Tuesday, August 02, 2011

My Thoughts on the Secular Student Alliance Conference

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. Shout 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.


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.

PZ Myers

PZ Myers 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.”

Greta Christina

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.

David Silverman

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:

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.”


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!

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posted by Sunsara Taylor at 5:16 PM


Blogger Stephan said...

Sunsara, I really enjoyed talking to you at the conference, but the ranting about porn in this post is disappointing. While it is true that some pornography is exploitative, it is simply not true that all pornography is. There is plenty of porn out there made and controlled by women. This isn't the porn of the 50's, 60's and 70's anymore. Why shouldn't consenting adults be allowed to film sex and sell it to those who want to watch it?

More to the point, do you not find male-on-male porn degrading? Wouldn't that be degrading to men? How about the nameless and faceless men in straight porn? They don't have names in the credits normally.

There is plenty of good porn out there, and people like me go out of my way to find it and avoid the exploitative kind.

8/2/11, 10:17 PM

Blogger Sunsara Taylor said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8/2/11, 10:33 PM

Blogger Sunsara Taylor said...


First, no one said "Step forward if you watch non-exploitative and non-degrading depictions of sex." What was said is that you should step forward if you watch porn. You cannot seriously argue that there was some disclaimer of the kind you are making.

Second, the argument that women "control" some aspects of porn is about as relevant as whether there were some female authors of passages of the Bible. Porn -- like the Bible -- has to be evaluated based on its content and what relations it promotes and celebrates, not based on who is creating those dehumanizing images.

It is quite frequent for women (mother-in-laws) to take part in beating or stoning or setting aflame young brides -- that doesn't make it any less patriarchal or oppressive towards women.

Yes, male-on-male porn is degrading. Not because their names are not in the credits, but because porn strips people of their full humanity (whether male or female) and turns them into objects to be fucked and gotten off on. Just so happens that in this viciously patriarchal and male-supremacist society and world it is massively more frequent that it is the woman who is being abused, degraded, tortured, humiliated and brutalized as the male viewer gets off on it.

Why would anyone defend that shit?

8/2/11, 10:33 PM

Blogger Stephan said...

It is spelled Stephan, not Stephen, first off.

Your first point: Of course there was not a disclaimer about the porn. Did you talk to people about their tastes in porn afterward? I did. I didn't hear anyone defending or talking about watching exploitative pornography. They were watching sometimes man on man gay porn, or one-on-one straight porn without violence. I'm sure if you polled the audience you'd find some violent porn watchers, but my point is don't dump all pornography into one bucket when that is obviously not the case.

Second point: again, you are trying to categorize all pornography by a group within it you don't like. There is no connection between them except the are depictions of sex. It isn't like we are talking about a church or nation of porn that follows a shared set of immoral rules, pornography needs to be judged on an individual basis. I've seen porn that simply made me say "why would anyone watch this," and I've seen what I consider good porn.

I completely disagree that porn strips us of our full humanity. Sex is part of our humanity, and celebrating part of what we are hardly destroys the rest of us. Am I degraded by giving a speech to a class because I am reduced to just an instrument of education?

To end this comment, I think we are misunderstanding each other. When you talk about degrading women, you mean ALL women, don't you? When I was talking about it, I was thinking of those involved in the actions. I don't think the actions of a handful of women, acting how they wish doing a job they choose, could possibly degrade other women. I don't think Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann degrades women, and if anyone could it would be them.

8/3/11, 7:24 AM

Blogger Steve said...

My two cents: Porn degrades all women in the sense that it reinforces the societal view of women as merely sex objects. The individual woman in the picture or video does not matter; she is an object, she could be any woman and represents all women. In contrast, when Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann talks, we evaluate only her, not all women.

8/3/11, 4:35 PM

Blogger Stephan said...

Wow, Steve, that is a depressing view of porn. Personally, I have favorite actors in porn, so they aren't interchangeable to me. But I guess you just use sweeping generalization for a huge body of work that focuses on showing sex acts you could also just see everyone in them as the same.

8/3/11, 10:04 PM


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