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Humanist Essay for July 2013
"2013 AHA Conference - Part 1"
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[Reprinted from the HSNM July 2013 Newsletter.]

The recent 2013 Conference of the American Humanist Association in San Diego brought together 450 AHA members and presenters from across the country. Our own chapter representation was in the double digits (okay, 11) and we were noticeable in our leadership, from our work for the Feminist Caucus to Ron Herman's presentation about our Family Co-Op, with one of our own families including their two children also in attendance. HSNM Family Co-Op's Alternative Children's Sunday School was one of the early, and remains one of the few, humanist children's programs that are up and running among AHA chapters and affiliates. I came back from the conference, as I have each year, with a renewed appreciation for HSNM - the longevity of the group, our ability to maintain a consistent meeting schedule, and our members' willingness to branch out into more kinds of activities and more involvement in the local community as well as participation in national initiatives.

Here are some of my thoughts about the conference and some of the issues and ideas that I found worth noting. A variety of approaches to and aspects of humanism were covered over the four days. Many of the sessions were recorded and can be viewed online here. Please have a look so we can discuss these topics among ourselves. Is there a subject you would like to learn more about at one of our speaker meetings or explore at our topical discussion meeting? Something you would like to comment on in this Newsletter?

Secularism
A significant purpose of this and every AHA conference was to bring ourselves up to date on the status of secularism in the U.S. In his talk "The Secular Moment: Challenges Ahead for Church-State Separation," Rob Boston pointed out that the concept of a "Christian Nation" came after the Civil War and not from our Founders. Today it is pushed energetically and almost desperately by the religious right. Their latest campaign replaces "family values" with "religious freedom," on which basis they now demand changes to school curricula, prayer at government functions and the right to discriminate in employment.

Amanda Knief, AHA board member, attorney and author of Citizen Lobbyist, gave a scathing critique of the Faith-Based Initiative as a political boondoggle that does little in the way of providing aid to those in need. Edwina Rogers, Executive Director of Secular Coalition for America, gave a report on that organization's impressive accomplishments over the past year. Edwina is clearly an effective lobbyist and coalition builder - rock solid in her defense of secularism without ever seeming embattled or negative, she knows the issues, the numbers and the law inside and out. (I could use a volunteer just to keep up with the SCA news bulletins and strategy sessions - Edwina doesn't scrimp on the emails either!)

Finally, wrapping up the whole bundle of church-state controversies into a single unassailable constitutional package, Edward Tabash provided a history lesson, "The True Meaning of the Separation of Church and State" from the perspective of the Founders themselves, who really did intend for everyone to be free to believe or not believe as they choose and equal in the eyes of the law.

Children and Education
Closely tied to the issue of separation of church and state is the matter of public education, as well as private education. Clearly we support secular, thorough, accurate, science-based public school curricula. But what of our responsibility to protect every child's right to adequate education and health care? The panel "Religious Fundamentalism and the Abuse of Children" was moderated by Richard Dawkins and included activists and authors on the front lines of the church-state frontier. Sean Faircloth, Liz Heywood, Janet Heimlich and Katherine Stewart asked us to confront the very real harm that religious fundamentalism does to vulnerable individuals, communities and our democracy.

The conference offered two excellent sessions on humanist education - the "Humanism Begins at Home" panel in which HSNM participated, and a symposium on "The Teaching of Ethics." Margaret Downey, a contributor to Parenting Beyond Belief, in colonial character and costume, presented an overview of "The Life and Work of Thomas Paine" to the delight of young and old. And for the scholars among us, there was the traditional Thursday "Philosophy of Humanism Symposium" all-day marathon.

In Part 2: Diversity, Organization Nuts and Bolts, Community, and Personal Growth.

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Copyright © 2013 Zelda Gatuskin

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