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!

Friends at the War on Women Rally

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).

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!

My Take on the Alabama Atheist Billboard

Here is the latest billboard from American Atheists, to advertise their first regional convention in the south, the Southeast Regional Atheist Meet. In the interest of full disclosure, I have been a member of American Atheists for several years and they are an organization I am proud to support.

I have somewhat mixed feeling about this particular billboard. On the one hand, I think it is a good thing for atheists to be able to stand up and proudly state that we do not believe in any of the religions. Especially in the largely religious south, where atheists are particularly nervous about “coming out” for fear of being judged as a bad person or worse.

On the other hand, I can see why religious people may be legitimately offended by it. Not that there is any right in this country not to be offended. Given the reaction of some religious people in Louisville to the LouisvilleCOR billboard, which stated “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone,” there are clearly those who are offended by any statement that atheists exist and that atheism as a good thing. As far as this billboard goes, I fear that it paints with a too broad of a brush. I think the claims of religions are all false on their face, but there a lot of people who reinterpret and reinvent their religions with a more humanistic and humane interpretation.  It would be a shame for us to isolate those who identify with some sort of religious tradition but still might be our allies on issues such as the separation of church and state. Maybe I would prefer if the wording on the billboard were different, and that the use of all-caps were nixed. But I also have to be honest in saying I have not yet come up with a good slogan that would fit in one line on a billboard.

On the whole though, I like the billboard and I think it has done well in its purpose of drawing new members into American Atheists and in creating a media buzz that reaches far beyond Huntsville, Alabama.

You can read more about the billboard here (I actually just found this page, and they do address the concerns I brought up about more liberal religions. It is worth a read.):

Yes, Atheists *Should* Advertise

We need to frame our issues in our own terms, and not accept the words that our enemies want to use to describe us. If keep our mouths shut and stay under the radar, they will be more than happy to tell everyone what we are all about. Whether this happens though outright attacks or though concern trolling, it will not be flattering or helpful to our cause. For this reason, we must not fear charges of “atheist evangelism” or of “salesmanship” (as alleged by Josh Jones in his commentary on the Louisville COR billboard)

From Don’t Let Sleeping Metaphors Lie:

Language describes reality. That is its primary, most self-evident function. We use words to define for ourselves, and communicate to others, what’s going on out there. Less evident, but almost as potent, is language’s role in shaping reality. The meaning of what is out there changes with the words we choose to describe it…
Language frames politics, of course. In the struggle to win over the public and brand their positions, those seeking to outlaw abortion became “pro-life” and those seeking to keep it legal became “pro-choice.” Using these terms in any other context will seem weird. (“I’m very pro-choice; I love the combination menu at Burger King;” “I’m pro-life, that’s why I don’t wear fur.”)

I’ve long thought that allowing and accepting the anti-abortion block to adopt the term “pro-life” has been detrimental to the struggle to keep abortion legal. I mean, if you look only at the words themselves, which is more important, “choice” or “life?” As anyone who has read the stories of women who have needed abortions should see, those terms do not even come close to describing the reality of the situation.

Atheism has had some of the same framing issues as the fight to keep abortion legal. Commonly heard phrases containing the word atheist, which I thought up off the top of my head, include:
“angry atheist”
“atheistic communism”
“avowed atheist”
“strident atheist
“arrogant atheist”
“New Atheists”
“Militant Atheists”

It’s no wonder so many atheists are timid about coming out! Speaking from my own experience, it took me a long time to dissociate atheism from anti-Americanism. I grew up not only seeing Christianity wrapped in the American flag, but whenever threats to our country were discussed I’d hear about the “atheistic” or “godless” communists. Besides that, I never heard of atheism at all when I was a child except in a pejorative sense.

Now, one item in the list above, “New Atheists,” can be taken positively or negatively depending on your point of view. But it seems to me that most of the time I hear it, it seems to be accompanied by a disparaging tone.

We have our positive phrases too.

The Happy Heretic (Thanks to Judith Hayes)
“Happy Humanist”
“Positive Atheism”
“Reality-based Community”
“New Atheists” (Included here because it is also used in a positive sense sometimes :))
“avowed atheist” (Also included here for the same reason as the item above.)
“It’s OK to be an atheist”
“Atheists are beyond belief”

I’m having a bit more trouble thinking up the positive memes without relying on Google, which is just a sign that we have let our opponents frame the issue for far too long. If we atheists ever want to be accepted as a legitimate part of society, if we ever want to get rid of the stigma associated with atheism, we need to be out there spreading our memes to the public and defining ourselves in our own terms. And the concern trolls who are worried about us offending religious sensibilities by merely advertising that we exist can go away, because I’m not listening.

Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.

Doing what I can

As anyone who has seen my tweets or Facebook page yesterday knows, I have added a new role to my personal resume. Yesterday, I got up at 6am and went down to the local abortion clinic and volunteered as a clinic escort.

I didn’t even know this opportunity existed until last Tuesday, when a lady at my Atheists and Freethinkers meetup spoke up about the situation at the clinic in Louisville. I sought her out after the meetup and talked about what was going on. I found out that every morning that the clinic is open, there are protesters standing outside the door harassing women who need the services provided within. And that there are a handful of people who regularly volunteer as escorts to help these women get though the gantlet and exercise their autonomy. So, I decided to get up early on Saturday and see for myself what was going on. The lady I meet at the meetup keeps a blog about the goings-on at the clinic, so if you want a good general idea of what I saw yesterday morning  Every Saturday Morning is a good place to start.

It was not until May 31 this year that I really got galvanized on the abortion rights issue. That was the day that Dr. Tiller, at the time one of only three doctors who perform late-term abortions in America, was murdered right in his church on Sunday morning. To be perfectly honest, I’d never even heard of the man before, nor had I known just how rare were doctors who provided late-term abortions.  I was actually very ambivalent about late-term abortion and whether it should be legal or not, until I read the stories of the women and the men who love them who went to Dr. Tiller for help. He knew the danger that he was constantly in, as previous attempts had been made on his life. I could not help but admire the man and the risk we was willing to take for women’s health and lives.

You can read and watch about Dr. Tiller and the lives he has touched here, and here, and here.

What I found particularly hateful and repugnant about this murder was the reactions and words of some of the leaders of the “pro-life” movement. I wrote a bit about that in this previous post, and the way I felt about it when I wrote that post has not changed.

So after all this, when I saw that I had this sort of opportunity to stand up for the rights of women, I had to stand up and take it. I’ve never felt so galvanized about anything in my whole life. It’s the bit I can do and I’m doing it!