Okay, here's my write up of the conference I spent last weekend at:
The first day (Friday) mostly consisted of a seminar on how to run a student group. Some of the material was fairly obvious, but there were some interesting ideas in there, and we also got time just to talk with people from other groups, which was cool, especially because there were six people there from the University of Minesota's group, which is quite large (the figure 160 people comes to mind, though I'm not quite sure on that one).
That night, we also got to hear Salman Rushdie read selections from his latest book. I tried reading The Satanic Verses in high school and found I couldn't make it through, but the selections he read were pretty good, it may of helped to have him reading them; I often suspect I don't read things in my head the way the authors originally thought them. I heard later that on the way home, a few students crossed paths with Rushdie, and one of them told him, "I loved your work in 'Bridget Jones' Diary'" (in which he makes a brief cameo). His response: "Finally, somebody takes me seriously."
Saturday was the bulk of the conference. Lots of speakers, including a panel discussion with people like Hemant Mehta and Rebecca Watson, titled "The Next Generation" or some such. It was nice to get to see them and other people I'd only had contact with online, like Alison Bates, the Secular Student Alliance's campus organizer (it was a sort of "Wow! They really exist!")
A large part of the conference was dedicated to the issue of how religion can be accomodated by nonbelievers. For example, there was a panel on humanistic takes on the Abrahamic religions. Rushdie was there to provide the perspective on Islam, and talked about how in India at the time he grew up, it was seen as perfectly natural for "Muslim" to be used as a cultural, not religious identifier. His father, for example, wasn't much of a believer, but took enough of an interest in the Qu'ran that he hoped to one day work out the original order of its different parts (apparently, the stream of thought jumps around wildly at times). There was also a very good speaker named Rabbi (yes, Rabbi) Sherwin Wine, a leader in the Humanistic Judaism movement. He was quite clear that he didn't believe in God, and viewed Judaism as a cultural marker. Also a very funny speaker, though I can't remember any of his jokes. Yet I did get some of the same sense of going overboard expressed by Rebecca and Hemant. I guess the benediction thing wasn't horrible, I was willing to take a "when in Rome" type attitude, but it does seem to be a symptom of trying to copy religious institutions without being careful to always think "is this something we ought to be copying?"
Anyway, it was all in all a good experience. Not sure I'd go again, not because it was really bad, but because it took so much out of me: getting up at 6:30, going to bed at 12, stuff like that. But I'm still glad I went once.