I attended my ninth American Humanist Association conference last week (this was the 74th annual, held in Denver, Colorado) and I can tell you this—AHA conferences are fun. Part professional meeting, part retreat, part family reunion, I almost wonder if it’s like a year’s worth of church services wrapped into four days. Except that the theology has been replaced with high-potency humanism.
AHA annual conferences don’t have stated themes, but rather strive to offer a variety of philosophical, scientific, political, and personal talks relating to humanism. However, this year I noticed a thread running through the presentations and awardee speeches. It had to do with the importance of cultivating doubt and embracing uncertainty in order to better understand each other and the world around us. It had to do with stepping out of our comfort zones into such uncertainty to create a more welcoming humanist environment. (Really, I’m sure of it!)
At the opening plenary, held Friday, May 8, evolutionary and cultural psychologist Will Gervais presented data revealing a strong anti-atheist prejudice among a majority of Americans. As with LGBTQ acceptance, evidence shows that knowing someone personally who doesn’t believe in God—and having a favorable opinion of that person—greatly increases one’s acceptance of all nonbelievers. And so his advice to those in attendance was to “be the stereotype you want applied to you.” If your neighbor knows you to be a pleasant person who always puts the trash cans away on time, Gervais contended, when he finds out you’re an atheist or a humanist, this degree of normality will go much further toward increasing acceptance of nonbelief than all the airtight arguments against God you could throw at him.
During the Saturday afternoon plenary on “Humanism and Race,” a panel of academics that included Chris Driscoll, Sikivu Hutchinson, Monica Miller, and Anthony Pinn spoke to a predominantly white audience about the state of racial disparity in the United States today. They challenged white humanists to consider their own position of privilege and stated that to confront racism, the humanist movement needed to embrace uncertainty. If the discussion was making people uncomfortable, they said, that was a good thing and a place from which we could approach understanding.
And theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, the 2015 Humanist of the Year, spoke of the vital necessity of maintaining our ability to doubt in the quest for knowledge and the education of future generations of critical thinkers. Incidentally, Krauss was a lot of fun to talk to, clearly moved by the award, and exceedingly generous. He’d been up for forty hours straight when he arrived in Denver, having traveled on four different airplanes from a film shoot 4,000 meters up in the Andes. And still he took numerous questions, posed gamely for even more photos, and signed books until he was surely ready to drop.
It’s worth noting that of the six awards presented this year, the AHA honored three women. Church/state scholar and litigator Marci Hamilton (Religious Liberty Award) delivered a forceful and impassioned speech on the threats to religious liberty posed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and its state counterparts. Media critic and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne (Humanist Heroine) illustrated the shocking objectification of women and the sexualization of very young girls in advertising, highlighting some empowering counter-ads that brought many in the audience to tears. And NASA evolutionary biologist-astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild (Isaac Asimov Science Award) gave an inspiring (and, at times, hilarious) talk on her study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life, both here and in outer space. Completing the impressive list of 2015 award recipients was nineteen-year-old Isaiah Smith (Humanist Pioneer), who, as a high school student in Texas, challenged a number of Establishment Clause violations at his school. He even held up the very Bible from which he’d ripped sections of Leviticus in class in reaction to classmates who were bullying him.
From the National Day of Reason reception Thursday night to Kelly Carlin’s poignant Sunday keynote address detailing her life as George Carlin’s daughter, this year’s AHA conference provided a lot of laughs too. Accepting the Humanist Media Award on behalf of The Onion, Senior Editor Seena Vali adopted a blowhard persona, declaring his satirical publication the pinnacle of journalistic excellence as he went through one outrageous headline after another. He then announced that The Onion had done what no other had before it—that they had established the existence of God. A photograph of AHA President Rebecca Hale came up on the big screen and the audience roared with laughter. Vali proceeded to intone her biography as if handed down from on high and even read a page from the conference program book as scripture. Conference goers expecting good humor were not disappointed.
As the 74th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association was wrapping up in the “Mile-High City” of Denver, the Pew Research Center released new survey data showing that the number of American nones (those who identify as atheists, agnostics, or as having no religion in particular) continues to rise. As more Americans leave religion, and as secular millennials age and seek out ethical frameworks, humanism must be poised to offer the kind of fun, enriching, open, challenging, and supportive community experienced by those of us lucky enough to attend the 2015 AHA conference.
For those who didn’t attend, video of all the high-caliber speakers and award ceremonies will be available on the AHA website in approximately one month. While my space here doesn’t allow for details on all of them, I trust you will be most impressed and that you even experience some level of uncertainty or discomfort as you take them in. What is it they say? If nothing’s happening you’re not doing it right!