SDSU hosts conference on reason

by Kevin Smead


Last weekend, San Diego State hosted the first “Toward a Reasonable World: The Heritage of Western Humanism, Skepticism, and Freethought” conference at the Town and Country Resort Hotel in Mission Valley.

The conference brought together prominent figures from numerous fields to deliver papers and present about a wide variety of topics, ranging from the forms of unbelief and its origins, to modern interpretations of these varying schools of thought.

Chair of the department of religious studies Dr. Rebecca Moore organized the event along with Dr. Robert Tapp, the current faculty chair and dean emeritus of the Humanist Institute in New York.

The three-day event covered a wide swath of intellectual ground, focusing on themes of science, society, religious belief and nonbelief.

The conference was held in part to honor the birthday of Michael Servetus. He was a 16th century Spanish scholar and theologian executed in 1553 for his published treatise rejecting the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

After a Friday night kickoff and discourse given by Dr. Ronald Numbers of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Creationism and its contribution to modern unbelief, the majority of Saturday morning focused on Servetus and his life, work and legacy.

In the afternoon, the focus shifted to the 18th century, with speakers including James Herrick, former editor of The New Humanist for more than 20 years. Topics included the British Enlightenment, as well as unbelief in early-modern France.

Saturday evening proved to be diverse, as alternatives to unbelief were discussed, including presentations from Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Harris and expert on African-American religion, Dr. Anthony Pinn. More topics included atheism in the Romantic period as well as gender and American atheism.

Sunday brought the conference into a modern and global perspective. Focusing on the 20th century to the present, there was representation from different parts of the world, such as India and China.

Tapp concluded the conference by speaking on the future of humanism, skepticism and freethought movements.

When asked to define the terms, many of the presenters had varying definitions.

“We jokingly say these things are like herding cats,” Tapp said. “They don’t organize well.”

However, there were similar themes in their responses.

“Humanism, skepticism and freethought affords us a way of thinking about and wrestling with what takes place in the world without safety nets,” Pinn said. “It makes us fully accountable and responsible for what we do, why we do it and how we do it.”

“Humanism,” Herrick said, “is a kind of nonreligion with values.”

British literary scholar Dr. Martin Priestman said, “I think the word atheist is all right and probably should be used, but I’m aware of the issues it raises. Free thought seems to me something hard for anyone to disagree with, but the truth is that it involves a lot of doubt of learned religious tenants.”

As for the future of the conference, Tapp discussed plans to produce a book from the oral papers presented. The conference’s ultimate goal, he said, is to promote and foster a culture in which nonbelievers of all kinds can be open about their beliefs without fear of rejection and persecution.

The initial idea for the conference came from Dr. J. Gordon Melton, who is the director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and distinguished professor of American religious history at Baylor University. Melton has been active in the field of religious studies for 40 years, authoring more than 40 different texts, including the “Encyclopedia of American Religion.”

The conference was underwritten by the James Hervey Johnson Educational Charitable Trust, with co-sponsorship from the SDSU departments of Religious Studies, Classics and Humanities, and Philosophy, as well as the SDSU Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs and The Study of American Religion, from Santa Barbara.