Sunny Drake’s “X”

I saw this hilarious fourth-wall-breaking one-man show on Saturday, as part of the Queer Arts Festival. It’s a weird little piece, cleverly self-referential, making great use of props and multimedia, with several stories evolving in parallel, occasionally meeting and influencing each other. In other words, right up my alley!

But in addition to all this, it’s very painful and personal, with the theme of addiction (specifically alcoholism) running through the main stories. And the thing is, those stories were extremely relatable, being all about the need to escape into a magical world where bullies don’t exist and you can be any beautiful pop princess you want; about it’s not just about you, and the harm you cause yourself does affect others; about how trying to quit and living in the real world will mean dealing with all the emotional issues that drove you to escape in the first place. So, check it out if you can. Whatever your vice is, this show will definitely speak to you. It made me reflect, made me feel, made my brain spin. That’s a Saturday night well spent.

PS: actually, maybe it made my brain spin a little too much because there were some parts I just couldn’t follow. The puppets in the magical world, for one were doing things that seemed unrelated to the humans’ doings. And the thing with the heart and the ribcage, what was that about? At first I relaxed and expected it all to come together eventually but it never did as far as I could tell. Part of me wants to watch it a second time to see if it might make more sense… but I think if I did it would lose its magic, so I’ll just let it go.

My 2014 Queer Film Festival Schedule

It’s that time of year again! Whoooooo!

And just FYI, I am planning to keep on writing reviews of the movies I see. I know, last year I fell way behind, though I did get them all done eventually… But I’ll do better this time, even if it means trimming the reviews themselves down a bit. Sometimes I have too many thoughts, y’know?

Thursday, August 14

Just the opening gala, and I am totally looking forward to it. I adored the original short, I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone / Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho, shown back in the 2012 VQFF.

Final choice: The Way He Looks / Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho

Friday, August 15

EITHER

a) Boys / Jongens (a coming-out-slash-first-love-story between two 15-year-old boys) and Eastern Boys, “a seductive drama/thriller/love story” with hustlers and gangs and commentary on France’s immigration policies.

OR

b) Appropriate Behavior (not sure what this one’s about. There’s lesbians and closet-related hijinks and pansexual explorations. I think it’s a comedy?); and A Street in Palermo / Via Castellana Bandiera, another lesbian comedy, this one satirising Italian society.

At this point I’m leaning towards international lesbian comedy. Besides, I’m less interested in Eastern Boys and I’ll have the chance to see Boys / Jongens later in the festival.

Final choice: Appropriate Behavior and A Street in Palermo / Via Castellana Bandiera

Saturday, August 16

I’ve got other plans that night, so I’ll only be able to see the early-early show, a documentary about Melbourne’s fat femme synchronised swim team, plus what looks like a bunch of sexy and/or funny shorts. Too bad, I would have liked to see GRIND: Hookup Shorts.

Final choice: Aquaporko! and Grrrls in Space

Sunday, August 17

Early-early show: Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, which is exactly what it says on the tin. Then it’ll be either:

a) Drunktown’s Finest, a drama of life, love and identities on a Navajo reservation; and A Self-Made Man, a documentary about transman Tony Ferraiolo and the trans youth he inspires,

OR

b) Test, a love story set in 1985 San Francisco; and Bad Hair / Pelo Malo, a Venezuelan story of economic inequality, intolerance, and a working-class boy who wants to straighten his hair and become a performer.

Both sets look good! However, I’m slightly leaning towards the gay stuff.

Final choice: Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, Test and Bad Hair / Pelo Malo.

Monday, August 18

EITHER

a) Boys / Jongens—see Friday above—and My Child / Benim Çocuğum, stories of families of LGBT people in Turkey. Probably not too different from last year’s Mama Rainbow,

OR

Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty, a documentary on sexuality, beauty and disabilities; and Out in the Night, the true story of the New Jersey 4.

Right, so I do want to see Boys, and why not get an extra helping of warm fuzzies with My Child?

Final choice: Boys / Jongens and My Child / Benim Çocuğum

Tuesday, August 19

EITHER

a) I Feel Like Disco, a disco-flavoured coming-of-age story, followed by Hey, Hey My Kid is Gay, a panel discussion of LGBTQ allies; and Love is Strange, a drama with older gay characters, starring John Lithgow,

OR

b) Boy + Sikat + Das Phallometer (3 shorts, the first of which is a drama of ambition and opportunism) and Pierrot Lunaire: Butch Dandy (a “gender-bending operatic thriller” adaptation of Andy Schoenberg’s poetic melodrama Pierrot Lunaire), which looks too weird to pass up. And I don’t even know what the hell Das Phallometer is about, except it adds up to “weird and German.” Suits me fine!

Final choice: Boy + Sikat + Das Phallometer and Pierrot Lunaire: Butch Dandy

Wednesday, August 20

EITHER

a) Changemakers (a selection of local queer documentary makers) and The Coast is Queer (films by local queer filmmakers)

OR

b) Test (see Sunday above) and Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger, a look at the amazing artist and activist Kate Bornstein.

Easy decision, though. You don’t think I’d miss The Coast is Queer, do you? I mean, I’m skipping the last day of grass volleyball league to catch this show, that’s how much I want to see it.

Final choice: Changemakers and The Coast is Queer

Thursday, August 21

EITHER

a) The Way He Looks (see Opening Gala above) and Eastern Boys (see Friday above)

OR

b) The Centrepiece Gala, Children 404, an documentary on the lives of queer children and teens in Putin’s Russia, focusing on an online support forum of the same name currently under legal attack by the authorities.

This one’s easy as well: I’ll already have seen The Way He Looks and I’m not that interested in Eastern Boys.

Final choice: Children 404.

Friday, August 22

EITHER

a) Tru Love, a lesbian love story set in Toronto; and Quick Change, a drama set in Manila’s underground trans women community.

OR

b) The Third One / El Tercero, a sexy and romantic Argentinian drama; and Salvation Army / L’armée du Salut, a gay drama of identities, race, class and domestic abuse, set in Morocco and Switzerland, and based on an award-winning novel.

Final choice: tentatively, The Third One / El Tercero and Salvation Army / L’armée du Salut.

Saturday, August 23

Early-early show: POWER, “an edgy, hip-hop cabaret show” featuring a diverse youth cast, taking place in East Van with what looks like a strange meta storyline. Then it’ll be either:

a) The Dog, a documentary about John Wojtowicz the man who robbed a bank, served 20 years in prison and got played by Al Pacino in 1975′s Dog Day Afternoon; and Winter Journey, a weird Russian love/hate story between a refined opera singer and a street thug

OR

b) Of Girls and Horses, a German coming-of-age lesbian tale set on a horse ranch; and Anita’s Last Cha Cha / Ang Huling Cha Cha ni Anita, a little rural Bulacan slice-of-life “with a few touches of magical realism thrown in”. Sounds nifty.

I think I’ll go with the lesbian stories this time around. I’m a bit curious about The Dog even though I’ve never seen Dog Day Afternoon, but Winter Journey might be too dark and gritty for me… plus I’m kind of in the mood for super-atmospheric, simple-storied German lesbian cinema.

Final choice: POWER, Of Girls and Horses and Anita’s Last Cha Cha / Ang Huling Cha Cha ni Anita

Sunday, August 24

Only one choice, the Closing Gala: a crazy rock-n-rolling musical with lesbian love triangles, the criminal underworld and a climactic battle of the bands. Fuck yeah.

Final choice: GIRLTRASH: All Night Long

TOTAL NUMBER OF SHOWS: 20. Yikes. But it’ll totally be worth it!

On the Road to Kamloops

Lots of pretty pictures on the way to Kamloops!

The muddy Fraser

Elvis Rocks the Canyon

Dry Interior landscape

I took a picture of this church before, and now it has a name: St. Michael and All Angels Anglican Church, near Spences Bridge

A family(?) of mountain goats by the side of the road, climbing the cliff like it ain’t no thing.

Let’s show a close up of one of the goats, just because.

Out of the mountains (sort of)

A little farm, on the way back

More here!

Imagine No Religion 4, final thoughts

So that was a really fun weekend, with some great talks (along with a couple duds). A couple of final points:

Only a handful of us from the CFI/Skeptics in the Pub crowd came from Vancouver. There was a number of people from the BC Humanists, but they skewed older and white. This might explain why there just wasn’t as much chemistry and connection as previous years. There used to be active Twitter conversations going on throughout the talks, with people near and far, but this year the #inr4 hashtag was almost empty! A few people (including me) posted a few choice lines and assorted tweets but with so little back and forth there didn’t seem to be much point.

Also, I think I was primed to tune out the anti-religion talk (like Jerry Coyne’s talk), which at this point is really old hat. Fortunately there wasn’t that much of it, and a lot of what there was, was damn entertaining (Seth Andrews, I’m looking at you)—though it felt to the Dying With Dignity talk focused too much on bad religionists and less on the compassionate and ethical issues. Even though it’s definitely justified, and there’s still a lot of evolving we need to do as a society.

Which leads me to secular activism. It’s easy for me, living in enlightened Vancouver, to want to focus only on the Look-at-Saturn’s-rings, Laugh-at-the-cheesy-Xian-rock stuff, but there’s big chunks of the country right south of us, and even parts of this country, where freedom from religion is a serious and ongoing issue. Plus, it never hurts to brush up on the basics of logic and fallacies and being able to spell “nonoverlapping magisteria” in Scrabble.

So you know what? It’s all good. I wasn’t really feeling it this year, partly due to the aforementioned lack of Twitter conversations, but that might be a one-off. Will definitely go again next year.

Coming up: photos from the road trip!

Imagine No Religion 4, day 3 part 2

Christine Shellska

A very short and not especially engaging talk about using rhetoric as a tool to advance skepticism. It was mostly a how-to on how to construct an argument, a list of logical fallacies and whatnot.

But then it was followed by a pleasant little song about hypothenuses, so that was all right.

Margaret Downey

Margaret Downey, the founder of the Freethought Society spoke about “journey stories.” Essentially, coming out. I know all about coming out stories, and yes, I know how valuable they are. Sharing your life in writing, or in conversation, will create connections with your audience, let them know they’re not alone.

It started out as general advice: what to include, how to present and structure it… I wasn’t too grabbed. But then, she shared her own journey.

It’s a story of growing up amongst ignorance and bigotry—a sickly child, taken to an Oral Roberts revival for healing and almost dying of an asthma attack from the heat and cigarette smoke; seeing her fine Southern neighbours treating her Black half-sister like crap and knowing even then that it was wrong.

It’s a story of abandonment: her father left their family when she was young, and never sent money back or even made contact. The god that people was as silent as her father, so she started feeling that He started seeing was as absent as him too.

But she survived, and grew stronger through adversity. From tricking tricking gullible relatives during seances to suing the Boy Scouts of America for kicking her son out because he came from a nontheist home, to making trouble for arrogant Catholic priests, hers is a fun and inspiring story.

Seth Andrews

I think I remember Seth Andrews from a past INR… and today, we’re learning all about Christian Rock. He himself started out as a Xian entertainer as a young age, essentially used by his family as a recruitment tool. Xian Rock folks in the 70′s and 80′s were desperate to be taken seriously by youth, so they emulated the hair bands of the time—and you ended up with bands like Stryper, who got their name from Isaiah 53:5 and sang about being “Soldiers Under God’s Command”. But it wasn’t just the hair bands, anyone big automatically had a Xian version. Sheena Easton, Cyndi Lauper, Enya—Wait, Enya, really? Yep. I guess she was too pagan-ish for some people’s tastes. That’s the thing about Xian pop music, they were always playing catch-up, desperatly trying to be cool and relevant to grab the kids’ attention. They couldn’t even be bothered to create a charity supergroup on their own, We Are The World did it first (well, first in North America). So of course, a Christian response sprang up.

It’s not just music, though: there are Christian versions of Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: the Gathering (with a lot of Biblical characters, it looks like), YouTube, even Facebook. Not to mention the ripping off of logos and trends like Hunger Games. Apparently $5.6 billions’ worth of Xian-branded ripoff products circulate annually, the IP owners either unaware, or afraid of doing anything for fear of being called anti-faith.

What’s the point of all this? It’s to cordon people (especially young people) off so they don’t wander off into mainstream culture, where they could be exposed to sin and naughtiness and conflicting viewpoints. And this isn’t new: Xians historically co-opted local holidays like Hallowe’en and various solstice celebrations, or local holy spots to build churches.

In the end, Seth opines, culture is how Xianity will survive, not as dogma but as fads & fashions. I can sort of see it now, I know a couple of people with Xian-themed tattoos—crosses and angels and whatnot—who aren’t themselves Christians.

Damn entertaining talk, though it’s sad that so many people are trapped in such a cultural wasteland.

Keynote: Eugenie Scott

Eugenie Scott is the former (as of 2013) Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. Among many other things, the NCSE was involved in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, serving as consultant to the plaintiffs. The topic of Dr. Scott’s talk was Why do people reject good science?, focusing specifically on two scientific topics: evolution and anthropogenic climate change.

She started out by bringing up the fact that there is a whole spectrum of opinions in the public: Some believe that nothing evolves, ever. Others, that the physical universe evolves, but not living things. Or that living things evolve, but not humans. There’s a similar range when dealing with climate change, regarding how much change is really happening, who’s responsible, and what we can (or should) do about it.

The big sticking point is usually the consequences of evolution or climate change with people’s particular beliefs. If evolution is true, there’s no heaven, no god, etc… and we lose big.
If climate change is true, it’ll be socialism and government intervention.

There are three “pillars of rejection”: science, ideology, and culture. The first is simple, and it’s all about questioning the science, sowing doubt, and cherry-picking data. Tobacco companies have been doing it for decades.

Ideology is about being part of an in-group. For evolution, it’s being a conservative Christian. However, for global warming the in-group is political conservatives—a distinct group, though there’s a lot of overlap—who hold a strong belief in capitalism, small government, etc… Also libertarians, though in practice I’m really not clear on the distinction.

Culture is a much broader topic, but I guess it can cover any meme that helps blur the line between bad science and bad, but isn’t overtly questioning the science or propping up the ideology: a good example is those “academic freedom” bills that are in fact only used to restrict the teaching of evolution and more recently climate change. Dr. Scott made the excellent point that underneath their pretty rhethoric they blur the line between the role of students and scientists. Normally scientific ideas get tested, then accepted, then eventually trickle down to schools. But anti-creationists and climate-change deniers want ideas to go to the schools right away, without testing, thus bypassing the hard work of actual scientists.

She concludes that the science is necessary, but not sufficient. Denial comes from ideology and culture, and those can’t be changed so easily. Deniers, in addition to thinking of the questions in very black-and-white terms, usually also see them as a zero-sum game: they have to give up something if “the other guy” wins.

For a message to be more easily accepted, the consequences can’t be too bad, and the bearer has to be someone they trust. Therefore it’s important to build connections with open-minded political moderates and conservatives, as well as evolution-accepting Christians, so that they in turn can connect to members of their groups.

That caused a fair amount of discussion afterwards amongst my friends. On the one hand, it can seem like ignoring freethinker groups who do a lot of the dirty work of stopping bullshit from spreading. But on the other hand, I think it’s a very necessary pragmatic move because the NCSE’s mandate is not to spread atheism, but to support science education. Mind you, a lot of that will involve going against fundamentalists, but for that we need religious allies to talk the talk and swell our numbers. Atheists alone won’t cut it.

One way to see it is like the queer rights movement. It’s well-known through surveys[citation needed] that one tends to be much more supportive of queer rights if one has a queer friend or loved one, no matter what your original view or ideology. And the movement, then and now, needs the support of those straight & cis allies otherwise it really couldn’t go very far.

Imagine No Religion 4, day 3 part 1

Dan Barker

Dan Barker is another minister turned atheist, who also found his calling as a teenager. However, his story (which I’d never heard before) is very different.

He started out as a really harsh fire-and-brimstone end-of-the world type, doing a spot of faith healing here and there (which actually worked once, apparently: he healed a friend’s sore throat, which was probably a laryngeal spasm—a very temporary seizure of the vocal chords). Discovering a talent for music he transitioned into songwriting, playing the piano, and singing, as well as preaching about his life, all of which brought him into contact with a larger cross-section of the Xian world.

And it was there that his deconversion process began. Some of the other Xians didn’t believe in a 100% literal Bible. Some—gasp!—even believed the story of Adam and Eve was a metaphor. Heresy! But he found he could get past it, and he turned into a moderate who could “fellowship” with people who didn’t quite share his beliefs. But then the questions began: what else in the Bible is a metaphor? If even one story wasn’t 100% true, where do you stop? Maybe Yahweh was also a figure of speech?

But, he asked, why did nobody come up to him when he was a preacher, witnessing on the bus? At least he would have known there was disagreement. As it was, everybody agreed with him. He would have liked skeptics to have said something to him—even ridicule can go a long way.

The thing is, ministers don’t know what they’re talking about; they say nothing, but they say beautifully. And as hard as it is for normal people to say, “I was wrong,” it’s 10x harder for pastors. More than that, it’s deeply frightening, because you’re not just questioning facts or your own perceptions, you’re questioning the very core of you identity and your connection to a supposedly omniscient being.

And realising you’re all alone is not such a bad thing. Before and during his talk, Barker sang a number of little songs accompanied by his keyboard, very sweet and low-key, feeling very Cole-Porter-ish. My favourite is “Adrift on a star”, about the loneliness of drifting in a chartless universe full of questions—and each other.

Darrel Ray

Let’s talk about sex & secularism. Darrell Ray is a psychologist, founder of Recovering from Religion and author of Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality. He also did a survey about the relationship between people’s religion and their sex lives, level of sex education and sex-related guilt. The results are interesting, though not particularly surprising.

First, religious guilt and shame only reduce sexual behaviour by a smidgen: even members of very conservative religions (Jehova’s Witnesses, Mennonites, Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, Pentecostals) are almost as likely to be having sex, and start at around the same age. The big difference is that they’re far less likely to use condoms. Members of these religions also report their sex lives improving considerably after leaving the church.

The best Christian denomination? Unitarians. Those people have really got it together: great church sex ed programs for kids and teens of all ages, and the least guilty of all identified groups/denominations. Episcopalians are good too.

Carolyn Porco

Woo science! Carolyn Porco is the head of the imaging team on the Cassini project, which reached Saturn 10 years ago and provided a gold mine of amazing images and scientific discoveries about its rings, Titan, and Enceladus.

Saturn’s rings, to my amazement, are pretty much paper-thin—around 10 meters thick—and very sparse, with a total mass no bigger than, say, Enceladus. However, they show some very complex and fascinating features: the mountainous ripples 1–2 miles high around the tiny moon Daphnis; or these weird propellor-shaped structures. Dozens have been directly observed, and there may be millions more at any given time. They mirror the migratory movements that proto-planets made as the solar system formed. Imagine Saturnian rings as wide as the Solar System…

Titan is a very special place. Until Cassini got there, it was the single largest expanse of unexplored real estate in the solar system. Cassini could see down to the surface with infrared, and found darker patches around the equator that looked like seas, but they couldn’t be analysed properly. Unfortunately the Huygens probe landed away from any liquid bodies, and after some study the dark regions looked more like dunes, not seas.

It was at the North Pole that they found paydirt: a series of connected hydrocarbon seas, with a total area about equal to the Mediterranean. Beautiful

But the real kicker is Enceladus. It’s crisscrossed by cracks and chasms, but few craters, which suggests constant geological activity. Now, there’s a mountain belt near the south pole, with a bunch of cool-looking fractures nearby. Jets of water ice particles were discovered, and determined to be the origin of the E Ring. And here’s the kicker: those ice particles are salty, containing traces of ammonia organic compounds. Plus, they’re significantly warmer than the surface, and erupting from liquid water deep inside Encaladus. This suggests a liquid sea at least as big as the south polar region, with a rocky core (hence the salts). A liquid sea with some of the building blocks of life.

And I couldn’t leave out their newest “Pale Blue Dot” picture. Looking back at earth, just like our ape ancestors looked back at the forests whence they came…

Imagine No Religion 4, day 2 part 2

Saturday afternoon was far less engaging than the morning. I took an extra-long lunch break because I wasn’t too keen to listen to Chris diCarlo and his Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge. Again. For the third time. So me and a friend wandered around to nearby Aberdeen Mall, hung out at Coles for a bit, then moved to Chapters where we hung out for a bit. I’d wanted to take a long walk towards downtown, but the weather was turning drizzly, so a bookstore excursion was probably the better outcome. Therefore, I only sat through two talks, neither of which wowed me nearly as much as the previous ones.

Annie Laurie Gaylor

Gaylor created the Freedom From Religion Foundation back in the mid-sixties to protest the Madison, WI city council injecting prayer into the council meetings. In the 38 years since then, the FRFF has grown from a membership of 2 to 20,000, the largest atheist/agnostic org in the US. She told us a bit about the FRFF’s history, and why it’s necessary. Since the 50′s and the Cold War, the US government has been breaking down the wall between church and state: putting “In God We Trust” on the money, then making it the national motto, giving more tax breaks to church ministers, and more.

It was interesting but kind of dry and not very gripping to me, to be honest. Maybe it’s because it deals with another country’s politics? Still, in hindsight this talk was valuable. It’s good to know how our southern neighbours are doing (now and in years past) with their religious wingnuts, and what organisations are actively fighting for some sanity in politics. Talks like this may be “Church-State 101″, but every year more freshmen freethinkers keep popping up, so to speak.

Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne talked about the incompatibility of science and religion (which, again, is kind of Skepticism 101, but it never hurts to go over the basics). And by religion, he means faith or any sort of faith-based worldview.

There wasn’t much there that I hadn’t heard before, except for the fact that interest in this very question (ie: the relationship between science and religion) is growing, fed in large part by organisations like the BioLogos forum, which are themselves funded by other organisations like the Templeton Foundation. The issue they are trying to push is is accomodationism: that the two are compatible and even mutually reinforcing. But this is bullshit: the real purpose of making this a debate is to increase public mistrust in science, and open the way to teaching creationism, climate change denial, or whatever else fundamentalist christians want taught these days.

The real problem, as far as the public sees it, is that as science advances it threatens beliefs. Evolution and cosmology change how we see our place in the universe. Neuroscience raises uncomfortable questions about free will and the (non) existence of the soul. There are some who want their faith immunised from these questions. Whether through some kind of “harmonisation” or segregation (ie: non-overlapping magisteria), they either want to co-opt science or limit the fields into which it may inquire.

And the fact is, religion and science are fundamentally incompatible, and everybody knows it. There can’t be any constructive dialogue since they speak different languages and require different world views. The most you can get (which we’re already getting) is a destructive monologue, where science destroys faith. Does having science-friendly religious folks, or religious scientists mean that compatibility is possible? No, it just means people can hold two contradictory worldviews in their heads, which is hardly news.

Great line, which I tweeted and apparently went slightly viral: In science, falsified claims are abandoned. In religion, falsified claims become metaphors.

And why does it matter? If it were a purely personal thing, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it in a freethinker conference. But religion comes packaged with claims of absolute truths, claims of morality, reward / punishment, that sort of thing. Religion is very much a public thing… not to mention (just ask the FRFF) active attempts to subvert democracy and oppress people in the name of religion.

Imagine No Religion 4, day 2 part 1

The day started with a keyboard-and-saxophone rendition of Lennon’s “Imagine” (every year they do a somewhat different version, which is nice), followed by two short presentations by the conference’s sponsor groups: old white dude (not that there’s anything wrong with that) Eric Thomas of Humanist Canada and Jakob Liljenwall of BC Humanists.

Hemant Mehta

Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta started us off with a problem in our community, a problem we shouldn’t be seeing: falling for things that aren’t true. In fact, we’re almost as bad as the people we criticise! For example, Sam Harris misquoting Christopher Hitchens about Islamophobia. To be fair, Harris did apologise for it later but it’s still a cautionary tale.

(Another example comes from the podcast This American Life, which published then retracted a story about an Apple factory in China. It would have been so easy to to a bit of following up about some aspects of the story to start the unraveling)

Repeating a quote falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson and putting it on a billboard; misquoting Sarah Palin, which is just giving her cheap points.

He gave a few other examples, including Ricky Gervais’ tweet from last year, which contains some very skewed and questionable numbers. In fact, far fewer than 93% of National Academy of Science members are self-identified atheists, but also, and even more interestingly, the real numbers show that atheist prisoner numbers are far fewer than 1%.

Likewise, the Pensacola Christian College rumour turned out to be pretty much true when Hemant investigated; what used to be a wacky rumour about a religious school turned out to be a wacky fact about a religious school, which is much more interesting.

The bottom line is: it is usually easy to ask questions and not let pride get in the way of a good story. The twist is that when you do ask questions, the answers you find are much more amazing than the easy beliefs. And if that’s not an awesome metaphor for science, I don’t know what is.

Hemant’s last anecdote was about a three-day anti-gay / ex-gay workshop happening in his hometown of Chicago. He was curious but couldn’t investigate in person because he’d stick out like a sore thumb, but persuaded a couple of this readers to infiltrate the group. Hilariously many of the young people there were similarly undercover. The older people, probably there either to see how it’s going since they’re the ones funding it, or to get information on how to fight the homosexual agenda in their school or something.

Wanda Morris

Wanda Morris of Dying with Dignity gave us an impassioned plea about the ultimate freedom, to die when you wish to. Is it preaching to the choir? I would have thought most people attending this would be in favour of assisted suicide, but maybe I shouldn’t assume. And even so, a little choir preaching is not necessarily a bad thing because it’s how we define our own values.

As it turns out this is very much an atheist issue, because the opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide seems to come largely from fundamentalist religious folks. Alex Schadenberg of Euthanasia Prevention Coalition is active in the pro-life movement and has blogged about meeting the Pope. McGill law professor Margaret Somerville is also opposed to abortion, stem cell research, same sex marriage and single parent adoption, though she says she doesn’t speak from a religious perspective. Dr. Catherine Ferrier is a member of Opus Dei. The movement opposing Massachusetts’ Question 2 was funded by the religious right.

So partly, yes, this is a religious issue, and the religious folks lie and twist facts and logic to support their positions. Therefore freethinkers, as people who value critical thinking, clarity and reason, should care. And obviously, it’s a compassionate issue that we should care about just as empathetic human beings.

Dying With Dignity’s mission includes the stopping of suffering (and nuts to people who believe in redemptive suffering), promoting peace of mind (a lot of people don’t even take the prescribed medication, but feel better knowing they have options) and avoiding violent death. This last one matters, since forms of suicide may include hanging, self-shooting (for men) and jumping off high places (for women) which just piles on additional emotional trauma for family members and emergency response teams. People will end their own lives if they’re in enough pain, or think pain is just around the corner. It’s just like the abortion issue, keeping it criminalised it will not make it go away.

Wanda went through some of the legal issues facing assisted suicide that still need to be untangled—for example, in 1972 Trudeau decriminalised suicide BUT assistance is still illegal (punishable by up to 14 years in prison). Does it make sense to punish someone for assisting in something that’s not illegal anymore?—and a quick rundown of the rights we currently enjoy as Canadians: informed consent, the right to refuse treatment, the right to voluntarily stop eating and drinking, and so on, and how they all together can add to a legal narrative that leads to legalised assisted suicide.

The next 2 or 3 years will be critical, it seems. There are a couple cases working their way through the courts, 2 private members’ bills have been tabled in the House of Commons (though with scant chance of ever going anywhere) and though a bill introduced in the Quebec National Assembly was killed when the election happened, the new premier has promised to reintroduce it. All in all, we may see some significant progress for assisted suicide in Canada in the near future.

Jerry DeWitt

I remember Daniel Dennett talking about The Clergy Project last year: a community and resource for clergy who were doubting their faith. Here is one minister from Louisiana who came out as an atheist through the project.

Jerry—who has a nice Southern accent and lost none of his preacher fire—told us his story of getting saved at age 16 at Jimmy Swaggart’s church in Baton Rouge, and immediately getting into the ministry. 25 years later he started having serious doubts, perceiving that the identity he built over all that time was not him: There was a disconnect between his flock’s perception and who he was on the inside. He tried to back out gradually: getting a job, cutting down on the preaching, eventually transitioning into a completely normal life where his religion was just not an issue (probably impossible in small-town Lousiana, but at least he tried). He called his decision “Identity starvation [ie: letting his preacher self die off slowly] vs identity suicide [killing it in one swift stroke]“.

He wanted to connect with other humanists and go to meetups and conferences and so on, which could still happen without anyone he knew learning about it. For a few months that worked out well enough, but then he met up with Annie Laurie Gaylor and got asked to be interviewed on Dan Barker’s radio show. Now this was a legitimate fear, because while he calculated that the show might pass his town by, there was a real chance it wouldn’t. And then what? His greatest fear was rejection, which is why he enjoyed the ministry so much. But the night before the interview, as he lay awake shaking in bed, he had a revelation: “Do I love myself enough to not be loved by anyone else?” he asked himself. “Do I love yourself enough to live my own life?” (Which is the weak link in any of the major religions, they tell us to love our neighbours as ourselves, but don’t let us love ourselves.)

And the answer was yes. He realised he loved himself more than he feared rejection, and could go on even if his whole community rejected him—which is exactly what ended up happening. He lost his job (nonreligious though it was, his boss fired him because he’d be bad for business); his wife left, his family rejected him; Facebook was a nightmare; his ex-audience, who used to love him, now had nothing but hatred.

But here’s the thing: But when you live off approval, you are a slave to that approval. The benefit of rejection is freedom and clarity, since it separates your fair-weather friends from everybody else. So here’s his challenge to us: keep your friends close, and your haters closer. Because the haters shape you, by chipping away at your pretense and your weaknesses, and you’ll be left with the real you.

I’m not sure I agree with that… But I won’t quibble. It seems to work for him at the moment, and what more can I say about that?

Imagine No Religion 4, day 1

I and my co-rides are sitting outside our hotel room in the Coast Kamloops Hotel. It’s late, the pool area is empty, and I just realised I haven’t blogged in months. So here I am, putting fingers to virtual keyboard, about to chronicle this my third INR weekend.

I wasn’t really planning to go. I rather enjoyed the previous times, but it wasn’t exactly on my to-do list, but hey: it’s a nice road trip with friends through beautiful countryside, I would explicitly be given permission to stop the car whenever I wanted to take better shots. And hey, more great speakers!

The ride was great fun. We sang along to Jonathan Coulton and Moxy Fruvous; I introduced them to Renaud and Kimya Dawson; we saw a group of mountain goats climbing a cliff by the side of the road; also, we just glimpsed some guy dressed like Bigfoot hefting a garbage can or something… don’t know what that was about, but it made us giggle.

We skipped the Friday evening debate on free will—neither the topic nor the speakers really grabbed us—and went on to the meet-and-greet. Not many people from Vancouver this year, and most of them are from BC Humanists, who I really don’t know. But that’s not a big problem, I’m hanging out with my Vancouver friends. Probably going to bed soon, it’s almost midnight and I’m kind of tired.

Holiday photos

Three sets of photos I took recently:

First, snowy Vancouver! There was a nice dump of snow just a few days before I was scheduled to fly back East, and I was delighted. Hey, I wouldn’t need to go anywhere to enjoy a white Christmas! On the winter solstice I walked around the West End snapping some pictures. Everything was so beautiful!

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The trip to Ottawa was… interesting. I got to the airport a bit too late to check in, which meant they rescheduled me to a flight later that afternoon (hey, it could have been worse!), connecting through Montreal—where I’d have to spend the night, flying on to Ottawa early the next morning. Oy. It would have been faster to drive to Ottawa—though maybe not in all this snow, I guess.

Still, it was my bad, so I’m not complaining. Too much. And I had fun in Ottawa; in addition to seeing my brand-new nephew, I continued the theme of “tourist in my home town” by visiting the Diefenbunker (never been before) as well as the National Art Gallery (haven’t been in ages).

(And though I did take a photo of the first-level concourse, I only realised later that the ceiling is actually itself a temporary exhibit. So it’s not going online.)

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Also, last Saturday I took a few lovely photos of Blue Mountain Park in the fog. Eerily beautiful!

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