A Cheeky, Odd, and Uneven Summary of SCA’s 2011 Strategic Summit

The Secular Coalition for America’s 2011 Strategic Summit this past weekend was an eye-opening experience for me, and I think a spectacular success along a number of lines.

I gave the first talk on Thursday night. It was a philosophical and historical explanation of why the history of our country is secular and so should be its future and I was really moved by the intelligence of the response in the room. By “response in the room” I mean something hard to describe. When you’re up there talking, not knowing who is in your audience -- the lady with the smile might be the Chair of Metaphysics at Duke or a golf caddy for all you know – and you mention “Spinoza’s God” and get a puff-of-air giggle of conspiracy from her, well in that moment you feel the “response in the room” is smart, erudite, and thoughtful and you can relax and have a good time.

After my talk, when I met members of the audience, it was an impressive and accomplished bunch of people, and I was proud to be among them. They were indeed the leadership that the Secular Coalition had intended to gather, but I didn’t quite realize the excellence of the company until I met them and collected the delightful business cards that they all thrust into my hands.

Ashley Miller tweeted the whole conference and I read every one of her tweets. She is a tweeting star, deep thinker, and fun person who should have a very prominent place in this movement.

On Friday, about 70 of the attendees broke into groups, went out, and lobbied members of Congress. When they came back and spoke of it I was really moved. They’d gone out there and introduced themselves to important people and said this is who we are and this is what we care about. Just hearing about it was transformative. Next time I get the chance I’m going to do it. Maybe this is the dawn of a new golden age. Well, poets may dream, but I think it’s time to put some feet on the street and start meeting each other and start making this thing happen. In my book The Happiness Myth I wrote, “It is great to come out of the closet, but you have also got to leave the house.” People have told me that line energizes them. It has a quippish kick and reminds us that we need to connect with larger community – it is good for us, for all sorts of personal and communal reasons.

The fabulous George Hrab played the guitar and sang us funny atheist songs and he was charming, clever, and entertaining. Paul Provenza, the comedian and filmmaker, hilariously read from his book Satiristas, in which he interviews comedians about speaking truth and being funny.

And I met Herb Silverman! I don’t think either of us knew who the other one was before we met. I came into the movement through scholarship, and since my books Doubt: A History, and The End of the Soul, and The Happiness Myth  -- all three being books of innovative skepticasity – came out, CFI and JREF and FFRF have reached out to me. I’m only just realizing the bigger structure of the movement and I get the feeling this twinkle-eyed Silverman is at the center of a pretty big web.

And now we come to what seemed to me to be the main event, which was Sean Faircloth’s talk on Friday night, after dinner.
 It was really something. You should have been there, and if you were, you are probably already nodding in agreement. I was asked to introduce him and I guess I’ll just paraphrase what I said then, for the introduction, and then tell you about his talk. So, my Introduction:

Working in the Maine legislature for a decade, Sean Faircloth had a 100% record for voting on the side of the defense of the rights and safety of women and children. He supported measures and he also initiated legislature of his own towards these goals.  He has switched his emphasis of concern to secularism because after ten years of working for women and children he had come to realize that his enemies in these fights were almost always religious extremists. About 120 years ago the founder of the Women’s Movement in the US, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, made the same switch for the same reason – she dropped out of the women’s movement she had created and set her intellectual powers against the religious ideas and practices that she had come to believe were the chief enemies of women’s rights in this country. Like Stanton, Faircloth has seen that this fight – the separation of church and state and the defense of women, children, and other vulnerable populations from the rapacious stupidity of bad religion – is the fight where we win or lose the soul of America, and with it the world.
I want you to know that I am a very busy woman, with two children to raise, books to write, and a flock of graduate students to guide towards their advance degrees, and I do not come to most conferences in which I am invited to participate. I came to this summit because I’ve heard Sean Faircloth speak a few times, and well, I came to this because Sean Faircloth asked me. Our movement has mixed feelings about the word “faith,” some reject it, I choose to use it with its non-supernatural definition. I have faith in humanity, I try to have faith in myself…and I have faith in Sean Faircloth. I think you will too. Ladies and gentlemen, Sean Faircloth.

Then Sean gave us a talk that left me newly amazed, inspired, and indeed encouraged beyond all expectation. I’m getting all serious on you now because I was really persuaded.
Faircloth has thought of a new way to approach this whole fight with the politics of the Religious Right. Let me rephrase that. Faircloth has noticed that a bunch of hard-working people have been fighting this fight in a new way, and he has realized that if he champions their past successes and future plans, we win our country back. His speech gave those individual hard working people some fame and recognition.
His contribution to their work is to realize that religious people torture and kill their children by denying them medicine, by feeding them lies, by harsh discipline, and by other family atrocities that fester whenever there is ignorance, aggression, sharp hierarchy, and secrecy.
If we start our efforts there, trying to get equal protection for those children, who could fault us? Who could fail to see the urgency and goodness of our cause?

Sean resembles JFK just enough to remind the older and/or educated set that religious freedom also means freedom toward Catholics (and Jews and everyone else), and how it once seemed like electing a Catholic to the presidency was impossible, and that when that barrier fell we got one of the most beloved presidents in American history.
The Secular Coalition for America has set up what seems to me to be a viable and specific plan to make the plans he outlined for us happen, first of all by supporting the individuals already working to defend such populations and making them into visible heroic leaders. Brilliant. There was more great stuff in the speech too, and when it was over and we all rose to our feet.
I’m sold. This is a big, tricky world and there are millions of causes to which we could lend a hand if we could ever get out of these chairs we are sitting in, perching our laptops and lattes.

All this history gives me a lot of perspective on things, and usually warns me that today’s seemingly great storms are really just the shifting breezes of history. This feels different – real and important and the start of something big. I’m going to lend whatever support I can to Faircloth’s project, and I really want to urge you to consider doing the same.
Later that night we had a hotel room party which was pretty rockin’ and then I read people about fifteen or twenty minutes of my poetry which made strong men weep and beautiful women hand me their phone numbers. I hate to brag but my poetry kicks up some transcendence and is funny, psychological, sexy, absurd, dramatic, and freakishly honest and when I read it I emote a bit (‘cause I can’t help it and because I like it) and we all had a pretty good time. People in the room musta meant it when they said they liked it because the sales of my poetry books on Amazon did a nice jump the next day.

Speaking of the next day, the next day me and my husband had to rush back to Brooklyn to be with our babies and get back to work, but in the car I followed Susan Jacoby’s speech by Miller’s tweets (ain’t it fun living in the future?) and it seemed strong and encouraging. Jacoby is a powerful asset to our movement and she can really wear the color green. 

Well, as is often the case, I’ve said more than I meant to, but am glad I did. If you’ve never read me before, it is really good to meet you. I feel your presence out there and I fight our fight stronger knowing that there are others who care about truth, justice, and the American Way.

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