Talks at the Ciudad de las Ideas

November 25, 2017 • 10:15 am

So far I haven’t said much about the talks at the Ciudad de las Ideas in Puebla, Mexico.  I’ll mention just a few of them here, but there were so many, and spread out over three days from about 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., that I didn’t hear even most of them. I’ll give just a short report on the highlights for me.

Here’s the venue which, I was told, seats over 5,000 people; it’s the local civic auditorium whose use was donated to the conference. I took this onstage while we did our “practice” (learning how the screens and timer worked). I think there were about 3,000 people during the big talks; there are two levels above the floor:

David Buss gave a good talk the first day on “Beyond strategies of human mating: The evolution of desire”. He reprised evolutionary-psychology view of human mating, described a lot of studies of differential selectivity, adultery, and so on. It was great hearing someone describe the data unapologetically, without those odious nay-sayers who totally reject evolutionary psychology on ideological grounds (though they pretend they reject the whole field on scientific grounds). After his talk, an artist drew David’s caricature, as they did for many of the speakers; here he is (left) with the artist:

The opening talk was by Steve Pinker, called “Beyond violence” (the theme of the conference was “Beyond X”). I had hoped he’d talk about his new book, out February, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (this will be a must-read)but he told me that his publishers wanted him to hold off on that until a bit closer to release time, for talking about a book before it’s out doesn’t really boost sales. He did talk a bit about the values of reason, science, and humanism extolled in the new book, and also struck back, as you can see in the second photo, against his left-wing detractors who repeatedly criticize him for both having faith in progress and, in his last book, documenting it. The slide shows some criticisms leveled at Better Angels. The fuzziness is due to low lighting and a hand-held camera with no flash:

Afterwards I got a surreptitious shot of Steve’s cowboy boots: black quill ostrich. He has six pair now, and I take some credit for that. After all, cowboy boots are the Official Footwear of Atheists and Humanists™

And of course, as a big macher, Pinker was interviewed in the Green Room after his talk by a passel of reporters. The hair is unmistakable, even from a distance. In the background is the pastry bar.

For me the conference’s highlight was supposed to be a 1.5 hour discussion: a “Beyond Doubt Debate” on global warming.  At the beginning it was announced that all the speakers, pro and con, accepted anthropogenic global warming, and the debate was going to be on what we should do about it. But it turned out that the debate was largely about whether global warming was even real, and here we heard the familiar arguments of the climate-change deniers. The “pro-warming and we need to deal with it side”, had, I thought, the better arguments. But I’m sure the audience, faced with a barrage of conflicting statistics, was a bit confused. Andrés Roemer moderated, keeping strict time (one speaker got cut off despite protesting they he more to say).

Here are the “denialists” which I call those who might admit that climate change was real but not a danger. (The names of most everyone are underneath, but I’ll include links, for the Wikipedia pages, sans Krauss, describe their stands on global warming.)

Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist:

Lord Nigel Lawson, a British Tory politician and journalist (he’s the father of cooking star Nigella Lawson):

William Happer, a physicist and professor emeritus at Princeton.

And the “acceptance-ists”: those who thought global warming was a serious problem AND that we need to do something about it now.

Lawrence Krauss, whom we all know. He was eloquent and aggressive, as always, but made one tactical mistake, saying that behind all climate denialists was big money from conservatives like the Koch brothers. When the other side protested that none of their research was funded by any of these groups or people, it made Krauss (who had made a serious point) look a bit ad hominem, and the other side, having no great arguments of their own, tended to harp on that over and over.

Mario Molina, a chemist who won the Nobel Prize for figuring out what caused the hole in the ozone layer—a very important discovery. I believe he’s Mexico’s only Nobel Laureate in science. He started off amiable and soft-spoken, but after hearing the distortions and arguments of the other side, got increasingly angry—to the point that he told one of them, who had interrupted him—to “shut up!”

Noam Chomsky had an onstage conversation with Andrés Roemer and Lawrence Krauss. Chomsky had his own special chair, something that Julia Sweeney pointed out (below) looked like either devil horns or angel wings. It was largely about politics, and I had trouble hearing it through the monitor. Chomsky had several choice comments on Trump and his administration, which to him was only the worst bit of an America that he thinks (as you know) is generally horrible. Chomsky is 89 now, and his mind is as clear as ever, even if I don’t agree with a lot of what he says.

Julia Sweeney gave the last “talk,” which was really her humorous take on selected talks, mostly from the last day. She had a hard job: I sat next to her right offstage watching her make notes on the talks as she watched the monitor in real time. At the end she went onstage and managed to synthesize the whole weekend into a humorous bit, along with some savvy comments and then a generous acknowledgment to Andrés Roemer and the rest of the organizers. Here’s Julia watching the proceedings. I have enormous respect to stand-up comics who can go onstage (she with just a tiny scrap of paper with notes) and extemporize a good bit.

I got her autograph for the copy of Faith versus Fact that will eventually go on auction for charity. (Other new signers included Pinker and two Nobel Laureates).

Going to Mexico!

October 28, 2017 • 11:00 am

If you’re not a resident of Mexico, you’ll probably not be going to the tenth meeting of the Ciudad de las Ideas series in the lovely city of Puebla, Mexico, but it’s a great time and a lot of good speakers. This series has been organized at great effort by Andrés Roemer and his team of associates, and it runs like clockwork, with tons of chances to interact with people. I was there once, in 2009 (the only time I met Christopher Hitchens), and I loved it.

The theme for this tenth iteration of the event is “Beyond X”, and it’s happening November 17-19.  I’ll be there, too, talking—for 7 minutes!—in the “Beyond Design” segment that starts at 11:45 AM and finishes at 13:15 PM.  The 7-page list of speakers is here (shorter version here) and the entire program is here. I’ve reproduced it below; you’ll see there are lots of interesting people and lots to do. It’s always great for speakers, too, because they take good care of us (including assigning each speaker a host who takes them around, shows them the best local restaurants and sights, and so on).

Puebla is about 2.5 hours by car from Mexico City. If you’re going, I’ll be delighted to see you there.

Look at all those people! Even Noam Chomsky! And Pilates!

INR, Evening 1

June 3, 2017 • 11:00 am

Yesterday was check-in and an evening social for the Imagine No Religion meeting in Toronto; it’s in the Airport Sheraton, so I doubt I’ll see anything of this lovely city.

The speakers did get nice rooms, though:

. . .with nice bathrooms. I LOVE hotels and have never gotten over the luxury of staying in one:

A kindly reader came up to me and gave me two bottles of Riesling in a wooden box, with the bottles shaped like cats! What a treat!

Self portrait with Hawaiian shirt:

Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of the the U.S. Center for Inquiry, with Leonard Tramiel, a physicist on the CfI board of directors.

The evening social had a poutine station, so my trip for dinner poutine was unnecessary. Here’s Richard Dawkins helping himself to poutine. The talks start in earnest today; the schedule is here. I speak Sunday at 2 pm.

Secular conference on freedom of conscience and expression: London, 22-23 July

January 18, 2017 • 8:15 am

On July 22 and 23 of this year, there’s an International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression in the 21st Century in London, featuring a diverse and distinguished panoply of speakers.  The description:

Join notable free-thinkers from around the world for a weekend of discussions and debates on freedom of conscience and expression in the 21st century at a spectacular venue in central London during 22-23 July 2017.

The exciting two-day conference will be a follow up to the historic 2014 International Conference on the Religious-Right, Secularism and Civil Rights and will discuss censorship and blasphemy laws, freedom of and from religion, apostasy, the limits of religion’s role in society, LGBT and women’s rights, atheism, secular values and more.

Speakers from countries or the Diaspora as diverse as Algeria, Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Ireland, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Palestinian Territories, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, UK, Ukraine, US and Yemen will gather in London to defend freedom of conscience and expression and argue that freedoms are not western but universal.

The conference will highlight the voices of people on the frontlines of resistance – many of them persecuted and exiled – as well as address challenges faced by activists and freethinkers, elaborate on the links between democratic politics and free expression and conscience, promote secular and rights-based alternatives, and establish priorities for collective action.

Art and culture will be integral to the event as will lively debate with the dauntless use of the free word.

Tickets for each of the two days, which you can buy here, are £85; and if you want the full experience, including dinner and drinks, it’s between £230 and £260. What struck me is the list of participants, which I’ll give in full:

A C Grayling, Philosopher
Abdalaziz Alhamza, Co-founder and Spokesperson of Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently
Ali A. Rizvi, Pakistani-Canadian Writer, Physician and Musician
Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Egyptian Feminist Activist
Alya Al-Sultani, British-Iraqi Vocalist and Composer
Ani Zonneveld, Founder and President of Muslims for Progressive Values
Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, Co-Presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation
Benjamin David, Editor-in-Chief of Conatus News
Bonya Ahmed, Activist, Writer and Blogger at Mukto-Mona
Cemal Knudsen Yucel, Co-Founder and Chair of Ex-Muslims of Norway
Chris Moos, Secular Activist
Clive Aruede and Lola Tinubu, Co-Founders of London Black Atheists
Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists
Deeyah Khan, Filmmaker
Djemila Benhabib, Author and Activist
Elham Manea, Yemeni-born Author and Human Rights Campaigner
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Iraqi Founder of Global Secular Humanist Movement
Fariborz Pooya, Bread and Roses TV Presenter and Editor
Fauzia Ilyas, Founder of Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan
Gina Khan, One Law for All Spokesperson
Gita Sahgal, Director of Centre for Secular Space
Gona Saed, Co-Founder of Kurdistan Secular Centre
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Award-winning Playwright
Halima Begum, Ex-Muslim Feminist Researcher and Blogger
Hassan Radwan, Agnostic Muslim Khutbahs blog
Houzan Mahmoud, Culture Project Co-Founder
Ibn Warraq, Writer
Imad Iddine Habib, Founder of Council of Ex-Muslims of Morocco
Inna Shevchenko, FEMEN Leader
Iram Ramzan, Journalist and Founder of Sedaa
Ismail Mohamed, Egyptian Atheist and Founder of Black Ducks Talk Show
Jane Donnelly and Michael Nugent, Atheist Ireland’s Human Rights Officer and Chairperson
Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship
Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights
Karrar D. Al Asfoor, Co-founder of Atheist Alliance Middle East and North Africa
Kate Smurthwaite, Comedian
Kenan Malik, Author and Broadcaster
Lawrence M Krauss, American Theoretical Physicist and Cosmologist
London Humanist Choir
Maajid Nawaz, Founding Chairman of Quilliam Foundation
Marieme Helie Lucas, Algerian Sociologist and Founder of Secularism is a Women’s Issue
Mario Ramadan, Co-Founder of Freethought Lebanon
Maryam Namazie, Iranian-born Rights Activist, Writer and Conference Organiser
Nadia El Fani, Tunisian Filmmaker
Nasreen Rehman, Co-Founder and Chair of British Muslims for Secular Democracy
Nina Sankari, Polish Secular Activist
Noura Embabi, Muslim-ish President
Peter Tatchell, Human Rights Campaigner
Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters
Rana Ahmad, Head of the RDF Arab Atheist Community
Rayhana Sultan, #ExMuslimBecause
Richard Dawkins, Author and Scientist (subject to availability)
Sadia Hameed, Spokesperson of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
Sanal Edamaruku, Founder and President of Rationalist International
Sarah Peace, Nigerian Artist and Director of Fireproof Library
Savin Bapir Tardy, Counselling Psychologist for The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation
Shelley Segal, Singer/Songwriter
Sukhwant Dhaliwal, Founder and Editorial Collective Member of Feminist Dissent
Tasneem Khalil, Swedish-Bangladeshi Journalist and Editor of Independent World Report
Teresa Gimenez Barbat, MEP, Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and Euromind
Usama al-Binni, Arab Atheists Network Activist
Victoria Gugenheim, Award-winning Body Artist
Waleed Al Husseini, Palestinian Writer and Founder of Council of Ex-Muslims of France
Yasmine, Confessions of an ExMuslim
Yasmin Rehman, Women’s Rights Campaigner
Zehra Pala, President of Atheism Association of Turkey
Zineb El Rhazoui, Moroccan-born Columnist for Charlie Hebdo

I know some of these people, and have heard of many others, and I wish I could go. The only issue I have is how, with so many speakers, everyone’s going to get a chance to talk! I count 67 people on the list above, and even if there were 8 hours per day of talks, that’s a maximum of 15 minutes per speaker. Perhaps there will be panels.

LogiCal: A science and skeptics meeting in LA

December 8, 2016 • 9:00 am

On January 13-15, I’ll be at LogiCal LA: a meeting with a skeptical and scientific theme.  The announcement, along with the conference website, is below.  I’ll be glad to see some old friends there, and note that Sean Carroll is the headliner. There’s also a geological field trip with Don Prothero, but I don’t know the details of that yet. I’m trying out a new talk about both “ways of knowing” (is science the only “way”?) and about the so-called Big Questions before which science is said to be impotent but religion competent.

The venue is right next to the LAX airport, so access is easy. If you’re going, I’ll see you there.

Moar CoyneFest

October 17, 2016 • 8:15 am

Here are some miscellaneous pictures from CoyneFest this weekend. There will be at least one more installment. Photos were contributed by Andrew Berry, Mohamed Noor and me (first two).

Reader Su Gould and artist Tubby Fleck designed awesome “I can haz retirement” buttons for the attendees and speakers, available for a small donation to Doctors Without Borders (you can also get one by showing me proof that you’ve donated at least $5). Here was the hilarious setup for dispensing the buttons. The postcard at bottom left says “Buttons made in the USA and individually supervised by this uncompromising cat.” Note the fly dangling over the placard in the first picture:



Two of the speakers, Mohamed Noor (Duke) and Amanda Moehring (Western University, Ontario):


Dick Hudson of my department (recently retired), Soojin Yi (Georgia Tech) and Jeff Wisniewki (our departmental administrator, who helped organize the whole bash),  all chilling out at the Log Castle in Indiana:


Mohamed, Katharine Korunes (Duke), and Briana Mittleman (another former Noor student now at Chicago), petting the miniature horses at the Log Castle:


Late in the evening, after dinner, Michael Turelli (aka Karl Marx) gave me a toast, which was touching but also embarrassing, for I felt, as always, that he was lauding somebody else.


Speakers’ dinner after the first day. Clockwise from top left: Brian Charlesworth (Edinburgh), Matthew Cobb (Manchester), me, Greg Mayer (U. Wisconsin Parkside), Doug Schemske (Michigan State), Nick Barton (IST Austria), Daven Presgraves (Rochester), Nitin Phadnis (University of Utah), and, foreground, Manyuan Long, a colleague at Chicago.


A preprandial stroll along the Indiana Dunes seashore:


Left to right: Nick Barton, Mohamed Noor, Katharine Korunes, Brian Charlesworth:


Lunch, Saturday. I insisted on having Chicago-style stuffed pizza which, as you see, is gooey. Background: Greg Mayer (l) and Bruce Grant (William & Mary, retired). Mohamed is infamous for his “thumbs up gesture”, which he promised to stop when he got tenure, but lied big time. . . .


I’ll have pictures of the speakers in action tomorrow or Wednesday.


October 16, 2016 • 1:05 pm

CoyneFest has ended with a long party last night at the log house of my colleague Trevor and Tina in northern Indiana.  By all reports, both the scientific meetings and the dinners, booze, and party were great successes. I have lots of photos already, but will just show two now. Both were taken by Andrew Berry.

First: the premier and perhaps only occasion where the three male writers on this site are in one place (we wished Grania were here to make it all four). Left to right: Greg Mayer, me (note the special gold “CoyneFest” button reserved for me; other buttons will be available for a slight donation to Doctors without Borders), and Matthew Cobb, who came all the way from Manchester.


The Log Castle of Trevor and Tina in northern Indiana, near the Indiana Dunes. What a wonderful place for a party! I’m grateful to the owners for hosting us last night.


Interim report: FFRF convention

October 8, 2016 • 12:00 pm

As is always the case, at least in my experience, the Freedom from Religion Foundations meetings are at once serious, moving, sociable (lots of chances to mingle with members and speakers), and uplifting. The entire meeting is a bit more than a day long, so I’ll give a brief report halfway through.

Last night Dan Barker began the meeting with his piano music, in this case a rewritten version of a Christian song, and Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-President, formally opened the meeting, giving several awards to people who had given their city council meetings secular invocations rather than prayer.

Linda LaScola, who runs the Clergy Project with Dan Dennett–a project that helps nonbelieving clergy either find their way or come out of the closet–talked a bit about this very worthy endeavor. Then came one of the high spots of the meeting so far: a fundamentalist Christian from Eastern Tennessee, who had gone for years on the Clergy Project boards (open only to nonbelieving clergy) as  “Adam Mann,” stood up, told his story, and, for the very first time, gave his real name: Carter Warden.

It’s always moving and sad to hear these stories, and his was especially poignant, as it began with him investigating evolution, since he felt he had to know the enemy that his Church rejected. Well, that led him to read for years–all sorts of science, secular philosophy, books by atheists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Four Horsemen, and so on (he even read my book!). He finally came out as an uncompromising atheist, but his family didn’t know until just recently, and many of them still don’t know, as he announced it only here, and last night.

A musician, like Dan Barker, Warden then played guitar and sang a song he wrote about the freedom that comes with giving up God; it was really very good. He then did a duet with Dan sitting at the piano, riffing on an old Christian song, but changing the words so that it was Jesus, not science, that was built on “sinking sand” and that science, not Jesus, was a “rock.” Needless to say, Warden got a standing ovation. Then there was a short panel: Warden, Barker, Dennett, and LaScola took questions from the audience about the clergy project.

Lawrence Krauss then got “The Emperor’s New Clothes” award, and gave one of his characteristically animated and fascinating lectures on cosmology, “Turning metaphysics into physics,” about the origins of the universe and the new work detecting gravity waves.

This morning there was the famous “non-prayer breakfast” in which Dan Barker presided over a “moment of bedlam” instead of grace, and we all shouted, clapped, and clinked our glasses. The morning and early afternoon featured more awards, including one to Laurie Lebo, a local reporter who wrote The Devil in Dover book about the ID trial. Lebo, a runner and only 52 years old, described the heart attack she had this summer, which gave her a near-death-experience that she refused to impute to God.

Lebo was followed by Rafida Bonya Ahmed, who received the new “Forward” award from the FFRF. Ahmed is the widow of Dr. Avijit Roy, the secular Bangladeshi blogger who, along with his wife, was attacked in Bangladesh by machete-wielding Islamic terrorists. Roy died, and Ahmed was severely wounded, sustaining head injuries and losing the thumb of her left hand (an absence clearly visible on the big screen as the mark of terrorism). Ahmed continues the pair’s work of secularism, but now from Austin. When introducing Ahmed and telling about her tragedy, Annie Laurie’s voice broke in sorrow, as did Ahmed’s when she described the incident in detail. It was so sad. But Ahmed’s message was ultimately uplifting: we are all citizens of the world and must help our brothers and sisters who are repressed by Islam, or by the rapacious capitalism that awards Bangladeshi garment workers a full 70 cents a day for their labors. Ahmed had no use for what she called the “PC mentality” that excuses extremist Islam.

I’ll be speaking at 4 pm after Dan Barker and Susan Jacoby, and Dan Dennett will be talking after dinner. It’s been a fine meeting so far. You can see the schedule here.

Evolution 2016: Food

August 20, 2016 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

After Jerry noted that the world’s most expensive BBQ is dry-aged and in New York City, and that “true Texans wouldn’t have anything to do with” it, I thought it might be a good time to feature Texas BBQ, which I enjoyed at Iron Works BBQ in Austin while at the Evolution 2016 meetings earlier this summer.

Iron Works is in an old iron works at the corner of Red River and Cesar Chavez Streets, conveniently located just down the block from the convention center where the meetings were held. It was recommended by locals, and so I went with a couple of colleagues. You order and pick up your main course at a counter window, grabbing drinks out of an open ice chest and heading to the check out, and then get to sit down.

One of my colleagues had the pulled pork, with which she had a Shiner IPA (Shiner being a brewery to the southeast of Austin).


My other colleague had the sampler plate– brisket, ribs, sausage, and maybe you can spot some other sort of BBQ in there. (New category of WEIT post: Spot the meat!)

I had the sausage, with an added large pickle. For sides I had creamed corn– delicious, and you don’t often see it these days– and beans– also delicious. But they didn’t have my two favorite Southern sides: okra and fried pickles. There may well be regional variations in side preference and availability, which as a northerner, I am not accustomed to.


Like all good BBQ joints, there was a roll of paper towels at the table.


I went back another time with another colleague, this time enjoying the brisket, with potato salad and mac and cheese as my sides. I washed it down with a Big Red, a Texas-made soda of the cream soda/Dr. Pepper class.


For a more upper crust brunch, a colleague and I went to a classier joint, with bloody marys


and beignets with a cream sauce among the comestibles. Beignets are a New Orleans specialty, which I guess have migrated west to Texas.


Austin is famed for its musical nightlife, and there were two areas I got to see.

Dead robot soldiers.

The first was the Rainey Street District, which is an older residential neighborhood, now with condos, with the remaining low frame houses (and their lawns) converted into bars. It attracted mostly the young urban professional crowd. These two signs were in the neighborhood (the pictures obviously taken in daylight). I don’t know what the second one means, but it has a cat, so I liked it.

The other nightlife area was 6th Street, which seemed the more traditional honky-tonks-with-live-bands kind of a place I was expecting. This is Darwin’s Pub, which of course was a must see for visiting evolutionary biologists. My vision was not as blurry as the photo– it’s hard to get a decent picture in a darkened pub.


And one night at the street corner bar at the aptly named Corner, we discovered it was a colleague’s birthday, and the waitress managed to rustle up a filled red velvet cupcake for her, which was on the house. After singing Happy Birthday, we devoured it.