I’ve called myself an atheist, secularist, humanist, and skeptic ever since I started listening intently to The Atheist Experience several years ago in college. It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint a moment of deconversion or transformation, so I usually decide to use my increased interest in the issues and the movement that sprang from that show, around 2008 or 2009.
But last weekend was a new step forward in my involvement: I attended the Secular Student Alliance East Conference! I drove from my home near Atlanta up to Columbus, Ohio for this wonderful 3-day event.
The takeaways were numerous. Several practical talks by friends on logo design, social media, and the challenges of ROTC groups gave a renewed sense of all that’s possible for groups to accomplish and how much good they can do. Other talks gave great insight into issues surrounding black secularists, the effort to gather statistics of our growing movement, and how to have good sex education! These all began to comprise a general sense of increased motivation and energy to continue pushing this movement forward.
But most of all the conference had an immediate and overwhelming effect irrespective of any of the great sessions, talks, or workshops: it reaffirmed the human element of the movement.
Much of the atheist, secularist, humanist, and skeptical movement is an online affair. I have numerous friends that blog about these issues. I discuss current events on Facebook. I browse for stories on Reddit. The internet is an immensely powerful tool to establish a presence, facilitate communication, and create an unending stream of content about anything and everything nonbelievers care about.
But there’s a downside to exclusively seeing the movement from virtual space. It’s the same problem that shows itself in far too many comment threads, replies, tweets, and posts online. A warped perspective can develop, making real people become only pictures, names, and words. At worst, they become 2-dimensional representations of themselves that can appear blind and deaf to anything you shout to them from across the void of webspace.
You lose an essential quality of the movement: the people. The humanity. Without meeting anyone or grounding the importance of our goals, it can seem ephemeral. Donations, discussions, and debates lose their purpose. Worst comes the problem of people elevating their tone and adding vitriol, hatred, or vulgarity, because shouting without visible consequence is easy. It becomes easier to not treat people as people.
But this cardboard cutout representation of people is simply false. And attending this conference was essential to dispelling that idea. People are so much more than their websites, writings, and videos. They are more than their involvement in the movement, as well. They’re all people with personal challenges they overcome to be a part of it all. They’re individuals with different pasts and interests outside of secularism that influence their perspective.
Organizations that do excellent, quality work transform from logos and websites to a collective effort from dedicated, friendly people. They’ll talk to you, tell you about their work, and maybe about their cats! You’ll see the coordination and cooperation necessary to put on an event for the benefit of student leaders around the country and feel that motivation to keep it going in whatever way you can.
The awfulness that I witness online at times seems utterly unconscionable when I meet the people running and attending this conference, as well. When I witness the love, care, and respect present in every aspect of the design and implementation of this event, it is in another universe compared the misaligned objections of detractors. I only wish everyone could have this experience to see what I see.
There is simply no substitute to shaking Hemant Mehta‘s hand and connecting on a mutual love of podcasts. Or telling Aron Ra personally how influential his videos were to you. Or meeting so many different people from campus groups all over and being inspired by their drive and vision. Or best of all, getting a great big hug from friends you’ve followed and read and spoken to, but never personally met until now.
This, to me, is a huge importance of conferences. No disparaging of powerful online activism or the excellent event programs implied. What I describe here is something much less tangible or perceptible that deserves the spotlight. The humanity of our humanist movement.
There’s a whole lot more to say about this wonderful experience from an even more personal standpoint (if you can believe it!), which will come very soon.
Edit (2013-07-27): I posted this just a bit before the online conference FtBCon happened, which I of course didn’t mean to denigrate. I think FtBCon had a similar effect as I’m describing here, and it has to do with seeing people talking candidly, going off-topic, joking, laughing. The more that happens, the easier it is to relate to and remember that the people in this movement are human beings, just like yourself.