Time is short, as I’m off to Guatemala this evening, but I wanted to post a brief report on the AAI meetings. I’ve had a look at Pharyngula, and of course P.Z. has been doing a good job reporting on the salient events.
It’s the first time I’ve been in a group of fellow atheists (and I haven’t detected one sign of stridency or militancy), and it gives one a warm supportive feeling. One of the functions of speaking at these meetings, even if one is preaching to the choir, is to give solidarity to the atheist community, many of whom feel isolated and alone.
Pharyngula reported on Robert Richert’s talk on his experiences in Vietnam, but what P.Z. didn’t mention is that Richert broke down in sobs at the end, while he was describing how one of his fellow soldiers bragged that he had been protected by God, while a Vietnamese woman wailed helplessly as the last blood pumped out of her infant son’s body (he had been hit by a grenade fragment). “Where was his miracle?” asked Richert, with tears streaming down his face. It was an enormously moving moment.
P.Z.’s talk was also good (it’s the first time I’ve heard him speak). Although he’s low key on the dais, his message is hard-hitting, and it was about how “design” can result from purely naturalistic processes. Lots of jabs at Dembski et al. P.Z. really shone in the long question session, where he handled the many questions with perspicacity and humor.
It was great to finally meet Russell Blackford, a nice guy who gave a great talk on anti-religion “blasphemy” laws that are passing in various places, including one under consideration by the UN.
I attended a talk (and had breakfast with) William Dav is, better known as “The Cigarette Smoking Man” of X-Files fame. Davis’s nominal topic was a response to Dawkins, who has criticized The X-Files for being inimical to reason (the supernatural explanation always won). Davis’s response basically boiled down to “Well, we all knew it was fiction,” which I think is inadequate. Davis also gave a bit of biography (I learned this morning that his X-Files cigarettes were herbal, and he had somebody else light them), and threw out a few bizarre statements, to wit: it might have been better not to fight against Hitler in WWII, and that perhaps democracy isn’t the best political system for the US (he feels that it’s inefficient at confronting our enormous global challenges).
Bill Maher’s award and talk on Friday were, as P. Z. noted, absolutely hilarious: Maher read from Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life,” making spontaneous sarcastic comments throughout. The guy is a hoot, despite his views on medicine (to which Richard did draw attention during his speech). I sat next to Maher at the ceremony; he has a very young partner with an Archaeopteryx fossil tattooed on her forearm
Yesterday was “science day,” organized by the Dawkins Foundation. Larry Krauss talked on cosmology. Richard called him “The Woody Allen of Cosmology,” and that’s absolutely accurate. The talk was fantastic; one of the best popular talks on physics I’ve ever heard. Krauss is a riveting and hilarious speaker, who leavens his physics with plenty of bon mots (and, in this case, attacks on creationism). I was a bit disappointed in Carolyn Porco’s talk, as I expected her to discuss her work on planet imaging. Instead, she talked about the compatibility of science and faith (she appears to be a bit of an accommodationist), and left the images and science to the very end. But do look at the website for some stunning pictures of Saturn.
Dan Dennett talked about interviews with active priests and ministers who are atheists, and also mounted a hilarious attack on theologians like Karen Armstrong, who mouth pious nonsense like, “God is the God behind God.” Dennett calls this kind of language a “deepity”: a statement that has two meanings, one of which is true but superficial, the other which sounds profound but is meaningless. His exemplar of a deepity is the statement “Love is just a word.” True, it’s a word like “cheeseburger,” but the supposed deeper sense is wrong: love is an emotion, a feeling, a condition, and not just a word in the dictionary. He gave several examples of other deepities from academic theologians; when you see these things laid out — ripped from their texts — in a Powerpoint slide, they make you realize how truly fatuous are the lucubrations of people like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught. Sarcasm will be the best weapon against this stuff.
I think my talk on the evidence for evolution went well, but I’ll let others be the judge of that. Annoyingly, I was slated for a book-signing, and somebody forgot to order my book!! Anybody who wants an autographed copy should feel free to order the book on Amazon, send it to me (with return postage please!), and I’ll sign it and send it back.
Finally, Richard read from the last chapter of The Greatest Show on Earth, which is an exegesis of the famous last paragraph of The Origin.
Eugenie Scott, director of The National Center for Science Education, is speaking in an hour, and I’ll go to her talk (I may report on it later this evening) and take off for LAX.
This is written in haste, in a hotel lobby, so I apologize for any infelicities of grammar, misspellings, and the like.