Here are a few shots from my visit to Murray State University, in Murray, Kentucky. The visit was sponsored by two secular organizations, the Murray State Free-Thinkers Society and the Student Organization for Reason and Science, as well as the university’s Department of Biology.
The talks went pretty well, I think: the turnout was about 140 for each of the two, and the attendees donated about $130 to Doctors Without Borders (I also donated my honorarium to that organization). It was lots of fun, but one could sense that the nonbelievers in that town felt pretty beleaguered by their hyper-religious surroundings. But the secular students were a cheerful and optimistic lot, and some of the post-talk comments I got from the audience suggested that the area harbors a lot of closeted heathens—typical of the South.
Here’s what I saw on the way into Murray from the Paducah airport, an hour away:
For you non-Yanks, that’s the Confederate flag, the official standard of the South during the Civil War. Since the war was largely about slavery, it’s seen by many as a symbol of continuing racism, and there is always controversy about whether it should be flown or displayed. But a fair number of Southerners are proud of the flag—perhaps they see it more as a sign of independence than of racism.
After my second talk, we repaired to the house of a local retired professor, who laid on a sumptuous buffet of barbecue (pulled pork and ribs), corn pudding, baked beans, salad, homemade bread and Italian sauce for dipping (the last two made by Bill Zingrone, faculty advisor to both secular groups) and the obligatory but superfluous vegetables. Oh, and there was also moonshine: privately distilled hard liquor.
It came, as is traditional for moonshine, in Mason jars. This brand is called “apple pie,” as they add apple juice and spices to cut the alcohol (most moonshine, also called “white lightning,” is simply white raw whisky). This brand was delicious: it went down easily but had the kick of a mule:
When I was leaving at the end of the night, I noticed that one of the secular students, Courtney, was wearing a cat dress, which, I learned, she’d worn just for my talk:
When I admired her frock, the students told her to show me her tattoos, and she obliged. On her right arm was this tree of life, which you’ll recognize as coming from Darwin’s notebooks (which also has the words “I think” written above it). It was the first representation in history of a branching phylogeny. The tattoo also has Darwin’s signature below.
On her left arm was a magnificent quartet of Darwin’s finches. I hope Carl Zimmer puts these in his gallery of science tattoos.
Another student, Evan, had a fancy tattoo with both a tree of life and DNA:
Here’s Bill Zingrone with his car, sporting a host of science-y and atheist bumper stickers. I’m amazed that they weren’t defaced, but he says that he’s often stopped by people who admire the stickers—more signs of closet atheists. (Bill has his own secular website, which, like mine, covers a diversity of topics; it’s called “Dispatches from the New Enlightenment.“)
This is a recipe for an altercation in Kentucky:
The next day, on the way to the airport, we repaired to Starnes Restaurant, perhaps the most famous BBQ joint in Paducah. Here, in front of the place, is my student host, Ben Shelby. Ben, who used to be a homeschooled and devout Baptist, has an amazing “conversion” story that perhaps he’ll recount in these pages:
The place looks pretty spiffy from the outside for a BBQ joint, as they’re traditionally grubby and plain (after all, the food is what matters), but on the inside it’s closer to the mean:
Lunch: pulled pork BBQ sandwich, potato salad, vinegar slaw, and, of course, sweet tea:
For dessert there was a choice of homemade pies. It was hard to choose between the house specialties: chocolate cream, coconut meringue, pecan, and peanut butter pie, but I chose the last since you get it only rarely outside the South. It’s a wonderful pie, and should be available more widely (try one of the many recipes online):
Each table had a really cute salt-and-pepper holder in which old parts were formed into the shape of a pig. I believe the pig’s body is a drawer pull or a doorknob:
The downtown section of Paducah, next to the Ohio River, is actually quite quaint and artsy, and I spotted several old stores that indicated that the area once had a Jewish presence. Here’s one indicator, and nearby was an old store named “Cohen’s”.
After lunch we set out for my one remaining goal: to find the grave of John T. Scopes, of “Scopes Monkey Trial” fame. Scopes was from Paducah, and is buried there in Oak Grove Cemetery. After a half-hour search (it’s a large cemetery!), Ben spotted it. Scopes and his wife are buried next to his parents.
The obligatory vanity photo. I suppose my smile was out of place, but I was happy to have found the site:
“A man of courage.” The trial was in 1925, so he was only 24 years old at the time. It’s amazing to realize that he was still alive when I was in my twenties. I should have sought him out to shake his hand.
Here’s Scopes as a young man. After the trial he went on to get a graduate degree in geology (from the University of Chicago!), and spent the rest of his life working for oil and gas companies:
Outside the cemetery is a marker commemorating its most famous resident:
Finally, as we headed to the airport, I noticed that the cemetery had—FREE WIRELESS! Why on earth this is necessary baffles me, but Ben pointed out that it could be used to test the possibility of an afterlife. Simply bury someone with their laptop and see if they email from the grave:
So it’s farewell to Kentucky. I had a great trip and am most grateful to my sponsors and my hosts, especially Ben and Bill, for their hospitality and the hard work they did to prepare for my visit, which included replacing the defaced posters.