In October I attended the 2013 installment of the Center For Inquiry’s annual “Summit” conferences, held this time nearby over in Tacoma, so I was able to swing the trip. As a science geek atheist I was looking forward to meeting a lot of the guest list: Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, Joe Nickell (long time debunker of matters pseudoscientific), Susan Jacoby (author of “The Age of American Unreason”), Zack Kopplin (a student who stood up to object to efforts to sneak creationism into Louisiana’s public schools under the rubric of Intelligent Design),and Bill Nye “The Science Guy” (a major draw for this year’s meet, packing a full house for his presentation).
Jacoby fell ill, though, and was unable to attend, but everything else went off as planned and I had a swell time, including the lighter moments at their Halloween costume party, where I saw Eugenie Scott cutting quite the rug on the dance floor, attired as the 19th century medium Eusapia Palladino. Bill Nye (straight off his stint at “Dancing with the Stars”) would have cut some rugs on his own, had he not been limping around with a leg injury.
Such light stuff aside, I was also wearing another hat, as de facto representative for Spokane Faith & Values, which had been invited to attend quite independently by CFI President Ronald Lindsay, so I had prepared myself to ask questions and explore the meet not only from my own secular atheist perspective, but also reflecting the concerns and interests of the SpokaneFAVS community.
At every opportunity I tried chatting up this topic but at no time did I spark any meaningful pushback from the organizers (including Lindsay) or main speakers. I brought the theme up as well when I was interviewed after the convention for an atheist podcast (askanatheist,tv), though I am not sure when it will be posted — it has not done so as of this writing. The take home is that, while the CFI-Humanist gang are perfectly fine with people of faith joining atheists on matters of policy or action in common cause, the idea that atheists should proactively seek out such alliances (or work out how to accomplish this task practically) hasn’t got lit on even their back burners.
Quite a chunk of the meeting was devoted to what I regard as beating a dead horse from the last century: the 1970s schism between the paranormal-debunking element that CFI focuses on, and the atheistic world freed from religious dogma sought by secular humanists (the two groups used to hold meetings together but split over what the focus of the gatherings should be). The sense I got from the younger people I talked with there was that they don’t care about this issue — and neither do I.
Which brings up what I think is the import of the CFI gathering. The secular community is facing a wonderful and challenging opportunity with the incoming cohort of millennials: a web-savvy bunch who are not necessarily going to turn into full blown atheists, but appear primed to embrace a tolerant secular society within which atheists can breathe very easily. It is critical that secular advocates not bungle this opportunity in the way they appeared to regarding us older baby boomers.
Though the demographics of the CFI audience at the first day’s meetings looked like the cliché of the grumpy gray-haired white male atheist, as the gathering wore on the mix of faces grew more diverse, and many sessions were devoted to highlighting the outreach to younger nonbelievers, women, and people of color. The evidence supports the idea that the yearning for atheistic thinking is pretty much the same across demographics—its just that social institutions and traditions are just catching up there (discovering that, yes, there are African American atheists).
Why the old divides that split the CFI and Humanists fail to resonate among newer secularists may well be the same reason why secularists and people of faith might come together in the first place: the overarching idea that sweet reason and civil discourse are not only a path to truth, but an essential one, to be discarded at our peril. Particularly moving was Bill Cooke’s address on the CFI’s Transnational Program (the last given on the sparsely attended final day of the meeting unfortunately) detailing some of CFI’s initiatives around the globe: from AIDs prevention clinics in Africa to assisting safe houses for nonbelievers in India who face quite real physical threats when the local goat dies and their neighbors accuse them of using witchcraft (people have been buried alive over such things).
Every reasonable person, secular or not, should get creepy feelings down their spine thinking that such insane beliefs could be alive and well anywhere on planet Earth in the 21st century, and ought to be able to work together to help sweep such things into the dustbin of human practices along with pogroms and heretic burning.
Nor is science to be exempted from this tempering fire. One of the speakers at the convention, physicist Leonard Mlodinow vigorously criticized some of the junk science circulating in social neuroscience (detailing examples of researchers jumping way past the actual data to offer sweeping pronouncements about what biology underlies our behavior, their tenuous conclusions in turn trumpeted by even more superficial media accounts). The standards of reason apply everywhere, you see, let the chips fall where they may.
That’s why the idea of secularists and religious believers finding common ground around the banner of science and reason strikes me as an opportunity not to be wasted. No more fractious turf wars, OK?
A free handout poster at the CFI meet bore a quote from 19th century freethinker icon Robert Ingersoll that bears repeating: “Science is the enemy of fear and credulity. It invites investigation, challenges the reason, stimulates inquiry, and welcomes the unbeliever.”