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Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Southern California Secular Humanist Conference

A couple of weeks ago (damn, it’s taken me so damn long to write this) the Southern California Secular Humanist Conference took place in San Diego. Well, this is kind of a long name for an atheist conference, but the idea, I guess, is to reunite all forms of lack of belief, and since today “atheist” is still sort of an alienating term, we have “secular humanist”. But that’s just a minor detail. I’m glad I went and had an awesome time.

My principal motivation to go was to meet Dan Barker. As most of you know (or should know), Barker was an evangelical preacher who even used to go to Mexico to convert Catholics into Protestants. However, one day he started to question his beliefs and after some time, he came out as an atheist. Today, he works for the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Jason Frye Kolarik
The conference started at 9 a.m. with a little introduction by Jason, who was the main organizer and one of the most powerful promoters of the atheist movement in the San Diego area. Jason works as president of the Humanist Association of San Diego and also as a “humanist minister” which means he acts as a minister in events that otherwise would need a priest or a pastor.

August Berkshire
Just after Jason, came Berkshire, who is president of the Minnesota Atheists, and has worked as vice-president for Atheist Alliance International. Berkshire explained pretty well how it is not only that it is possible to be good without God, but also, necessary to put aside the “Bible morality”, which we have been doing for quite a long time in order to achieve progress. In other words, morality doesn’t come from God, but from our own conscience on how we value other human beings.

Stuart Bechman
Bechman is the American Atheists director, and has also served in different atheist organizations. Bechman presented many of these organizations, and how they were hostile against each other at the beginning. However, according to Bechman, George W. Bush’s first term changed that, and then those secular organizations started working with each other in order to reach a common goal. I liked this concept, especially to be considered for secular associations that are just starting to try to make some kind of impact in their communities. Certainly more would be achieved if more groups worked together.

Judith Hand
Hand is an ethologist and peace activist who talked about humanity’s goal for global peace, but from an evolution point of view. According to hand, since there have been movements to erradicate slavery and child labor, eventually we can make a movement against war, which is some kind of “evolutive defect”.
Also, Hand is a prolific writer with many published books.

Roy Speckhardt
Speckhardt was one of my favorite speakers. He is the American Humanist Association executive director, and during the conference, he talked about the different ways we consider ourselves. According to Speckhardt, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, secularists, brights, etc, are just ways to describe ourselves with an emphasis in that which we emphasize the most. However, we are still part of those don’t believe in a god. He added that those who consider themselves with no religion are a growing group that should and will retake the United States to its secular roots by the year 2020.

And this goes along pretty much with how I see the atheist/secular/humanist/whatever movement. No matter what my purpose is, (which nature Dan Barker would later explain) is to contribute to build a better world for everyone, a world in which religion doesn’t mess with anyone’s life. To be involved in petty fights over what label we are using is just useless. Considering what Bechman said, atheists need to be organized and work together, more and better than what we are doing, in order to achieve our goals.

Debbie Skomer
Skomer wasn’t exactly a speaker, but the receiver of an award, the Local Organizer Award, for all she did representing the secular humanist community in San Diego, especially regarding talking to the press.

Dan Barker
As I said before, meeting Dan Barker was my main motivation for coming to this event. I had considered even going to Mexico for the Coloquio de Ateismo, but didn’t have my passport ready. So, as soon as I got to the conference I looked for him. There he was, talking to other like he was another one of us, not a renowned atheist activist. He was very nice and got to talk to him, even doing an interview in Spanish, for all the atheists who can relate to his story of leaving his faith after being a committed believer, me among them. I also bought a couple of his books, The Good Atheist (which is about our purpose in life) and Godless, which is about the journey from religion to reason. There is also an older book "Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist" which didn't seem to be available with Barker at that moment.

En su presentación, Barker hizo gala de sus dotes como músico, y nos cantó ya no una canción que hablara del amor de Dios y otras patrañas, sino de algo más animado y menos irracional.

After the songs, he talked about our purpose, which is the topic on his last book. Barker said that people have to find their own purpose in life, which usually involves fixing something they see unfit for the world. This purpose should be determined by the person and definitely not be thought as given by God, or more exactly, by anyone claiming to know what God wants from us.

As I said before, I can pretty much feel identified with Barker. I once was a devote believer and had no doubt that there was something God wanted from me. Happy I was, but delusional nonetheless. I’m happy I’m not in such state anymore and the only intolerance I can harbor goes toward intolerance itself.

David Diskin
David Diskin is the organizer of Camp Quest West, which is a summer camp that, unlike many other around the US has no religious affiliation. The idea is not teach atheism to the kids, but to teach them how to reach answers with the correct tools. Certainly something very different from religious oriented camps, like this one:

Jason Torpy
Torpy in an officer who serves as the President of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF). Torpy spoke about the stereotype that “there are no atheists in foxholes” but according to his data, those who express no religious affiliation are almost 1 in 4. Torpy also spoke about the ideal of engaging in dialogue before taking court actions, in which dialogue is not possible anymore. Legal actions should be taken only when there is no more room for dialogue.

James Croft
Croft is a student at Harvard who talked about the atheist movement’s lack of symbols and traditions, which religion has lots of, and by lacking those, the atheist movement loses the kind of people who likes them. Croft pointed at a Cross and demonstrated how many emotions and ideas come associated with it, but that doesn’t happen very often with the atheist movement.

Bobbie Kirkhart
Kirkhart serves as vice-president for the Secular Coalitoin of American, as well as serving as co-presiden for Atheists United. Kirkhart presented many prominent female activist within the secular movemente, proving false the idea that atheism is a field only for men. Kirkhart especially mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Dr. Eugenie Scott.

Ted Cox
Cox was another of my favorite speakers. He talked about his experience undercover in religious groups that pretend to cure homosexuality through different therapies, which go from the utterly ridiculous, to the cruel and perverse. One of these therapies consisted of a man being touched, in a non-sexual way by other men, to provide the “manly love” in a good way that they supposedly lacked during their first years.

Bruce Gleason
Gleason organizes “Backyard Skeptics in Orange County. It’s interesting to see a community of skeptics well formed and that provides a socializing place for non-believers in a certain area. Religion provides that sense of belonging to a community (in the same way a stamp-collecting club does) and it’s certainly a good idea for non-believers to have that too.

Roger Nygard
Nygard is a film director and producer who presented his last film trailer, “The Nature of existence”, in which he travels around the world asking different people about the reason of our existence. Preachers, priests, Buddhists, Richard Dawkins and even wrestlers give him their opinion.

Now, at some break, an awesome piece of music came from the speakers. I went and asked the sound guy what was it, and he told me to ask the group who was performing, Ana Kefr, which is a metal band with an atheist theme. I went to them, bought their CD and told them they were awesome.

Sean Faircloth
Faircloth is the very eloquent director of the Secular Coaliton of America, an also, ex congressman for Maine. Faircloth gave a pretty funny speech about how religious thinking hijacks legislation and morality, especially portraying sexuality as a big taboo and usually making things worse than they are. He also talked about how religion usually is in the way of human rights.

A really nice guy.

14. Brian Keith Dalton, a.k.a. Mr. Deity
I don’t think there are many atheists who don’t know who Mr. Deity is. In case you don’t, well, Mr. Deity is an absent-minded deity (maybe God) that doesn’t seem to get what is wrong with his commandments and the way his people behave, even seeing nothing wrong with they stoning a woman for not being a virgin, or wiping entire towns..

Dalton made a comparison between holy books and cooking books, both of which take their followers to accept only one way to cool food and leading to disputes and violence.

With Mr. Deity and wife

15.Michael Newdow
Newdow is an awesome guy. He graduated as a doctor, and then went to study law. After becoming a lawyer, he started suing against the references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Newdow arrived wit his family to receive the Phil Paulson Award for all he has done for a more secular. Instead of giving an award speech, Newdow sang a song, accompanied by Dan Barker. This could be called, The Separation of Church and State Song

Newdow was sitting in front of my table, along with his wife and two daughters. If I ever have children I would like to be as cool dad as Newdow is.

16. Jamy Ian Swiss
As a grand finale, we had Jamy Ian Swiss, a magician and skeptic activist who through his tricks showed us how easy is to fool people. Swiss said that mediums, palm readers and other alike use the same methods, which are certainly not supernatural, to take advantage of their victims, usually when they are the most vulnerable.

I couldn’t record his presentation, since we had been explicitly told that nothing could be taped. If I weren’t a skeptic and Swiss would be making the case of having supernatural powers, I might have believed him. He got to know a word picked by a random person from a random book, with minimum details. Truly impressing stuff.

And that was it. After that I helped picking up some cables and joined other for the after party at the bar in the hotel. Faircloth was there, as well as James Croft and Jason Kolarik. I’m really glad I went to this conference and just sad it took me so long to write all this.

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Blasfema libremente

"Que esté permitido a cada uno pensar como quiera; pero que nunca le esté permitido perjudicar por su manera de pensar" Barón D'Holbach
"Let everyone be permitted to think as he pleases; but never let him be permitted to injure others for their manner of thinking" Barón D'Holbach