Skepticamp Kentucky 2012, Part 1

Here is the promised post from three weeks ago about SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012. I will be reviewing the speakers that I heard, though unfortunately I wasn’t feeling well that day and missed the last four talks.

First, an explanation of what a SkeptiCamp is. These are small mini-conferences put on by skeptics groups all over the country. Rather than calling in big names from out-of-town for speakers, the organizers of these conferences call on local volunteers who would like to research and present on a topic of their choosing. As a result these conferences are very low-cost to host, and attendance is typically free. For more information on SkeptiCamp, and to see if there are any in your area, visit the SkeptiCamp Wiki.

SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012 was the second annual SkeptiCamp hosted by the Louisville Area Skeptics. Local guest speakers presented on topics including how to think clearly, global warming, parasites, and the challenges faced by atheist kids in southern Indiana schools.

Darshwood the Conjurer

The first speaker was Darshwood the Conjurer, and the topic of his speech was “Making the Impossible Possible.”In his talk, he explains how anyone can accomplish seeming impossible tasks using the MUST system: Motivation, Understanding the problem, using a system System, and having Time to prepare. He demonstrated this principle by reciting the alphabet backwards fluently, and then showing how it could be done using a story about a “Man named ZY who is an X Warrior Viking…” and so on. It went a bit too fast for me to get the whole story in my notes. Anyway, the idea is that if you could remember how the story went (and stories are always easier to remember than a string of numbers) then recalling the story in your head would allow you to recite the alphabet backwards with no mistakes.  A volunteer from the audience accepted the challenge and did succeed in using the story system to recite the alphabet backwards from the stage.

Darshwood Handing Out Cards

Darshwood Handing Out Cards

Christopher Graney

Next in line was Christopher Graney, who spoke about a classroom study of climate change in Kentucky that was conducted using basic data analysis from physics to analyze climate science data.

Christopher Graney

Students checked for trends in temp and precipitation in Frankfort, Bowling Green, and Williamstown though they found no major overall changes in temperate over 120 years. The practical conclusion from this is that the average Kentuckian has no personal experience of climate change within their lifetime. Most people either accept or reject climate change based on the authority of scientists or media (mostly media).

Christopher also had a point to make about passion and data. While the experiment was in progress, both a student who is a climate change denier and one who strongly supports climate change stated that they would not change their opinions regardless of what the data says. I would understand anyone thinking that the results of this experiment would not be conclusive either in favor or not of the existence of climate change, so some skepticism of the results as expressed by these students is understandable. However, it would be hard to deny that there are political and social factors that play a huge part in whether anyone accepts or denies climate change regardless of what the scientific data actually says. This is a bias that we all need to be aware of.

Shelly Henry and Sarah Henry

Shelly and Sarah are a mother/daughter pair who gave the next presentation for the day. Their talk was on countering religious bullying in public schools.

They started off with a brief history of court cases that touch upon the question of the separation of church and state in public schools such as

  • Engel v. Vitale (1962)
  • McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)
  • Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)
  • Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001)
  • Ahlquist v. Cranston (2012)

After the brief history lesson, they came to what I found to be the most interesting and engaging part of their presentation: Sarah’s own experiences of being an atheist in a Floyd County public highschool. In one incident, Sarah got a “letter from god” in her locker which was targeted at her as a atheist. School administrators would not consider it as bullying even though such religious bullying is acknowledged in school policy. The person who did it was caught on camera, but the school administrators ignored the incident because it was not done with “malicious intent.”

The discussions of Sarah’s experiences lead to a discussion among audience members about what does and does not count as religious bullying. It was generally agreed that merely discussing religion and religious belief is not bullying. Sarah even mentioned having mutually respectful discussions about religion with Christian classmates on her track team. However it does cross the line into bullying when the offender tries to force a discussion, makes threats like “you’re going to hell,” or covertly leaves religious artifacts or letters in the atheist student’s locker. Basically, whatever leads to a chilly or threatening environment for the atheist (or other minority) student counts as bullying.

At the end of their presentation Shelly and Sarah offer advice to parents and students for dealing with religious bullying:

  1. First know the bullying policies of your school.
  2. Then make the schools comply with the bullying policies, even though religious administrators may not understand why students pushing religion on a non-believing student would be a problem.

More on SkeptiCamp Kentucky coming up in my next post!

War on Women Rally

Last Saturday I went to the War Against the War on Women Rally in Louisville, Ky. There were rallies in multiple cities across the country, which were organized by Unite Women. These rallies are mainly in response to the surge in conservative politicians attempting to roll back women’s rights and healthcare. Not only abortion rights are precarious, but also access to birth control and sex education are being framed as frivolous and unnecessary by mostly male politicians and pundits. It’s amazing and a bit disheartening that even in 2012 we are having to protest this nonsense.

Even so, I did have a fine time at the rally, meeting up with old friends and making some new friends.

While I was there I met some of my friends from my time as a Clinic Escort.

And I saw a friend I had met though the Atheist Women of Louisville group.

I also took the opportunity to do some atheist activism at the rally, wearing my American Atheists convention t-shirt and taking slips of paper with the information for Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers. In all, about four or five people expressed interest in discussing atheism and I handed them information. Maybe we will see some more new faces at the meetups.

I was a bit nervous on the way there about being so open about my atheism at the rally, but I am glad I did. I’m not usually good at going up to complete strangers and striking up conversation, but this gave me a topic to start with. The first response I got was from a couple of younger women who got excited when they read the back of my shirt and asked if I’d heard of the Rational Response Squad and the Infidel Guy (I had). One of the volunteers at a table looked over my shirt and replied “I’m kind of an atheist too.” I also got to hear the story from another woman about how her daughter (now grown) had been called out by school administration in a Louisville high school for not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. She was sent to the principle’s office and her mother called. The daughter’s reason? She was an atheist and didn’t agree with “under God” being in the pledge. The mother pointed out that this was her daughter’s right to expression, and the school administrators didn’t argue with her on this point. But they vaguely noted that there could be ‘consequences’ for such actions. Apparently these consequences never materialized in any real way besides her being sent to the principal’s office and having her mother called, as if she has started a fight or something similarly disorderly. How many such stories do we never hear about?

There were some speakers too, and I listened when I wasn’t busy talking to the attendees. Rep. John Yarmuth was there, though unfortunately I got there just as his speech was ending. I heard a talk by a representative of the Kentucky Coalition for Reproductive Choice, who spoke about why people of faith should support sex education and abortion rights. Cate Fosl was there from the University of Louisville and spoke about social activism and the Anne Braden Institute, which I had not heard of before but will now need to look into.

“Has Obama waged a war on religion?: NPR”

I found this NPR story posted on a friend’s wall in Facebook today, and though I’d pass it on. In light of recent blog posts and discussions on the state of religious rights in the United States, I think this is quite relevant. As typical, NPR takes a middle ground and is quite respectful to the religious and secular views expressed.

Staver says as rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people make gains, religious conservatives are having to set aside their convictions. A Christian counselor was penalized for refusing to advise gay couples. A court clerk in New York was told to issue same-sex marriage licenses, despite religious reservations. A wedding photographer was sued for refusing to shoot a same-sex wedding. Staver says these people aren’t trying to impose their religious views on others.

“What people of faith don’t want to do, however, is be forced to participate in something that literally cuts to the very core of their belief.”

Boston says of course religious believers want to impose their views on the world — witness the fight against same-sex marriage. But he says under the law, people can’t discriminate based on their religious beliefs, any more than a restaurant owner can cite the Bible in refusing to serve black customers. He says the solution is simple.

“If you don’t want to serve the public, don’t open a business saying you will serve the public.”

I think Boston has it right. Religious people have every right to make their own choices regarding who they will marry, whether or not they would have an abortion in any given circumstance, whether they will take birth control, and so on. What they don’t get to do is make these choices for other people who may or may not share their convictions. Especially At least not with the blessing and funding of our secular government (what you do in your personal life is your business).

http://www.npr.org/2012/01/08/144835720/has-obama-waged-a-war-on-religion

The Atheist Booth at the Kentucky State Fair

KySS KY State Fair Booth 2011For the second year in a row, there is a atheist-themed booth at the Kentucky State Fair. Last year, there was a billboard sponsored by the Coalition of Reason posted right outside the fairgrounds though the entire month of August that declared “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” The billboard is what prompted the idea for us to have a matching state fair booth at the fair, along with a banner to match the billboard (now being displayed in our current booth at the front of the display table.

Last year we got some media attention, mainly around the billboard but also with the fair booth as a followup story. But don’t think we are saddened by the lack of media attention this year–when people are no longer shocked at the “atheist booth” and get used to the fact that we are here, that is a sign of progress.

My first shift at the booth was on Friday evening, from 6-10. The way the shifts are scheduled, there are 2-3 people there for each shift. Just as last year, we have had no trouble at all finding members who are willing to step up and volunteer, and the shift schedule was filled out just about a week in advance of the fair’s opening date. Having multiple volunteers there makes it a lot more fun than if there were only one person, and it is invaluable for moral support and input in case any debates arise, and they always do. There is one main purpose to the booth, to reach out to our fellow secular citizens and let them know we are here. However we also make the most of the discussions with those who disagree with us. With Kentucky being a majority Christian state, we always have people coming by our booth who are not so pleased at our message. The responses have ranged from a puckered facial expression after they read our banner to declarations that “one day every knee will bow!” And of course, we do get asked from time to time if we are worried about hell, to which I would say “there is no hell.” We also have had long and frank and civil discussions about everything from where morals and values come from to the reliability (or lack thereof) of the Bible to whether or not America is a Christian nation. And the way I see it, regardless of the outcomes of these discussions it is a very positive thing for the religious to be in discussions with atheists in person, rather than only hearing what the preachers and the media have to say about us. We are putting a live, breathing, speaking human face on atheism in Kentucky.

And the discussions are great, but the best reward that we see daily are the surprised “thumbs-ups” and the grateful expressions of someone coming by and saying “I thought I was the only atheist in Kentucky.” This is the prize that makes all of the effort and debating worth it.

If you are interested in meeting with atheists and freethinkers in Louisville or in other areas of Kentucky, take a look at The Kentucky Secular Society and Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers.

IUS Darwin Day 2011

Last night I had the great pleasure of going to a Darwin Day event with the Freethinkers for Education and Morality at Indiana University Southeast. Yep, now that I am four years out of college new campus Freethought groups are sprouting everywhere, and I am excited! I am particular proud of this event since I introduced the idea and helped plan it.

There were actually two events. At lunchtime, the students set up a booth in the cafeteria to help educate and inform students while they were hanging around between classes. Unfortunately I was busy at work and could not go. However, Ed did go, and from what I heard he was a wonderful source of information and conversation. There students who came to the booth ranged in their responses from “this is cool!” to “Isn’t Darwin that evil guy?” to “Who is Darwin?” It really was a wonderful opportunity to reach out and promote scientific literacy and knowledge of the world.

The evening event included a presentation on the evidence for evolution by Ed, including a discussion of some of the best books to read to satiate one’s curiosity on the topic. Amber, president of the IUS Freethinkers group, talked about the lunchtime event and lead a discussion on learning and educating others in evolution. It was a lot of fun, and I am looking forward to participating in more groups like these in the future.

I have posted pictures of the event at my facebook page: The Skeptical Seeker. Perhaps soon I will have the pictures from the lunchtime event, and I will post them too.

Next, to plan Darwin Day with the UofL Society of Secular Students!