Kamloops: Day 3

May 25, 2014 • 5:36 am

Besides the free-will discussion a week ago Friday, in which several of us participated (Lawrence Krauss and I were the scientists, Ish Haji and Chris diCarlo the philosophers), the Imagine No Religion 4 conference in Kamloops included  two full days of talks, interspersed with dinners and social events.

I’ve already reported on the first full day of talks, and here’s a brief rundown of the second, a week ago today. I’ve included two videos since none were made of the talks—a great shame given their uniformly high quality. (I’ve been told that the free-will panel is on video on YouTube, but I haven’t looked.)

First, here’s the main organizer and emcee, the amiable and estimable Bil Ligertwood. I thank Bill and the sponsors, the Kamloops Center for Rational Thought, Humanist Canada, and the BC Humanist Association, for putting on such a fine meeting and treating the speakers so well. Seriously, this was a great conference, with every talk being good (I’m excepting mine from this judgement)—a rarity.


In his “talk,” Dan  Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and ex-pentecostal preacher, first played some songs on a synthesizer (I think that’s what they’re still called), and then recounted his days telling people the Good News. As he said, “I was the guy you wouldn’t want to sit next to on the bus,” and then mimicked how he used to tell his captive seatmates about Jesus.

Dan is an accomplished musician who made a name for himself writing Christian music, for which he still receives royalties. I had the privilege of sitting next to Dan, Jerry DeWitt (another ex-Pentecostal preacher) and Seth Andrews (an ex-Christian radio jock) at dinner, and listening them trade stories of the bad old days when they were believers. It was quite enlightening, especially to hear them ask each other questions and find similarities in their (ex) beliefs.


As we walked in to the first full day of talks on Saturday, Dan was sitting at the keyboard playing songs, and was then joined by saxophonist Dennis Rudinak for a duet of the John Lennon song, “Imagine.” I made a video, though I’m an amateur at this.

Carolyn Porco, head of the imaging team for the Cassini mission to Saturn, gave what I thought was the best talk of the conference. It was loaded with science, fantastic images, and wound up with her team’s re-enactment of Sagan’s “pale blue dot” picture: a photo of a tiny, distant Earth taken beside Saturn’s rings. Her closing, in which she mused about this representing the conjunction of Galileo and Darwin (showing our evolved brains’ abilities to not only see Saturn but get there) was absolutely lyrical. She got a standing ovation.


Darrell Ray gave a hilarious but enlightening talk (including a picture of himself en déshabillé) about a survey he and Amanda Brown took about the sex lives of religionists and nonbelievers. Hemant Mehta summarized the results here, and the salacious details are summarized in Ray’s book, Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality. Ray’s talk was leavened with a few joke slides, one of which is below: “Why do you masturbate?” Click it and read it.


Christine Shellska, a grad student in communications at Calgary, gave a nice talk on the varieties of rhetoric that can be used to advance skepticism, and some of the rhetorical pitfalls we should watch for. Her presentation was followed by a ukelele song played by her friend.


Margaret Downey, founder and president of The Freethought Society, urged atheists to tell their stories, and demonstrated how to do it in a superb recounting of her journey to atheism. Illustrated with pictures of her life, the talk described her dysfunctional childhood, her near-fatal bout with asthma (in which three nuns made an unwanted appearance), and her distressing encounters with religionists when she was an interior decorator. It was a moving story, and I told her so.

Note that she’s wearing her Flying Spaghetti Monster. Margaret has sewing skillz, and quickly repaired to her room before her talk to fasten the FSM to her dress.


Many of you have listened to Seth Andrews, who has an immensely popular podcast as “The Thinking Atheist.” Seth’s talk was called “How religion steals the best ideas,” and showed all the ways that the faithful rip off secular tropes from popular culture and religionize them. The part on Christian bands was particularly amusing. But there was a serious lesson, too: Christians do this so their kids can have what they see as desirable cultural experiences, but ones that have been infused with Christianity to keep the kids in the fold, insulated from the surrounding culture.


Here are two of the many ripoffs Seth mentioned. I’ve shown this one before: a copy of the Starbucks logo, transformed into a Jesus shirt:


And the famous Christian candy, Testamints!


 I’ve already posted on Eugenie Scott’s keynote address at Kamloops, which was good, though I disagreed with her stand on theistic evolution, a stand that she discussed in the Q&A.


After the talks there was a dinner for the speakers, and we could order anything we wanted from the Asian-fusion menu (I have to say that the conference was great for noms). I managed to take a photo of Jerry DeWitt talking to Dan Barker. DeWitt is a lovely guy—and a brave one. Having lost his parishoners, his wife, and nearly all his friends after giving up his Pentacostal ministry and confessing his atheism, he vowed to remain in the small Louisiana town where he lived. How he remains so friendly and cheerful despite the continuing rejection and disapprobation is a mystery to me.


I managed to take a video of part of DeWitt’s talk on Saturday, the part where he talks about leaving the faith with the help of “Bishop” Dan Barker and The Clergy Project.

As I said, this was one of the best atheist meetings I’ve attended, and although it was relatively small (about 200 attendees), the talks were uniformly good, it was well organized, the audience was smart and interactive, and the noms were great. I suppose some people found it hard to get to because it’s in Kamloops, in the middle of British Columbia, but next year’s meeting will be in the lovely (and accessible) city of Vancouver.

24 thoughts on “Kamloops: Day 3

  1. It was great to see Dr Coyne’s talk in person. I have been to all four Kamloops conferences and they have all been fantastic!
    I wanted to buy one of the crocheted FSM figures but I never found the lady who made them.

  2. I like Jerry DeWitt’s point — future generations will envy us. We are witnesses to, and even contributors to, the beginnings of a great and positive change in human thought. We admire those visionaries of earlier times who stuck their heads above the crowd and championed science over papal authority, and the universality of human rights over slavery. In the same way we, the New Atheists, will be praised for leading humanity out of a long, dark intellectual childhood. [Or so I would like to believe, and I won’t be around to find out.]

    1. I really liked that part too. I was recently thinking the same about where we are in history – how we wished we could meet certain long dead characters. We actually have a rich history we are living through right now & I sometimes think how generations in the future will look back at this time and admire it as well as condemn it.

      1. The optimist in me agrees. The pessimist remembers how the memory of Robert Green Ingersoll faded. (But I think my optimist is a bit stronger than my pessimist.)

  3. Dr. Coyne – So glad to hear that it was something so positive. We still have much to learn from each other. And being willing to listen and hear, even when we think we have it all figured out – is a welcome attribute. So thanks for this post and the collegiate tone it presents.

  4. “Dan was sitting at the keyboard playing songs, and was then joined by saxophonist for a duet of the John Lennon song, “Imagine No Religion.””

    It isn’t called ‘Imagine No Religion’. It’s called ‘Imagine’.

    It also contains the lyrics ‘Imagine no countries’ and ‘Imagine no possessions’. Not everyone thinks the ‘no religion’ part is the most instructive, or, indeed, desirable.

    As a matter of fact, Lennon denied the interpretation that atheists put on the song.

    1. Indeed! I was flummoxed and have changed the title, thanks. It does, however, besides saying “imagine no religion,” begin with this verse:

      Imagine there’s no heaven
      It’s easy if you try
      No hell below us
      Above us only sky
      Imagine all the people
      Living for today…

      I’d say the pernicious effects of religion are a dominant part of that song.

      1. Yes, I went to Christmas Church (Methodist) this year and the congregation sang “Imagine” as part of the service. The pastor explained that believers need to recognize the difference between beliefs and religion, and that often it is religion that divides people.

        1. I would agree that the pernicious effects of religion are a part of the song, but certainly not ‘a dominant part’. After all, you could just as easily say the pernicious effects of patriotism and capitalism are a dominant part of the song since he mentions them exactly the same number of times as religion. Atheists are, of course, amongst the stoutest defenders of both patriotism and capitalism.

          I think Lennon was a complete fraud in his attitude to religion. And he was certainly as loony as any religious nutter in his attitude to the ‘pernicious’ effects of religion, capitalism and patriotism. ‘Lie in bed for peace’? The arms manufacturers and patriots of the world were crapping themselves! I don’t think!

          And anyway, the B side of Imagine, Working Class Hero is a far better song:

          They keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
          And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
          But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.

          1. “Atheists are, of course, amongst the stoutest defenders of both patriotism and capitalism.”

            Wait, what…?

    1. Update….apparently there were TWO saxophonists on the weekend…..both played with Dan Barker ….Dennis on Saturday and David Ince on Sunday 🙂 in any case it was super to have musical artists present 🙂

  5. Excellent summary. Right now there is a posting on the CNN web site about a meeting in North Carolina called ‘Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt’. This was where atheists met to trade stories and advice about the atheist experience in the Deep South. It is sad to see how many people in this movement really feel they have to be careful about staying in the closet over their personal belief — or lack thereof.

  6. I like what Margaret did with her FSM, but, trying to think of what a guy could do with one besides hang it on a wall. Aha! If there was an actual FSM organization, a pair of those knitted things would make great epaulets for their leader’s uniform.

  7. Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be a fabulous speaker to invite for future conferences. I just finished her memoir (Infidel) and couldn’t put it down–her story is truly a triumph of reason over superstition.

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