While many gathered for Easter Sunday this year, another group was gathering at Mason for the first Young Atheist convention.
The George Mason University Student Secular Alliance hosted the convention on Easter Sunday this year, featuring panelists, presentations, kiosks, food and comedy, to assist in discussing life without faith.
“The main goal of SSA is to provide a welcoming and supportive community for secular students while encouraging them to be open in expressing their religion-free worldview,” said Diana Milea-Ciobanu, secular Student Alliance public relations officer.
SSA recorded 109 attendees for the conference who gathered to discuss humanism, activism, artificial intelligence and science. Mason’s SSA chapter was joined by George Washington Secular Society and Liberty University Humanist Community. Some attendees focused on science while others were primarily interested in community programs. Many students asked if choosing to host the convention date on Easter Sunday was a statement.
“To be honest, when we planned the event this was the only weekend Dewberry Hall was open,” said Alexander Krupp, GMU SSA President. “The American Atheists have their convention on Easter Sunday on purpose. I think it’s funny because you’re celebrating the holiday in your own way. So everybody can have a good time.”
Krupp even says that people do not even have to be Christian to celebrate the Christian holidays either.
“Christmas is a secular holiday. My whole family is Atheist. We have a Christmas tree, but we don’t put angels on it,” Krupp said. “We put pine cones, nature stuff and owls. We’re celebrating the winter solstice. Atheists love Christmas.”
Catholic Campus Minister Juan Villanueva of ALIVE Campus Ministry did not find the chosen date of the Atheist Convention offensive.
“I don’t find it offensive since they probably did it at the time they don’t celebrate a major Christian Holiday,” Villanueva said. “If they chose this date to ridicule Christians, as a Christian I know that Jesus loved his enemies or those that opposed him. I always choose love and prefer to focus on Jesus than on secular matters.”
During the convention, Anderson Thomson, Trustee of Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, gave a lecture titled “Why We Believe in Gods.” The talk focused on neurological research of the brain during prayer and worship.
“Religion is a cultural byproduct of mechanisms designed originally for other purposes. Religion is no longer beyond the comprehension of the human mind,” Thompson said. ”We now understand, as we never have before, how human minds generate religious beliefs. We know the mechanisms.”
Anderson asked students to wrap arms around each other, move together in synchrony, and sing happy birthday as part of an experiment about the brain during worship. These activities, Anderson said, release endorphins and oxytocin in the brain. Anderson concluded that studying the psychology of religion is “analogous to the psychology of fast food” and included a picture in his PowerPoint of the Pope wearing a hat full of french-fries.
There was interest in secular community at the convention. Camp Quest, a secular summer camp for kids, hosted a kiosk searching for volunteers to help run their summer camp. They function as a community summer camp for atheist, agnostic, humanist and other “freethinking” families. Frank Bellamy, Camp Quest representative, spoke about a popular game where children attempt to disprove a mythical animal’s existence for the reward of a “godless $100 bill.” So far, to date, no campers have been able to disprove the existence of the mythical animal.
Activism was also a major topic of the event. Secular Coalition for America presented a policy guide at their kiosk to help the secular community organize politically. Diana Castillo, legislative manager of Secular Coalition for America, spoke to students about how to contact congressional representatives and participate in grassroots lobbying. Some main issues Secular Coalition lobbies for include: prevention of federal funding for private school vouchers, providing humanist chaplains for military personnel, promoting stem cell research, and providing abortion clinic access.
Futurism was another key topic. The science and technology panel monitored by David Tamayo, President of Hispanic American Free Thinkers, focused on ethical questions society faces with increasingly smart alternative intelligence. Panelist Robert Oerter who is a physics professor at Mason is concerned with liability laws for machines that learn or machines that have the ability to write their own programs. Stephanie Guttormson, Operations Director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, is primarily concerned with equal rights for machines if they reach sentient levels. The panel concluded with questions raised about Moore’s law and how to define consciousness.
Krupp and Milea-Ciobanu were pleased with the outcome of the event. Milea-Ciobanu said this is SSA’s biggest accomplishment to date. While there are no current plans to host another convention, SSA officers are considering hosting a similar event biannually.
“We want to use this convention to connect secular groups, organizations, and individuals in the DC metro area, focusing on the large numbers of youth who crave to be a part of a community of people who share their religion-free lifestyle,” Milea-Ciobanu said.
“I said before the event: If we get at least a hundred [students], it will be a success. I’d absolutely call it a success,” Krupp said.