Women in Secularism Review

I had the pleasure of attending Women in Secularism 2, a conference put on by the Center for Inquiry. I was able to attend due to a grant from Surly Amy, and I’m incredibly grateful to her and everyone who donated at

Some of you may already be aware of how the event began. The opening statements were from the president of CFI, Ronald A. Lindsay. Rebecca Watson covered that very well over on Skepchick and I suggest reading that if you’re not already aware of the problems with Lindsay’s speech. I have the same concerns about it that Rebecca does, and it was a fairly uncomfortable start to the conference.

Luckily there were many other panels and talks during the weekend, and I got to see most of them. I liked most of what I heard, and learned a lot.

In particular Rebecca Goldstein’s talk on Friday night, The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress, was particularly interesting. I’d never really thought hard about the reasons why micro-aggressions are so harmful, and she argued that they undermine people’s deep seated desire to matter – to have meaning and importance. It was a powerful and compelling talk, bringing forward many new ideas that I had not thought about before.

This conference was my first exposure to the work of Susan Jacoby. I am aware that many people I respect greatly are big fans of her work, so I will need to look into it further. Her talk was a bit over my head (it referenced a lot of people from history I’m just not that familiar with) but I was uncomfortable with some of her points during her talk. I hope to revisit the talk later so I can check and see if the things I wasn’t comfortable with were misunderstandings on my part or not.

What I’m certain about is that in the following panel Jacoby and her fellow panelists went on for quite awhile about their disappointment with young people and their involvement in politics and understanding of issues. Elizabeth Cornwell did something similar in her talk on Sunday. This could have been a productive conversation about how to reach out to and communicate with enthusiastic atheists and feminists in their teens and 20’s or to encourage greater political involvement. Instead several speakers in this panel and later came off as simply calling young people ignorant, lazy, and annoying. I’m not as young as that anymore, but I was pretty uncomfortable with this. If we want to encourage young people in our movements it is crucial that we find ways to encourage them, rather than insulting them. It would be nice to see a talk on youth outreach next year to counteract this problem.

The last talk on Saturday was “Secularism: A Right and Demand of Women Worldwide” from Maryam Namazie. She focused on the desire for secularism within the islamic world, and secular resistance to sharia law. It was inspiring and interesting. One of the best questions posed to her was about how to oppose sharia and islamists without being (or being perceived as) racist. Her answer was that “it is not racist to demand equal rights and treatment of all people.” In fact, she said, thinking that muslims and ex-muslims deserve a different set of rights than others is the racist perspective. I agree with her on this, but I also recognize that I don’t know enough yet about the issues faced in muslim-controlled parts of the world to know what the correct actions are for someone like me to take. My job, right now, is to keep learning and listening. I am glad I had the opportunity to learn from Namazie.

Elizabeth Cornwell’s speech is another one I’m going to have to review on video. Probably repeatedly. Some of it was over my head, and some stuff I feel like I just missed – but I heard a lot I did not like AT ALL both during her talk and during the Q&A afterward. I was confused a bit by her story about telling off an employee of her’s who sexually assaulted his co-worker because she talked about threatening him but apparently did not fire him. She also went off on a tangent in which she blamed the internet for trolling, insulting, and threatening behavior. The bad behavior we see on the internet is not the internet’s fault, it is not the fault of anonymity or distance – it is PEOPLE behaving badly. She told us not to try to be ironic or funny on the internet either – apparently those things don’t work. She also said that it’s not possible to make strong personal connections on the net, which is contrary to my experience. Then she told us to ignore the trolls. This is massively unhelpful.

I am really glad I got to attend Women in Secularism 2. I learned a lot, and met some cool people. I think I would have gotten a lot more out of it if I had been able to afford to stay at the hotel though, since no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t seem to make the connections necessary to socialize in the evenings and instead spent them watching the twitter feed from my hostel down the street. Other than that the experience was good and the conference was extremely well run, included many interesting speakers, and lead to good discussions. I hope to be able to return again.

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Benny Vimes

Benny Vimes

Benny Vimes is a queer polyamorous transman, curious skeptic, and enthusiastic seeker of knowledge. He's an undergraduate student in his 30's and loves teaching people about alternative sexuality and gender issues.

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