What Made the 75th Annual AHA Conference So Important to Me

Author David Orenstein speaks on a panel at the AHA's 75th Anniversary Conference in Chicago

It’s now been one month since the American Humanist Association held its 75th Annual Conference in Chicago. Having reflected on the experience—this was my first AHA conference as both a speaker and attendee—allow me to share some macro- and micro-level takeaways.

1. We are an exquisitely imperfect species. But that’s ok.

Biologically, chemically, morphologically, and emotionally we are insufficient and incoherent, and at times our design and mental states are irrational. However, because we have evolved our big brains and our ability to communicate and also work together, our very survival depends on our common bonds.

Additionally, the fact that we have developed the scientific method means if we can escape our adolescence, we just may make it after all since we’ll be able to explain the material universe rationally.

The caveat though is that enough of us must fully extricate ourselves from Bronze Age thinking. For some developed nations, such detachment from archaic religious philosophies and dogma has happened. And these nations have been shown time and again to have happier populations. They also have more generous, more peaceful citizens who live longer, are less violent, and are socially secure from cradle to grave.

2. The universe is a cold, dark place and it is indifferent to our existence. But that’s ok, too.

An idea came to me at the AHA conference: none of us are orphans—we’re all the children of the same ancient universe. By this I mean we share our organic lives with our species and also with the millions of species now living on our planet.

However, the terrestrial Earth-centric view alone limits our ideals and responsibilities to one another and to all we’re connected to in the material universe. So, this sense of family must also include an acknowledgement that we are the stuff of stars and that we are a small, barely cognizant primate community living out our brief lives in the backwoods of millions of galaxies in an expanding universe (or perhaps a multiverse).

In a universe without a conscious purpose, the onus is on each of us to acknowledge our individual responsibility to ourselves and to one another to give our short lives value, substance, purpose, and meaning.

3. Just acknowledging a social ill isn’t enough. Secular humanism demands essential activism.

Time and again, the conference attendees were reminded by social justice activists that feeling an emotional connection to the disenfranchised or our wounded planet is only the first step in making all lives matter.

We were urged by so many good humanist activists—from a native people’s representative to those fighting for LGBTQ and feminist rights, as well as those fighting against racial injustice—that acknowledging everything from social indifference to outright prejudice needs to be combined and buttressed by ACTION.

Just as my coauthor Linda Ford Blaikie and I discovered in our research for Godless Grace, these numerous activists are mobilized and are creating a more just and safer world for everyone because they care enough to march the marches, fight the political fights, to scream the names of those harmed, and to scream about their murderers and oppressors as well.

They rightly call us to action, and for humanism to matter we must indeed answer that call.

4. Laughter is really good medicine.

Every individual speaker, group panelist, and moderator was serious about their research, their talk, and the value of the ideas that they shared and cultivated. But each of those knowledge-gatherers and sharers were also open, enthusiastic, and intentionally really funny. This casual and intimate sense of sharing didn’t lessen their presentations but actually bolstered content and made each program easily accessible.

I can’t tell you how many academic and professional conferences I’ve attended where good ideas where shared but were served up so dryly that information was lost on the audience. That certainly wasn’t the case at the American Humanist Association’s 75th anniversary gathering, where speakers and attendees alike found common bonds and harmony.

5. We cannot forget our harmed and fallen communities and comrades.

Our entire secular humanist legacy is linked to those who’ve been harmed or who’ve fallen in the name of protecting both their rights and our rights to be free.

In my work for AHA at the United Nations, I’ve come to know many people who can share the horrors that they have witnessed, or, as victims, detail the ethnic, religious, and gender-based violence caused by hateful governments and lawless vigilante groups.

From the murdered atheist bloggers in Bangladesh to those abused or treated as second-class citizens because of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, lack of religiosity, practice of the “wrong” religion, or even the practice of the “wrong” sect in a religion, there are just too many places around the globe where people’s lives are in danger because of their social or minority status.

6. The kids are alright.

How wonderful and refreshing it was to have a panel of secular humanist teenagers talk about what life is like at an age many of us have long since forgotten.

These young people were incredibly articulate, knew the political issues and the civil and human rights issues, and spoke with hope for the future. Each of the four teens planned to do public service (or was already doing public service) in their communities.

I was fortunate to be able to get a question in as part of the Q&A. Aside from telling them that I was daydreaming about forging their voter registration cards so they could vote in November, I asked about their college plans. And, wonderfully, they each were vague and unsure of their next steps—so typical of many entering college for the first time.

But whatever each of these fine young people do, I know we can be proud of their secular humanist upbringing and futures.

The American Humanist Association 75th Annual Conference was truly the first time I had a chance to intimately connect to so many secular humanists with such diverse backgrounds, histories, ideas, and expertise. If you haven’t gotten yourself to one of these, or even if you have, I strongly recommend attending an AHA conference in the future.