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…