Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Weirding out Richard Dawkins and other tales from two atheist gatherings in one day!

This doesn't precisely have to do with science, but the issue of people using their 'freedom of religion' to harm others (not to mention, spout hate speech) is an issue that is really important to me, and it should be to others, whether or not they have a religion.
` And so, I went to the Northwest Freethought Alliance Annual Conference, featuring (from left) former clergy Jerry Dewitt and Teresa MacBain; biologist, public science educator and uber-atheist, Richard Dawkins; former Maine legislator known for his work toward child advocacy and separation of church and state, Sean Faircloth; and evolutionary psychologist and overall hard worker at the RDF Elisabeth Cornwell.

apr 023 All five answer questions

It's no joke, but this took place on April Fools' Day at Renton Tech, which is where I took the above picture. Much like my previous post, I figured I'd construct this one of whatever notes and pictures that I could, here and there, and compile them for your viewing pleasure.
` And, as for people who aren't involved in such movements, especially fundamentalists who think that Satan is leading these people on, here is your chance to get a glimpse of the dark and hidden world of... the atheists' eeeeeevil agenda! Woooooooo! Scary!

Actually, it's not even the atheists' agenda -- what is going on here is that religion gets a privileged status in a lot of the world, and it winds up harming others, religious and otherwise. This 'agenda' is really just to keep everyone safe from having someone else's religion imposed upon them in some way.

Let's start with me walking past some people having a group picture taken outside and into the daaark, dismal interior, which had one entire wall that was largely glass. That wasn't very dark or scary, so I went into the inner sanctum of the building to collect my atheist name-tag, and then came back to gawk at all the eeeeevil atheists who were busy eating their Breakfast of Doom, which I saw included breakfast burritos.

apr 001 Me and my official-looking badge

That's when I got out my blogging notebook, where I wrote:

I'm sitting next to James Downard, who is more of an Uppard if I ever met one! He's talking about how he can unselfconsciously masticate plant sex organs in public! I told him that for later, "I have fermented bovine lactation in my backpack."
` Also, we both like to eat marine arthropods, although he isn't into eating the land ones like I am. We both agree, however that chelicerates aren't particularly appetizing, but that bee vomit is.

Apparently, James is a brave man: He actually tried to debate the crazy conspiracy theorist Kent Hovind! (To whom I shall devote many future posts, just because one of my roommates believes that crap.)
` James tried to explain to Kent that if the sun actually were 6,000, it would barely be perceptibly smaller than it actually is. Kent claimed that the sun, if it were billions of years old, would be so massive that it would engulf the earth -- but stars don't grow at that rate!
` Besides, one can tell how old the sun is from the ratio of hydrogen to its waste products (i.e. helium), and that tells us it's some 4.5 billion years old. In accordance with my own observations, Kent didn't respond to this point and instead went onto another one of his wacky conclusions.

I told James how I debunked Expelled for my creationist roommate, and then some, in minute detail. James then informed me that he'd actually met that Berlinski guy who was in Expelled! That guy apparently just didn't like to think about certain things, like the questions James had posed to him!

[During all this, superhero Lou Ryan called me at one point to ask where I was, as though I hadn't told him. Then later, my mom called me, but just as I was telling her that I was really too busy to talk, I saw the organizer of this meeting, Robert Sanford! We had emailed back and forth about how I could get into this conference and how excited I was to be able to meet Richard Dawkins.
` I had told Robert that if I was lucky, I might persuade Dawkins to hug me at some point so that, metaphorically speaking, his Biologist and Anti-theist Waves might be strong enough to clear the Creationism Particles from my system. I also explained that, in case he thought that was weird, I do sometimes require hugs because I've been an emotional wreck my whole life because of all the dehumanization and other insanity that's happened to me and am still insecure.
` Upon seeing Robert, I got off the phone with my mom and he said something like, "Hanging up with Mom just for me?" and then he hugged me! Yay! I felt better already.]

OMG, it's Richard Dawkins! But he's not on stage yet. Curse me for not trying to find a closer table -- but these folks are so lively! Right now, there's this really hilarious godless liberal girl with long black hair sitting across from me. This one guy asks her, "Wait -- do you think Santorum hates you more for your genitals, or me for the genitals of my partner?"

James is pointing out to me that in Genesis, God commands Adam not to eat the fruit, but not Eve. Yet, the snake told her to eat the fruit -- so how is this supposed to be her fault? [I looked this up in the bible itself to find that the snake tells Eve of the no-eating the fruit of knowledge rule, and that before that, Eve doesn't seem to have known about it. So, not quite, but still something I never would have noticed.]

At last -- looking past James and his computer, I can see Dawkins!

apr 002 Looking past the rowdy table I'm at

(Some time later.) Now here's Elisabeth Cornwell on taking the stigma out of atheism, which has been deeply-ingrained since McCarthy equated it with communism. An important project of hers is the Out Campaign, which has spread across the world, encouraging atheists not to hide themselves from theists in fear of the consequences.
` Although this is relatively easy to do in those parts of Europe and the United States where there are a lot of urban intellectuals, it isn't at all to people living in some other parts of the world. But now, as more people are outing themselves, more atheist groups have sprung up -- now there's even an Afghan Atheists! (Since I didn't take more notes on this, you'll have to check out the website for more info.)

apr 004 Elisabeth Cornwell takes the stage

In the 1960s and 70s, candidates spoke about separation of church and state, didn't talk about their religion and preferred to base their decisions on the constitution. Now there are candidates who can't stop speaking about how pious they are. What is this, a contest?

apr 006

After studying anthropology, she knows that 1950s sitcoms don't really represent a 'traditional' American family. Nevertheless, the 'moral majority' are working to impose their values on everyone, taking over school boards in order to deny basic scientific (and historical) facts to our children, hindering women's rights, and so on.

It is interesting to note how so many religious people in the U.S. unite because they are theists and yet say that those not in their particular group are going to hell. Luckily, us (eeeevil) atheists can still unite with the religious among us who agree that their religion shouldn't be imposed on others.

And now here's Sean Faircloth, who is quite animated as usual:

apr 008 Sean Faircloth, blurry

The social climate may be very secular up here in the Pacific Northwest, and in Vermont, but in Arizona it's very difficult to be a secular activist. Our senators up here may have their own annoying quirks, but they "are not crazy people."
` The 'moral majority' is neither moral nor the majority, but they do sell certainty. Basically, Jefferson and Madison wouldn't stand for the human impact of religious bias in politics, and so everyone ought to rally against it -- that would only be patriotic.

Religious displays on public land is one thing, but human beings are suffering because of religious privilege. Children who die because of this are not just an emotional story, it's a doorway into this subject. Hundreds of children are neglected in religious child care centers, which are exempt from regulations. There's even land use in religious bias, and tax money going to creationist college funds.
` In my own terms, freedom of religion is not privilege of religion -- those are opposites. Also, clearly morality and religiosity are not the same thing, and it's sad that many people think that religious=good. One of Christopher Hitchens' goals was to decouple faith and virtue in people's minds, and take the word 'morality' back, for everyone to share!
` Okay, maybe that's starting to sound like the Care Bears. Speaking of which, that was another conversation later on in which I found out that some people thought the Care Bears were evil. Hrm. Sometimes I wonder the logic that goes on in some people's heads. Atheists + Care Bears = Evil x 2?

Up next was Dawkins and two former clergy who have lost their faith and "come out" as atheists.

apr 021 Former clergy and Dawkins

Teresa McBain was a pastor's kid, in love with the whole theology until she started to have doubts. When she found herself losing her faith, she didn't know about the secular movement. She looked around on the internet and googled 'Clergy who no longer believe' and found Dan Barker's book Losing Faith in Faith, read it, and found the Clergy Project through it.
` There she could communicate with others pseudonymously (as "Lynn"), and with the support of people she had met there, she didn't fall apart in church when she told them the truth only a few days ago. (I found a video of her telling all at the American Atheists Conference, and apologizing for thinking so badly of them.)

When Jerry DeWitt could no longer pray for someone he loved dearly, he realized that he couldn't pray at all. He found Dan Barker and Daniel Denett, and the world of the surprising number of non-believing clergy who are trapped pretending that they still believe.

Dawkins speaks up to say that he was once at a dinner with a chaplain who explained to him that he was actually an atheist who felt he was needed in his role.

Jerry didn't know that there were unbelievers, but he always loved truth, science, rationality, and people. He wanted to save the world and so became a minister.

Teresa has integrity, obviously, since she cares about being honest! A few still accept her, although some have excluded her.

Jerry calls being honest with others about this 'committing identity suicide', and he was even fired from his secular job for his involvement with the Clergy Project. His wife, son and mother still accept him, and all his other relatives have disowned him.
` He was also at the American Atheist Conference -- there's video evidence of him there!

Teresa had once learned to rationalize biblical inconsistencies. She also came to think that people of all religions believed in the same God, and did their best to find him. But then, if God were love, how could he let anyone be burned and tortured forever? She would never dip her own child in scalding water as punishment -- that's abuse, not love.

Dawkins has the idea that perhaps the more implausible the threat, the more horrible it has to be in order to have an impact. Hence, the notion that hell is where your skin burns off and re-grows, just to burn off again -- ad infinitum.

Jerry never questioned who wrote the gospels until he got to Jimmy Swaggart's church, where women had to wear dresses and all that. He was determined not to go to hell, and found that he might be in danger of that if he preached that, for example, God is in everyone. Finding the truth about who is going to hell and why was what drove him to figure it out over the next 25 years.

Teresa's guilt was so deep that she just wanted to drive away and never come back. Now she likes herself because she can be honest. She knows what it's like to have to 'come out' and reaches out to help people. There's also a group called Recovering From Religion, and now, The Therapist Project.

Edit: Since I've posted links to videos from these former clergy, I've later found a video of Faircloth and Dawkins at the American Atheists Rally -- haven't seen it yet, but it may be of interest to anyone who is reading this article.

Question and answer session:

apr 024

I was having a lot of trouble hearing all this, although one of the guys in the audience is from the Clergy project and he said something about hiring ex-clergy for having served for so long. I don't know what it was he said, exactly, but it was evidently funny.

After that, it was time for book signing. Now was my chance, I thought. Now I could tell Richard that he helps me stay sane despite the fact that I live with someone who believes one of the craziest versions of young-earth creationism!
` While I was in line, I was chatting with this girl whose name, sadly, I have already forgotten, but she is 6'1" tall and was wearing a shirt that has a cat using the 'Annoy' attack. (Below, on edge of picture.)
` We were also talking with this guy whose name I remember is Sean (spelled correctly, as with Faircloth), who had a Care Bear of Death shirt, and he plays in a band called Natalie Wouldn't (as in Natalie Wood from West Side Story would not float in the Monty Python sketch weighing the witch and the duck). I think he was also the guy who made the Santorum comment that I wrote down earlier.
` Closer... yes... closer!!

apr 025 Dawkins book signing

Thanks to my handy-dandy nametag, Dawkins addressed me as Sarah, so I told him that my pen name is Spoony Quine. He asked me if I was 'Quine' at the RDF, who has the avatar of a child smoking a pipe. I thought about this a second, because I remember someone else pointing this out to me, but I told him that I didn't think I'd ever been on that forum. (And I hadn't, but now I've signed up!)
` As he was signing my copy of his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, I at least got to tell him that I have the ambition to be a science writer, and I do have a blog, at least, and that he may hear of me again.

I wanted to say more, but I moved along to hang out with everyone who was loitering, talking to all these RDF folks. I was curious as to the conversations they were having, so I stuck around and listened as Dawkins and Faircloth signed books. (BTW, the guy with the gray beard is Jim, a.k.a. SamWiseGingy from the YouTubes, and the guy with the red shirt is Sean.)

apr 026 Just hanging around Faircloth and Dawkins

I was attracted by the knot of people around DeWitt, who was standing on a stair at the side of the stage, but I couldn't understand anything that anyone was saying until I got up next to him, where I sat down -- in the chair that Elisabeth had been using and put my backpack in the chair next to it, where Faircloth had been sitting. (Now that's got me thinking about inadvertently taking Faircloth butt particles to school!)
` I didn't say a whole lot, but someone did offer to take my picture -- keep in mind, I am actually sitting down, and if we were both standing on the same plane, I would be towering above him!

apr 027 Me and Jerry DeWitt -- I am actually sitting down!

After a time, I became preoccupied with the idea that now that I am next to these people, I can compare how big they are to me. Then, I saw that Dawkins was on his feet, and no one was mobbing him. I moved in for the kill. Let's just say, the next thing I wrote in my notebook was this:


What did I do? As near as I can recall, I found myself standing next to Dawkins, fully intending to ask him to hug me, although I hadn't yet gotten his attention. In my head, I could hear myself asking him if he'd mind giving me a hug in order to combat the nausea I feel from living with a young-earth creationist.
` However, being distant and indirect as I can be when I'm anxious, I put my hand flat on top of my head and then moved it over to his forehead, finding that despite the fact that he looks rather tall on YouTube, he is only about 1 1/2 inches taller than me.
` Noticing this quickly, he gave me a look of, "W...?"
` "I'm measuring how tall I am compared to you," I explained.
` "Why?" he asked.
` "So you'll remember me."
` Then, he gave me that WTF? expression that I normally associate with his hearing some insane non-sequitur statement by some fundamentalist, so I clarified: "Because I'm going to email you later on."
` He gave a laugh of relief, and I was about to say, "Actually, I'm sure you would remember who I am because of my name, but I'm really just shy and insecure and only wanted to ask you if you could give me a hug and tell me that I'm going to survive living with a creationist roommate, because the stupid hurts my brain so much," when Elisabeth Cornwell, obviously having sensed that Dawkins was in danger of falling into the clutches of some nut, grabbed him by the hand and whisked him away literally before I could say anything at all.

Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! DAMMIT!!!

Also, WTF is WRONG WITH ME!?!?

It's more than just being anxious, as I am thinking back to a recent statement that the escaped Mormon, Leighton Allred of Irreligiosophy (The One True Podcast) told me over Google chat: "Has anybody ever told you you're a box of inexplicable surprises? Not a fucking clue what's going to come out next."
` Thanks, Leighton! I appreciate the encouragement. By the way, he sent me a hilariously horrible mp3 of him singing as a birthday gift! Ah, my man-siren, I will treasure it always!

Anyway, I explained the Dawkins incident to the two people in line I was chatting with and they thought it was funny as well. So, we got to talking and I was astounded at the fact that we all started finishing each others' sentences.
` Sean knew of several restaurants in the area, so we decided to continue our conversation while carpooling...

apr 028 In the getaway car!

...and eventually at the Curry and Naan, where three others from the conference were sitting, so we sat at one big table. I had some kind of lentily thing and some mango drink of doom that was SO GOOD!
` I mostly talked to this one woman who was allergic to garlic and couldn't eat anything there, and found that she had quite an interesting life, having once been a heroin addict who was now being strong and raising her son, and also having to find out that she had bipolar disorder on her own, despite the fact that her family had known for years.
` So yeah, crazy stories were exchanged. Also, Sean's evil Care Bear shirt. The Care Bear Stare -- they could make people change their minds? That can only be evil magic!

apr 029 At Naan & Curry

I slowly became more tired and subdued until turning my cell phone back on, realizing that it was time to go already, and so we all piled into the minivan and drove to Newport High, thus leaving my car at Renton Tech, which I almost regret doing.
` The line of humans extended from one end of the high school to the other, and back again, and then back a third time! But, because we had badges (name-tags) from the conference, we didn't have to pay to get in and in fact had preferential seating! (As we were called down, someone said "We don't need no stinkin' badges!")
` This seems a sort of strange arrangement -- if you're a 'Have', then you get to be in a better position for getting more, compared to the 'Have-Nots'! Sounds a little backwards, but count me in!

apr 031 At the Newport High gym

Although Sean had lost his name-tag, he got in somehow, and I didn't ask him how because I wound up sitting all by myself, having fun conversations with other young people. I didn't write any of that down, but this is where my journal starts up again:

Jerry DeWitt is awesome! He's all like 'preaching' "Can I hear an AMEN?" and we're all like "Amen! Hallelujah!"

apr 032 Jerry DeWitt starts us off

By the way, there's a secret clergy project website, where users are screened, and now also a public one.

Skipping ahead in this event, here's Faircloth talking about a little trip he took....

apr 035 Faircloth talking about a trip he took...

Later, he spoke out about religious childcare facilities not having to conform with regulations, concerning food safety, medication, or even staff training. Here, much more so than in secular child care facilities, children are neglected, suffer, and even die.
` Two year old Amia(sp?) White was left in a van for 2 hours in the hot Alabama sun, which killed her. At another facility in Alabama, a three-year-old boy was left in a van for ten hours and of course he didn't make it. (Apparently, this kind of thing has been going on for a while, along with the religious zoning regulation stuff.)
` Those kids died slow, agonizing deaths, all by themselves. At least the Incas drugged the kids they were about to sacrifice, and that's horrible enough! The laws need to be changed so that religious childcare facilities have to follow the same rules as everyone else.

Then, of course, there's the people who believe in faith-healing, which has led to many tragedies. For example, in Tennesee, Jessica Craig had a tumor on her shoulder which easily could have been treated, but her mom insisted on relying on prayer, and the tumor agonizingly grew to the size of a basketball before it killed her.
` Thus, we should ask: Where are "right to life" groups for these children?

apr 044 Faircloth still blurry

Faircloth has a list of ten things that need to happen in this country, and having learned a great deal about them for the past few years, I agree:

1. Respect all our troops, for example Stephen Hill, who was booed while serving in Afghanistan because he was interested in his rights as a gay soldier.

2. Reproductive information based on science (as I've heard, doctors in some states are required by law to hand out false information to women).

3. Healthcare professionals should fulfill professional duties, or leave.

4. No religious bias on land, i.e. bulldozing for megachurches.

5. No bias in marriage law -- anyone can get married.

6. Autonomy for end of life choices.

7. No religious bias in educating our children.

8. Congress shall include secular Americans, or at least not make them pretend they aren't.

9. Children protected from religious abuse.

10. Medical and scientific research should not be curtailed because it's against someone's religion.

Edit: Found a video of Faircloth himself on these ten points, along with his slides, as well as much other discussion.

Next up was Dawkins, who got a standing ovation as before. He remarked on the ominous sign hanging in the gym, and proceeded to talk about "taking back" American Values that have been deemed religious.

apr 045 Ominous sign hanging in gym

Mua ha ha ha! Because we're that evil! Or, maybe we just want certain words not to have religious connotations.

Interesting -- some tribal peoples used to think that Western technology came from the Christian god, and not science! No wonder so many of them converted!

Nature can put together organisms fairly well, hence they are designed by nature, over a long time, which you could call 'paleo-design'.
` The only way something the complexity of a Boeing 747 could evolve in nature would be to slowly develop through the ages, not be slammed together by a tornado. (The "747 in the junkyard" is one of my favorite false analogies!)

apr 050 Taking back the term 'Intelligent Design'

We humans have the ability to do a much different kind of design, you could call it "Intelligent Design" or Neo-Design. Because we can plan ahead, we can avoid making errors such as the one with the pharyngial nerve, which is one of my favorite examples:
` Just a few millimeters before it connects with the voicebox, it takes a huge detour to loop around an artery in the chest and then comes back up to complete the connection.
` In fish, this isn't really a detour at all, but in animals that have evolved necks, it is. In humans, this nerve is 1-2 feet, and in giraffes it's 15 feet! Natural selection doesn't look ahead, but we can design things with the future in mind.
` Similarly, our foresight allows us humans to design our own society more intelligently, and efficiently, than natural processes can, so as to prevent various disasters from happening.

LOL @ "Thou shalt not kill -- Oh, how silly of me!" (You had to be there.)

In Christianity, it doesn't matter if you sin, because you inherit sin via semen. Also, God sacrifices himself to himself, in order to forgive himself, on behalf of all mankind. Or something like that, it's confusing.
` How is this stuff supposed to make sense? The night before the conference, I did ask my creationist roommate, but only succeeded in annoying him by "not accepting" his answers.
` In some places, maybe there are a lot of people who are good because they're afraid of going to hell. That is kind of depressing.

In a 2001 census on religion, 72% of Englanders recorded themselves as 'Christian' and this was bandied about for some time as evidence that England was a Christian nation. In the 2011 census, it was 54%, but the RDF found that it was actually even less:
` They did their own census of this 54%, asking why they checked off the 'Christian' box, and most of them said that it was because they thought of themselves as a good person. So, being religious is supposed to mean that you're good! Anyone can observe that this isn't really so (let's just say, it's obvious to me!), and it is a stereotype that must be fought.
` Also, 10% of these people turned to their own moral sense rather than religious teachings when it came to making moral decisions. Well, anyone can do that!

apr 049 Dawkins sort of blurry

Now he's going on about morality and the absolutist version that is generally religiously motivated. For example, take early-on abortions. No, they're not exactly 'good', but look: Here's a clump of cells. It has no nervous system. Getting rid of it alleviates more pain than it causes.
` Later abortion does cause suffering for a fetus, that's true, yet I think that if a woman is going to die because she is pregnant, it should be done anyway.
` But why is it that the people who are so against abortion at all don't seem to consider that what can be felt by a fetus is far less suffering than the lamb or cow or pig that lives in inhumane conditions and is slaughtered.
` Why aren't anti-abortionist groups also trying to alleviate the suffering of the poor animals who can't help themselves in these conditions? Is it because these are farm animals and not people?
` And what's this about personhood? An embryo this small gets a soul? Well, here's some triplets. Which one of them got the soul after the embryo split into three parts? (Are they supposed to share one soul?)

It would be terrible if we didn't put our pets out of their misery when they have no hope of recovery from their suffering, so why not allow this for humans? People who don't trust that they would be able to kill themselves later on, as their illness progresses, sometimes kill themselves much earlier than they would have preferred to.

Stem cells? Lead to human cloning? Uh, no. Treating diseases, yes. Even if we did clone humans, we already have clones -- they're called twins.

Eugenics? Well, there's negative eugenics, which means creating a bunch of embryos via in vitro fertilization and simply not implanting those embryos with genes that cause much suffering and death (not to mention, huge medical bills). This can be checked by removing one cell, analyzing its DNA, and if it contains a gene that causes a serious illness, they just don't use that one.
` I myself have no moral qualms about this, although positive eugenics is something I hadn't thought about before. That's when you try to have, say, a genius child -- well, no one objects to designing our children via education! So what if Hitler did it -- he also tried to dictate it for everyone. Who is to decide? Well, the same also goes for education.
` Of course, this isn't possible today, but it would be interesting if it were done in the future.

Jeremy Bentham made the point that adult dogs or horses are far more cognizant than babies, but even so, it is important to remember that they can suffer, as humans do. And why do we have pain? Because, it prevents animals from doing some dumb thing a second time so that they don't kill themselves.
` Indeed, for over fifteen years, I myself have pondered on why it is that humans are so concerned with the well-being of other humans, and at the same time, so many people don't give much thought to other species, which obviously have a need to be well themselves!

Near the end, he made some sort of quip that Scientology was 'Intelligently Designed', although, "I'm going to be sued, so I'll shut up." Mormonism designed a little more intelligently, though. Even so, it still involves believing in all this mumbo-jumbo about gold plates and all kinds of craziness (please see Irreligiosophy for more on Mormonism and other weird belief systems).

I would have liked to go bug Dawkins a third time, in order to admire him for his ability to not drop from tiredness, and perhaps sill solicit a hug, but I was not able to because we were carpooling and the others had to go.
` Also, I would have liked to hang out with Sean Faircloth, who was moving the party over to The Keg -- and I had long before been specifically told that he is a blast to hang out with at a pub! -- but I did not complain. Instead, I looked on the bright side -- there was sunlight to be had outside the gym!

apr 057 SUNLIGHT!

In fact, I gave the girl five bucks for gas -- once we were able to find a gas station, because she was running on E! When we finally got back to the parking lot, in Renton, I was tempted to go back to hang out with Sean Faircloth.
` However, not knowing where The Keg was, I decided that it would be more productive just to get home and get to the gym with Brian before it closed. And that was what I did.

I'll get you next time, Richard Dawkins, next tiiiimme!

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