AHA Conference Recap: Outstanding Awardees, Informative Speakers, and Lots of Beads

Photo by: Leslie Zukor

The 2012 Annual Conference, held this year in New Orleans, was an absolute success. With 30 different banquets, lectures, forums, and receptions to choose from, there was more offered than any one person could attend.

For those who missed out on the emotional and intellectual pleasure of making it down to New Orleans this year, the following is a quick recap of the weekend’s events:

Thursday was a day for some insider business: workshops for Celebrants, a roundtable discussion for AHA Chapter leaders, the annual meeting of the Humanist Society (the organization that certifies celebrants), and a series of papers presented on humanist philosophy and education. Zelda Gatuskin and the Feminist Caucus leaders also led a screening of Miss Representation, a documentary directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom which exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America.

Friday started off with a History Lesson about the First Amendment, taught by New York Times best-selling author John M. Barry. Dr. Richard MacDonald talked about the issue of assisted dying, and the work the Final Exit Network has done in helping those in need control the time and means of their death. Sikivu Hutchinson, a senior intergroup specialist for the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, gave a lecture on the portrayal of feminism in art. In a breakout session entitled “Sex, Porn, Public Policy, Humanism and Sex” certified sex therapist Dr. Marty Klein discussed the intersection between sexuality and public policy. Charlotte Klasson, board member for the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, asked “So What’s Up With Women?” in an interactive group discussion on feminism and humanism.

Friday afternoon continued with more sessions, including Janet Heimlich, author of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, who gave a lecture on how humanists can help protect children at risk of religious abuse; Brian Dixon, vice president for media and government relations for Population Connection, who spoke about International Family Planning, and the importance of working to facilitate and protect access to contraception internationally; and Rice University professor Anthony Pinn, who discussed the important lessons the humanist movement might learn from the posture toward the world offered by hip hop music.

In a plenary entitled “Secularism and Politics,” past Humanist Pioneer awardee and philosophy professor Barbara Forrest discussed how the Religious Right’s politics is damaging state lawmaking. Following her talk was Sean Faircloth, the director of strategy and policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason, speaking about plans for a winning secular political strategy.

The American Humanist Association held its annual membership meeting to discuss the state of humanism and invited members to participate in an open forum. After the meeting, the

New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, the AHA’s generous hosts for the conference, held a fantastic reception complete with a local brass band, multicolored New Orleans beads, and delicious Louisiana culinary samplings.

The Friday evening Humanist Awards Banquet began with five spectacular songs by Australian singer-songwriter Shelley Segal, off her new CD An Atheist Album. Cenk Uygur, journalist, host and cofounder of The Young Turks, accepted the Humanist Media Award. In his speech he discussed his personal journey from conservative republican Muslim to independent humanist liberal, as well as the role, obligations and inadequacies of the media. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem accepted the 2012 Humanist of the Year award and spoke about her long and varied career as an advocate for women and social justice, as well as the ways in which humanism intersects with feminism and the quest to make the world a better place. She reminded us that change begins at the bottom with grassroots efforts. After, Ms. Steinem and Mr. Uygur were especially generous with their time, posing for photographs with attendees and answering questions.

Saturday started off with a plenary led by Marshall Brain, founder of HowStuffWorks.com, who discussed the meaning of life. Morning sessions included author Katherine Stewart discussing the topic of her new book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children; AHA board member and part-time comedian Raul Martinez taking his audience through a lighthearted look at his role as a feminist humanist in a patriarchal society; and  director of World Can’t Wait, Debra Sweet speaking against the abuses of power in the Obama White House and called upon humanists to take action.

The Saturday Humanist Awards Luncheon awarded the Humanist Pioneer Awards to student activists Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist. Damon Fowler movingly relating the experience of being disowned by his family after he took a stand against an unconstitutional graduation prayer at his high school. Jessica Ahlquist spoke eloquently and passionately about her experiences being harassed and threatened for her lawsuit against her Rhode Island high school’s prayer banner. Also that afternoon, Ira Flatow accepted the Isaac Asimov Science Award for his long career as the National Public Radio science correspondent, award-winning TV journalist and host of Science Friday.

Saturday afternoon sessions included former AHA executive director, and national director of the United Coalition of Reason, Fred Edwords, discussing “A Humanist Look At Myth, Symbol and Art”; AHA President David Niose speaking about his new book Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise Of Secular Americans; Sharon Moss, the president of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio, speaking on how to keep young freethinkers involved in the movement after they’ve graduated from college; Rob Boston, senior policy analyst at Americans United, leading a session titled “God Told Me To Run: Looking For Daylight Between Religion and Politics”; Arthur M. Jackson, a 40 year member of the American Humanist Association, lecturing on how religion and science can be unified; and Margaret Downey, a freelance journalist and founder of the Freethought Society and Anti-Discrimination Support Network, discussing little known superstitions related to death and dying which are deeply rooted in New Orleans culture.

The Humanist Awards Banquet concluded the day, with the Humanist Heroine award given to Debra Sweet for her efforts in campaigning for social justice, and the Humanist Lifetime Achievement Award given to James “The Amazing” Randi, who told a series of very amusing anecdotes about comparing comet sizes with Isaac Asimov, refusing to perform in a segregated theater in Florida, and debunking television charlatans. Star Trek actor and LGBT activist George Takei accepted his LGBT Humanist Pride Award with a video presentation in which he discussed his time as a child in a Japanese Internment Camp during World War II, and the passion he feels for achieving LGBT equality in the United States.

Sunday morning began bright and early with The Humanist Hour Live Podcast, hosted by AHA’s own Jes Constantine and Todd Stiefel, speaking to five humanist authors about their books. Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America and longtime atheist activist, gave the keynote address about his book Candidate Without A Prayer: An Autobiography of A Jewish Atheist In The Bible Belt, about his candidacy for governor in South Carolina to challenge a state law that forbade an atheist from holding public office.

Though the conference formally ended on Sunday at noon, two post-conference events were held: a service project hosted by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and the Make It Right Foundation, and a group tour aboard the Steamboat Natchez.

The American Humanist Association would like to thank the volunteers from the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, the hotel staff at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, all of our 2012 awardees and speakers, and to our over 300 attendees for participating!

Save the date for the 72nd Annual Conference, to be held May 30-June 2, 2013 at the Bahia Resort Hotel in San Diego, California. The United Coalition of Reason will be holding its conference jointly with the American Humanist Association. We expect this conference to sell out, so be sure to make your plans to attend now! More information will be available on our website at conference.americanhumanist.org.

And for those of you who attended the conference, take our conference survey at conference.americanhumanist.org/survey and let us know what you’d like to see next year!