The Beacon of Humanism Shines in Cambridge

Over 450 humanist leaders, activists, scholars, and students gathered together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the American Humanist Association’s 70th Anniversary Conference, The Beacon of Humanism, held from April 7 to April 10 at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge on the Charles River. The bustling conference was hosted by The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and featured a special leadership summit sponsored by the Secular Student Alliance. Attendees came from all over the Northeast and from as far away as Hawaii and Norway to attend four days of breakout sessions, trainings, plenaries, awards banquets, and more.

Two special tracks of pre-conference sessions began on Thursday with the Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism Symposium, a day-long event that featured presentations of papers by humanist researchers from around the globe. In addition, AHA chapter leaders were able to avail themselves of several chapter focused sessions, and potential and current celebrants alike were welcomed to a multi-part afternoon training session with Humanist Society president Howard Katz.

Breakout sessions kicked off on Friday morning and continued through Saturday, with a variety of topics and expert speakers represented, including a discussion on abortion and birth control by reproductive rights pioneer Bill Baird, an examination of religion in relation to neuroscience by Dr. Jane Holmes Bernstein of Harvard Medical School, and a humorous look at how the human body couldn’t possibly be intelligently designed with Dr. Abby Hafer of Curry College. We explored “The Future of Humanist Chaplaincies” with Harvard Chaplain Greg Epstein, Rutgers Chaplain Barry Klassel, Columbia Chaplain Anne Klaeysen, Gary Brill, and Jason Torpy.  In addition, on Saturday the Secular Student Alliance held a special day-long track of leadership-focused sessions which included 20 minute talks from a variety of activists and experts such as JT Eberhard, Jen McCreight, and Greta Christina.

Attendees this year were also treated to a full slate of four plenary sessions, including an event on Friday afternoon featuring Elisabeth Cornwell, executive director of the US branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and the legendary evolutionary biologist and 1996 Humanist of the Year Richard Dawkins himself. He delivered a presentation entitled, among other things, “The Perils of Personification” which examined the explanatory power of metaphors in science and contrasted it with the use of metaphorical language to perpetuate religious myths. Later plenaries included an examination of church-state issues in the USA and the UK with expert speakers Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, Sean Faircloth, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, and Cecil Bothwell, openly nontheist city councilman from Asheville, North Carolina. The final plenary was a keynote speech by journalist Jeff Sharlet, well-known for his books exposing the secretive and powerful religious organization known as the Family.

The AHA was proud this year to honor outstanding humanists for their accomplishments at three different awards banquets. On Friday evening Bart Ehrman, a historian of religion from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, received the AHA’s Religious Liberty Award and entertained the crowd with a discussion of the contradictions and falsifications found in the Bible. And novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein received the Humanist of the Year Award, presented to her by her husband and 2006 Humanist of the Year award recipient Steven Pinker, and she regaled the crowd with an examination of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the intellectual influence he has had in her life.

At Saturday’s luncheon, Judy Norsigian, executive director and co-founder of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and co-author of the landmark Our Bodies, Ourselves women’s health manual, received the Humanist Heroine Award and gave a speech outlining efforts by her organization and others to advance women’s health and empowerment around the world. And Candace Gingrich-Jones, high-profile LGBT activist with the Human Rights Campaign and sister to the former Republican leader Newt Gingrich, received the first-ever LGBT Humanist Pride Award and spoke movingly of the need for humanist and LGBT activists to engage with each other and take up common cause to promote equality.

On Saturday night, following a hilarious and rousing performance by musician and satirist Roy Zimmerman, Silicon Valley pioneer Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computers largely responsible for the advent of the personal computer, gave a wide-ranging speech on the history of computers, his life as a nonbeliever, and his philosophy toward business and science.

The American Humanist Association would like to thank everyone who attended for making this an excellent conference, and the AHA sends special thanks to all the AHA staff, AHA board members and adjunct leaders, and the IHEU executive committee; Marian Hillar and the Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism speakers; Secular Student Alliance; our host chapter, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and local chapters Greater Boston Humanists and Greater Worcester Humanists; our excellent speakers, awardees, and entertainment; student volunteers from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard; our numerous exhibitors including our official merchandise store EvolveFISH; Jeff Wagg of SkepTours; our volunteer photographer Leslie Zukor; our volunteer videographer Paul Granados; Jes Constantine and Todd Stiefel of the Humanist Hour podcast team; and the staff at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge and Swank A/V for helping to make this event a huge success!

The AHA’s 71st Annual Conference will take place June 7-10, 2012, in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the Sheraton New Orleans. Don’t forget to check back at for updates!