Holiday snaps: Kentucky

November 24, 2013 • 7:15 am

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.

Courtney tattoo 2

On her left arm was a magnificent quartet of Darwin’s finches. I hope Carl Zimmer puts these in his gallery of science tattoos.

Courtney tattoo

Another student, Evan, had a fancy tattoo with both a tree of life and DNA:

Evan tattoo

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:

P1040829 (1)

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:

Starnes Ben

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:

Starnes inside

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:

S&P holders

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.

Family tombstone

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:

Marker 1

Marker 2

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.


78 thoughts on “Holiday snaps: Kentucky

  1. @Ben Shelby… I’m looking forward to hearing your conversion story!

    And… Excellent photos, especially of the Scopes grave and cemetery.

    1. Although the diagram in the Origin is formally a phylogeny, Darwin’s purpose was to illustrate “character divergence”, now “character displacement”, and the way in which older series of adaptive radiations are superseded by subsequent ones to produce, for lack of a better term, taxonomic overlays. One marked characteristic of the diagram which, to my knowledge, has never been commented, is that divergence of splitting lines is rapid at first and later (except at the end points) these bend almost vertical, i.e., there is little additional evolution. Shades of Punctuated Equilibria. An earlier version of the diagram is given in Darwin’s Big Species Book differs greatly, although it was apparently drawn just a little more than a year before the Origin was published. Obviously, Darwin was developing new ideas right up until the last.

    2. Speaking of the Origin, today is the 154th anniversary of its publication. I’m a little surprised that no one has mentioned that yet.

      So, “Happy Anniversary” Origin, explaining the diversity of life (and incidentally annoying creationists) for seven score and fourteen!

    1. It’s the Confederate battle flag, but was never the flag of the Confederacy. And though many in Kentucky fought for the Confederacy, the state itself never left the Union.

  2. Two comments:

    1. First, I find it hard to accept the Confederate flag as a marker of southern pride. The southern 1% of the day started the war in order to ensure the survival of slavery. That’s it. Period. I hate to play the Nazi card, but to me it would be analogous to the Germans flying the Nazi flag as a symbol of German pride. Some things simply should not be redefined.

    2. I did not know that Scopes became a geologist. Excellent!

    1. Abraham Lincoln speaking during an election debate on September 18, 1858, in Illinois (i.e. he was not playing to a Southern audience):
      “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

      1. Well, he was playing to a mixed audience. The speech was in Charleston, which had slavery sympathies. Downstate Illinois is pretty darn close to Kentucky and Missouri, if you look at a map.

    2. Abraham Lincoln speaking at his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861:
      “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that—
      ‘I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.’
      Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:
      ‘Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.’
      I now reiterate these sentiments, and in doing so I only press upon the public attention the most conclusive evidence of which the case is susceptible that the property, peace, and security of no section are to be in any wise endangered by the now incoming Administration.”
      It would seem that the history taught to many of us in school was incorrect. Abraham Lincoln had some good things to say also. One of these is: “History is not history unless it is the truth” [cited by Wm. H. Herndon. 1888. Herndon’s Lincoln, vol. 3. p. 437].

  3. On the Stars ‘n’ Bars. It is interesting that Kentucky flies the Confederate flag today when during the Civil War they, like Missouri, or a border state that was split pretty close to down the middle. One of my great uncles, in fact, was a member of the United States cavalry from Kentucky (a Union outfit). His union supporting family continued to live in Kentucky throughout the war, and he apparently felt safe enough to visit them on occasion. I don’t know whether he wore his union uniform during these visits or not but I would suspect that he did not. I’m not sure he would wear a union uniform in Kentucky (and some of our other states) today. His brother, my great-grandfather, fought with the Union cavalry outfit from Missouri, another border state. Both of them had many friends and some family members who fought for the Confederacy.

    I am making you and the Scopes headstone one of my screen pictures along with a couple hundred mammals. I figure he would be happy with them.

    1. “…Kentucky flies the Confederate flag…”

      I don’t think it is the State of Kentucky flying the flag, just some of the local neo-confederate yokels.

      I think you need to go further south before you find the stars and bars as part of an actual state flag (Mississippi).

      1. I did think of that, but it only makes sense on a piece of paper. So it seems unlikely. Easy enough to find out, if someone just send in the back side of sign! 😀

          1. Thought they were two separate signs, thanks. In that case, should have been (Over.) or something. I fault the sign designer.

    1. I also wondered why it said “Over,” until I saw the 2nd side of the plaque. Even so, I think the ending message is appropriate still: “Scopes died, 1970. Over.”

    2. It’s quite obvious. The wifi is not the first wireless application used in this cemetery. Somewhere else will be another board that concludes with ‘Out’ that finishes the conversation.

  4. Everywhere Jerry goes, there always seems to be attractive young ladies showing up. It’s gotta be the boots! (Which I assume double as camouflage when deep in the Jesus loving cowboy territory…)

    You will get many arguments from supporters of the flag claiming the war had nothing to do with slavery and was merely about State’s rights, etc..
    Whether or not they really believe that excuse, I couldn’t tell you.

    1. The “State’s rights” claim is so bogus it is laughable. As if they never bother to think about what the wanted the states to have the right to do. As if a civil war would happen over the states’ right to build highways or collect taxes. As if there was some other “right” they wanted beyond the right to own people as slaves.

    2. Yes, the whole states’ rights thing is their way of dressing it up in a false nobility. In the end, they wanted to own people.

  5. L.o.v.e.l.y to view the students’ splendid / ! useful ! tattoos.

    Too, the grave: Awesome youthful adult John Scopes in 1925. And his teaching Truth from and in that area of the country as well !

    Young Scopes could have been influenced — to BE courageous / to DO the Right Thing — by Mr Harry T Burn from east Tennessee ( ! same part o’ the USA ! ) who, ALSO at the age of 24 AND just five years earlier in 1920, did the Right Thing.

    By his one vote turning the tie – tally within Tennessee’s legislature, Young Burn caused all of the nation’s adult female humans to be able to vote in the subsequent November’s presidential election.

    Find out what, stat after Mr Burn’s tie – breaking vote in that final – needed state’s legislature, happened to Mr Burn = = FROM his fellow legislators / colleagues, how so angered were these men that they chased him out of the chambers and up to an outside window ledge on the third level of the Tennessee Statehouse until the NEXT morning ‘fore the violence somewhat abated.

    B.r.a.v.e people. O.U.T. there in the 1920s.


  6. A well rounded weekend, is WJWD.

    Speaking of well rounded, “finkel” is a swedish slang term for moonshine. Curious connection. Which gets me to this, I see that both suggested derivations are german, and one with a jewish touch:

    A shortening of “finkeljochen”, over swedish slang [‘burglar’ slang language!] from jewish german “finkeln” (to cook) and “Jochen” from hebrew “jajin” (wine).

    [ ]

  7. Let’s not forget a bit of freethinking Kentucky history…

    The Bluegrass Blade was first published in Lexington Kentucky in 1886 by Charles Chilton Moore. His father was a slaveholder and he was a Christian minister until 1858. He became an atheist and edited the Bluegrass Blade until 1910.

  8. Sometime in the nineteen fifties a Rutgers
    history professor was visiting the U. of Kentucky. He
    was asked if he wanted to see their Confederacy Room in their library. He pointed out that more Kentuckyans fought for the Union than the Confederacy and asked if they also had a Union Room. Of course, they did not.

  9. I appreciate Evan’s commitment, but if the photo is not somehow reversed, his tattoo DNA is twisting the wrong way.

    1. Yeah, I noticed that a few days after I got the tattoo (which was July of this summer). The image (from a textbook) the artist copied from was correct in it’s handedness but he just switched it for some reason. I’ll be getting it corrected (hopefully for free) after the winter holidays when I’m less busy and have time to drive there.

  10. Like you, I was surprised a few days ago to learn that Scopes was still alive when we started college in the late 60’s. At that time, the Scopes trial seemed like ancient history. When Scopes died in 1970, and we were still undergrads, it was 45 years since the trial. Now, it’s almost 45yrs since he died, and some things from 1970 seem like yesterday.

  11. Non Yankee wants to know that what would have happened if the secessionist Confederate states had abolished slavery but maintained their Independence from a Federal United States?

    1. Counterfactual history is fun. What if Jefferson Davis had been born black? What if Georgia and Alabama had been desert? What if Gallifrey wasn’t destroyed but merely frozen in time and space like a painting?

      1. Yes, counterfactual history certainly can be tossed around. The only major work I’ve read on the US civil War was Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson. From what I can recall I didn’t really get the impression that Lincoln could have given a damn for the issue of slavery he was more interested in the territorial and political sovereignty of the USA. Blacks experienced some kind of liberation while the Federal government turned it’s back on the Jim Crow laws for over a century.

        1. “Battle Cry of Freedom” is a good book, but it’s broad strokes. Lincoln was opposed to slavery his entire adult life, and though his official policy (especially during his first term) was to preserve the Union, there’s little doubt he had a mind to end slavery. Plus, were he not killed, it’s not unreasonable to think that Reconstruction could have unfolded very differently than it did.

          1. I fail to see the distinction here. What was threatening the Union that it needed Lincoln’s effort to preserve it? Lincolncare? High taxes? No, it was the issue of slavery. It was only because of slavery that there was any sense in which the union was in trouble.

    2. I think you would first have to posit a reason that they would have seceded without slavery. Although the southern and northern states had numerous areas of disagreement — such as tariffs, internal improvements, territorial expansion — they all came back to southern concern about the preservation of slavery and “planter culture”. At the end of the day, when Lincoln was elected, and the states started to secede, it was made clear in the Secession Conventions that THE only concern was the preservation of slavery. So without slavery, why would the southern states have seceded? To preserve their theoretical right to own slaves?

    1. 😉

      My daughter attended Memorial University of Newfoundland for her undergraduate degree and was screeched in! Interesting people, Newfies!

  12. Great tattoos!

    Also, frickin’ Kentucky Confederate flags– they didn’t even officially secede. As a Southerner myself I figure that only in states that succeeded at seceding should racists and wannabe traitors fly their colors.

  13. Impressive travelogue. Just the photos I would really want to see !

    Yes, we all want to hear detail from Ben on his abandoning religion. Conversion stories go a long way to formulating and understanding of how religious thought-processes work. What I really want to know is, “Were their other, more generalised realisations about the nature of reality that preceded losing religion? Was there a critical pathway?” (I suspect that religion is the logical outcome of false fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality)

    Perhaps Ben would have put-on new pants, socks and a white shirt is he knew he was going to be studied in countries thousands of miles away! C’mon, Ben, you’re up next. We are waiting on your words!

    I suppose that one day Scopes grave will be a significant tourist destination. The religious folks of Paducah might be surprised to hear that one day they will all end-up on the wrong side of history; as the baddies, and not the goodies. The thought alone should be enough to scare-up a few conversions!

    Cannot see clearly but what is beside the word ‘Fiction’ on the back of the Ben Zingrone’s car?

    Nothing about that charming, seductive accent of the region. Sounds cool to us.

    What great conviction and great courage for Carl and Courtney to declare understanding in tats.

    1. Bill Zingrone.

      A Richard Dawkins Foundation plaque, a Darwin fish, and … then my eyesight gives out too.

      1. If you click on the image you can enlarge it.

        If that isn’t enough: The two under the Fiction sticker says: “SCIENCE flies you to the Moon RELIGION flies you into Buildings….” and “Everybody else’s GOD is IMAGINARY but not YOURS….”

        The one above the Richard Dawkins Foundation sticker says: “Everybody’s else’s religion is just MADE UP but not YOURS….”

        Hope that helps! 🙂

  14. Oh, I love Courtney and her Darwin’s Finches tattoo so much. I’ve looked at that same image many times and though, ‘what a great tattoo this would make’.

    Thumbs up.

    1. The image (from a textbook) I had the artist copy was correct in handedness, but he changed the direction for some reason. I’m hoping to get it fixed (for free) after winter break when things slow down. If it’s too complicated or not worth it. I’ll just say it’s Z-DNA lol (awesome idea from a poster above) which is a left-handed double helix.

      1. Yeah, not one person in a thousand will know the difference, and it can just be a conversation point with those few. Or you can say, “I wanted it to look right in the mirror, after all, I’m the one who sees it most”.

  15. Had I been your host, I would have told you that Murray is in the running for friendliest city every and we have even won before. Yeah, people are stupid and religious, but they also wave at you like you are their neighbor and would stop on the side of the highway you give you a ride or even give you cash money for gas to get home. If you think this is the south, as one poster claimed, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Takes trip down to no-where Mississippi, or to the Easterm Hill of Kentucky, there you will find another species of people. These morons also don’t think the flag means being racist necessarily. They think it’s some abstract southern pride thing. Many of them can be seen hanging with their black friends and “bumping” rap music. There are advantages and disadvantages to living here is the bottom line. Everyone knows your name, which means they will be super nice to you to your face, and then go talk about you to everyone else in the town. But, you are an outsider. They don’t know you. All they have for you is kindness unseen in many other parts of the country.
    This may have sounded a bit defensive, and perhaps by necessity, but I am not offended in the least. Again, I’m Landon Lockhart, Treasurer of the organization that brought you here, so you know I’m on your team. I am also a citizen of Murray. I was born here unlike many other member of our group. While ignorance here is rife, I think the social kindness is also rife. I do not attribute this to the abundance of religious thought in Murray, quote honestly, I blame it on innate human morality and, believe it or not, the lack of religious belief in this city. There are MANY closet atheists in Murray. Like I said, Murray is a town where you can’t say your an atheist because it is so small, everyone will know. If you fear everyone knowing, the obviously Murray isn’t the place for your big reveal. But, Murray is a university town. If I were to ballpark statistics for true religious belief in this city I’d say, 40% Baptist/CoC, 20%Catholic, and 10% other. This would leave approx, 30% as “nones,” at the very least.
    Nonetheless, I am super happy that you came and gave your lectures. They were very informative and I enjoyed being in attendance. I wish I would have came to the after party so I could discuss some things with you and argue our differences. I am a bit of a contrarian, so debate is scintillating.

  16. As one whose great-great grandfather was a slave in Georgia the history of the Civil War and its aftermath is very relevant today. The American south is still a scary place for me to today for it was the scene of the crime of my great -great grandfather’s enslavement. One only needs to read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass to understand the horror of the southern project and its quest for so-called self- government, at bottom it was a war to preserve slavery warranted by Christianity, and maintain a social, cultural, political and economic way of life. For me the confederate battle flag is not some quaint symbol of southern romantic nationalism, just like the man who displayed it in protest outside the White House, it represents a yearning for a return to a time that was doomed to fail. If you have ever visited Mount Rushmore in South Dakota or seen Stone Mountain in Georgia the larger than life meanings of those symbols and the history they are meant to convey are unavoidable. Jerry’s pictures of that flag and the sign in the window of that pickup truck are reminders of the benighted nature of that region of the country.

  17. Having seen (as a kid) direct evidence of the inconstant tensile strength of collagen in the sagging tattoos of old men, I’m not a big fan. But, if you must, it’s good to have a meaningful one.

    1. Weeping Willow Tree of Life?
      Sagging Sycamore Tree of Life?
      Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick of Life (Google this one)?

    2. I can appreciate cool designs, like those shown above. But it mystifies me that anyone would volunteer to be a canvas. I’m old enough to know how one’s views can change, to say nothing of what can become of the canvas.

  18. Once the semester wraps up here at MSU, I’ll work on writing a detailed description of my conversion story. It is quite intense and involves some pretty upsetting instances that occurred in my life. Thanks to those who are interested. I look forward to writing it. 🙂

  19. I did make it to both talks. Really enjoyed the experience. All I can think to say is “thank you” to the secular MSU groups, and especially Prof. Coyne for putting on this event. I feel extremely fortunate that this happened close enough to home, it was an easy drive to make.

    Just curious, were there any other out of towners there? I got the impression everyone was local.

    Also have to say, I was really impresed with the students. More than once I glanced around and got this warm hearted feeling that these bright kids are our future, and the future looks good.

    1. We had a few different sets of folks come down from Paducah each nite and from various outlying KY counties: a good mix overall of male/female, student/faculty, locals/out-of-towners. We were pleased to see nearly 150 each nite. There’s just a whole lot of questioners/non-believers still in the closet down here as our local boy Landon so eloquently pointed out in his response above. Its why we do it…and we still cant thank Jerry enough. He took 4 days out of his schedule to do two talks and travel. Between the talks, the two groups and the Bio Dept. the high flying Conf. flag, the “Grumpy Bible Thumping White People” sign, vandalized posters some with his eyes gouged out, the Evo tats, moonshine, the radio interview, BBQ from all corners, Scopes grave AND hearing the best impression of Ray Comfort this side of Down Under we hope we gave him a memorable trip.

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