WEST HAVEN - The sense that an organized secular movement is growing permeated the packed Alumni Lounge at the University of New Haven in West Haven Saturday during the first-ever coalition meeting of regional non-religious groups.
The Secular Assembly of the North East conference featured a variety of speakers active on the secular front at the local and national levels. Seven secular groups from around Connecticut sponsored the event, including Camp Quest New England, the Atheist Humanist Society of Connecticut and Rhode Island, and the Hartford Area Humanists.
Finding Common Ground
The first speaker on the agenda was American Atheists President David Silverman, who argued that raising the profile of “firebrand atheism” was the most effective tool for “pushing up the norm” for interest in atheism. He showed Google search data that correlated rising searches about atheism with his organization’s activities. He also said other labels, such as humanist or skeptic, were not growing in popularity over time.
Silverman called for the attendees to challenge religious beliefs.
“People need to hear religion being called a silly myth,” he said, “because it’s the truth.”
Silverman countered claims from others in the secular community who preferred reaching détente with religious groups through mutual respect.
“Theists liking us is not the objective. Equality is the objective,” he said.
Two themes touched on by Silverman would emerge as dominant throughout the conference: identity and mission.
Jessica Ahlquist, who sparked national controversy in 2012 over her successful efforts to take down a prayer plaque in her Cranston, R.I. high school, suggested that although atheists should not back down from their rights, it was equally important put on a friendly, respectable face before the public.
“My goal,” she explained, “is to make it much harder, if not impossible, to hate us.”
Later, on the sidelines, she eschewed the “firebrand” and other methods that fostered impressions of atheists as hostile.
“Instead of trying to shoot down logical fallacies all the time, it might be more beneficial to be cordial,” she said.
If Ahlquist and Silverman differed in their approaches, Trinity College Research Professor in Public Policy & Law Dr. Barry Kosmin’s presentation suggested that younger secularists already have some core moral and political beliefs in common. He displayed findings from a report he coauthored based on the 2013 American Religious Identification Survey National College Student Survey.
The report found that 28.2 percent of college students self-identified as secular. Among those, 82.3 percent were either Democrats or Independents, and 64 percent categorized themselves as “liberal” or “progressive.” Only 4.9 percent were Republicans.
The relative dearth of young Republican secularists, Kosmin posited, was a result of the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 80s. Older ‘nones’ tend to be more Libertarian or Republican, he noted.
Kosmin’s report showed broad consensus among college-going secularists in favor of such public policy issues as broader gun control, national recognition for gay marriage and belief in assisted suicide.
Identity Defines Strategy
Kosmin said his findings provided a clear opportunity for coordinated social action.
It is time, he argued, “to try to build a social movement around some political, educational and, I would suggest, biomedical issues that all these folks who say they’re secular or of no religion agree on.”
Meanwhile, Massachusetts attorney and Secular Coalition for America President David Niose said he is already restructuring legal strategy around secular identity. He is lead counsel in a challenge to Massachusetts state law against daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because the pledge’s “under God” phrase “is defining patriotism in terms of god belief.”
Niose pointed out that most church-state cases brought before the courts have so far relied primarily on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. He said his preferred route was through equal protection – the same route that most minority groups had used to fight discrimination.
“Isn’t it time that atheists came forward as a legitimate demographic group that deserves not to be discriminated against?” he asked the audience.
One of the drawbacks to the Establishment Clause strategy, said Niose, was that it invariably gets tangled in questions of the Constitutional framers’ intent while failing to acknowledge the identity of the person bringing the case.
Equal protection cases, by contrast, don’t suffer from these types of roadblocks. “When a racial minority comes in arguing equal protection, nobody says, ‘Gee, what would Jefferson think of equality for African Americans?’”
A Movement with a Mission?
Although church-state issues remained high on the agenda at SANE, several speakers urged the audience to develop more comprehensive political platforms.
Kosmin offered a smattering of political issues that would be attractive to younger secularists. Niose pointed out that secular “camps” could not be as effective as a unified community.
Liz Heywood, a former Christian Scientist who lost use of one leg from an undiagnosed and untreated childhood case of osteomyelitis, focused on religious medical exemption laws that allowed believers, such as her own parents, to circumvent their children’s healthcare needs. Such laws, she said, made kids the unwitting victims of religious belief.
Perhaps the most sweeping call for social justice, however, came from Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D., a feminist writer and senior intergroup specialist for the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. She chided the secular movement for adhering mainly to Western European assumptions of cultural superiority while ignoring the broader state of social affairs.
“African American women did not have the chance to be freethinkers,” she said.
Hutchinson said her group, Black Skeptics Los Angeles, was taking more direct aim at these historic disparities by becoming the first secular group in the country to create a First in the Family Humanist Scholarship Initiative. The initiative provides resources to undocumented, foster care, homeless and LGBTQ youth who will be the first in their families to go to college.
Success for SANE
Organizers called SANE a clear success in the one arena where it mattered most: giving groups from around the region a chance to collaborate.
Head SANE organizer Tanya Barrett said she hadn’t been sure at first how many people would actually register. Her worries were allayed, however, when the event sold out.
“It’s a dream,” she mused.
Barrett noted that SANE’s high turnout served as one example of what the local groups could accomplish by teaming up.
“This really was a collaborative effort,” she said. “There’s a lot of excitement in the community right now.”
Barrett praised UNH for being so accommodating. The university was open to the idea and even offered catering. “They were just so helpful,” she said.
Dennis Paul Himes, the Connecticut State Director of American Atheists, said his experiences at national secular meetings had convinced him that one of the best ways to build the movement was to provide networking opportunities. SANE, he said, was the first step to getting the independent associations in the area a chance to share ideas and strategies.
“More can come from us if we work together as a community,” he explained.
Himes had earlier spoken to the audience on the danger that people living in the relatively liberal Northeast would become too comfortable having an “atheist pub night or an atheist sushi dinner” while ignoring very real religious incursions in government.
One of the challenges unique to Connecticut, he later said, is the culture of local municipal control.
“People tend to dismiss you if you’re not from their town,” he said. Only by backing one another up could individuals hope to bring enough pressure to bear at the local level.
Bringing the groups together could help them coordinate on statewide issues, Himes added.
Neither Barrett nor Himes could say for sure if there are future SANE conferences in store. Barrett said she was too preoccupied “just trying to get to today.”
Both agreed, though, that the future of secular activism in Connecticut was looking brighter than ever.