Women in Secularism 4: Complex Issues, Respectful Discourse

This past weekend, my colleague Jessica Xiao and I had the honor of attending the Center For Inquiry’s Women In Secularism 4 (WIS). This conference brought together a diverse lineup of speakers—including American Humanist Association President Rebecca Hale—to address both the progress and challenges uniquely related to the lives of women and femmes.

If you didn’t get a chance to attend, you missed out on something special and important. A wide variety of topics were explored, including sessions that examined religious extremism, women in science, free speech and safe spaces, and inclusive humanism.

Whether people wish to recognize it or not, events like this exist and are made necessary due to a continued lack of balanced representation within secular circles. Bias has a lot to do with it, of course. As writer Soraya Chemaly noted in her talk focused on the marginalization of women/femmes in society, sexism shapes human knowledge and behavior.

Because of this, the secular community tends to fall short when it comes to showcasing a broader scope of voices and perspectives at more “routine” (consider what this implies) events.

To give a more nuanced review of this conference, I was able to interview a few individuals who either attended or participated in Women in Secularism 4 to get some of their thoughts about their overall experience. Here are their impressions, in their own words:

Stephanie Zvan, The Humanist Hour producer:

What always impresses me the most about Women in Secularism is how thoroughly it puts the lie to the assertion that feminists can’t tolerate disagreement. I’ve been to all of them, and they’ve all been marked by significant debate. This Women in Secularism was no different.

We like to tell people they should get along when they have a lot in common, but it’s far easier to do when we don’t have to fight over basic principles. Then we have a basis for hearing each other and engaging thoughtfully rather than fighting.

So Katha Pollitt can question Wendy Kaminer during a Q&A on balancing speech rights with other rights and see it lead to real discussion. Melanie Elyse Brewster and Soraya Chemaly can step out of frameworks that center men as the default gender and bring us comfortably along. A panel discussion on free expression and safe spaces that got heated as it hit panelists and questioners where they live and work can end with Maryam Namazie’s mother telling us how proud she is of everyone involved. We can all come away energized to do new work, even as our new friends and colleagues are challenging us on how we go about it. Common principles mean we recognize that those challenges are meant to help, not hinder.

That’s a hugely valuable niche for a conference to fill. I was very happy to see Melody Hensley recognized for bringing this kind of conference to the secular movement and for the broader impact that’s had on the movement. She’s been influential in ways it will probably take us years to fully understand.”

Dr. Janet Stemwedel, philosopher, professor, and scientist:

This was my first time at any sort of conference focused on secularism or humanism, so beyond the information conveyed in the preliminary program from brief session titles and speaker bios, I really wasn’t sure what to expect.

Whether there’s even something identifiable as “the secular movement” is one of the questions I’m grappling with. There were places where strong disagreements and differences in focus were brought to the surface. During our panel on women and science, someone asked about using science as a tool to help women free themselves from religious belief. While I’m thoroughly secular, that’s not one of my goals when I write about science or engage in my teaching and research on the philosophy of science and the ethical conduct of science. I recognize, though, that for other attendees learning how to hasten more religious deconversions may have been a tool they wanted to get from the conference.

Especially stark were the differences that kept bubbling up between the free speech absolutists and some of the social justice activists and scholars. I didn’t find it terribly surprising, though, given people’s different experiences engaging in their chosen activism and in the world more generally. What I did find a little surprising was how often the engagement felt like a debate (where the goal was to score points for one’s unmovable position) rather than a dialogue (where people on all sides try to really understand each other’s assertions and experiences, not to mention the relevant research where it exists, and are open to arriving at a different position than the one they started out with).

From the point of view of building healthy communities and effective movements, dialogue is more useful. In a diverse community, people are going to disagree about things, but they still need to take each other seriously.

My impression, even after the most contentious panel, is that the folks at the conference were mostly committed to taking each other seriously and finding enough common ground to make common cause.  Attendees generally seemed to have enough respect for each other to be challenging, and enough empathy to try to understand where the folks making claims with which they strongly disagreed were coming from.

I’m left with the sense that there is something like a secular community being built by folks who were at the conference.  It is by no means fully built, totally stable, or even entirely comfortable. Then again, it is a community of lots of different kinds of people who are taking on difficult and important problems in the world. Working together to get things done is bound to be challenging, but it’s also necessary.”

Dr. Ashley Miller, writer and activist:

I think it’s a wonderful conference that encourages a really wide range of topics and discussions, with a broad range of disagreeing perspectives. I think it’s a uniquely thoughtful space where people have the opportunity to ask difficult questions and talk with one another about problems without easy solutions.

I appreciated not only the opportunity to speak with the brilliant speakers and panelists (getting to interview Rebecca Goldstein on stage was a particular highlight), but also to the many attendees who had so much to add and offer. It really was a space focused on conversation more than lecture. I am so grateful to Debbie Goddard for doing the hard work of putting it together and including me. She would insist that I point out that she didn’t do it alone.”

Jessica Xiao, Humanist Press Manager and Projects Assistant with American Humanist Association:

Being told we are wrong gets tiresome. Being misunderstood or trivialized or blatantly told my experiences and perspectives are unreflective of reality—it gets exhausting. And it’s the reason why conferences like Women in Secularism are necessary. It was my first time attending, and I was affirmed. I heard voices that have been talking, for years, about shortcomings of the “secular movement” and how to transcend beyond a narrow fight for one of our many identities to a broader concern for the needs of our whole selves (#soundslikeHumanism).

Yet this message that nurtures and supports healthy integrity and self-actualization in our activism work is getting muffled by the branding, because I would not be surprised by how many people did not attend, do not take seriously, or will not read and follow up on this conference because it has “women” in the title—even if this is not-just-a-women’s issue. In fact, I’m sure of it. Having read about previous WIS conferences, I’ve come across the same themes of inclusion in decision-making over a tokenistic glossing of diversity, arguments about “mission creep,” and rebuttals to criticism for fighting for social justice.

I first heard this phrase at a social finance forum: “Don’t check your values at the door when you go into work,” and I seek out opportunities that don’t ask me to compartmentalize the various parts of myself—or to stop talking about what rights I think people in society deserve. (In fact, this type of interdisciplinary out-of-silo thinking is the only way to make lasting positive impact with solutions that maximally minimize negative externalities.)

Humanism is still the philosophy that best exemplifies this way of being—but now it must walk the talk. And doing so will require more of the types of conversations we had at Women in Secularism, ones that are truly heard and acted upon by the larger movement.


If you didn’t get a chance to attend this special event, check out CFI’s live blog coverage as well as the #WIS4 hashtag on Twitter.