A few weeks ago, I attended the Center for Inquiry Student Leadership Conference, a gathering of student group leaders and influential speakers in the secular movement. I’ve been to this conference twice before and thoroughly enjoyed discussions I had with other attendees, but this year left me the most energized for a few reasons. Mainly, I perceived a dramatic shift in opinion that I think reflects positively on the future of the movement.
Whereas past conferences seemed to have an adversarial and indignant attitude amongst attendees and even some of the speakers, this conference struck a more nuanced tone. Over the four days of the event, multiple talks displayed a trend of an increased willingness to include and work with the religious, while drawing attention to how ineffective many common criticisms of religion have been in the past. Some bloggers have already noted this shift, and I’m ecstatic that this might reflect progress away from the confrontational temperament I had observed.
When I first started to get involved in the movement a few years ago, such discussion were largely on the fringe and almost completely derided or ignored. When Muslim extremists sent death threats to the writers of South Park over their depiction of Muhammad, students and figureheads in the secular movement celebrated an event like “Draw Muhammad Day,” where students chalked images of Muhammad around their campus. Though the event was ostensibly intended to display the need for freedom to dissent, it effectively targeted the minority Muslim communities on campuses – students who had nothing to do with death threats and violence perpetrated against dissenters.
This year, such events were called out as an example of poor criticism. Vlad Chituc, a blogger at NonProphet Status, was part of a panel on effective religious criticism, and he cautioned us not to use moderate Muslims – an already marginalized religious minority – as a convenient proxy for the fundamentalists that are the proper targets of our criticism. Such behavior “punches down,” effectively bolstering ourselves at the expense of targeting the proverbial “little guy.” Instead, we should act for social progress by “punching up” to attack oppressive systems.
The conference closed with a rousing speech from former director of outreach, Lauren Becker, who began by telling us that “it’s not just about being an atheist anymore … we are moving on to more important things.” She argued that we ought to shift our focus beyond simply promoting atheism, and that there should be particular goals we are striving to achieve. Most importantly, she said, we need to be working together with other groups, even religious groups, towards this end. As one attendee put it, after hearing the talk, “We need to stop feeling superior and start connecting with people.”
It often feels that so much of the movement has been little more than bickering with no clear goal in mind. After this year’s conference, I am extremely optimistic that we can work toward positive social change, and motivate others within the movement to put aside our differences and cooperate with other groups to get things done.