The Midwest Humanist Conference

The Midwest Humanist Conference was held at the Country Inn and Suites in Lincoln, NE on August 22, 2010. This is the first conference like this that I’ve ever been to, and so I was very excited. This was also the first chance I was going to have to meet fellow members of The Omaha Atheists.

I want to give you my impressions of all of the speakers and speeches. While I did take some notes, they weren’t particularly copious, so please don’t take this as a blow by blow report so much as it is what I took away from them.

The conference was kicked off by Jason Frye, the organizer of the conference. He began by highlighting the day’s speakers and then showed us a hilarious video call Jesus Beer.

The first speaker was August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists and a Camp Quest Minnesota Board member. His speech was titled, Humanity of Atheism.

He started off by saying that atheist should not be capitalized (unless, of course, it is in the title of something or at the beginning of a sentence). His reason for this is that atheist is a descriptor, not a proper noun. It describes a state of non-belief in any supernatural being, not a description of the person themselves.

He went on to promote the idea that humanism and atheism need to merge. In this way, humanism gains from the higher public visibility of atheism and atheism gains from being associated with a philosophy of high ethics and morality, something that it unfortunately lacks in the public perception today.

I found August to warm and approachable and he brought great intelligence to his arguments.

The next speaker was Greg Lammers, American Atheists Missouri State Director.

He began his speech with, “Once upon a time…” and went on to describe how every sixth Thursday of the month he goes to the Catholic center to meet with “Monsignor Scarface” where they have a conference call with the Pope so he can inform the Pope as to the latest going-ons of the atheists in Missouri.

The point, of course, was to illustrate that we shouldn’t just believe things because someone tells us they are so. He has a very humorous delivery which really made the talk very enjoyable.

His main point was illustrated by a quote from Proverbs 1:7:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”

He talked about how insidious it is that a religion would choose fear as its foundation of wisdom, giving some very humorous, but poignant examples of this (none of which I can specifically remember, unfortunately).

He ended by stating that he believes that the better response would be:

“Doubt is the beginning of wisdom.”

For it is through questioning everything that we learn the truth about our world.

After lunch, was the keynote speaker, D.J. Grothe, president of The James Randi Educational Foundation. His talk was titled, The Humanism of Skepticism.

D.J is a very engaging and well polished speaker who exhibits great enthusiasm, grace and humaneness to every subject he speaks on.

He began by explaining what, as he sees it, true skepticism is. A true skeptic is not someone who, out of hand, dismisses things that are improbable or on the fringe, but someone who is always open to all possible explanations and insists on questioning and testing all of them, if possible. They will then conclude that something is probable based on the evidence. But they are always open to new evidence that may cause them to change their conclusions. This is a very naturalistic way of looking at the world.

He stressed that, although skepticism has traditionally concerned its self with the investigation of the paranormal, alternative medicine, or just plain fakery, that in the past seven years or so, religious claims have begun to come under its purview.

He posited that religious claims, including the very existence of God or gods, should be investigated using the same methods as those used to investigate the paranormal, especially given that both claim supernatural causes.

He then tied this into atheism by saying that atheists should use the skeptical tool kit, as it were, to support their ideas. In this way, skeptical thinking can inform atheistic thought, creating a solid, empirical foundation for its conclusions.

My favorite speaker was Amanda Knief, cofounder of Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, Humanist Celebrant, and public policy attorney.

I was not previously familiar with her or her work and this was a fantastic introduction for me. She spoke about atheism in the workplace with emphasis on the legal rights of atheists.

I learned that atheists are protected from discrimination in the workplace by the same laws that protect people of all faiths (even though atheism isn’t a faith). By using several court cases as examples she illustrated how these protections came about.

She has a wonderfully engaging speaking style, strong, yet graceful and humorous. I came away highly impressed and deeply moved by her presentation. She is someone I’d gladly go to hear speak at any and every opportunity.

Dale Hilderbrant is a magician and mentalist. His topic was Psychics: Tricks of the Trade.

He did some neat tricks using exaggerated techniques to highlight just how the sham psychics do it.

During dinner, I found that he has an in-depth knowledge of magic and mentalism and has written several books on magic.

The next speaker was Darrel Ray, author of The God Virus. His talk was provocatively titled Religion: A Sexually Transmitted Disease.

He began by giving two examples that illustrate that what we in the west consider normal sexual behavior is, in fact, not normal at all.

The first is the Hazda tribe of Tanzania. These people have no known gods or religion. They have no concept of marriage as we would understand it.

In this society, multiple partners are the norm, with the woman being the dominant one in establishing relationships. All children are raised by the entire community. They have no concept of adultery or anything of that sort and a high value is placed on sexual pleasure as an integral part of their lives. Sexual pleasure is discussed openly among everyone, including children, who learn about sexuality and sexual practices from observing their parents and listening to adults talk about them.

The second culture is the Hawaiian culture before contact with the west.

Here again, we have a society where monogamy is unknown. In this culture, religion deals mainly with prohibitions on different types of food, rather than different sexual practices. Here, there can be different types of relationships; sexual relationships for love, sexual relationships for procreation, and sexual relationships for pleasure. In all of these relationships it is very common that a different partner is involved for each type of relationship.

Again, as with the Hazda, children are raised by the community. Children are not only taught, but prepared for their sexual coming of age by either their grandparents or aunts. The boys have their penises blown on from infants up to the age of seven, as this was believed to prepare them for future sexual relationships. The girls would, almost daily, have their clitorises pulled and stretched to make them larger over time to heighten their future sexual pleasure.

These examples then led into what Darrel called infection of The God Virus. The premise of this is that our concept of what constitutes “normal” sexual behavior in the West was shaped by the Judeo/Christian religions which manufactured prohibitions on various sexual practices and relationships.

He used examples from the Bible that showed that, in the Old Testament, the only prohibitions of sexual relations were for homosexuality and promiscuous women. We were shown that Abraham, David, Solomon and others were certainly polygamists, yet both Christianity and Judaism, beginning right around the time of Jesus, prohibit polygamy without any biblical basis.

He went on to show that it was early Christian writers and theologians who were both preoccupied and terrified of sex. This was tied very closely to a hatred and condemnation of women.

He then moves onto the New Testament. Here he relates that, to be called “rabbi” in the Jewish culture both in Jesus’ time and today, it was not just presumed, but expected, that the man in question would have to be married. About the only examples of unmarried rabbis are those that are widowed (my statement, not his.) Yet, nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus’ being married mentioned. In fact, none of the disciples are mentioned as being married, but we can conclude that some of them must have been for Jesus tells them:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. “ Luke 14:26

Who, Darrel asks, removed or suppressed the mention of their wives from the Bible, and why?

He gave numerous examples from his years of practicing clinical psychology where it became obvious to him that married people, over time, because satiated with each other. In other words, they no longer find sex with their partner exciting or interesting and the urge to have sex with someone else becomes stronger and stronger until it tears the relationship apart. This isn’t a flaw with any of these people but a fact of human nature.

Satiation is a well established fact of human psychology that we can no more ignore that we can other feelings. He used the example of if you eat chocolate every day; you eventually get sick of eating chocolate. This is something I’m sure we can all relate to.

He goes into primary and secondary sexual characteristics. For example, primary sexual characteristics would be things like heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual.

Secondary sexual characteristics would be things like fetishes or other specific sexual activities that arouse us, for example pornography, shoe fetish, or a particular attraction to specific body parts. It is the pursuit of these secondary sexual characteristics that we spend most of our time and energy perusing, and therefore it is these that are often the cause of the stress and anxiety around sex in relationships. We often have been conditioned by The God Virus to feel ashamed or degenerate because of these desires we have, but everyone has them.

He suggests that openly talking with our partners about sex and, especially, these secondary sexual desires that we have is critical to a healthy, long term relationship.

He goes on to suggest that we may have to renegotiate our relationships to accommodate these issues, but strongly urges that we be open and honest with our partners. For example, if we feel the strong need to have sex with someone else, we need to tell our partner that and negotiate something that we are both comfortable with.

Jason Frye, the organizer of this conference, was the next speaker and his topic was Homosexuality & Humanism.

He covered the creation of the LGBT Humanist Council, which is an important step forward for humanists. He went on to stress, using hilarious videos, why LGBT issues are humanist issues, which basically boils down to the fact that LGBT issues are, at their heart, human rights issues no different than other human rights issues that affect people of color or women, for example.

I was surprised to learn that domestic partnerships lack over 1000 rights otherwise afforded to married couples, including such basic rights as the right to hospital visitations, the right to time off for funerals, the right to Social Security Survivor benefits, among the thousands of others.

One very astonishing thing he said is that most gay men are not allowed to give blood:

“Gay men remain banned for life from donating blood, the government said Wednesday, leaving in place — for now — a 1983 prohibition meant to prevent the spread of HIV through transfusions.

Before giving blood, all men are asked if they have had sex, even once, with another man since 1977. Those who say they have are permanently banned from donating. The FDA said those men are at increased risk of infection by HIV that can be transmitted to others by blood transfusion.” (Associate Press, Thursday, May 24, 2007)

This, even though gay men are not the highest HIV risk group. That sad statistic is held by Black Women, who have no over-reaching ban to giving blood. (Diagnoses of HIV infection and AIDS in the United States and Dependent Areas, 2008,; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The final speaker was Dan Barker, co-president of The Freedom From Religion Foundation.

His topic was titled, America Doesn’t Have a Prayer, in which he discussed the history of, reasons for and current status of their lawsuit against the U.S. Government over the National Day of Prayer.

This was a suit that was brought earlier this year to stop the President from declaring a National Day of Prayer, as mandated by a 1950’s law passed by Congress at the height of the Cold War.

The current status of this is that a federal judge in Wisconsin determined that this law was unconstitutional and enjoined the President to not issue the yearly proclamation, pending appeal of her decision.
The case is slated to go before an appeals court this fall.

The basis for their suit is that since the proclamation applies to all citizens, all citizens are affected, even those who don’t pray or aren’t religious as stated in the ruling:

“It goes beyond mere ‘acknowledgment’ of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience. When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship.”

He went on to describe how the National Day of Prayer was created by the evangelical religious right, who consider this their pet project and have a documented history of denying participation by other, non-evangelical, religious groups. He claims that the supporters would lose nothing if Government did not support the National Day of Prayer as they would still be able to organize and promote it, as they always have and continue to do.

The whole conference was a fantastic experience for me. Being new to the skeptical movement and humanism, it was wonderful to interact with everyone involved.

I wish I was able to give all the speakers as an in-depth review as I did for Darrel and Jason Frye, but I just couldn’t remember enough details to do them justice and I certainly didn’t want to report erroneous information.

I would strongly recommend anyone with an interest in humanism (and who shouldn’t be interested in helping their fellow human begins?) to check out the links I’ve provided. There is an enormous wealth of great information to help you get involved in a wide variety of different causes if you so choose.

Even if you can’t get involved, you can certainly learn some things that you didn’t know before. Sometimes knowledge is its own reward.

You can see pictures from this event on my Facebook page or my Mobile Me page. I apologize for the poor quality; I should have brought my good camera.

The event was sponsored by American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry, Council for Secular Humanism, Humanist Association of San Diego, Humanist Community of Silicon Valley, Lincoln Secular Humanists, Planned Parenthood of Nebraska & Council Bluffs, Scouting for All, The God Virus, The James Randi Educational Foundation, LGBT Humanist Council, The Freedom From Religion Foundation, The Lincoln Atheists, The Omaha Atheists, The Thomas Jefferson Humanist Society


4 thoughts on “The Midwest Humanist Conference

  1. Thank you for your writeup of the conference and the kind comments about my friend Amanda Knief. I carpooled with Amanda to the conference; I was the 6′ 6″ 300lb man taking a lot of pictures. I thought you might be interested in the pictures I took at the conference and a link to a video featuring Amanada and others done by our group.

    First, my pictures from the conference:

    Second, a video featuring Amanda of other members of our group describing what it means to be a non-believer.

    Please feel free to distribute the pictures or video as you see fit!

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