Yesterday was the first full day of the meeting (Imagine No Religion 4; schedule here), and I have to say that this is among the top secular meetings I’ve ever attended. The talks are good, the people are friendly, and, of critical importance, they serve great noms.
The meeting began early, with a continental breakfast (a good one; they had black raspberry smoothies!) at 7:45, followed by the opening remarks, and then the first talk, by Hemant “The Friendly Atheist” Mehta, at 9.
As we filed into the lecture hall with our plates (there are tables), Dan Barker, a talented pianist, was playing on an electronic piano (or whatever you call those things). You may know that Barker, co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, is a talented musician who made a partial living, when he was a Christian preacher, by writing Christian songs. He still gets royalties from those songs. Here’s a photo of him tickling the ivories, but he was shortly joined by a saxophonist and they did an awesome jazz duet of “Imagine No Religion”. I have a video of that which I’ll post when I return to Chicago. It was a great start to the day:
During the announcements, Bill Ligertwood, the main organizer, told us that all the speakers would be getting hand-knitted Flying Spaghetti Monsters as a gift, along with an INR4 coffee cup. I was excited, for the woman knitting them was sitting right behind me, and I could see them (she spends all day at the conference producing them, and you can also buy one for $20 Canadian). The folks sitting next to me bought one, but I’ll get one free, maybe with extra meatballs! Here’s one:
I’d never heard Hemant talk before, but he was a lively and engaging speaker. His topic was how atheist don’t fact-check their claims nearly as closely as they should, especially being skeptics. He gave several humorous examples, including fabricated but widely-quoted statements from Jefferson and Hitchens (e.g., Islamophobia is a “word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons”; a quote used by Sam Harris in his interview of Ayaan Hirsi Ali). His lesson also included statistics that are widely bruited about, including that 1% of the prison population are atheists (it’s actually less than that—0.2% as I recall). Hemant follows up many dubious claims by extensive emailing and phone-calling, but I wonder how, with his job as a high school teacher, he finds the time! I vowed to do such checks more often, but I think I’ve done a fairly good job checking claims, and corrected myself where I was wrong. It’s simply impossible, at least with my day job, to follow up everyone’s quote and claim by sending emails or calling everyone, but I always issue retractions if something proves incorrect. But Hemant put the fear of Ceiling Cat into me.
Here’s Hemant speaking (picture quality will be poor as I was seated far from the podium and flashes were useless; this is hand-held at low shutter speed sans flash):
At 10 a.m. Wanda Morris, CEO of Dying with Dignity Canada, gave a moving and passionate talk about her work, illustrated with some examples of Canadians who, though terminally ill and in pain, weren’t allowed to die by their government. She outlined the proposal she has before parliament about allowing assisted suicide, and noted that it may well pass in at least Quebec, and then perhaps spread to the rest of Canada.
A measure like that was very narrowly defeated in Massachusetts recently, although initially 70% of the residents were in favor of it. But then the Roman Catholic church—with its big coffers—and other religious organizations put on a big anti-euthanasia campaign, and the measure was defeated 51%-49%. It is unconscionable, and barbaric, that these religious organizations would rather see someone who wants a peaceful death suffer an agonizing one. The Catholics think that suffering is somehow redemptive, but they have no right to force their religious sentiments on the rest of us. Morris showed several misleading (indeed, lying) commercials put out by the anti-euthanasia groups. Here she is:
Jerry DeWitt, the ex-pentacostal preacher from Louisiana and author of the book Hope after Faith, is a sort of hero to me. After publicly leaving the faith (persuaded to do so by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker asking him to appear on their FFRF radio show, where he “outed himself”), he was divorced by his wife, shunned by his friends, and given death threats. Yet he vowed not to buckle under, and to remain in the small Louisiana town where he had once preached. If you’ve seen him on YouTube, you’ll know that his talks are real stemwinders, delivered in a Southern-preacher style cadence and occasionally punctuated with his trademark “Can I get a Darwin?” He gave a moving talk about being honest with oneself, and how that conferred on him a kind of freedom—a freedom to love himself and not depend on the approbation of others. (It was almost Buddhist in some places.)
I didn’t take a picture of DeWitt because I filmed him, especially the moving parts that he emoted so forcefully; I’ll put that up as a video when I return to Chicago. DeWitt also, when asked in the Q&A, admitted that he sometimes still speaks in tongues, but only when excited and alone, and wanting to still the “monkey chatter” in his head. This is exactly what Dan Barker told me at dinner the other night: Dan, too, will speak in tongues as he used to do as a preacher, but only when alone. Both he and DeWitt consider it as a form of meditation, and highly effective—something I found fascinating.
Next the philosopher Chris DiCarlo, another engaging speaker, gave a lecture of what people mean by “fairness,” how it’s instantiated in humans and animals (he showed the famous capuchin “give me a grape clip“; do watch it if you haven’t seen it) and offered some proposals for improving fairness, including when driving your car in rush hour. Here’s DiCarlo, who ran our panel on free will the other night:
Up next was Annie Laurie Gaylor, who talked about the Freedom from Religion Foundation, how they came to be, and some recent court cases, including the disasterious Supreme Court decision allowing prayer in Greece, New York. But she also described some recent FFRF victories, including a no-prayer-before-town-meetings case they won in California, which was brought under state law and so is not subject to the Supreme Court decision.
With her calm and unflappable demeanor, Annie Laurie is a great spokesperson for what I consider the best secular organization in North America (I think it’s also the largest):
I spoke last, on in the incompatibility of science and religion, and I think it went okay, though of course I couldn’t take a picture. It wasn’t filmed, as they’re not doing that here. I referred to Lawrence Krauss as “Larry Krauss” at one point, and he was in the audience. Afterwards he let it drop that he’d prefer to be known as “Lawrence” (I thought I’d heard people call him “Larry” before), so be aware of that.
I got Lawrence, as well as Dan and Annie Laurie, to sign my Baihu-pawprinted and Kelly Houle-illuminated copy of WEIT, which now has autographs of many major secularists and scientists, including Steve Weinberg, Janna Levin, Richard Dawkins, Steve Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein, Sean Carroll, Dan Dennett, and so on. It will be auctioned off this summer or fall on eBay, with the proceeds going to Doctors Without Borders. Believe me, this is an awesome book, which I’d dearly love to keep ,but it will help sick people more than me. The illunations by Kelly Houle, including gold leaf and some natural-history drawings, are spectacular.
Dinner was buffet style, and I ate with Carolyn Porco, whom I’d never met (we both gave talks at the AAI convention in 2009). Porco is of course a well known astronomer and expert on planetary imaging, which she’ll talk about today. She’s planning on writing a lavishly illustrated book, along the lines of Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, but hasn’t yet found the time. (Publishers: be alert; this will be a good one.) I found her very likeable, without a touch of pomposity, and she has the no-nonsense demeanor, as she described herself, of a “hot-blooded Italian from New York.” I’m looking forward to her talk.
After dinner there was a screening of the movie “The Unbelievers” with commentary afterward by Krauss and the filmmakers Gus and Luke Holwerda. The film was very watchable for secularists, but, given its hagiography of atheism, I wonder how well it will go down with the religulous. Sadly, I was so exhausted that I repaired to bed after the movie, so can’t report on the Q&A. Krauss is great in these informal discussions, and I’m sorry I missed it.
Today’s speakers include Darrell Ray (“Sex and secularism: What 10,000 atheists told us about their sex lives after religion”), Dan Barker (topic not revealed yet), Porco (“A decade of Saturn: The search for meaning”), Christine Shellska (“Rhetoric as a tool to advance skepticism”), Margaret Downey (“Every freethinker has a story”), and Seth Andrews (“The copycats: How religion steals the best ideas.”) The formal end of the conference is the keynote talk by Genie Scott, “Why do people reject good science? Reflections on the evolution and climate science wars.”
I fly out tomorrow morning and hope I won’t encounter problems with the security lines at Calgary.