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2005 Secular student conference a success


Aug. 17, 2005

The Secular Student Alliance hosted its fifth annual conference over this weekend at Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus. From what HNN has heard, the event was a success.

SSA 2005 Group Photo

More than 65 college students from around the country attended the conference, which offered panel discussions, lectures and networking opportunities with leaders of the humanist movement.

"Obviously it would have been nice to have thousands in attendance," said August Brunsman, executive director of the Secular Student Alliance. "But it was a satisfying crowd."

The SSA is a national nonprofit organization focusing on the secular student movement.

Though fewer students showed up this year than in conference's first two years, Brunsman said this year's turnout was the highest in three years, showing an increased interest.

Tim Gordinier, public policy director at the Institute for Humanist Studies, was among a distinguished lineup of speakers invited to participate in the conference.

"I was impressed by the intelligence, enthusiasm and friendliness of the students and the organizers -- all of which made for a very well orchestrated conference," Gordinier said.

One of the main conference themes was how the secular movement can reach out to prospective freethinkers and to religious allies. Gordinier tackled this topic in his presentation on how humanism can make itself more attractive and relevant to those outside the fold.

"Religious groups have the whole God thing going for them. The passion of religion gives followers meaning to their lives," he said. "Humanism has to respond in kind with a more political mission so that it might inspire more nonreligious people on the sidelines to become more involved. We must offer humanists a more meaningful agenda."

Other presenters included Bobbie Kirkhart, president of the Atheist Alliance International, Mel Lipman, president of the American Humanist Association, and Clark Adams, director of the Internet Infidels.

SSA Conference AudienceBoth Gordinier and Brunsman report that the most provocative panel discussion was inspired by a presentation of "American Fundamentalists (Christ's Entry into Washington in 2008)", a massive painting by artist Joel Pelletier. Before travelling to Ohio, the painting was most recently displayed at the Institute's "Humanist Center" in Albany, N.Y.

Gordinier joined Pelletier on the panel with artist Martha Knox, a masters candidate at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Jason Powell, an OSU graduate student in cultural history department, and Matt Jordan, a third-year graduate student in the OSU philosophy department. Jordan is a dedicated Christian, who holds a master's in philosophy from Talbot School of Theology.

During the discussion, Knox was critical of the painting's artistic merits, while Jordan warned the crowd that humanists should be equally as concerned with the dangers of absolutism on the left as they are with absolutism on the right.

Also of note was a panel discussion between young religious leaders from the Unitarian Universalist Church and former SSA affiliate leaders.

While Unitarian Universalism is close to humanism on the religion spectrum, Brunsman said it was still a revelation to some secular students to learn that both religious and nonreligious people share the same social justice concerns. A Methodist speaker who was originally slated to join the discussion would have probably added a little more controversy to the panel, but Brunsman said listening to the Unitarian Universalists was a great way for the students to get their feet wet in seeking common ground with religionists.

"Clearly, we need more dialogue about what we value and how we can relate to each other," he said of working with religious groups.

Next year the SSA plans to combine its annual conference with the Atheist Alliance International conference scheduled for Easter Weekend in Kansas City, Mo. If the joint conference is successful, Brunsman said the SSA may host more joint conferences with the AAI or other groups in the future.

For the next conference Brunsman hopes to schedule more time for networking between students and veteran leaders. Those sessions may even follow the "speed dating" model, in which students and veteran leaders pair up for five-minute networking sessions before moving on to the next five-minute session. By the end, all of the students will have had five-minutes with each veteran leader.

The newly formed Secular Student Alliance Alumni Council also met during the conference. The council focuses on helping alumni network while keeping them engaged in the movement. One of the ways the council helps alumni stay engaged in freethought is to encourage members to join local humanist and freethought organizations in their area.

"I'm confident that these students will be the leaders of tomorrow in the humanist movement," Gordinier said.

Duncan Crary is the director of communications at the Institute for Humanist Studies. He is the editor of the Institute's weekly e-zine, Humanist Network News.

Editor's Note: The Institute for Humanist Studies provides major financial support of the Secular Student Alliance through its IHS Grant Fund program.

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