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World-Class Speakers
Highlight FI's L.A. Conference

by Tom Flynn


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 16, Number 3.


Near-record attendance resulted when Free Inquiry presented an unprecedented lineup of speakers at its twentieth anniversary conference, "Imagine There's No Heaven: A Future Without Religion" in Los Angeles, California, on May 4-7.

Council for Secular Humanism chairman and Free Inquiry editor-in-chief Paul Kurtz opened the proceedings, which attracted about 500 participants from across the United States and internationally. Kurtz reflected on Free Inquiry's 20 years of publication and the many issues of global importance in which it has been involved.

Longtime U.S. Senator, now peace activist, Alan Cranston was the keynote speaker, reminding listeners that despite the end of the Cold War the menace of thermonuclear weapons remains real. If anything, Cranston pointed out, the USSR's devolution into cash-strapped contending states, several of which hold nuclear weapons on their territories, make the nuclear equation more unstable than ever before.

Evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson accepted the Morris Forkosch Award for best humanist book of the year for his magisterial Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, a clarion call for all knowledge to be re-united under the banner of scientific inquiry. In an illustrated lecture he demonstrated how once-separate areas of inquiry in biology, politics, and the social sciences are revealing unexpected parallels, showing promise to "jump together" in a unified, more productive approach to the organizing of human knowledge.

Author-feminist (and Free Inquiry Senior Editor) Taslima Nasrin has been exiled from her native Bangladesh because of an Islamic fatwa triggered by her uncompromising defense of human rights and women's equality. Ms. Nasrin accepted an award from the Council for Secular Humanism and addressed an overflow luncheon crowd on "Confronting Religious Extremism."

In a riveting plenary session, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Jared Diamond, SETI pioneer Jill Tarter (inspiration for the character played by Jodie Foster in the film Contact), and fuzzy logic theorist Bart Kosko gave mind-stretching presentations on "Scientific Revolutions of the Twenty-First Century."

In a presentation that maximized our access (through Center for Inquiry West) to the L.A. entertainment community, panelists including sitcom actor-director Peter Bonerz and actor William B. Davis, the atheist and skeptic who plays the Cigarette-Smoking Man on The X-Files, probed "Reason and Superstition in the Entertainment Industry."

With its large Iranian expatriate community, Los Angeles has long been a center for activism against Islamic fundamentalism. Speakers on this topic included Taslima Nasrin; Ibn Warraq, author of Why I Am Not a Muslim; and Parvin Darabi, who co-wrote Rage Against the Veil to commemorate her sister, Iranian dissident Homa Darabi, who immolated herself in 1994 to protest the status of women under fundamentalist Islam.

Other sessions featured International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) director Babu Gogineni and Norwegian humanist activist Levi Fragell on international humanism, a controversial presentation on sexuality featuring Free Inquiry Senior Editor Vern Bullough and radio sex therapist Suzy Block; and a special appearance by author-entertainer Steve Allen, defending his recent calls for a return to decency in American entertainment.

Other presentations explored campus freethought, the future of Mormonism, threats to the First Amendment, and more. Entertainment included a live appearance by Sixties icon and satirist Paul Krassner, whose standup routine in the Wyndham Hotel LAX penthouse was recorded for his forthcoming album.

Humanists from around the world attended an IHEU board of directors meeting, held just before the conference at the Center for Inquiry West. In addition, the conference provided an occasion for meetings of the Campus Freethought Alliance, Young Freethinkers Alliance, First Amendment Task Force, Alliance of Secular Humanist Societies, and the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Societies.

As befits the nation's media capital, the Los Angeles conference was "media-active" in every way. This was the first Free Inquiry conference for which attendees could register on line at our Web site, www.secularhumanism.org.  In addition, several television crews recorded part or all of the conference proceedings, and conference audiotapes were available onsite within 90 minutes of the end of each session. Finally, the largest book and merchandise room ever assembled at a Free Inquiry conference offered an unprecedented selection of books, tapes, CD-ROMs, freethought garments, bumper stickers, and other tough-to-find items.

Free Inquiry's next conference has been tentatively scheduled for October, 2001. The conference city and theme will be announced shortly. 


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