Julia Sweeney, the actress, and Steve Benson, the political cartoonist, got into a lively discussion Saturday in the lobby of a Scottsdale resort about the philosophy of humanism.
Benson, who like Sweeney is a speaker at this weekend’s Humanicon Southwest conference at the Chaparral Suites Hotel, initially described the nonbelievers as higher evolutionary forms than the "religious storm troopers of the right."
Sweeney, best known for her gender-challenged character "Pat" on "Saturday Night Live," quickly interjected that his definition may foster exactly the misconceptions that "people hate about humanists."
Benson tried again.
"A humanist is someone who is in touch with their overall place on . . . this bluegreen dot hurtling through space toward an inevitable extinction," the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist offered.
"See, I don’t think that’s going to be a way to get new members," Sweeney said, laughing.
Susan Sackett, a Scottsdale resident and founder of Humanicon Southwest 2004, provided a "nutshell" description: "It’s a philosophy of nonbelief in the supernatural with an emphasis on ethics and just treatment of our fellow human beings . . . to be the best possible person you can, not because of promises of a reward in an afterlife but because it’s the right thing to do."
The three-day conference, which Sackett said was the first of its type in the Valley, attracted 225 participants. Sackett described the turnout, which included attendees from as far as New York and New Jersey, as outstanding.
The symposium mingled presentations from university professors, scientists and celebrities — such as Sweeney who Saturday performed her one-woman show, "Letting Go of God" — along with panel discussions and a humanist film festival with offerings such as Monty Python’s "The Meaning of Life."
Sackett, president of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, said the goal is to hold a conference every year in the five-state area that includes Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada.