Live Blogging the CfI Student Leadership Conference

Live Blogging the CfI Student Leadership Conference June 23, 2011

Hi there, and welcome to my live (ish) blog of the Center for Inquiry’s Student Leadership Conference! I’m James Croft, the Executive Vice-Chair of the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard, Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and creator of Humanist website Temple of the Future. I’m delighted to be in Buffalo recording the exciting events at CfI headquarters. This is my first real engagement with CfI, and I’m extremely interested to see what they have in store for us!

I’m here because a couple of weeks ago I was asked by Debbie Goddard to attend the Leadership Conference and present a talk on why Humanist communities should engage in service work. I’ve been frantically preparing my presentation – “Good (Without God): The Humanist Responsibility to Serve” – and look forward to giving it on Saturday. I’ll also be on a panel discussing interfaith endeavors, responding to a talk by Ed Clint of the Illini Secular Student Alliance.

I’ll be updating this post with details from the conference as it goes. I’m excited to hear from Rebecca Watson of Skepchick fame and the students on the high school activism panel, and I can’t wait to get to know the CfI staff better.

First Evening – Thursday 23rd June

We’ve begun! We started with a great overview of the Center for Inquiry and its multiple endeavors. I was amazed to see how much the CfI does, from publications to advocacy to movement building. It’s truly an epic undertaking. I’m also impressed with attendance here – lots of students from all across the USA and some from Canada! They are mostly extremely youthful, though – at 28 I feel positively decrepit. I’ll be ordering a walker the moment I get home.

I enjoyed learning how Ron Lindsay came to join the organization. His stress on the need for naturalistic ethics to complement skeptical critique was welcome to my ears. I also learned a new strategy for determining the number of people at an event: “Kurtzian Math”. Simply take the real figure, increase it a little, and release that! After all, “We are trying to build a movement!”

In a passionate and engaging presentation, Tom Flynn told the amazing story of how Paul Kurtz decided to buy the crumbling Ingersoll house, and was able to get it for $7000! This historic landmark became the Ingersoll Museum, the only free thought museum in the USA and open to this day. Since Ingersoll is the primary inspiration of my website Temple of the Future (our name comes from one of Ingersoll’s speeches), it’s exciting to hear how this house was saved from destruction and turned toward such a laudable purpose.

He also spoke about how the magazine Free Inquiry made the decision to publish the cartoons of Muhammad which caused such a stir in the 2005. This is a great tale of journalistic integrity and freethought principles in action, and caused now-defunct bookstore Borders to send back the magazines to the CfI (the first time ever Borders had censored a magazine due to content). Free Inquiry came out from the controversy well (as it should), but a Canadian conglomerate refused to stock the issue FOLLOWING the one which had included the Muhammad cartoons, in what must be one of the few times in history in which the sins of the former issue were borne by the next! This story reinforces the need for magazines like Free Inquiry – it seems remarkable that, in the 21st Century and in countries like the USA and Canada, magazines are stilled being effectively censored due to what is considered to be offensive content. That this content is almost invariably religious also is a cause for concern, since there is no good reason why religion should not be subject to critique, satire and parody like any other set of ideas.

Joe Nickell then gave a series of amusing anecdotes from his years as a paranormal investigator, including the time when he told the producers of “Unsolved Mysteries” he had renamed their show “Unsolving a Mystery” due to their tendency to simply cut the explanations of phenomena provided by skeptics. This points to a disturbing problem with some parts of the media: in order to present shows they think viewers will want to watch they feel the need to pander to their superstitions. It would be far more laudable if such programs considered themselves public educators, and presented the facts of the case dispassionately. We can dream!

A post-panel question on Blasphemy Day, which was criticized by some for being antagonistic to religious individuals, and potential counter-productive, drew an interesting response. Lindsay said the CfI wanted to highlight the strictures against talking about religion in society, and promote the idea that no beliefs are immune from criticism. It was not meant as an exercise in making fun of religion, he said, but an exercise in promoting the right to criticize religious beliefs. “It doesn’t mean you are insulting the person who is holding the beliefs”, he said. It is interesting to note that Blasphemy Day has been renamed “Blasphemy Rights Day”, perhaps to make the intention of the event more clear. I feel this move is an intelligent one, and makes the event easier to explain and defend.

The day ended with a fantastic, moving and hilarious presentation by Debbie Goddard on the roots of her own religious skepticism. For her (ironically), Narnia was the catalyst which sparked the radical idea that there might be no god. She described how she answered “No” to the question of whether she believed in God during her confirmation, and how this jeopardized her Catholic School scholarship. Despite her heroic efforts to sit through church services to maintain her essential scholarship, it was eventually rescinded due to her running a philosophy club, and because of the essays she wrote in religion class. This incident, conveyed compellingly in a powerful presentation, served as the spark for Goddard’s Freethought activism, and ultimately led her to the Center for Inquiry.

In her talk Goddard gave multiple examples of people who have emerged from the CfI’s campus program and internships to become leaders in the secular and Humanist movement. It was inspiring to me to see evidence of a true tradition of activism in service of our highest ideals, supported by the expertise and resources of the CfI. I was also impressed by the sheer number of leaders who are now high-fliers in our movement who have had past association with the CfI – it seems like the CfI is a veritable incubation chamber for future leaders!

The big takeaway from the events today, for me, was the exceptional quality of the speakers, and their clear commitment both to skepticism and rigorous thought, and ethical values. The Center for Inquiry is clearly an institution with a lot of talent, and it was on impressive display today. I’m excited to be spending the weekend with an organization with such passion and clear values, and I look forward to what the next few days will bring!

First Full Day – Friday 24th June

An early, drizzly start this morning has not dampened spirits: there’s lots of energy and excitement here, and even more people! Bagels and tea begin the day (gotta get my tea!) then we’re back in the conference room for another day of rationalism and Humanism.

First up, “reports from the field”, an opportunity for us to introduce ourselves and our organizations. There are freethinkers from all over the country here, from undergraduate and graduate institutions, and the variety of events described are a testament to the creativity of our movement. I was particularly impressed with the students from the Secular Alliance at Indiana University, who showed a clear commitment to service work and tons of energy; Conrad Hudson from SOMA at the university of Kansas, who had an astonishing list of events, including a lot of service work; the folks at UNIFI who do a weekly service project, and a 24/7 service week, which sounds awesome; Eric Bishop of PSSI, whose fundraising efforts involve shirtless lacrosse players (I approve); Missouri State Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and their fabulous work on Skepticon; and the folks from the Illini Secular Student Alliance, who’ve got a lot of great stuff going on.

It was fantastic to see a mix of newer groups just starting up and well-established organizations with lots of capacity and bunches of energy. There is clearly a lot of strength in this movement, and it’s obviously growing if the proliferation of new groups is any indication. There are plenty of extremely smart and dedicated young people looking to promote rationalism, skepticism, and Humanism all across the USA.

Next it’s on to Trevor Boeckmann and his presentation “Making Social Media (and Google) Work for You)”.

He stressed the importance of developing a following on Facebook (not just having a page) by using the News Feed – something we could do better at Harvard – revealing the secret formula behind the Feed and encouraging us to put up fewer posts which are more likely to spark interactions (likes, shares and comments). This will net you higher affinity scores and therefore get your content onto more News Feeds.

Boeckmann suggested having a group of Facebook users willing to “like” whatever you post, and to comment on it, in order to get your stuff on News Feeds initially. Important here is reviewing what “like” means on Facebook – you don’t have to approve of a post or link to “like” it, he said. Rather, when you “like” something you are simply suggesting that others might want to see it too. Also, he suggested posting at prime Facebook “rush hours” (like Wednesday 3pm) in order to catch more users.

He discussed blogging strategies, suggesting you blog daily, use pictures, link to other sites, and, most importantly, get it on Reddit. Throwing links on there can be a fantastic way to get a broader readership, but you need to remember some things: use a catchy title; use the appropriate subreddits; be timely; and get a ring of uploaders to post your content up there and noticed.

He recommended using Google Analytics to track your hits, and Google Voice to coordinate your group. Google Voice in particular was a revelation to me, since I have never used it, and it apparently offers a large number of features, like searchable voicemail and a unified group number which will call all your board members at once when a call comes through.

Great audience recommendations included posting new content on Facebook at 7 in the morning, putting active blogs on, limiting blog posts to 300 words (I’m terrible at this!), and using the traditional media too (gasp!).

Next up: Jennifer Beahan on “Effective Volunteer Management”.


She outlined the importance of bringing volunteers into your organization and ensuring that they have a good reason to be there. She took us through a useful process for getting volunteers, including developing a volunteer application form, keeping a database of potential volunteers with their capabilities and availability, and matching volunteers to appropriate work.

Beahan noted that it’s important to develop a volunteer management system organically as your work continues, including a volunteering guide to codify the systems and processes you are establishing. She also encouraged us to note the strengths of your members so you can approach them with specific volunteering requests, and to put an “I want to volunteer!” box on signup sheets. One key piece of advice is to do the dirty work (taking out the trash etc) yourself, and let the volunteers have the more enjoyable tasks. That way you demonstrate your commitment to the work, and build good relationships for volunteers.

She also introduced a version of Kurtz-time of importance to volunteering: overestimate the time it takes for someone to complete a job. That way if they’re done early they feel good, and if it takes longer than you imagine you’re still covered. On a similar note, give a deadline for jobs with some leeway in it to insure against any late completion. One final tip: ask volunteers to volunteer again the moment after they’ve finished a task, when they are still glowing with success. This will increase the likelihood of them saying yes!

Beahan’s level of organization was genuinely terrifying. The sheer number of different folders she had for different purposes was mind-boggling – I’m someone who thinks I’m well-organized if I can see a small patch of my desk through the books, papers, cups, video-game controllers and magazines which teeter in tall piles on its surface. Perhaps what each student group really needs is their own Jennifer Beahan? If so, then you should take her advice to “clone yourself through your volunteers”, passing on your skills and approach to others.

After lunch, Dr. Judy J. Johnson with “Dogmatism: A Scar on the Face of Reason”.


Dr. Johnson began with the provocative question “Why is it that some people’s minds are like the bed in the guest room: always made up, seldom used?”, a question which has preoccupied her for her professional life. I was impressed that she put up-front the disclaimer that she feels at this time her theory needs empirical validation – a fine example of academic integrity.

She described her definition of dogmatism as a personality trait, stressing how it is hard to change our personality traits after age 30. She sees dogmatism as a maladaptive response to unmet needs (for example the need to know). She outlined the 13 characteristics of dogmatism she has identified, of which 6 are required to determine trait presence.

There are 5 cognitive characteristics: discomfort with uncertainty; defensive cognitive closure; rigid certainty; compartmentalization (partitioning conflicting beliefs to prevent them interacting and causing cognitive dissonance); lack of personal insight (lack of distance from their own core beliefs and emotions).

In addition Dr. Johnson identifies the following 3 emotional characteristics of dogmatism: belief-associated anxiety and fear (this makes fear a useful tool for the demagogue, since fearful people are dumber); belief-associated anger (seeing those who differ as opponents, “Don’t retreat: reload!”); and existential despair (people can lose their balance if they become disillusioned with the ideas they hold dogmatically).

Finally Dr. Johnson outlined the following 5 behavioral characteristics of dogmatism: a preoccupation with power and status (judging the messenger not the message); glorification of the in-group, vilification of the out-group; dogmatic authoritarian aggression (happens at the institutional level more); dogmatic authoritarian submission; and an arrogant, dismissive communication style.

Dr. Johnson reiterated here that her taxonomy has little to do with intelligence and education, but is more about the dogmatic individual seeking to preserve their integrity and dignity in the face of what they perceive as a challenge. Thus smart, well-educated people are not immune from dogmatism – an important thing for us well-educated skeptics to take to heart!

Dr. Johnson concluded her presentation with a suggestion for how dogmatism comes about, which included a large number of risk factors such as a biological predisposition for anxiety, authoritarian parents, a cultural zeitgeist of authoritarianism, and inadequate educational opportunities.

At this point I’m very nervous, because to be honest I certainly display some of these characteristics sometimes. While I’m quick to see these deficiencies in other people, it’s much harder to see them in oneself and one’s allies. I found myself asking “Do I display 6 of these characteristics consistently enough to be considered dogmatic?” I have certainly been told I am, but I’m prone to dismiss those claims! How can we tell if WE are dogmatic?

In response to this question Dr. Johnson highlighted the importance of monitoring our emotions, and consistently asking “Am I trying to win this discussion? How will my interlocutors feel when we’re done talking?” In the interest of intellectual integrity, I recently wrote a post about how much I like to “win” discussions. And to have this outlook linked with dogmatism is troubling – something for me to work on. Another great question asked for strategies to reduce dogmatism. One idea Dr. Johnson offered was to monitor the emotions in play and bring them up explicitly, or take a step back and give some time for things to cool down before resuming the discussion.

In all I felt this was an exquisite presentation: scholarly, modest, lightly and engagingly delivered, and, most importantly, self-critical. Dr. Johnson gave every impression of being a graceful non-dogmatic individual herself, which went a long way toward making her argument more plausible and self-consistent.

Now time for some more Debbie Goddard (@DebGod on twitter) to tell us how and why to engage with other local groups.


I was particularly glad Debbie addressed this topic because linking the many different broadly Humanist groups together is one of the best ways to grow our movement. She gave a series of powerful reasons why we shouldn’t let our initial trepidation stop us from working with organizations that may have a different demographics, experiences and focuses to ours. We have to remember that such collaborations might benefit our group as much as the other, and that we have a lot to learn.

Goddard divided the groups we might work with into three kinds – Movement Allies (other Humanist groups), Issue Allies (groups which are not in the Humanist movement but who share common concerns with us), and “The Other Side” (religious groups which don’t share our values, pro-life groups, homeopaths etc.).

Thinking of ways to engage with “The Other Side” was the most challenging part of the presentation, and Goddard stressed the importance of being polite and keeping an open mind (remember those characteristics of dogmatism!). I was very glad to see Goddard note the potential for learning which can ensue when we work together with groups who do NOT share many of our values and beliefs. I see this as a critical point to remember.

I was left slightly unsure as to why the Ethical Culture Society was considered part of “The Other Side”, since it is one of the most successful Humanist institutions in the modern era! Perhaps its self-identification as a “religious” institution puts it in this category, but I’d still want to view it as a “movement ally” instead, since our shared principles are so strong.

I’m going to take a break from blogging for the next session to prepare for the interfaith panel, so I’ll sadly miss Dren Asselmeier on event planning, but here’s a photo:


And now back in the room with Jesse Galef and his presentation on “Becoming a Media Pirate”!


Jesse is a fantastic speaker, and he presented a wide range of interesting “hooks” to engage the media (flogging the pirate theme to death, haha), including amusing events like “Stone a Heathen Day”, and attention-grabbing event titles like “Famous Atheist Biologist to Expose Holes in Religion”. He chose grabby examples to illustrate his points, such as Metro State’s “Food for Freethought” event. His delivery was punchy, well-paced and inspiring, his consistent message to student groups being “You can do it!”

One great tip – send out your press releases early in the day, then follow up with a call a few hours later. Ask “Did you have any questions about our press release?”, and this may give you an opportunity to pitch your story directly.

Ed Clint then gave a powerful talk on interfaith work in which he contrasted “Big I Interfaith” with “little i interfaith” in order to express his concern regarding the nature of Interfaith organizations like the Interfaith Youth Core. He pointed out that “Big I Interfaith” leaders like Eboo Patel have said dumb things regarding atheists and Humanists, and don’t seem to understand our values and concerns, but that the goals of interfaith organizations (like promoting inter-group understanding) seem laudable and worthwhile. I found this distinction initially rather odd, seeing as he seemed from the rest of his talk to support both the stated aims and practices of Interfaith organizations, so why not support those organizations? However, the more I think about it the more I think the distinction reasonable: one can legitimately engage in interfaith work without supporting the large organizations and interests which promote it, especially if they don’t seem to understand or wish to include secularists, atheists and Humanists.

Further, Clint supported his arguments with concrete evidence from individuals who have indeed made foolish and unreasonable remarks regarding actions like Everyone Draw Muhammad day. Instead of working with the large Interfaith organizations, Clint suggested, why not simply engage with religious groups on one’s own terms and build relationships as necessary?

Fundamentally (and despite being a member of the interfaith panel following his talk selected to be something of a contrast to his views!) I see no reason to object to this argument: if the goals of “Big I Interfaith” are laudable, and can be achieved independently of “Big I Interfaith” institutions, then no problem. Further, I think Clint’s claim that robust criticism of religious faith can coexist with respectful relationships with religious groups is both important and correct. We must not sacrifice our skeptical credentials for any reason, and we need not do so to maintain cordial relationships with many religious organizations. If there are religious groups which are incapable of dealing respectfully with groups that subject them to criticism, then that is their problem and not ours, and there is little point in engaging such groups.

What I do not agree with was the seeming suggestion that therefore, because we accept that our right to criticize religion must not be abridged, we therefore should not voice principled concerns regarding how that criticism is presented. The repeated references to the responses of people like Chris Stedman and Eboo Patel to EDMD suggested to me that it would be extremely difficult to voice criticism of EDMD in any way and meet Clint’s approval. I do not think it unreasonable to hold the position that our right to criticize religion is absolute but that we must exercise judgment and sometimes restraint in how we exercise that right in order to avoid doing harm to others and to our cause.

The strike against EDMD, in my view, is not that it might “offend” Muslims. People have no right not to be offended, and people may well (and frequently do) choose to take offense at things which cannot reasonably be seen to be offensive by any dispassionate standard. Rather, the trouble with EDMD is that it might cause an already-stigmatized social group (Mulsims, who face hate crimes, employment discrimination, and public denigration – see Herman Cain’s recent comments during a Republican Presidential Candidates Debate for an example of blatant prejudice) to feel even more marginalized from their college community.

As a gay man I’m sensitive to actions which might marginalize minority communities. I know what it’s like to feel fearful and simply out-of-place because of how others treat you, and I’m wary of putting others in a similar position, even for a good cause. And I would want to consider this as one factor weighing against participation in EDMD. This does not mean that I don’t think it’s ultimately worth doing, but that this potential effect is a legitimate consideration. If you still decided to take part, you could carefully frame your participation to reduce any potential harm your event might cause.

The panel discussion I participated in after Clint’s talk was spirited and respectful, and I look forward to discussing this issue further with everybody at the conference.

The evening began after dinner with Rebecca Watson presenting on the Religious Right’s War on Women.


Watson is an exceptional speaker and a very clear thinker, and she spoke on her subject with authority, passion and humor. She was extremely well-informed on issues relating to sexism in the skeptical movement (the examples she gave were harrowing) and the attack of the religious right on women across the world.

Particularly appalling was Watson’s rundown of a number of the laws that have been passed recently in the US regarding abortion – the litany of foul transgressions on women’s rights was presented extremely effectively and made me feel physically sick.

I was consistently impressed that Watson was able to tackle extremely sensitive issues, including taking our own community to task, with great insight and dignity. This was a wise and graceful presentation.

UPDATE: The skeptical twitterverse has been buzzing with criticism of Watson’s talk due to her singling out a specific member of the movement by name and critiquing them in her talk. I was live-blogging at the time and didn’t fully register the situation. On reflection my feeling is that it would have been better, if it was necessary to critique the comment at all, to do so after anonymizing the individual and framing it explicitly as a critique of ideas rather than a person. As it was I felt the move was misjudged and could have been handled better, but I still think the talk was valuable and well-presented.

Second Full Day – Saturday 25th June

We began the second day of the conference with a frankly astonishing panel of four high school activist leaders, each presenting their struggle for respect and equal treatment at their school: Jessica Ahlquist, Damon Fowler, Harrison Hopkins and Zack Kopplin. It was highly impressive to see students beginning their activism so early in life, and it was moving to hear stories of the victimization, isolation and prejudice they have suffered due to their stand for secular principles.

It seems such a simple value: that everyone should feel welcome in their public high school, and shouldn’t have a different religion shoved down their throat. But each student has had to face institutional roadblocks, ostracization and personal vilification in their quest for equal treatment. So in case anyone is in any doubt, public schools should be welcoming to students of all religious faiths and philosophical perspectives, and should not promote prayer or religion with public money!

That this foundational principle of the United States, enshrined in the constitution by the founding heroes of this nation, now relies on high school students to defend it is both dreadful and inspiring: dreadful, because we should not be having this battle in the 21st Century, and because secular students should not be subject to ridicule because of their beliefs; inspiring because the courageous, patriotic work of these young people demonstrates that this nation has a bright future.

Next up was my (James Croft’s) presentation on Secular Service: “Good (Without God): The Humanist Responsibility to Serve. I think the presentation went very well, and I enjoyed the questions that were posed afterwards. I’ll leae it to others to give a more detailed rundown if they wish!

After lunch we reconvened for a fantastic lecture by Prof. Dan Kahan: “Cultural Dissensus over Scientific Consensus”. Presenting his research from Yale, he demonstrated that people do not simply dispassionately review evidence and then come to a conclusion regarding a scientific issue. Rather, people interpret the evidence, and the reliability of authorities, through the lens of the positions they already hold. Thus, someone who views global warming as a real human-influenced phenomenon will be more likely to consider a scientist an authority on climate science if they also hold that view, than if an individual with the same credentials held a different view.

Crucially, people on the left and right of the political spectrum are subject to these biases – it’s not the case that the right-wing simply dismiss science while the progressive left embraces it. So, for instance, more authoritarian individualistic people tend to be out of step with the scientific consensus on whether human beings contribute to climate change, while more liberal egalitarian people are unconvinced by the scientific consensus regarding the safety of disposing of nuclear waste far underground. So it’s important for us secular progressives to be aware of how our biases are affecting our reading of the evidence, and not to assume that simply because we are committed to evidence-based policies we are good at dispassionately evaluating the evidence.

Best quote from this session: “Do you know what nanotechnology is? [Audience raises their hands] That’s because you’re weird!

The penultimate session of the day was a fantastic presentation and workshop on skeptical activism led by Desiree Schell, host of the brilliant Skeptically Speaking podcast. I was absolutely delighted to see the CfI taking grassroots activism seriously, and recognizing that activism is difficult and requires training and practice. The creative endeavor of finding symbols and narratives in order to change the minds of the public, or galvanize them to join your cause, is a truly challenging one, and it was great to work with other conference attendees to come up with a skeleton campaign around an issue of mutual concern.

I found the activism model presented very helpful indeed: central elements included picking a specific target and a specific, winnable campaign; targeting a specific audience; developing a coherent strategy with clear actions others can take to support you; crafting your central message so that you are seen to be representing widely-accepted values and beliefs; and considering the multiple ways in which your message could be taken, so that you don’t get taken out of context. These general strategies were linked to specific case-studies, like the 1023 Campaign against Homeopathy. All conference participants were given a brilliant guide to skeptical activism to take with them, and I hope many more groups take up activist causes in the future using the principles so effectively conveyed in this session.

The day ended with Dr. John Shook’s talk “Healthy Humanism”, a poetic and rousing account of the Humanist philosophy and its potential to provide grand narratives to slake the human thirst for wonder and meaning in life.

I was particularly excited by this talk, both because I look forward to taking classes with Dr. Shook at The Humanist Institute when I begin their program in December, and also because I too have long been arguing that Humanism needs to recapture its poetic voice.

I thought Shook’s use of Sagan-esque themes allied with strong scientific findings provided just the sort of passionate, poetic Humanist narrative we will need to appeal to a broader audience, and it clearly inspired some in attendance: one conference goer even said Shook’s presentation gave the most eloquent expression of the meaning of life she had ever heard!

While some may shy-away from a more poetic Humanism for fear of it becoming “fuzzy” and ungrounded, I feel we need to embrace a wider palette of resources to express our values and worldview. We do not always have to talk in the language of logical proof or debate. Sometimes we can, and I believe we must, pull out the poetry, and Dr. Shook did so with panache.

Final Day – Sunday 26th June

Today we’re celebrating the achievements of student groups who have done exceptional work, beginning with UNIFI for their outstanding online outreach! UNIFI has won a campus group award every year for the past three years, so obviously impressive work is going on there.


Next up, the Illini group won the Good Without God award for their work demonstrating that, indeed, you can be good without God. Their work raising money for Japan and their bus campaign promoting secular goodness were particular hilights of their past year.


The Campus Impact Award went to CfI Grand Rapids Community College for their work communicating the meaning and purpose of their group. They worked closely with CfI Michigan to raise their visibility on campus in a difficult situation.


The Best On-Campus Event this year was Reasonfest at Kansas Univerity. Conrad Hudson, tearing up, told us “You can do it!”, emphasizing the fact that every group can have a great event if they try.


Finally, the Best New Group category went to the Secular Student Society at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who have made a huge splash with debates, a Darwin Week, frequent tabling and many other activities.

Second today, Ed Beck talking about Image and Influence on Campus. Beck gave an engaging presentation which offered a number of strategies for improving your campus group’s image not just at school but more broadly. I appreciated his focus on a more broad conception of image and influence, looking beyond the ivory tower toward influencing your local community.


I resonated to Beck’s argument that we talk too much about and to religious fundamentalists, and ignore the fact that most people, if they are not hardcore secularists like us, are still open to many of our ideas. “We have to build coalitions with that [cognitive] majority”, he said, and I would tend to agree.

Beck’s argument – that we must consider how our movement is perceived by others when we consider the language and images we use – was strong. Particularly, I appreciated his willingness to realize that our movement can be written off if people see us engaging in polarizing rhetoric and absurd stunts. I also liked his focus on leading with values and then supporting with facts, rather than simply presenting data. I enjoyed, too, his call for secularists to be “lush” and reach for the humanities and the arts to convey our message. Further, I felt his powerful call to make sure our movement is not seen in the abstract, and to avoid the stereotype with which we are so easily dismissed, was timely. We do indeed need to put friendly faces on atheism, secularism and Humanism, and we need to make some strategic compromises (like getting over the word “interfaith”) in order to achieve this.

I was not convinced, however, that the word “neutrality” will appeal to those who do not support the separation between church and state, as he seemed to suggest. Proponents of church-state entanglement are precisely of the position that the state should NOT be neutral in matters of religion. Further, I felt the repeated use of the term “intellectually dishonest” to describe religious people was unwise, since it is in my view often inaccurate (you can be wrong without being dishonest) and seems to be inconsistent with a talk which emphasized the importance of reaching out to liberal religious believers and warned against the dangers of stereotyping and taking about communities in the abstract.

We proceeded with a rundown on the volunteering opportunities within CfI, and a campus roundtable discussion to address issues that were not covered in the rest of the weekend.

We started with a great discussion on how to get big speakers to come to your group: people suggested using speakers bureaus (the Secular Student Alliance and CfI have one); giving them an award; and hosting an unusual event of interest to the individual. The UNIFI folks stressed that a small packed room is better than a huge half-empty room – so consider how big an audience you think you’ll get before selecting the venue. DebGod suggested a fantastic trick – only put out half the chairs to begin with, and then you can add more as you need to.

The next question, on the need (or not) for democracy in selecting group leadership, produced interesting suggestions such as having the committee select the new members after interviewing a pool of applicants rather than having members vote. I’d never considered this possibility and found myself more sympathetic to the idea than I might have imagined.

One issue I raised is if there is a significant disagreement within the group, and no democratic process to express this, then there is no way in which dissenting voices can affect the direction of the organization. Thus a system of selection rather than election could serve to marginalize minority opinions. On the other hand, there have apparently been cases in which the democratic process has been abused in order to shut down atheist groups, and many are concerned that members do not know the skills required to be a good student leader.

Approaching the end of the conference, Michael De Dora explained the purview of the CfI Office of Public Policy.


De Dora described the three main areas if interest for CfIOPP: 1) church and state issues, 2) science and public policy, and 3) medicine and health. We got a short introduction to lobbying, some examples of what CfIOPP does, and an outline of future issues which they are looking to tackle.

I was surprised and delighted t discover that the CfI has a lobbying organization which works to promote science, reason and secular values in the public square. As I argued in a recent interview, there’s a dire need for a true secular lobby to counteract the amplified voice of the repressive right and to push for public policies based on evidence and the secular principles the USA was founded upon. I hope to hear more about CfIOPP in the future, and look forward to supporting their campaigns.

And now for the very final talk of the conference: Lauren Becker, who gave a passionate and inspiring call to hope and activism, using her beloved Lord of the Rings as a metaphor for our movement’s need to dream big and keep fighting for a better world. Becker reminded us of past victories that can be credited to secular and Humanist activists, and called on us to go forth and bring our values to life in the world. Her rousing call to action brought the audience to its feet and sent us off with light in our eyes and fire in our hearts.

The only problem – I didn’t want to leave! I can honestly say I have never attended a better atheist / secular / Humanist conference, and that over the past four days I have forged new ideas and made new friends which will shape the future course of my life. I feel now more strongly than ever – I know – that there is a need for a true secular social movement to envision and create a society with clearer sight, sharper mind and bigger heart.

And it’s our job to build it.

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