Last weekend I got to spend a couple days at the http://www.secularstudents.org/
conference. Anyone who has checked out the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic (Draft Proposal)
from the Revolutionary Communist Party – with its emphasis on really promoting science, intellectual ferment, atheism, and the unfettered search for the truth (as part of an overall economic and social system that is meeting people's most basic needs and overcoming past oppression and inequalities) – should get pretty readily why communists would value a group of critically-thinking, religion-bucking, science-promoting students like this. Add to that the fact that Christian fascism is a real and growing force in this society right now and it seemed especially important to be in the midst of this secular gathering.
Challenging the authority of religion, exposing the non-existence of god(s), creating a community where atheists are not shamed or isolated or bullied, taking on the encroachment of religion into the state, defending and fighting for the scientific understanding of evolution, thinking critically and enabling others to learn how to do the same... these are but a few of the things that the SSA is involved in that are both significant in their own right and have significant implications for the success of any revolution worth making.
One of the main things I did at the conference was promote Bob Avakian's new book, Basics. Not surprisingly, there were many misconceptions about communism but also much concern about the state of the world, the environment, and whether there could be a better future. S
hout out to everyone who got a copy. We do not have to accept a world in which the vast majority of humanity is locked in ignorance and squalor! But whether or not we get out of this world depends in no small part in whether or not people get into BAsics
; You can't change the world if you don't know the BAsics!
” To lift just one quote from BA that is particularly relevant to the question of religion:
“The notion of a god, or gods, was created by humanity, in its infancy, out of ignorance. This has been perpetuated by the ruling classes, for thousands of years since then, to serve their interests in exploiting and dominating the majority of people and keeping them enslaved to ignorance and irrationality.
“Bringing about a new, and far better, world and future for humanity means overthrowing such exploiting classes and breaking free of and leaving behind forever such enslaving ignorance and irrationality.”
The students who turned out were from all across the country, but it was particularly interesting how many of them came from more isolated areas – small towns and campuses in Kansas or Ohio or Alabama or Minnesota. They are sticking their necks out to publicly disclaim belief in god. Many of the students told stories of tremendous bigotry they have encountered not only from other students but also teachers and administrators. Some are estranged from their families.
Quite a few of the students I spoke to were raised in deeply religious communities. Among them, some described how they had never really bought into the myths they were being sold but had to struggle quite a bit over whether and how to break that truth to their family and friends. Others had believed deeply and had to wrestle long and hard with a lot of troubling notions about their beliefs before they finally cast them off.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE CONFERENCE ITSELF
Most of the conference was dedicated to workshops and talks on how to better organize your campus group. How to hold a fundraiser... how to delegate (like a boss)... how to hold a big event... how to table... you get the idea. While this certainly served a purpose for student organizers, its not so fascinating to the broader public reading this blog. On the other hand, there were some highlights which have greater stakes. I want to say upfront – there is no way I will capture everything important and interesting – from Dan Barker to Hemant Mehta
to Tony Pinn
to Jessica Ahlquist
and many others who spoke
. For those that I am going to touch on, I'll start at the end and work my way back.
ended Saturday night's plenary session with a challenge (for me, this was the end, as I left early the next day for Germantown, MD[http://revcom.us/a/240/defend-leroy-carhart-en.html
]). After an entertaining and invigorating discussion of prophets and prophecy (religious and scientific), he surveyed some of the nightmares that confront humanity if we do not get a firm grip on science and utilize it to stop global warming and the rapid loss of species on this planet. He exposed how religious thinking and religious forces at every step have blocked attempts to understand the magnitude of the problem and attempts to address the problem. His last words were that people at the conference have a responsibility not only to learn how to network and hold events and do a table, but really have a responsibility to be part of “saving the world.”
Another highlight was a talk by Greta Christina
about why it is not a waste of time to argue with religious people (looks like she just posted this here
). She challenged the notion that arguing against religion doesn't work by walking through on several levels how many people have become atheists because someone argued with them. She told people why they should not get discouraged if they don't win someone over in one argument. She had some tips to make one's arguments most effective and most worth their effort. From there seemed to wander into some disappointing relativism (implying that it would be good for people to come to understand that religion is just one more idea about the world and so is atheism), overall I thought this talk was a conference highlight.
The night before the plenary included a talk from David Silverman
, head of American Atheists. He started off well, insisting that atheists have been 100% right about the non-existence of gods and insisting that everyone drop any defensiveness about this. Unfortunately, a key leg of his argumentation as to why atheists should be optimistic was to rely on the tired old cliché about how the U.S. is constantly perfecting itself and moving forward. He claimed that atheists are comparable to Black people, women and the LGBT community; each of them had once been oppressed and all of them have overcome that oppression and discrimination (he admitted this is still an ongoing fight for gay people). From this he argued that atheists can be optimistic about future acceptance and victory. The only small problem being... this narrative is a BIG LIE
Black people did overcome Jim Crow...but now 1/8 of their young male population is languishing in the hellholes of incarceration. To quote BA once again:
“The book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has shined a bright and much needed light on the reality of profound injustice at the very core of this country.
“And this brings me back to a very basic point:
“This system, in this country, in the whole history of its treatment of Black people, what has it been?
“First, Slavery... Then, Jim Crow – segregation and Ku Klux Klan terror... And now, The New Jim Crow – police brutality and murder, wholesale criminalization and mass incarceration, and legalized discrimination yet again.
“That's it for this system:
THREE STRIKES AND YOU'RE OUT!”
As for the situation for women, under the guise of a similar hard-fought appearance of equality, new extreme forms of the oppression of women have been fashioned. On the one side, there is the Christian fascist assault (and the complicity of the Democratics) on women's fundamental rights to abortion and birth control. On the other side, the increasingly hateful and violent, degrading and humiliating nature of pornography – even as pornography becomes ever more widely accepted. All this ties in with the terrible violence against women (four women killed each day in this country, every 15 seconds a woman is beaten, sexual assault is epidemic on college campuses, and we could go on and on) but even beyond that the everyday disrespect, harassment, and insult against women that permeates society and impacts every woman's life.
Hardly a happy ending! But I guess refusing to look at all this (plus the torture going on in U.S. prisons, the criminal wars being waged in our names in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and countless other crimes) is essential if you want to make the next point Silverman went on to argue. He actually put up a powerpoint slide that said we don't need a revolution!
To quote again from BA:
“There is nothing more unrealistic than the idea of reforming this system into something that would come anywhere near being in the interests of the great majority of people and ultimately of humanity as a whole.”
REALLY NEED TO STOP CELEBRATING PORN!
Moving on, as well as returning to the question of porn, I want to circle back to the very opening of the conference.
The conference began on Friday night with a large-group ice-breaker. The whole 200-ish students gathered in the auditorium and took turns at random being called up on stage to share two things about themselves and select a category. The people in the crowd who fit that category would raise their hands and one of them would be chosen to get up and continue the cycle.
When Greta Christina was called to the stage, she told of how she chose, as her category, people who watch porn. As you can imagine, the room full of teenagers and twenty-somethings experienced a burst into nervous laughter and then some enthusiastic hoots. At that point, a whole section of people stepped forward and raised their hands to signal themselves proud porn-watchers. A split second later they were followed by a section of students who seemed a little less eager to profess their porn-viewing in front of all their peers. And only a tiny moment after that there was a slow-motion transfer of every remaining student in the auditorium to join the porn-viewing group.
Let me repeat that, the entire conference without any readily visible exception stepped forward to proclaim that they watch the sexualized degradation of women. This is wrong on so many levels.
First, I guarantee there were students in that room who do not like porn at all. I am sure there were some who recognize that it is degrading and hateful towards women, but who felt uncomfortable or insecure being the only ones to admit they don't like it or watch it. All those students, particularly women but also men, were just sent a message loud and strong by their peers that there is something wrong with them!
But even more essential, even for those students who really are eager to not only watch but celebrate porn – this doesn't change the damage done by porn. The fact that so many students seemed of this mind itself only reflects just how bad the problem has gotten.
Porn has not only become more and more violent, humiliating and degrading for women – at the same time it has become more and more socially accepted and mainstreamed. So much so that a whole generation has come up with porn being pretty much the prime shaper of their understanding of sex. Sex as degradation, sex as humiliation, sex as something that exists for the pleasure of the man, women that exist for the sole purpose of sexually pleasing men, the notion that once “used” in this way women are dirty and worthy of disrespect and derision, getting off one someone else's pain... this is what porn is. Sex as a commodity – something to be sold or traded for favors or survival. And human beings, particularly women, reduced and flattened down to mere things to be used for the sexual pleasure of others. All this is porn. That is nothing to celebrate. Nothing to be proud of. Nothing to pressure others into going along with.
Its long past time this be challenged – frontally and throughout society, as well as within the secular and progressive community. I am not talking about censorship, nor am I talking about puritanical sexual repression. I am talking about putting an end to pornography and the enslavement and degradation of women in all its forms. As I will return to frequently in the coming months, the time is now for a cultural revolt against this revolting porn culture.
So, to round things out – the SSA conference was a very important intersection of some of the most engaged secular young people in the country. It was interesting getting to know many of them and it was important for them to be getting better organized. At the same time, many of the same ideological and political problems that exist in the broader society (not surprisingly) found expression in aspects of this gathering. Hopefully, there will be many occasions for further engagement and debate over these questions in the context of an overall common appreciation for reality-based thinking and the harms of religion.
Finally, a big shout out to August, Lyz, JT and all the others who clearly worked their butts off to make this conference a success!