A Black Skeptic’s Trip to the Southwest Secular Student Conference

By Darrin Johnson

My name is Darrin Johnson. I am an Atheist. I am also African-American. Over the last four years, I have made an effort to become more familiar with the various communities of non-believers. My latest attempt at this endeavor was to attend the Southwest Secular Student Conference, which was held September 25th through the 27th,  2015 at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Going into the Southwest Secular Student Conference (SWSS), I had only attended one secular-focused conference before: the Moving Social Justice conference (MSJ), which was organized primarily by a coalition of Black Secular groups from across the country. As a Black Atheist with a mind for social justice, the MSJ was exactly the kind of meeting of minds I had been looking for. And so, when I was recommended as a speaker for the SWSS by none other than prominent Social Justice activist and fellow Black Atheist-Humanist Sikivu Hutchinson, and was subsequently told by organizer Dan Pemberton that he did indeed intend to fulfill the conference’s title of being social justice focused, I jumped at the chance.

One of the aspects of the Secular community that is well-documented is the need for diversity. MSJ, being my first secular conference, definitely had this. One of the things I was looking to see at a conference that was aimed at the general Secular community was how diverse it would be in comparison. I was not expecting MSJ’s level of diversity, but I was still anxious to see how it would compare to the general lack of diversity I’ve seen in the Secular community.

Another aspect of the conference I was looking forward to seeing was how my message of support for Black Lives Matter and my talk about how secularism naturally leads to activism would be accepted. In my experience dealing with some members of non-believer groups online, a lot of my social justice advocacy and criticism of “New Atheism” and it’s being led by old, white men has been met with a lot of hostility. The mini-documentary I created, (Non-Believers of Color, which can be seen on my Youtube channel at the DarrinJohnsonNews channel), has had a lot of supportive commentary, but it has also attracted comments such as “race talk has no place in Atheism” and accusations of “race-baiting” and such. Most of those comments you won’t find in the comments section of the video, as I generally remove comments that I find pointless and not actual constructive criticism. Would I experience similar pushback at the SWSS?

The conference was three days long, but I was only able to attend for one day (the 26th). However, I spent all of that day not just doing my own obligations of giving a talk about secularism and activism, moderating a Black Lives Matter panel, and participating in a panel about grief in the secular community, but also listening to other speakers, networking, and learning about community organizing in how-to workshops.

I should take this chance to say that Dan Pemberton and his team of organizers definitely worked hard on this conference and did a great job of organizing even while experiencing multiple technical difficulties. I felt that they went out of their way to accommodate myself, the other speakers and the attendees as best as they could, and this level of management was very much appreciated. It showed that they cared. By the way, there is no disrespect intended by not naming Dan’s team members by name, but there were so many new people that I met that I’m having a hard time separating the names of the organizers and the non-organizers.

Was the conference diverse? More so than I was honestly expecting, but still overall predominately white. There was certainly diversity among the viewpoints of the attendees, as there were some people from different ethnic and racial communities as well as great representation from the LGBT community (and I very much regret not seeing any of the panels involving the LGBT community and secularism, as they happened on the days I didn’t attend). I have to give credit where it’s due, as Dan certainly made the effort to have the conference be as diverse as possible. I saw that some people he had invited to participate were not able to make it.

How was my message received? I am very happy to say that it was very well received. No one approached me with any negative comments, and in fact I experienced a lot of support from many of the attendees. It honestly helped to reinvigorate my drive for social justice, especially under the lens of secularism. I received great questions, no one tried to speak for me, there was no incident of “whitesplaining”, and I experienced none of the defensiveness that I often experience online. It was refreshing.

Best of all were the new people I met. I finally had the chance to meet Greta Christina, who I had heard a lot about and have read a lot of work from. She was great to talk to and I hope I can work with her in some capacity in the near future. I met Mashariki Lawson and Bakari Chavanu, who are part of the Black Humanists and Nonbelievers of Sacramento, a group that I didn’t know existed before I had met them. I am now looking forward to visiting them in Sacramento as well as possibly attending next year’s Secular Social Justice conference (the spiritual sequel to last year’s Moving Social Justice conference) with them. I met Roz Crosby-Hargrove, a Black Secular woman (I think she describes herself as agnostic) who is actually somewhat local to me. I could go on, but there were too many new people to mention.

I loved how I had the attention of my audience during my talk and the amount of feedback I received from it. The Black Lives Matter panel was not monolithic, as not all members of the panel agreed on the subject and the effectiveness of the movement. It made for a surprisingly back-and-forth dialogue which I was proud to have been able to moderate.

Then there was the grief panel that I was a member of. It was so deep that it had panel members and audience members in tears. It involved speaking of the taboo that is seeking therapy for emotional distress, how to deal with grief with truth rather than lying to make someone temporarily feel better, and even a panel member admitting, right there on stage, that they were living with a terminal illness. It was a very emotionally moving dialogue.

On a closing note, I also got to talk about how the passing of my mother was one of the catalysts for both my Atheism as well as my social justice activism. It was therapeutic to get to talk with an audience at length about this aspect of myself. I hope to get to do so more in the future.

I definitely hope to attend if this conference is held next year, even though I’m sorry to hear that Dan Pemberton is no longer involved with the organizing aspect of the Secular Student Alliance. I wish him nothing but good experiences in his future endeavors.

Next will be January’s Secular Social Justice Conference. Until then, there is always more social justice to be involved with. Onward and upward!




A Black Skeptic’s Trip to the Southwest Secular Student Conference

Atheist Characters and the Novel: White Nights, Black Paradise

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In mid-November, my new novel, White Nights, Black Paradise, on Peoples Temple and Jonestown will drop.  So who are the players in the book ?

If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the horror of seeing pictures of the 900-plus dead bodies of Peoples Temple church members, the majority of them African American, in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. You may also know that the Jonestown massacre was where the overused misnomer “drink the Kool-aid” originated. Less known and understood are the actual people of Peoples Temple church; their hopes, dreams, world views, and motivations for going to Jonestown. As the largest religious murder-suicide in American history, Jonestown still elicits a resounding “why”?

The characters in my novel are a cross-section—they’re queer, lesbian, bisexual, trans, straight, African American, Latino, multiracial, white, age/class diverse and all over the map in terms of religious belief. African American sisters Taryn and Hy Strayer anchor the story with their at times turbulent relationship. The book opens with the sisters’ transition to segregated San Francisco from the Midwest. As an atheist lesbian and straight agnostic, they’re attracted to Peoples Temple’s anti-racist ethos, secularism and seeming tolerance. Their diversity reflects the distinctive tenor of the church and forms the backbone of the novel’s mélange of voices. Each person joined the church, stayed with it, or left, for complex reasons that often reflected deep ambivalence and contradiction. For Black members, emigration to Jonestown embodied just another leg of the African Diaspora. Far from being brainwashed dupes, many of the members actively collaborated in the dream—and nightmare—of Jonestown.

The atheist—Taryn Strayer: “In third grade she learned the unreliability of the Lord. She called on him to annihilate the cackling, drooling pinheads who wanted to see her fuck up. What was the Lord God Almighty good for if he couldn’t pull off a small favor after a week’s worth of goodness from her?”

The seeker—Hy Strayer: “The people that are over there building Jonestown say you chop a tree down and it’s got milk and honey for sap. Prime minister, the cabinet, everybody over there in power’s black except for a few Indians who’re taking orders from us.”

The loyalist—Jess McPherson: “That girl’s mother gave up that right when she let her become a drug addict and run the streets all hours. No daddy. Thirteen and running the streets. Think that’s acceptable? That’s the case with most of these parentless kids before they came to Jonestown. If they weren’t here their asses would be dumped or left for dead in juvenile hall. This is the last hope for them to get their lives together.”

Jonestown Children

The journalist—Ida Lassiter: “Everywhere, the air changed with the faintest whiff, the hint, of a white woman. When it was crowded to overflowing Goldilocks couldn’t even dip a toe onto a train car north of the Mason-Dixon without a regiment of crackers overseeing every move, making sure no Negro man woman or child twitched, sneezed or batted an eye in her direction. Under the law Negresses could never be raped. And this kept white women safe in their kingdoms.”

The defector—Foster Sutcliffe: “There’s a succession plan. The whites get positioned over us plantation style, load up their offshore accounts and live off the interest until Fidel smuggles them into Cuba or Brezhnev gives Jim Jones the key to Ukraine.”

The doctor-publisher—Hampton Goodwin: “I can still hear the laughter of that first cracker who doubted I would make it through medical school. An Irishman. Naturalized citizen with god given rights as soon as he stepped foot here. Master of the split infinitive, could barely speak English but he knew he wasn’t a nigger and that’s all that mattered.”

The teacher-interrogator—Ernestine Markham: “The church is the people, not any one man. God gave me a purpose with this church. Gossip and innuendo, especially on the Temple, are going to be big hits when all people know about is black people and black organizations being in disarray.”

The white preacher—Jim Jones: “We see white people living up in the hills with serious capital and riches, and black people living in the ghettoes with barely a collective pot to piss in. The fascists want to tell ya’ll that you’re lazy but they’re in collusion with the Judeo Christian ‘God’.”

Marceline (Mabelean) Jones
Marceline (Mabelean) Jones

The enabler—Mother Mabelean Jones: “I’ve turned the other cheek like the righteous leaders, Gandhi, Reverend King, Martin Luther. Even when I saw our people bruised and beaten, witnessed hordes of disgraced members chewed up and spit out like rotten meat, a corner of me protested but said Yes.”

The writer-survivor—Devera Medeiros: “By the time the assassins were through they’d blasted out the roof of the plane. Devera could stand up and touch the clouds from her seat. She could see clear out over the trees, past the bowing rainforest, past the valley of the shadow of death to her people, eating each other alive in Memorex.”

Atheist Characters and the Novel: White Nights, Black Paradise

Secular Social Justice Conference 2016

Check out our Secular Social Justice Conference video

In a global climate in which the criminalization and economic disenfranchisement of people of color of all genders and sexualities has become more acute, what role can secular humanism play in communities of color in the U.S.? 

The 2016  Secular Social Justice conference will feature an incredible array of activists, organizers and educators from the secular and social justice communities.  The conference will be held January 30th and 31st at Rice University in Houston, Texas.  SSJ focuses on the lived experiences, cultural context, shared struggle and social history of secular humanist people of color and their allies.  The event will include panels on economic justice,  feminism(s) of color, LGBTQ atheists of color, African American Humanist traditions in hip hop, racial politics and the crisis of New Atheism and much more.

The conference is sponsored by the Black Skeptics Group, Houston Black Non-Believers, the American Humanist Association, CFI/African Americans for Humanism, The Humanists of Houston and AAA.

Confirmed speakers include:

Tickets and information are available at Eventbrite


Secular Social Justice Conference 2016