The American Humanist Association Holds its 69th Annual Conference in San Jose

Earlier this month, over 325 humanist leaders, activists and students gathered in San Jose, California for the American Humanist Association’s 69th Annual Conference. Taking place June 3 through 6 at the Doubletree Hotel, the conference featured nationally renowned speakers, updates on the AHA’s latest actions, future planning, exhibitions from EvolveFish and humanist allies and organizations from across the nation, and breakout sessions ranging from Christianity in sports to humanist peace activism.

The Thursday pre-conference sessions featured breakouts geared toward local chapter members and leaders, including media training with Fred Edwords, and a panel discussion on chapter expansion and planning led by Bob Stephens of the Humanist Community and also including chapter leaders from around the country. Thursday also saw the Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism Symposium, a day-long event featuring humanist researchers and philosophers from multiple countries who presented papers on humanist topics such as cosmology, the Enlightenment and causal thought. And to wrap up the day’s events, in the evening, humanist filmmaker Dr. Vivekanand Palavali screened his film Creator of God to a standing-room crowd.

On Friday morning, conference attendees mingled at the morning meet-and-greet before heading off to the first round of regular breakout sessions. Throughout the day, attendees had the opportunity to hear from a wide variety of presenters, including a journalist who is an expert on evangelical Christianity and professional sports, leaders from the Secular Student Alliance, experts on creationism from the National Center for Science Education, and many more. The AHA’s Feminist Caucus held a brown bag lunch at midday to strategize with all interested people about their work. And in the afternoon, AHA members gathered to attend the annual membership meeting, where AHA President David Niose presided over updates about the past year’s activities to advance humanism from AHA staff and leaders of AHA adjuncts and allies.

And on Friday evening at the Humanist Awards Banquet, AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt spoke about the contributions of Frank Berger, the posthumous recipient of a Humanist Lifetime Achievement Award, to medicine and humanism. Following that, Humanist Pioneer Award recipient Wendy Liu, a journalist and writer from Seattle, dazzled the crowd with a speech about her upbringing in China and her gradual loss of faith in the ideology that essentially amounted to a state religion at that time: Maoism. To wrap up the day’s events, Brian Keith Dalton, the creator of the popular web-based show Mr. Deity, showcased some episodes in a sharp and funny presentation, while elaborating on the themes and ideas behind them.

On Saturday morning, the day led with a plenary entitled Humanist Identity in Action, where humanist leaders Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University; David Niose, president of the AHA; Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA; and Todd Stiefel, founder of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation gave specific examples of projects that are mobilizing humanists and driving humanism forward, including the AHA’s legal and educational work, the national effort to develop humanist chaplaincies, and an innovative new advertising campaign that the AHA will soon launch nationwide.

Throughout the day on Saturday, attendees learned more about the Secular Coalition for America’s plan for a secular decade, humanist peace activism, art and humanism, and much more from breakout session presenters. And in the afternoon, David Fitzgerald of San Francisco led an innovative and entertaining game called Blasphemy!, an irreverent Jeopardy-style game that drew a packed room of participants.

The Saturday Luncheon began with music from Jim Corbett, who prompted the crowd to sing along with his original compositions about humanism and critical thinking, while poking some light-hearted fun at organized religion. Then AHA Feminist Caucus co-chair Stephanie Downs Hughes presented the Humanist Heroine Awards to co-recipients Meg Bowman and Annie Laurie Gaylor. Bowman, a longtime activist and former Feminist Caucus chair, spoke of her lifetime of activism, her lessons learned and important issues, while Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and also a former Feminist Caucus chair, gave the behind-the-scenes story behind the FFRF’s recent victory in a court ruling that the National Day of Prayer proclamation is unconstitutional.

Then the recipient of the Humanist Distinguished Service Award, Harvard University biologist and international aid worker Sebastian Velez, gave a presentation on the work he recently did in Haiti to bring AHA-funded earthquake relief to people in dire need. He also elaborated on the work his organization Children of the Border does in the Dominican Republic to help improve the health and welfare of Haitian immigrants, and he spoke of the need for humanists to get more involved in international charitable work.

At the Humanist of the Year Banquet, Bill Nye, the 2010 Humanist of the Year Award recipient, accepted the award statue from humanist leader Jennifer Kalmanson and proceeded to simultaneously entertain and enlighten the crowd with a speech on the importance of embracing science, while illustrating his message with funny anecdotes from his life and work. Then mentalist and magician Jamy Ian Swiss presented his Heavy Mental show, where he guessed the playing cards, words and numbers selected by audience participants with uncanny accuracy, all the while asserting, as a true skeptic, that his apparent psychic powers were in fact nothing but an illusion.

On Sunday, the final day of the conference, early-risers had the opportunity to hear from a panel of educators on the topic of critical thinking and education, learn more about the SMART Recovery secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous, and get a firsthand account of the consequences of global warming from someone who has explored the Arctic. And in the mid-morning, to close out the conference, the Philosophy Talk radio show taped a special show about humanism in front of a live audience of conference participants. The hosts, Stanford University philosophers Ken Taylor and John Perry, engaged Humanist magazine editor Jennifer Bardi in a discussion about humanism, while taking questions from the audience and raising some provocative questions of their own. The show will air on or around August 22, and at that time it will be available on their website:

The American Humanist Association would like to thank everyone who participated! In particular, special thanks go to this year’s host chapter, The Humanist Community of Silicon Valley, and their over 20 volunteers who helped out; the over 40 breakout and plenary speakers; all of the awardees and performers; producer Ben Manilla and the hosts and crew of Philosophy Talk; the volunteer photographers David Diskin and Leslie Zukor; the organizers and presenters of the Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism Symposium; all exhibitors; the AHA’s official bookstore, EvolveFISH; the Doubletree San Jose hotel and audio-visual staff; and all the AHA board members, adjunct leaders, and staff who helped make the conference a great success.

The American Humanist Association’s 70th Annual Conference will be held in Boston (Cambridge), Massachusetts from April 7-10, 2011 at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge. It will be hosted by The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. More details to come soon! In the meantime, photos and videos from this year’s conference will be posted at later this week.