Yesterday, I attended the Sexy Secular Conference, sponsored by the University of Akron’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. First, I’d like to say that I’m incredibly proud that my chapter of the SSA pulled together and made this conference happen. I’ve personally spoken to two of the event’s organizers and I’m impressed with how they worked together to organize this event for the campus community. It was, as far as I’m aware, the first event of its kind on this campus. Many may not know how time consuming it can be to handle the logistics of such an event. Having organized smaller events for my campus community before, on behalf of UA’s emergency management student group, I have some familiarity with just how much the process of event planning entails. At UA, in particular, student organizations must apply for funding and, if funding is granted, the group’s officers must carefully track purchases, schedule pre-event meetings with campus officials, and even have speakers complete contracts. Navigating these hurdles can be a challenge for any volunteer group and students in particular are often new to the process. I’ve organized events before, on a smaller scale, when my group hosted a threat assessment training class taught by instructors who flew in from Texas to teach. Even for that class, I had to prepare months in advance. This group prepared for this event months in advance and I was particularly impressed with the competence of the chapter’s leadership. The Akron SSA rose to the occasion.
Recently, I have struggled with where I stand on issues related to feminism and its relationship to the atheist and skeptic communities. Often times, after reading the opinions of those in the blogosphere and listening to others speak on similar issues, I have often felt like I was being pulled into a fight I didn’t start. I have largely viewed my position as a non-combatant in the atheist-skeptic-feminist wars of the 2010s as one where I was walking on egg shells. Much of the debate has been overshadowed by conflict that centers around a variety of particular people, which interests me very little. I’m not one who is easily stirred by arguments that happen online between people or about people I don’t know or about incidents I have no direct knowledge about. The nice thing about this conference was that it explored many of these issues without becoming encumbered by who did what, who said what, etc.
Throughout all of this debate, I’ve largely viewed myself as a person who is broadly supportive of the goals of challenging gender norms and of ensuring that those among us who are disenfranchised or harmed due to discrimination by sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, etc, have their rights recognized and their worth affirmed by society. While broadly accepting such goals, I’ve also found myself worried about the potential consequences of particular actions I’ve read about in response to particular allegations. One example is the relatively uncritical acceptance, by many within the movement, of allegations made against Michael Shermer. Another is the charge, by some, that Sam Harris’ remarks about Islam constitute racism. While I can appreciate the desire to hold even our most revered figures accountable, I’ve often felt that the predisposition of some has been to take a “shoot now, ask questions later” approach. Juggling my thoughts and emotions on these subjects has been difficult and, sometimes, exhausting. How do I demonstrate my commitment to equality while simultaneously remaining just as passionately committed to the notion of safeguarding the rights of the accused? How do I account for my cognitive bias, particularly as a white, heterosexual male? And how, amid all these concerns, do I balance expressing dissent with the need for sensitivity to those whose views diverge from my own?
I attended this conference with an open mind and a desire to hear things that challenged my point of view. Listening to the first talk of the day, by Aaron Ra, helped allay much of my apprehensiveness about appropriating the term feminist as a term that describes where I stand. I would say that, before the talk, I held the word feminist at arms length for fear that using it would categorize me as someone who endorses the actions of particular feminists to particular situations. Ra’s assertion that feminism is merely a term that describes one’s own support for equal rights for women helped disarm much of my defensiveness on this issue. During his talk, Ra illustrated that feminism, as a descriptor, can be used by those who support equality for women much in the same way atheism can be used to describe those who lack faith in deities. It may seem like a simple point, but for me, making these terms analogous was helpful. Much in the same way that being an atheist doesn’t automatically require that I sanction the actions of every atheist, being a feminist doesn’t require similar sanctioning from me toward the actions of every feminist. It was a breakthrough moment, for me.
Here, I’ll take a moment to say that labels of all kinds are inherently constraining. I particularly eschew the tendency of people to categorize others without getting to know them on a personal level. It is within relationships that we truly learn the nuances of identity and labels such as atheist, feminist, etc, cannot capture the complete essence of a person’s identity without sacrificing the idiosyncrasies that make us unique. This is why, in everyday conversation, I don’t identify myself as an atheist, or as a libertarian, or as an Ohioan, or as anything in particular. I’m Brian first. The rest comes later. We’re all snowflakes and all that bullshit.
Here, I’d like to bring the Sexy Secular Conference back into view. Yesterday, I had a chance to hear from a number of secular voices. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived. What I found was that I enjoyed listening to different speakers for different reasons. Heina Dadabhoy’s talk, for example, helped illuminate my understanding of the sexuality of those who are raised within Islam. I was particularly impressed with how she endorsed the idea that religious moderation could be a way of blunting the negative effects of Islam on the sexuality of those who will remain committed to the faith. Mandisa Thomas highlighted the way many black preachers engage in sexual misconduct, which shone light on the issue in much the same way that others have scrutinized Catholic priests for child sex abuse. While I am vaguely familiar with how sex abuse has rocked the Catholic Church, I was relatively unaware of the failures of black preachers to live up to the images of morality they portray. Greta Christina offered a valuable framework for discussing sexual ethics without appealing to religious values. We, in the secular community, should emphasize how sound sexual ethics can be derived without appealing to supernatural authority in a manner similar to how Christina framed the issue. Darrel Ray’s work, which explores the link between guilt/shame and religious sexual values is invaluable and should become the focus of future research on sexuality.
All things considered, I came to this conference with the idea that I would let these speakers engage my thoughts on sex, gender, etc. I was pleasantly surprised. I left the night thinking about how to integrate what I learned with what I know, who I am, and how the information makes a practical difference in my life. The process of evaluation is ongoing; in fact, writing this post is one of my ways of sorting my ideas out. But, in the end, I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend, to learn, and to reignite this process. If nothing else, I encourage those of you to engage with the content you encounter at conferences in a similar manner. Be open enough to let each talk influence you, but don’t escape from the cognitive dissonance that emerges by either hardening your current position or shedding your current views completely. Instead, engage in the struggle that is thinking and let what emerges at the end of the process reflect who you truly are by making accommodations for those concepts you find compelling and by making your reasons for discarding other concepts equally compelling. Make gaining better insight, rather than picking apart the arguments of your intellectual opponents, become the focus of your energy. It will make all the difference.