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What I learned at Skepticon 7

I just got back home from Skepticon 7 late last night, and now is the time to recover and reflect. (If you don’t know what Skepticon is, visit http://skepticon.org/what/.) This year they had lots of speakers that I had not heard before (despite having gone to plenty of atheist conventions and hearing the most famous speakers multiple times). There was a very good variety of speakers and I commend the organizers for putting together such a fantastic lineup!

Here are some of the main ideas and learnings that I took away from Skepticon 7.

I learned about Ben’s firsthand experience of a Humanist Service Trip with the Pathfinders Project. The trip included teaching kids, helping villages develop a system to access clean water, a visit to a camp for accused witches in Uganda (and the heartbreaking results of superstition), and building latrines in Haiti. Also, a dangerous bout with malaria, reinterpreted as a process of personal transformation. Honestly, I am starting to cry as I write this, it was so heartwrenching and inspiring at the same time. So go to http://pathfindersproject.com and check out what they are doing. (Ben ‘Sweatervest’ Blanchard)

I learned that experiments with rats that show them helping other rats get out of a trap show that empathy and helping are hard-wired into mammals and do not require fancy cognition or culture. (Peggy Mason)

I learned that a careful analysis of studies that address the correlation of religion and wellbeing shows that when atheists are actually included in the studies and when the survey questions are relevant to atheists, the commonly media-touted claims about the religious being mentally healthier than atheists falls apart. It is a stable worldview is correlated to mental wellbeing, not a commited faith. (Melanie Brewster)

I also learned a concept of ‘minority stress’ that can affect atheists because of pervasive religous and anti-atheist prejudices in American culture. When atheists are compelled to self-censor out of fear of social censure from religous family or neighbors, and when they are exposed to frequent anti-atheist comments, the stress can cause mental and emotional damage. This is the major reason why atheist meetups and communities are important — they are safe spaces where atheists can get away from the sources of minority stress. (Melanie Brewster)

The distinction between natural and supernatural claims — between scientific and religous claims — is an illusion. There is no good reason not to think of the ‘supernatural’ (if it exists) as a natural realm that follows rules just like the natural world that we know. This idea has interesting implications for the sorts of claims that the religous make about God. (Scott Clifton)

I learned about ‘citizen science’ and there are websites like http://scistarter.com that anyone can go to to participate in the data-gathering process for scientific experiements, and participate in a casual or commited way depending on their own motivation and time. (Nichole Gigliucci)

I learned how an outsider to our culture can give a fresh perspective on the taboos and unspoken rules of our culture. (Heina Dababhoy)

I learned that ‘genderqueer’ is a gender category. I’d encountered the term before in blogs and speeches, but I never quite had a clear idea what it actually meant. I also learned that if you see something like ‘they/them’ in an online profile that means that those are the pronouns that the person wishes to be addressed by instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Also, that it is appropriate to ask a person identifying as genderqueer what pronouns they prefer if you are not sure. (Twitter conversations in the #sk7 hashtag)

And last but not least, I learned that Skepticon organizers and participants put on the best Prom ever! XD

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I am going to church tomorrow and here’s why.

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Over the past few weeks, the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Louisville held a fundraiser called “Send an Atheist to Church.” Here is the basic idea. There is a fundraising jar for four different religious groups: Baptist, Mormon, Muslim, and Catholic. Anyone could “vote” for groups with their dollars and whichever group had the most money in their jar at the end of the fundraiser would get to have some atheists attend a service at their place of worship. The money the fundraiser will be donated to the Kid’s Center for Pediatric Therapy.

The chart below shows the progress of fundraising from the start to the end of the fundraiser. The line at the top is a total of funds raised, and the other four lines correspond by color with groups listed below. End the end, $170 dollars was donated to the Kid’s Center for Pediatric Therapy and the Baptists came out on top. Tomorrow is the planned day for a few members of the SSA at UofL to uphold their end of the bargain and attend  Sunday services at a local Baptist church.

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I graduated from UofL several years ago, before there was a Secular Student Alliance there, so I am not a member of the SSA myself. However, as they have invited members of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers to participate I have decided to join in. I have pretty clear expectations for what the service will be like, because I was raised in The Church of the Nazarene which is very similar in service style to the Baptists. I expect the service will go something like this: announcements, then song service, offering, about a 30-40 minute sermon, prayer, and benediction. I expect the people will generally be friendly and welcoming. What will make this church visit different than all the previous times I have gone is that I will be going as a known atheist and I expect that will have some effect on the tone of interactions with the people there. I wonder if the paster will make any changes to the sermon in light of the fact that there will be a handful of open atheists among the congregation. In fact, I expect the people will probably be extra friendly for that reason in order to put on a good impressions and make sure we know that Jesus loves us.

I’ll post an update tomorrow on how it goes.

 

Religion and Violence

Dr. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of several books about religion. He is a former Pentecostal preacher and child evangelist. He has a Doctor of Philosophy in Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. Avalos is an internationally recognized opponent of neo-creationism and the intelligent design movement, and is frequently linked to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist and proponent of intelligent design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.

Dr. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of several books about religion. He is a former Pentecostal preacher and child evangelist. He has a Doctor of Philosophy in Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. Avalos is an internationally recognized opponent of neo-creationism and the intelligent design movement, and is frequently linked to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist and proponent of intelligent design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.

This post is a continuation of my learnings from the 2013 American Atheists Convention. The next speaker I will discuss is Hector Avalos, and his ideas on how religion can be a cause of violence.

I always brace a bit when the subject of religion and violence come up, as I have from time to time heard some hyperbolic statements about how all wars are caused by religion. Such statements are not true historically or in any other way, and Dr. Avalos made it clear that he was not proposing that all violence is caused by religion or that religion does always leads to violence.

With that being said, Hector rejects up front the claims of the moderately and liberally religious that the violent fanatics are not following a true form of their religion, on the basis that this is merely a faith-based claim and not grounded in any evidence. You could make just as valid a case to say that the more violent version of the religion is the true form, and that the peaceful members are hertics and hypocrites. It is a wonderful thing for religious believers to be peaceful, but this in and of itself does not prove that it is the ideas of the religion lead to their peaceful behavior.

The core idea of Hector’s talk is that when religious ideas cause violence, it is because they have created a scarce resource. Things like water, oil, and diamonds are normally what people think of as resources over which wars may be fought; however, the scarce resources created by religion are usually much more ethereal then any of those items. Here is a short list.

  • Salvation
  • Sacred Space/Land
  • Group privilege
  • Access to God’s will.

As an example of how violence can be caused around “access to God’s will,” read Deuteronomy 18:20.

But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I [God] have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

One has to wonder how would anyone else, not themselves being privy to what God might have spoken to this person, would know which prophets are true and which were lying. And of course anyone speaking in the name of one of those other gods was automatically out. And notice that the penalty against such people who spoke for God without proper authorization was the ultimate in violent acts. They will be put to death.

Dr. Avalos also cited a similar text from the Koran.

For an example of how sacred land can be a scarce resource over which the religious wage battle, one only needs to look at the current and ongoing situation in Israel/Palestine. The fact that rival religious groups hold sacred claims to the same land, on which they are therefore unwilling to compromise because the claims are sacred, is clear enough to demonstrate that religion can cause and perpetuate violence over such a scarce resource.

Salvation, at least as taught in non-Universalist Christian churches, is a scarce resource as it is considered vitally important to a person’s temporal and eternal well-being and is not evenly distributed. Christian teachings (which vary depending on the sect) teach that one must do and believe certain things in order to obtain it. One kind of example of violence brought on by belief in non-universal salvation can be seen in the behavior of certain parents who abuse or abandon their non-believing children. And not even necessarily because the parents don’t love their kids, but due to the idea that if the kids do not believe the parent’s religion they are in danger of eternal damnation if drastic and harsh measures are not taken by the parents. Even in less drastic situations, differences in opinion about religious claims can lead to tremendous amounts to hurt and anger. If it were not for such uncompromising and “sacred” claims about the ethereal and unknown, much suffering could be avoided.

In response to the ways religions can and do cause violence, Dr. Avalos recommends that we totally repudiate and reject any and all scriptures that advise or excuse violence, and not try to reinterpret them as the moderate and liberal religious do. For the record, I think he is right.

From The Thinking Atheist: The Phone Call

This conversation, in who knows how may houses across America? How many grown sons and daughters get guilt and shame from their parents just for coming to their own conclusions about religion? How many families divided over differences of opinions on the invisible and unknowable?  For deciding that what they were taught about an invisible divine being makes no sense? For being atheists? It’s all too familiar, and breaks my heart.

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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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Diversity in Atheism #aacon2013

Here is what I learned at the American Atheists 2013 Conference about what we can do to increase the diversity of the movement. 

David Tamayo: President and founder of Hispanic American Freethinkers, a national nonprofit educational organization with emphasis on serving the Latino community.

David Tamayo: President and founder of Hispanic American Freethinkers, a national nonprofit educational organization with emphasis on serving the Latino community.

David Tamayo: A major way to reach out to Hispanics and help secularize Hispanic culture is to reach out to the girls and encourage them to enter math, science, and technology-related fields. It has been demonstrated that higher levels of education generally lead to higher levels of secularity in a population. This works as a counter to the “macho” Hispanic culture of sharply divided male and female roles which perpetuates a norm were women are expected to be both subservient to the men and to enforce the religious norms in the family, aka, be the one who drags the kids to church. David encourages women who are in the math, science, and technology fields to reach out and encourage Hispanic girls and show them that these are fields where women belong and where they can do well.

Mandisa Thomas is founder and president of Black Freethinkers, Inc and co-host of the Black Freethinkers BlogTalk radio show.

Mandisa Thomas: The way to reach out to the black communities is to focus more on their specific needs and concerns. Many times larger groups do not have the time and resources to focus specifically on black (or other minority) issues, but smaller groups within those organizations can focus on these areas. Having “side” groups that are a part of larger atheist groups and are specifically for women, or blacks, or other subgroups is good for meeting specific needs and highlighting the diversity of the atheist movement.

Richard Carrier is the author of Sense and Goodness Without God, Proving History, and Not the Impossible Faith. He has a Ph.D. in ancient history and specializes in the modern philosophy of naturalism,  the origins of Christianity, and the intellectual history of Greece and Rome.

Richard Carrier is the author of Sense and Goodness Without God, Proving History, and Not the Impossible Faith. He has a Ph.D. in ancient history and specializes in the modern philosophy of naturalism, the origins of Christianity, and the intellectual history of Greece and Rome.

Richard Carrier: Atheism is now a community, and not just a bunch of isolated individuals, and we need to take care in how we are represented to the wider world. One way to do this is to support women atheists online by calling out mean and harassing behavior of atheists online. Show to the world, and to those who are being harassed that they do not represent us as a movement.

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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.

Out at the Y

I had a conversation with my personal trainer that touched on religion. It wasn’t intentional on my part, though I figure it probably had something to do with the fact that I was wearing my Kentucky Freethought Convention t-shirt. I had thrown the shirt into my bag for the previous Monday, but then didn’t go to the Y on Monday. So, that just happened to be the shirt I had in my bag when I went to my appointment Wednesday. I had a feeling in the back of my head that it might get a reaction, but I decided that was something I was fine with. I’m so used to being an out atheist I don’t even worry about getting outed much anymore.

And really there wasn’t an issue with the shirt. He did inquire about what it said (Kentucky Freethought Convention on front, listing of freethought and atheist groups in Kentucky on the back.) He made no comments about my shirt directly. (And just for context, we banter and talk about all kinds of different stuff during the sessions so this discussion was nothing really out of the ordinary.)

Near the end of the workout when I was finishing up with ten minutes on the stationary bike, he put it on the “Random Hills” program, making a comment that although the program is called “random hills” it’s always the same hills every time. And I’d read not long ago about how people see patterns in randomness and are really bad at telling randomness from non-randomness, so I couldn’t resist commenting on that fact (yes, I was letting my geek flag fly). People see patterns in randomness and think those patterns are there on purpose, while if you show them a non-random array of dots they will think it is random because they can’t find patterns. And somehow from that we got into talking about “how did they build the pyramids” and about the existence or not of aliens and the size of space and about when and how humans first became conscious. I can only speculate that evolution came into the conversation because my shirt shows an image of Darwin on the

2001: A Space Odyssey (comics)

2001: A Space Odyssey (comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

front. My trainer mentioned that he thought the original spark of consciousness would be like in *2001 A Space Odyssey* where the ape suddenly became aware of itself. I pointed out that it was not just *a* moment, but a progression of many, many changes over time–a gradual blending of one species into another. He seemed shocked to hear that I think other animals have at least some consciousness and that there is not a strict, total divide between humans and other species. And then he made some comment about his god and asked how I thought Intelligent Design worked into all of this? I said I don’t think it does, and pretty much just left it at that.

I just never know what kind of conversations I am going to get into next. I wonder if any of this will come up in future sessions? I wouldn’t mind, because I really enjoyed this experience and I love having these kind of conversations. One thing is sure, even though the word “atheist” never came up in conversation, I am definitely out at the Y now.

Afterlife Video by The Thinking Atheist

Apologies for the lack of new content as of late. For the past couple of months I’ve put most of my website and blogging energies into the sites for Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers and the Kentucky Secular Society.

In the meantime, until I get a new blog post cooked up, here is a touching video from the Thinking Atheist about the idea of an afterlife and about what gives meaning and purpose to life. Enjoy :)

 

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Living the Life of Reason

To live more rationally.

It’s not really a New Year’s Resolution, but something that has been on my mind a lot lately. What does it mean to live the life of Reason? Yea, I capitalized it, though that seems a bit archaic and, well, 18th century. I am not a woman of faith, but of reason. Truth is I never put much store by faith. I will accept something tentatively without evidence or reason for a while, but if evidence is not forthcoming I will eventually drop it and move on to something else. With a mindset like that, it is only natural that I rejected religion and am now an atheist.

I was raised to accept things by faith. It is easy. Lazy even. When I was a child I naturally believed what the authority figures told me, whether they ware teachers, parents, or the evening news. Questioning did not come naturally to me, at least not until what I was being told felt bad or contradicted what I wished to be true. What I thought should be true. I would accept things on faith. When I prayed and I felt good and felt forgiven it was proof to me that the prayer was effective and that the God I prayed to was real. But as I got older this “proof” became less and less effective, as it was not backed up by anything else that I did not recognize as my own internal state.

I still feel the influence of these teaching of faith, and I face daily the temptation to believe things based on how I feel at the moment. That can be maddening at times, since I have some crazy mood swings. There are days when I am energized and want to take on the world, and there are other days when the world is black and I wish I could just sleep and never wake up. Of course, I have never actually tried to prevent myself from waking up, because I always have Reason to tell me that I am in a depressed state and the world will look brighter tomorrow. Reason is the beam of light at the end of the tunnel.

My decision making is still largely based on how I feel in the moment. My tendency is to gather information and analyze up to a certain point, then I get overwhelmed by the information and the work and end up just deciding based on how I feel. This method has actually served me well in many decisions. It saves time and effort. In some cases though, I need more information, and more analysis. Should I change careers? Would I be happier and more satisfied doing something else? What about going back to college? I’ve found this in my professional life too…making assumptions about what feels reasonable can come back and bite you later. It HAS come back and bit me.

To me, living the life of Reason means more than merely rejecting superstition. That is now the easy part, second nature (though it was not easy at first!). It’s time to move on now, and keep applying Reason to all my other beliefs. Beliefs about myself. About politics, environmentalism, finances, everything. About morality, ethics, human rights, feminism, daily living. Assume nothing. Question everything.

So, as part of my New Year reflections, I am pondering what it means to live the Life of Reason.

What it means:

  • Pausing to think though my actions, rather than just being compelled by the feeling of the moment.
  • Riding out mood swings with a sense of sanity.
  • Being more in control of myself.
  • Pausing to question and check up on claims before believing them and sharing them on Facebook.
  • Always learning more.
  • Having the courage to scratch the surface of my core beliefs without fear of falling into a void (or going to hell, whether in the metaphorical or literal sense).

What it does not mean:

  • Requiring absolute certainty before making a decision. That way leads to paralysis.
  • Rejecting emotion. Emotion is important, and necessary for decision making. Logic is important, but without emotion and compelling reasons to act it is blind and lame.
  • Being an insufferable know-it-all.

I’ll probably think of more things that living the life of Reason means over the next few days, but this is a start.