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Atheism and Science Communication #aacon13

Cara Santa Maria is the senior science correspondent for The Huffington Post, where she hosts and co-produces a weekly video series called "Talk Nerdy To Me." She's also a co-host on the new Weather Channel series, "Hacking The Planet."

Cara Santa Maria is the senior science correspondent for The Huffington Post, where she hosts and co-produces a weekly video series called “Talk Nerdy To Me.” She’s also a co-host on the new Weather Channel series, “Hacking The Planet.”

This post is a continuation of what I learned at the American Atheists 2013 convention. Cara Santa Maria was one of the speakers at AACON that I had not heard of before, though I’ve likely come across her writings at one point or another since I have visited the Huffington Post from time to time.

According to her bio on the list of convention speakers,

Cara Santa Maria is the senior science correspondent for The Huffington Post, where she hosts and co-produces a weekly video series called “Talk Nerdy To Me.” She’s also a co-host on the new Weather Channel series, “Hacking The Planet.” A North Texas native, Cara currently lives in Los Angeles. Prior to moving to the west coast, she taught biology and psychology courses to university undergraduates and high school students in Texas and New York. Her published research has spanned various topics, including clinical psychological assessment, the neuropsychology of blindness, neuronal cell culture techniques, and computational neurophysiology.

Just in the act of showing up at a national atheist convention, Cara demonstrates that is not necessary to hide or downplay atheism to be a successful science communicator. She also showed a method of counteracting wrong religiously inspired beliefs about science by showing a video that explains why the creationist claim about inaccuracies of  carbon 14 dating and other radiometric dating methods is wrong. These methods are used very accurately to date fossils and even the age of the earth. It is also a good video if you are interested in how radiometric dating works. I’ll add it to this post if I can find it online.

CaraSantaMariaTwitter

In my experience, education about science will inevitably push against religious beliefs. I have personal experience from my childhood about my father scoffing at “millions or billions of years” statements in science programs that we all enjoyed watching. There was also the recent discussion that touched on religious belief with my trainer that started merely with an offhand statement about how people do not recognize randomness when they see it. You can’t really discuss science without bumping against someone’s religious sensibilities, and this is something that science educators need to contend with.

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American Atheist Convention 2013 Writeup #aacon13

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This year’s American Atheist convention marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of American Atheists in the city where the party was started, Austin, Texas. It is also where I spent this past weekend. As always it was a great time, and even though I don’t get the same high as I once did from seeing a big room full of atheists when I first went to the AA Convention back in 2010, it is still refreshing to be among a group of people who are so refreshingly enthusiastic and open.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with atheist conventions may be asking what do atheists do and talk about in their conventions? The topics at this year’s convention included the importance of grassroots activism in the protection of the separation between church and state, how atheism is now a community rather than a set of isolated individuals (and what that implies), why evolution makes sense of the human body much better than “Intelligent Design,” multiple talks on how to continue to increase the diversity of the atheist movement, the relationship between atheism and humanism, and feminism. That is the short list. In the next few days (or when I get the opportunity) I’ll be writing in more detail about what I learned at the American Atheists Convention about these topics.

Of course the convention was not all sitting around and listening to speakers though. Evening activities included a pub crawl, concerts, a comedy show and a costume party.

Upcoming Women in Secularism Conference

Next weekend I will be attending the Center for Inquiry’s Women in Secularism conference in Washington DC.  I’ve been to multiple atheist conventions in the past, including the American Atheists Convention and Skepticon, but this will be the first time I’ve been to a conference focusing on the contributions of women to the secular movement.

Up to this point the secular movement has been focused mostly on single, individualistic, people who do not have children. This has been a setup that caters mainly to the needs of singles seeking a social scene, people who are willing to go to events alone, and people who are old enough to attend events in bars. And senior citizens and retirees, especially at meetings that have the word “Humanist” in the title. Unfortunately, many women though their 20′s-30′s have the brunt of child care responsibilities, and for social support and safety reason may not want to go alone to events with a bunch of strangers. And some women whose stories I have heard have not wanted to attend atheist meetups for the same sort of reason they might not want to step foot into a comic book store…there is the potential of meeting a bunch of geeky guys who see an unclaimed women in the room mainly as a potential date. (Just tread carefully here guys…) Or who could hear a great discussion points by a woman but can think of nothing but her appearance. (“You’re beautiful” is not an appropriate response to a woman who has just made an intellectual point.)

Fortunately as the secular movement has grown larger, there has been more focus on community building and issues that affect women have been brought more to the forefront. At the most recent American Atheists Convention, there was child care was provided by a local licensed nanny service. Other conferences, including this one, are having childcare expenses funded by the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Women’s contributions are being talked about more frequently. Convention organizers are making more of a deliberate effort to enlist women speakers.  And outspoken women leaders in the secular community have raised everyone’s consciousness about sexism among otherwise rational people.

It’s a step in the right direction.

For more reading on women and women’s issues in the secular movement:

Where are all the atheist women? Right here!

More Women in Skepticism Blog: This blog addresses myths and questions regarding sexism in the secular/skeptical community. I have learned quite a lot from following this blog.

SkepChick Blog: Not exclusively women’s issues, but a quick search of the site will find relevant posts.

See more information about the Women in Secularism Conference at http://www.womeninsecularism.org/

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.

Memorable Moments from the American Atheists National Convention

I have the privilege of attending the American Atheists national convention this year after the Reason Rally. Following the trend of the past couple years, AACON 2012 was the best attended AA conference yet. And, if I heard correctly, the largest atheist conference ever! It was too much for me to give a comprehensive report, but below I have posted my favorite parts of the conference with pictures where I was able to get them.

  • Taslima Nasrin describing her story of exile from her native country of Bangladesh for daring to speak out and write about the oppression of women due to religious customs there.
  • Keynote by Richard Dawkins, where he discusses (among other things) the fine line between being too strident and not strident enough.
Richard Dawkins at AACON 2012
  • Christina Rad was totally impressive, and also managed to sneak in two different topics: the state of and importance of religious liberty around the world, and a statistical demonstration of why US criminalization of drug use is failing compared to other countries that do not criminalize drug use.
  • The coming out of the pastors from the Clergy Project, including one on the panel who came out for the first time at the convention. The female pastor pictured below made a surprise coming out as an atheist for the first time using her real name rather than the pseudonym she had been using with the Clergy Project.
  • Impromptu breakout sessions at the last session to help coach anyone desiring to come out as an atheist to their friends and family and painlessly as possible.
  • Lawrence Krauss explaining why it is plausible that our universe came from nothing, because the more we learn about the universe “nothing” is a lot more interesting and dynamic than always we thought it was.

Lawrence Krauss at AACON2012

  • Sam Singleton comedy night!
  • Costume party! And I got to get my picture with Thor (aka AronRa)

  • Poetry by Victor Harris.
  • On the way home: Airport security officer in the DC Airport stopped me briefly to read my convention t-shirt. He approved 100% and was pleased to find out that atheists have conventions.

These are my top 10 favorite memories from  the American Atheists national convention. I am looking forward to next year in Austin, TX!

The Reason Rally: No Fair-weather Atheists Here!

Despite the cool temperatures and intermittent rain, a crowd numbering from 20,000-25,000 gathered on the National Mall to celebrate reason, science, and godlessness. And I was very pleased and proud to be there among them.

My husband and I at the Reason Rally.

It was quite an experience to be at the largest freethought gathering of all time, and I can only imagine what it was like for those who had never come to an atheist gathering. The first time I met another person that I could speak with about atheism, I was thrilled beyond belief. Walking into a room with a few hundred atheists at my first American Atheists convention three years ago was like a dream. But this was an experience beyond all of that.

The speakers were of a variety from scientists and professors like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers to singers like Shelly Segal and comedians like Eddie Izzard and Tim Minchin. This was a Rally for Reason, but not a dry intellectual unfeeling type of reason. It marks a landmark in a trend I have seen in the atheist movement. We are continuing to move beyond the intellectual halls and into the experience of everyday life. This movement is about reason and intellectualism, but also about community and life and emotion. The life of reason includes all of these things too. This is the “New Atheism.”

Bad Religion rocking the Reason Rally

You can find more information about the Reason Rally, and pictures of the speakers, performers, and massive crowd at ReasonRally.org.

Atheists in Religious Communities

American Atheists has had series of billboards in the past year that has been targeted to the members inside of religious communities that do not really believe the things that their religion claims. These billboards usually contain the words “You know it’s a myth” and have caused a media stir wherever AA has erected them. For the most part, these billboards have been targeted to the Christian population of the United States, but now the Muslim and Jewish communities have been explicitly targeted with two new billboards in Arabic and Hebrew.

I have a couple of comments on these. First, I am glad that they did away with all use of ALL CAPS on these. In general, the billboard design is a step up from other billboards that AA has promoted, from a purely aesthetic point of view. My favorite part of these billboards is the phrase “you have a choice.” Not only in Jewish and Muslim communities, but also in many Christian communities, any unbelievers (open or not) in their midst may get the message that they really do not have a choice.

From personal experience, when I was invited back to church after coming out as an atheist I had little doubt that the people in the church (at least some of them) genuinely loved and cared about me. I was not worried that I would be shunned or anything like that, like in the personal stories I have heard from those who were raised in stricter religious environments. However, there was a very strong sense that within the church community I would have to not only keep my mouth shut about what I really thought, but willingly expose myself to constant messages that the way I thought was wrong and evil and sinful. That I was sinful and at least somewhat evil. It was as if the church people were saying to me “We understand if you are having trouble believing, but your disbelief is a bad thing and something you must overcome. At least keep your mouth shut about it and be properly ashamed about your inability to believe.” It was not a message I could live with. I’m not saying that the message was necessarily intended that way, but there was always a strong sense of “we love you and we know what is best for you, even if you don’t agree with our judgment.”

American Atheists has been criticized about these billboards as if being exposed to such a message as “God is a myth” is going to take away all faith and comfort from believers who see it. I would say that if a billboard was enough to take away a person’s faith then that person’s faith was very weak to start with. What seems to be the really offensive thing to the religious is that  the atheists are saying that people don’t need God or god, and they don’t need religion to be good people. The religious leaders in particular will rail against this message, as it would make their role insignificant. But when you are the lonely atheist in a religious community, the notion that you have the ability to choose not to go along with the religious message is a powerful idea. That there could be others in your own community who think like you but only fear to speak up is an amazing thought. And the thrill of finding community with others among whom you can speak freely without fear and judgement is the best prize of them all.

 

For more information on the billboard campaign, visit You know it’s a myth — 2012 Billboards.

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See you at the Reason Rally!

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It is now only two weeks until the Reason Rally, and I am getting excited. At last year’s American Atheist convention, when Dave Silverman first announced the big plans, it seemed like the day would never arrive. One of my favorite things about this rally is that it is a movement rally, not just an event for a single organization. In fact, every major freethought and atheist organization is participating in this event. Given the rocky history among some of the atheist organizations in the past, this really is a big deal. The putting aside of differences and focusing on common goals is vital to show how many of us there really are in favor of the Separation of Church and State and rights for the non-religious. We are no longer scattered to and fro, separated from one another and keeping a low and silent profile to avoid being marked by the prejudices of religious friends, family, and employers. Yes, many people still face that situation, but it is changing. We are coming together and showing our numbers and will no longer tolerate being merely tolerated at the will of a religious majority.

Especially after the record-breaking turnout to the American Atheists convention last year, I am looking forward to seeing how many secular Americans come to the Reason Rally!

For more information on the Reason Rally including speakers, musical acts, and information on ride shares, please visit http://www.ReasonRally.org.