Tom Hopkins looks forward to joining more than 200 skeptics, humanists and atheists in Tacoma for a national conference that starts Thursday.
As an atheist, Hopkins said he’s accustomed to being in a “tiny minority.”
“It will be kind of nice going to something where we meet people who share common opinions,” said Hopkins, a retired composer and musician who lives in Pierce County.
The four-day Center for Inquiry Summit at the Hotel Murano will offer panels and lectures on topics that include unbelief, investigating extraordinary claims, and facing challenges to evolution and climate change.
Bill Nye the Science Guy will give the keynote address Friday night.
The CFI Summit is a joint conference of the Center for Inquiry and its affiliates, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism.
Hopkins, 65, knows of the committee’s work through its magazine, Skeptical Inquirer. But he’s never been to any of the group’s conferences. He likes everything on the program, especially the “Skeptics’ Mini Toolbox.”
“I like to approach strange claims from a scientific perspective,” said Hopkins, who will attend the conference with his wife. “The more solid data I can get on something the less likely I am to be misled by some of the bizarre claims out there.”
Hopkins said he’s not a “supernaturalist.” Using science, “everything appears to be explainable in purely physical terms,” Hopkins said. “I’m comfortable with being an atheist.”
The conference is a renewed effort to bring together humanists, atheists and skeptics.
It’s not just a continuing education event for secularists and atheists, said Michael De Dora of the Center for Inquiry. It’s also a chance for people to gather with others they know will be “friendly to their beliefs.”
And in addition to tackling issues, the conference will have its lighter moments. Like the costume party Saturday night featuring The Heathens band. It will be followed by a Houdini seance, paying tribute to the great escape artist and paranormal investigator.
The conference also aims to reach those new to humanism or skepticism, De Dora said.
It’s attracting local students, including a half-dozen from the Science and Inquiry Club at Tacoma Community College. Adviser David Straayer said the 10-member club draws atheists, agnostics, skeptics and free-thinkers.
Student funds for clubs will pay for most or all of the $50 registration fee for most of the students attending from the club, Straayer said.
“They’re excited over the speakers, especially Bill Nye,” said Straayer, a self-described secular humanist who teaches math and computer science. They also want to hear science author Leonard Mlodinow, co-author with Stephen Hawking of “The Grand Design.”
“They’re interested in the growing population, like ourselves, who are increasingly coming out of the closet and finding community with like-minded people,” he said.
De Dora, public policy director for the Center for Inquiry, describes himself as a secularist.
“You don’t need religion to be a good person,” De Dora said. “You can create a basis for ideas like justice, equality, respect and empathy by reasoning through different secular ideas.
“Many religious people will say if there’s no god and the holy books they value are no longer holy, there’s nowhere to look, there’s no absolute answers. The humanist says things are a little bit more complicated than that.”
The director of the major interfaith organization for Pierce County said he’s glad the conference is taking place in Tacoma, “an open-minded, welcoming kind of community.”
“I hope they continue to be inquisitive,” said the Rev. Chris Morton, executive director of Associated Ministries. “I encourage that of the religious community.
“I think God’s shoulders are broad enough to accept all sorts of inquiries from all sorts of angles,” Morton said. “If our faith is so thin we have to prove everyone else wrong so we can be right, I have to ask questions of that kind of faith.”
By some accounts, the number of atheists is on the rise. A 2012 poll by WIN-Gallup International reported the number of Americans who say they are atheists had risen from 1 percent in 2005 (the last time the poll was undertaken) to 5 percent, according to Religion News Service.
A Pew Research survey in 2008 reported the number of people with no religious affiliation in Washington at 23 percent, compared with 16 percent nationally.
The relatively high percentage of professed nonbelievers and unaffiliated in Washington and Oregon were reasons for having the conference in Tacoma, said Paul Fidalgo, CFI’s communications director.
De Dora said the conference marks a return to the West Coast, where CFI has active groups in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland.
De Dora said humanists and skeptics both value science, rational thinking and trying to be decent human beings. But there’s a tension between skeptics and “hardline atheism,” he said.
“I think a lot of the skeptics are kind of nervous about tying skepticism too closely with atheism,” De Dora said. “It could turn a lot of active skeptics away from skepticism.”
They worry that if they’re not atheists, they won’t be welcomed as part of the group, he said.
“The two are necessary allies,” De Dora said. “They provide unique, different and yet complementary ways of thinking about the world.”
IF YOU GO
WHO: CFI Summit.
WHEN: Thursday through Sunday.
WHAT: About 250 skeptics, humanists and atheists will explore topics including extraordinary claims, unbelief, and challenges to evolution and climate change.
WHERE: Hotel Murano, 1320 Broadway, Tacoma.
WHAT TO KNOW: Daily and four-day registration available.
MORE INFO: cfisummit.org.