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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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2012 Reflections

I have a short memory. I usually roll along in the moment, taking in questions, problems, and ideas as they come to me. More than once in the past few weeks I have had a conversation with a friend or coworker, only to have them come back to continue the conversation after a pause of a few minutes, but my mind has already moved on to something else. What were we talking about? I’m not sure if this is a symptom of our fast-paced short-attention-span society or if it’s just how my mind works anyway.

So, with that in mind I thought it would be a good idea to take a good look at what happened in 2012, so as not to rush headlong into 2013 without pausing for a moment’s reflection. After taking some time to brainstorm and look though my old posts, here is a summary of what happened in my life over the past year in rough chronological order.

Lasik – January

This time last year, I was preparing to go under the laser in early January. I have been dependent on glasses for all daily activities that require sight since I was about eight years old, and I got tired of it. In late 2010 I decided to ask my optometrist about the possibility of getting Lasik surgery, and that got the ball rolling. After a few months my vision finally stabilized. My eyes are no longer dry, and I will be going to the optometrist for my one-year Lasik checkup in about a month. I have loved living without relying on glasses!

You can read about my Lasik experiences here: Tag Archives: Lasik

Reason Rally – March

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In March I had the great pleasure of attending the Reason Rally, the largest gathering of atheists and non-religious people ever. And it was a blast! Even after going to atheist conferences and been quite used to having atheist company for years, it was quite a wonderful experience to be surrounded by such a sea of secularism. For more about the Reason Rally, check out The Reason Rally: No Fair-weather Atheists Here!

Reasonable Living – March

Starting in March, a former Baptist teacher/minister who has been a member of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers for some time now started a Sunday morning group to discuss Humanist ethics, values, and how to live the good secular life. Since then, this group has been a regular part of my life, and it deserves a mention in the top events of my life in 2012. You can read more about Reasonable Living here: Reasonable Living and Intentional Community.

Women in Secularism Conference – May

In May I got to attend the Women in Secularism Conference, which was also my first conference with the Center for Inquiry. This was a unique conference to discuss the contributions and roles of women in the secular movement. I wrote about my experiences and ideas from this conference in Ideas from the Women in Secularism Conference.

Doctor Who – May

I started watching Doctor Who in May. Actually, I was watching The Empty Child from season 1 on the airplane home from the Women in Secularism Conference, and that was the episode (along with The Doctor Dances) that got me hooked. Thanks to Doctor Who and Tumblr, I have learned such concepts as “fandom” and “cosplay.” I have TARDIS Christmas tree lights, and my stepkids got my a cardboard standup TARDIS for Christmas. Yep, I am having a lot of fun with this.

Marriage on my Birthday – June

In June, one of my husband’s older sons got married, and on the same day as my birthday, too. It wasn’t planned that way, but it was a great party. :)

Kentucky Freethought Convention – October

In October, I got to help out with the planning and execution of the first ever Kentucky Freethought Convention which was a great success!  You can view the presentation videos on Vimeo, and read about it at Kentucky Freethought Convention Wrapup.

I bought a car! – October

In October, I bought my first new car! It’s a Subaru Outback, and I am very pleased with it. :)

Skepticon V – November

Ed and I attended Skepticon in Springfield, MO for the second year in a row this year. Skepticon is always a great time! You can read all about it at Skepticon 5: Science, Atheism, and Doctor Who?

The world didn’t end! – December

Despite all the doomsday prophecies, the world did not end on December 21, 2012. Still we had a great End of the World/Holiday Party at my place on the Winter Solstice.

Now, on to 2013! 

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Skepticon 5: Science, Atheism, and Doctor Who?

This past weekend, I attended Skepticon 5 with my husband and around 1,500 fellow atheists, skeptics, and Freethinkers. This is the second time we have attended the free (yes, FREE), student organized conference in Springfield, MO, and we were not disappointed. For anyone reading who is not familiar with this conference, Skepticon is a free annual convention held each November in Springfield, MO and this was its 5th year running. It was started by the atheist student group at Missouri State University, and continues to be run by an entirely volunteer staff as a labor of love. If you would like to know more about the history and background of Skepticon, there is a full write-up on the official Skeption site.

So, when a bunch of atheistic and science loving folks get together, what do we like to talk about? If you have a picture in your mind of 1,500 people listening to presentations on 50 more reasons god doesn’t exists, then you don’t know us very well.

Topics of presentation included (not comprehensive, just the talks I got to see):

  • how to present atheism and the value of critical thinking to children (Phil Ferguson) *this is a clarification on Phil’s topic
  • the importance of community to atheists (James Croft )
  • how to be more rational in your everyday life (Julia Galef)
  • marriage and relationships from a rationalist perspective (panel on marriage and relationships),
  • the science and possible medical uses behind hallucinogenic drugs (Jennifer Oulette),
  • how to help atheist students thrive in high school and college environments (Hemant Mehta),
  • the different ways a genetic mutation can spread though a population over time (PZ Myers),
  • the common misuse of evolutionary psychology in popular media (especially how they perpetuate stereotypes about women) (Rebecca Watson),
  • the real history and causes behind werewolf and witch history in Europe (Deborah Hyde),
  • the basics of what the Higgs Boson is and why is it is so important (Sean Carrol),
  • basic historical methods that can be used to examine any claim (Richard Carrier),
  • how to be effective in debates (Matt Dillahunty),
  • getting over religious guilt and shame about sexuality (Darrel Ray),
  • the rights of atheists in the workplace (Amanda Knief),
  • and, of course, how to counter common religious arguments (JT Eberhard).

I’m not going to give a detailed description of each talk, since that has been done already on other blogs. Also, all of these videos will be made available on YouTube soon (I’ll post links when I find out they are available.)

Here is a sampling favorite learnings and memories from Skepticon 5:

  • JT Eberhard: “We have infinitely more evidence for love than we do for god,” just before he proposed to his girlfriend from the stage.
  • I learned from Sean Carrol’s talk that what we know of Quantum Field Theory essentially rules out any scientific possibility of things like telepathy, telekinesis, and life after death. There are still plenty of unknowns, but the possibility of there being undiscovered fields or particles that would result in those types of phenomena have been effectively ruled out.
  • Matt Dillahunty’s mix of card tricks and debate tactics. Seriously, I need to watch that again.
  • Once again PZ Myers exposes the dishonesty of creationists in misinterpreting scientific findings. Evolution, FTW!
  • I learned from Deborah Hyde about the medical, historical, political, and religious history behind the werewolf tales and witch trials (apparently there was overlap between werewolves and witches) in Europe. Did you know that supposed “werewolves” were once thought to have a medical condition called Lycanthropy and people have thought they were wolves on the inside though they looked normal outside? And that lycanthropy tales also played a role in the Inquisition and supposed werewolves were persecuted by the church just like supposed witches?
  • I learned from Richard Carrier the basics of how to apply historical methods to historical claims. And how this is important for any citizen to know, to prevent unscrupulous people from either making up history or misapplying history to promote their own ideologies (Christian nation, anyone?)
  • The Doctor made an appearance at Skepticon! Somehow, I always knew the Doctor was an atheist. (“Doctor Who?” you ask? Exactly. ;) ). Seriously, there were Doctor Who references all over this year’s Skepticon. Even the ring that JT Eberhard used to propose to his girlfriend had a message in it in Gallifreyan. There is a great picture of it here: Gallifreyan Engagement Ring.

Oh, and as a side note, I came out with shot glasses for the 4 Atheist Ponies of the Apocalypse. Can you tell who is who?

UPDATE: The video from Skepticon is currently available on the Skepticon LiveStream channel.

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/

Happy New Year!

There is nothing really special about New Year’s day. We add 1 to the number that represents the year, life goes on, and somewhere around March we start writing the dates correctly on our checks. (Assuming we still write checks :)). But regardless of the total arbitrariness of the day, it is still a great time to reflect on the past 12 months and make plans and goals for the next.
Here I have listed a few of my reflections on the past year, and my goals and aspirations for the next.

Highlights of 2011:

  • Record attendance at the best American Atheists convention ever, at which my husband and I signed on as life members.
    English: The American Atheists atom symbol wit...
  • My first time to attend Skepticon!
  • Kentucky Secular Society was granted official non-profit status from the IRS (even after some rather humourous questions in their letter requesting further information).
  • For the first time, we hosted the family Thanksgiving at my house, and I roasted my first turkey. And was very pleased with how it turned out. :-)
  • And, of course, the word did not end nor did the rapture happen, much to the disappointment of the followers of Harold Camping.

My Goals and Aspirations for 2012:
  • Getting my vision corrected with Lasik in January! For once I will be able to see clearly as soon as my eyes open in the morning. That is something I have not had since before I was eight years old, and I am excited.
  • Attend the Reason Rally in March!
  • Attend Skepticon V.
  • Continue to write more in the blog. For most of 2011 I neglected to write much of anything, but I have started to turn this around in December. I intend to continue to write frequently using series such as “Why I am an Atheist” and in dialogue with other bloggers such as The Warrioress.
  • In general to focus more on the positive and uplifting in my inner thought life, and less on the negative.

Here’s to a happy, sucessful, prosperous, godless New Year!

My Take on the “Straw Vulcan”

I was thinking of doing a bit of a writeup on the “Straw Vulcan” talk but it looks like Greta Christina beat me to the punch. I hate to merely regurgitate what I have read on someone else’s blog, but I do have a bit to add from personal experience. I have always been a bit puzzled and irritated by depictions of reason and logic as being cold, inhumane, and totally oblivious to all human desire and opposed to all emotion. Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek is a good example (though I think the character has improved with time), but I can think of another more recent example in the movies. I am thinking of a scene in I, Robot (2004, staring Will Smith).

The movie is not based exactly on Isaac Asimov’s book I, Robot but it does borrow from his famous “Three Laws of Robotics.” A robot in Asimov’s model must obey these laws because they are built into their positronic brains. If a robot were to somehow fail to obey one of these laws, for instance if a robot fails to prevent harm from coming to a human being, it causes a conflict in the brain that can totally destroy the robot. Most of Asimov’s stories center around robots being put into situations where they face a dilemma in obeying the Three Laws.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

To make a long story short, the society in which Detective Spooner (Will Smith) lives is manufacturing and using a bunch of pretty humanoid robots to do errands, housework, etc, for their human owners. Spooner does not like the robots, and it turns out he is right to be a bit paranoid. The robots are all hooked up to a huge super-smart, super-logical supercomputer called V.I.K.I. (acronym for something, but I do not remember what), who, after much thought, comes to the conclusion that humans are a danger to themselves and that the only way for “her” to obey the First Law of Robotics is to make all humans captives in their homes so that they cannot harm themselves or others. She claims that her logic is perfect, and no one ever challenges her on that front. (Sonny, BTW, is a robot in the story who was programmed to “evolve” by his maker and has developed human-like feeling and self-identity. For more information, just watch the movie.)

V.I.K.I.: Do you not see the logic of my plan?
Sonny: Yes, but it just seems too heartless.

Movie quotes from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0343818/quotes

This bothered me. V.I.K.I.’s logic is NOT perfect here, as it is clearly based on a two-dimensional misunderstanding of humanity. Locking up humans against their will does do them harm, but no one seems to think of explaining that to V.I.K.I. Maybe if they had, she might have frozen up from inability to obey the First Law. Her conclusions were way off, and therefore her logic was clearly not perfect.

But is this how our society views logic and reason? I should hope not.

Anyway, here is a link to Greta Christina’s blog post, and below I have also posted the video of the original talk at Skepticon. Enjoy :)

“Give a Damn?” Documentary

Skepticon IV just kicked off last night, and in what I thought was a fairly unusual and unexpected way. There was a film screening of a documentary called “Give A Damn?” about 3 American guys who traveled across the eastern half of the US, Europe, and Africa on a very limited budget in an attempt to see and experience the poverty that a very large portion of the world’s population lives in every day. I the film was very well done, even though I have a few criticisms, and that you should go out and see it when you get a chance.

What I liked:

  • Picture of an unapologetic atheist and a couple of evangelical Christians working together to try to do something about a real world problem.
  • The idea that some fairly ordinary people can try to make a difference in the world.
  • I liked how Rob displayed how a traumatic experience can be dealt with and overcome without religious supports. (I am not saying what happened here…you have to watch the film to find out.)

What I didn’t like:

  • Even though there was an out atheist in the group, this is still a pretty explicitly Christian film. They rely on missionary contacts to get into each of the places in Africa that they visit and join them in their church services. I don’t recall from seeing the film last night if Rob (the atheist) sat in the back in any of the churches or just sat out that part or what.
  • Like just about every film about raising consciousness about extreme poverty (or whatever) that I have ever seen, I am still left with a slight feeling of “what now?” I can do the same as what I have always done before, as in give some money to a reputable charity online or participate in the micro-loan program mentioned in the Q&A. But what actually changes now?
  • I didn’t really see or learn anything in the film about third-world poverty that I was totally unaware of before.

A few neutral observations:

There was someone interviewed in the film that pointed out that these fairly rich and privileged Americans would not be able to truly experience third-world poverty because of their backgrounds. This comes out in the scenes where they realize in Europe that they will not be able to hitchhike from where they are and decide to remove “transportation” from their constraint of living on $1.25 a day and take a train. Clearly, that would not be possible if they were really living in poverty on $1.25 a day.

Also, I saw a lot in the film about how wonderfully happy and joyful the poor people in Africa and Europe are compared to the wealthy but miserable people in the United States. When I was watching Christian missionary film and reading books growing up this was a common theme, but I think it is not a fair comparison. The types of difficult life situations being faced by these people are not the same as the ones being faced by the typical American. One probably does get not get too anxious about their purpose in life and personal fulfillment when they are barely getting what they need to survive. And we know clearly that it takes more than having money and possessions to be happy–in the case of many if not most Americans that money comes at the cost of a great deal of work stress and other sorts of difficulties. You also have to take into account that the poor people in these villages were having a really unusual day or couple of days when these foreign visitors came by their village–this visit after all could be a sign of hope that their situation could change. I have to wonder what are their cultural mores regarding the display of emotion, especially to outsiders? What goes on in the village when there is not a camera present?

My thought is that if these people really were so happy the way that they are, why would we want to “improve” their situation–so that they can become miserable like us rich Americans? Of course, that is clearly a gross distortion of what is actually happening here. What I see in the film is people who could surely work their way out of their impoverished situation if only they where only provided the tools and education to be able to do so. Those of us in American would not be able to do it on our own either, but we benefit from a vast system of infrastructure and a stable economy and free education which we take entirely for granted if we are not careful. What I want to know is, what would it take to provide the same all over the world?

Film Website here: http://www.giveadamndoc.com/