Panoramic view of the stage and attendees of the Kentucky Freethought Convention on October 6, 2012.

Kentucky Freethought Convention Wrapup

After long months of planning and preparation, the day finally arrived. Yesterday, Saturday October 6th was the first ever Kentucky Freethought Convention. And what a success it was! While targeted primarily to freethinking Kentuckians, it was about the same size in attendance as the first national American Atheist convention that I attended three years ago. We even had a few attendees who drove all the way from West Virginia and Tennessee. The final attendance is estimated to be over 250.

Panoramic view of the stage and attendees of the Kentucky Freethought Convention on October 6, 2012.

There was a great mix of topics by a variety of speakers both local to Kentucky and nationally known.

Dr. James Krupa, Professor of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kentucky, spoke on the importance of quality education in evolution and science for students who are not majoring in science.

Edwin Kagin spoke about the origins and history of Camp Quest, a summer camp for the children of secular parents which focuses on the importance of science and critical thinking (along with other fun summer camp activities). Camp Quest was started in Kentucky and in the past 10 years has spread all over the United States and to Europe.

Seth Andrews, of the Thinking Atheist podcast and former Christian radio broadcaster, told of his experience of coming out as an atheist and of handling the conflict with family that this can sometimes cause. He also had a bit of fun poking fun at some of the most ridiculous expressions of religion in modern America.

Dr. Gretchen Mann, Chef Medical Officer at the Louisville Military Entrance Processing Station, discussed how she, along with the Military Religious Freedom Association and Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers put a stop to the active proselytizing by the Gideons of military recruits at the MEPS centers all over the country.

Annalise Fonza, former United Methodist clergywoman and current member of Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta, spoke about her past as a member of the clergy, the issues faced by nonbelievers in African American communities, and the importance of diversity in race, gender, and sexual orientation in the atheist movement.

Former Minister’s Panel.

As the last speaker for the day, Will Gervais,  Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kentucky. spoke about the recent psychological studies on societal perceptions of atheists, and the connection between analytical thinking and non-religious thought. I don’t have a picture for Dr. Gervais, but when I have one I will post it.

We all had a great time and made great connections with one another. I am looking forward to next year’s convention!

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Questions from Ky State Fair Visitors

 

Tonight I had my second shift volunteering at the KySS/LAF Kentucky State Fair booth. It was a great evening, and there was lots of great conversations with both believers and unbelievers alike. Somewhat in contrast to last year, we have gotten less of the “drive by’s” (as described in my last post) and more Christians (and one Jewish guy) coming to chat and ask a lot of questions. I’m not sure if it is because we are doing something different a bit different this year or if the visitors at the fair are getting more used to our presence, but I have detected less hostility this year and a lot more of apparently honest and curious questions from the religious.

This is a sampling of the questions that fair visitors asked me while this year (and a brief version of my typical answer):

  • Are you atheists?

Yes, we are atheists.

  • Why don’t you believe in God?

Lack of any evidence or reasons to believe that such a person or being exists. This is not how I worded it, and I went into rather more detail in the booth, but it essentially comes down to this.

  • How do you know what is good without God?

We define “good” in human terms. We don’t need a god to know what is good.

  • So you believe the apes came first? (I had to pause a moment to avoid laughing at this one.)

Yes, I accept the theory of evolution as the best scientific explanation we have of how we came to be.

  • What does he (referring to the Darwin statue) have to do with the rest of this (referring to the rest of the booth)?

Darwin was an agnostic atheist (during at least the later part of his life) who made great scientific contributions to the world. Our booth features atheists and freethinkers who have contributed to the sciences, arts, and the advancement of human rights.

Watching unsuspecting state fair visitor’s reactions to the very lifelike statue of Charles Darwin standing in front of our booth…priceless.

  • What do you think happens when you die? (I was asked this at least 4 times by different people tonight.)

I think that when we die we cease to exist, same as the state we were in before we were born. The only part of us that lives on is the change that we made in the world. And I am totally content with that.

  • If there is no God then where did we come from?

Generally though natural scientific processes like evolution, but I don’t really have a quick and easy answer to that question. And I don’t need to have a quick and easy answer to that question. Just because we don’t know all the answers does not mean we should fall back on “God did it.”

  • If there is no God where did the universe come from?

I don’t know. And answering a question that you don’t know the answer to with “God did it” is a very poor way of dealing with the question.

  • Do you believe in the Big Bang?

I understand the Big Bang as the best supported scientific explanation so far of how the universe came to be. And then I explained some about the cosmic background radiation, expansion of the universe, the predictive power of scientific theory, and a bit about why scientists mostly accept the Big Bang today.

EDIT: Here are a couple of questions I was asked by a couple of Christian teenaged girls that found their way to our booth. (They also repeated some of the questions above.) I forgot to include these last night but that I don’t want to leave them out.  

  • Why are you here (that is, why do you have a booth at the state fair)?

Our primary reason for being here is to reach out other atheists and freethinkers who are surrounded by religion in their daily lives and may not know that there are other people in this state who see the world the way that they do. The social and psychological pressures on atheists can be enormous in a situation where we must hold our thoughts to ourselves for fear of judgment or worse, sometimes from people like parents and bosses who hold a lot of power over our lives.

  • (As a followup to the question above) What was the reaction from your family when they found out you were an atheist?

In answer to this I briefly recalled the story about how my Mom found “infidels.org” in our computer history and asking me why I had chosen the “church of the infidel.” Yes, my newly-found perspective on the truth was not well received in my childhood home, though I know of others who have received much worse from going against the religious opinions of their parents. It caused a lot of tension until I finally moved out and got my own place, and it was helpful for me to find other people that I could talk to about it. Fortunately today I have a good relationship with my Mom and we generally avoid talking about our disagreements on religion.

In general these were nice, productive exchanges and I have a feeling that several believers left the fair with at least one positive experience with an atheist.

 

Sentience more important than Life

When I was growing up, I used to watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with my parents almost every Saturday. The shows that appealed to me most were the ones that dealt with some deep philosophical question, and I would keep thinking about these shows long after the episode was over. My favorite character in the show was Data, because he challenged my thinking about what is human, and what is a person. What is life? These sort of questions grabbed my imagination and have never let go.

Just the other day I saw a rerun of one of those episodes, one that I don’t recall specifically having seen before (I seldom remember the individual episodes as I wasn’t paying attention to that as a child.) This was one where the Enterprise was assisting with the setup of some fancy mining apparatus on some planet or other. A female alien had developed a robot to help with repairs and maintenance on the mining equipment. The robots were capable of learning, and could evaluate the situation and create the proper tool to deal with it in an extremely fast period of time. Data was working with her on the project and observed that one of these robots behaved in a way that he interpreted as being as self-preservation by “breaking” itself to avoid being sent into a dangerous situation and then repairing itself later when the danger was over.

This observation leads Data to start wondering if these robots are self-aware and if they may be considered to be life forms. This is a moral problem for him, since if the robots are life forms they should not be used as mere tools and put into dangerous situations without their consent. He goes to the ship’s doctor and asks her “What is life?” It’s an interesting question since he himself is an artificial life form, and she wonders about why he is asking. I liked the way that she answered. She says that no one has ever really answered the question of exactly what life is and what makes a being alive.

While I was going to the University of Louisville, I developed a strong interest in evolution and I registered to take a class called “Unity of Life” which was a class for biology majors on that topic. Since I had a full-time load of 12 hours for the semester, I could take on additional classes at no extra charge. (Unfortunately since I was starting to take difficult upper-level CIS classes, I had to drop my biology course for lack of time.) I did attend the first class though, and I recall clearly the opening discussion for the class. The professor opened the class by asking “What is life?” As it turns out, “life” is not nearly as easy a concept to define as you would assume. In grade school I learned that is something is alive, it means that it grows, metabolizes, reproduces, and passes hereditary material to its offspring. The reason a rock is not considered alive is because it does none of these things. But what about a virus, which is little more than some hereditary material, a protein shell, and a means of transmitting that hereditary material to a host cell? Is that alive?

We have developed our definitions of life by observing things that we consider to be living and describing what they have in common. But that is not a definition, any more than trying to define gravity as that which pulls objects to the ground. That is describing the effect of gravity, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what it is or what causes it. According to the understanding of modern biology, there is not a clear defining line between life and non-life. Look at our own bodies: we are live, our cells are alive, and I suppose the organelles inside the cells are alive. But these things are all made of atoms and molecules, and how could an atom of carbon or oxygen be said to be alive? All living things are made of non-living things. We evolved from the non-living, and we are still made of non-living material. Life is a manifestation of a particular organization of non-living things. When that organization breaks down, we die.

Data was concerned about the definition of life, and whether or not the robots designed to repair the mine were alive. I think he was asking the wrong question. The things that should be considered when determining if a thing should be considered morally is its capacity for sentience. Plants are biologically alive, but very few people would argue against killing them for food or other uses for that reason. What makes a person, a being to be considered morally before we use or kill it, is an ability to think, suffer or feel pleasure. Those are the things that matter.

What does atheism have to do with evolution?

In actual fact, very little. Let me explain.

At the American Atheists convention I wrote about in my previous post, I got a hear a few very good and thought-provoking speakers. One was Massimo Pigliucci, a scientist and professor who has advanced degrees in both biology and philosophy. There was something he said in his talk that was not shocking at all to me, but does disagree with the statements of some other big atheist names. That is, that atheism is a philosophical conclusion, not a scientific one. You can not infer that there is no god by looking only at the natural world. Which is not to say that he disagrees with the atheist position. He is one himself, and calls atheism a “imminently reasonable” conclusion, but a philosophical rather than scientific one.

I have put some thought into working out how evolution and religion have been set up against each other, and can offer some insight from my experience. My first exposure to the words “Theory of Evolution” was in a book called It Couldn’t Just Happen. I found it on a table at a convention for the Church of the Nazarene that I went to with my parents. I loved science, and this book had pictures of planets and animals and had beautiful glossy pictures like the science books I used at school. So I got my parents to buy it for me, and proceeded to practically memorize the entire text. I remember major points out of it even today, though I’ve not cracked the book open in about twenty years.

Here is the gist of the book: Life on the earth is far to special and complex to have just happened by chance. The theory of evolution is therefore impossible and is nothing more than a rebellion against God. Either the Earth and universe evolved (which we have demonstrated is absurd) or God created it. The God of the Bible, of course.

It was not until years later, in my college years, when I learned about the big bang and then read about evolution on my own that I discovered how totally wrong this book was. One of the multiple huge disillusionments I had about Christianity is that I realized I had been lied to and mislead about the scientific facts of the matter by a Christian author, for Christian purposes. And is was to me a huge betrayal of my trust.

My point here is that it was not authors like Richard Dawkins that linked science and evolution with atheism in my mind. It was authors like Lawrence O. Richards, who very early in my life linked evolution with rebellion against God. Richard Dawkins just confirmed what I had already been taught. And I think it bears some mentioning here that for fundamentalist believers, religion is a matter of scientific fact. If you take the biblical stories literally and seriously, it has to be. It’s not like it is that way for everyone, but the point needs to be made.

Now, if you are a non-fundamentalist Christian believer don’t get it into your head that since I accept that a religious believer can also be scientific that I’m going to convert back. There are lots and lots of other issues that would have to be addressed before I would give any religion even a sideways glance. Atheism may be a philosophical conclusion after all, but it is still one that is well informed by and consistent with scientific fact. In a way that religious belief is not.

Darwin Day 2010 at CFI Indy

Last Saturday I had the great opportunity to go to the Darwin Day 2010 conference in Indianapolis. It’s not the first time I’d made the two-hour trek from Louisville to Indianapolis for a Center for Inquiry event, but it is the largest event that I’ve seen there.

The itinerary for the event is here: Darwin Day 2010. Rather than merely give an overview of what each speaker presented, I am going to give highlights of what I thought were some of the most interesting and notable points. Continue reading

New Chapters in Life

Normally I’ve been writing a new post every weekend. However, last week I was on my honeymoon so I skipped the blog. Yep, I’m a married woman now, to a wonderful atheist man :)

I remember a previous huge step in my life was in University, where I learned things I’d never dreamt of before, and found my view on life to be entirely different than when I went in. The most striking thing I found to be changed in this period of time were my views on religion. I had a discussion not long ago with a Christian family member about the influence of professors on my views. I think it is just par for the course for professors to challange their students to see the world from a perspective they have never considered before. Continue reading