoked. He also gave a brief update on their brilliant strategy of using the Hobby Lobby decision as a wedge against anti-choice laws. They’ve found a test case in Missouri, where they’ve filed a lawsuit to invalidate laws that require waiting periods or force physicians to recite a shaming script at women (Missouri’s is especially egregious). I can’t wait to see the contortions the religious right will go through trying to argue against this.

• Harsh Voruganti of the Hindu-American Foundation spoke about how minority religions and secular groups can work together to defend the separation of church and state against incursions by the Christian majority, showing charts of how often his organization cooperates on amicus briefs with pro-separation groups like Americans United. I agree that there’s potential for a fruitful partnership, although that’s not to say that Hindus are necessarily more liberal or more tolerant than other religions when they’re in the majority.

• Belol Muezzin of Ex-Muslims of North America told his own story of how he came to reject Islam, only later finding out that there were others who thought the same. While his own family has come to terms with his atheism, he keeps largely closeted (and spoke under a pseudonym) because they might suffer retribution if it were known that they’d raised an apostate son. He addressed how well-intentioned reforms don’t always reach into insular immigrant communities where religious authorities are the de facto law, and of how Islamic preachers are starting to denounce ex-Muslims – a counterintuitive sign of progress, since it means their message has become so widely known that it can’t be ignored any longer!

• Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center spoke about bankrupting the KKK through lawsuits and defending civil rights (often including the civil rights of secular and gay students). The SPLC has given meeting space to nontheist groups that have been turned down by other venues in the South. I also learned from Brooks’ talk that to counter the SPLC’s Hate Map project, the American Family Association has hilariously tried to start a competing “bigotry map“, which lists groups that defend the separation of church and state or speak in defense of atheism.

• Last but hopefully not least, I debuted a new talk on the coming secular era – the demographic shifts that foretoken a bright future for atheists and freethinkers. The Millennials, the largest and least religious generation in American history, are a growing part of the electorate, and the signs of our influence are everywhere: clergy greying and dwindling; churches being converted into bars, restaurants and libraries; atheists speaking out and being accepted more than ever before; and progressive social trends like marriage equality that religion tried to stop and couldn’t.

There was video of all the talks, including mine, and I’ll post it when it’s available. Of course, if you’d like a more up-close-and-personal presentation, you can always invite me to speak to your group or college. And if you agree with me that our students are the heart of the secular movement, then help support the Secular Student Alliance and the work they do to keep them strong!

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