Enhanced Kinetic Patterning

Enhanced Kinetic Patterning is a way of moving and conditioning the body in a mindful way. It’s similar to Pilates, in that it works the body in very much the same way, using stretching and resistance training to tone and condition the fascia and muscles. One main difference is that EKP does not rely on equipment or even lying down on a mat. EKP just uses the ground and gravity for resistance training so you can do it anywhere you can stand or sit.

The purpose of EKP is to move in a better way. Not just when practicing, but when waiting for the bus, when carrying groceries, when playing sports. Ideally you will integrate this in all aspects of your everyday life. A direct result of this practice is thinking about moving in a better way: to be aware of your body and how it works, and be present in it. Both those aspects are worthwhile: as someone who spends hours and hours in front of computers, most of the time my mind is in my head and my hands. EKP takes me out of my head, and that’s good for me.

The core principles of EKP are: working from the ground up, through the core and (optionally) to your extremities; moving in multiple directions at once; keeping your body relaxed in balance and provide natural (gravity) resistance; and, moving “just enough”. That is: to neither overextend nor shrink down your movements, to be neither tense nor limp, but solid and “full”. It’s hard to describe, and best learned hands on with a competent instructor.

The “arm raising” movement (Liu He Ba Fa) is a good starter move when learning EKP. You’ve probably seen it as the opening move of Taiji forms. You move the arms forward, away from your body, and lower them by slowly letting gravity do the work. But when you look at it more closely, you’ll see it embodies all the core EKP principles. Let me walk you through it.

I start by standing. How to stand could be an article by itself. People have talked about holding the feet “shoulder width apart”, though that’s not a useful measure. All I can say here is, do what feels comfortable, and in particular make sure the knees aren’t turned too far in, or too far out. With practice, and by paying attention to what your body is telling you, you’ll discover the best way to stand.

Arms are relaxed at my sides, my chin is up and I’m looking straight ahead. My shoulders are rotated back just a little, and my chest is expanded as well, just a bit. The back is relaxed, with the neck pushed back a bit—an especially important point for anyone working with computers. This is the neutral, beginning stance for most of our moves. No part is expanded more than any other, no tension. Just quiet and aware.

The first move is to sink a bit. It’ll feel pretty close to sitting; however, your butt is not going back but straight down. Your body may involuntarily hunch down, but don’t give in to that reflex. Stay upright, stay open, just let your body weight sink just a little into your feet. Not your legs, your feet. You have to allow your body weight to rest on the ground. Your legs are there to support your body, your core is resting on your legs and the core is holding your arms in place.

To elevate your arms move them away from you, forward and palms down. Focus on extending the upper arms ( elbow to shoulder). Don’t think of it as raising the arms, that will make your body use your shoulders. Send your arms away—and since they’re hinged at the shoulders, they’ll naturally come up.

Here’s the secret to not involving your shoulders: as you press forward with your arms, press back with your shoulderblades—while keeping your torso upright, don’t hunch.

Keep your wrists bent down as far as is comfortable, to stretch the muscles, ligaments, skin and fascia in your arms and hands. You’ll feel tension there, but don’t overdo it.

As you lower your arms, flip your wrists so that your hands are palm forward as your arms come down: now you’ll feel the stretching on the underside of your arms. Bring your arms down, slowly and mindfully, as you sink your body again. Once your arms are down all the way, relax and release all tension.

Then start over.

This is only the most superficial look at the movement. There are many subtleties and refinements that only become obvious after practice and training with a good teacher, and that’s beyond the scope of this article.

A word about breathing: all of these movements are also breathing exercises, where you breathe in harmony with the movements. In general, breathe in when you go up or expand, and breathe out when you go down or compress. Ideally, you should breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose. There are physiological and medical reasons for why this is beneficial, but there’s one very important intellectual reason: it keeps you focused. Deep, steady breaths both calm your mind and keep you anchored in your body. It’s so easy to just go through the motions while tuning out, but deep breaths, and breaths in time with the movement, will keep you grounded and focused.

There are so many subtleties to each movement, so many little variations and connections you can make. Always more to learn if you pay attention. That’s the beauty of this art, it will keep you intellectually and physically engaged for a lifetime. It takes commitment and work, but for me the benefits are absolutely worth it.

Volunteering for Constance Barnes

It all started with window signs. No, wait, it really started with Bill C-51. When the entire liberal caucus (including my MP, Dr. Hedy Fry) voted in favour of it, at least partly out of politics, I started seriously considering switching my vote to another party. It took me a while to decide, because that’s how I roll. I’m not really a Liberal supporter—my heart is more progressive than that—but C-51 notwithstanding, Fry had done a good job for Vancouver, right? Plus, she seemed a safe bet and there seemed little point in voting for someone else.

Then one day I ran into Constance Barnes, the NDP candidate, schmoozing with the summer crowds at Nelson Park. And I really, really liked her. She seemed super friendly, full of energy, sharp and on the ball. I told her about my feelings, and apparently I wasn’t the only Liberal voter thinking of jumping ship. So hey, maybe voting NDP wouldn’t mean throwing away my vote?

The next small step, once I’d made my decision, was to get a couple of orange window signs. The campaign headquarters was just a few minutes’ walk away, so I swung by there one night on the way from work. They were happy to give me the signs, and asked if I wanted to volunteer as well. I sort of stammered and said I’d think about it.

The truth is, part of me wanted to get involved, and part of me didn’t. On the one hand, partisan political activism was new to me. The most I’d ever done was talk and rant, and repost anti-Harper articles—but who on Facebook hasn’t done that? Actively committing to a candidate was a big step, and kind of a scary one. What if she lost? Then I’d be even more disappointed, having put out all that energy for nothing. And what if I backed the wrong candidate?

On the other hand, this was an important election. Priority #1 was to get Harper out, yes, but Vancouver Centre was a safe non-Conservative riding, so I was free to vote with my conscience. And wouldn’t it be nice to get an NDP government in, to roll back as much of Harper’s crap as we could? As for my other fears, well, sometimes you just have to take a shot. Living in fear of getting hurt or making a mistake is no life at all, and that was a habit I needed to break. If I could make a difference, that was worth a little risk.

So about a month before the election, I signed up to volunteer with Constance’s team. At the first orientation meeting, they asked the new blood to fill out a couple forms, including what tasks they were interested in, and on what days. What did I feel up to doing? Data entry was an easy choice. I had a car, so I could run errands and drive people to the polls. Inside scrutineering sounded super interesting too. What about other stuff, like canvassing (going up to voters in their homes) or mainstreeting (ie: setting up shop in a park or other public place, and letting people come to you)? Part of me wanted to dive in and really push my limits, but part of me wanted to play it safe. Introverted as I am—cue horrible flashbacks of lil’ me as a cub scout selling candy bars—I didn’t feel I’d be much good chatting with voters in person. On the other hand, I have been making a lot of progress in that area, so maybe I should give myself more credit than that? On the other other hand, wouldn’t I be more useful doing things I was actually comfortable with?

In the end I decided I just didn’t feel up to of canvassing or mainstreeting. But there was lots of stuff I ended up doing. Data entry, for one. Gotta keep our list of voters up to date, so that they’re not called twenty times even after they’ve voted! All campaign offices are provided with voter lists (identifying people but not who they voted for). At one point I did a short shift of calling voters to remind them of advance polling dates—a nice break from data entry, but pretty exhausting. Even with prepared scripts, calling up strangers is really not my jam.

I also drove several elderly NDP supporters to the polls, which was a different kind of challenging. See, I’ve hardly ever driven in the West End; all those one-way streets, traffic-calmed intersections and resident-only street parking are great for pedestrians and cyclists, but not so great for drivers. Maybe I should have practised a bit beforehand? It all worked out fine in the end, though, and now I have a better idea of how to get around and park as close as possible to my destinations. For King George High School, park either on the street or under the West End Community Centre. For the Stanley Park Golf Club, try to squeeze into the little driveway thing off Beach Avenue and hope that’s close enough. Just as importantly, it opened my eyes to whole different ways of perceiving my neighborhood: a single block can be a tedious loop taking five minutes, plus five more minutes looking for a parking spot, Or, then again it could be an intimidatingly long trek especially if you then have to wait in line for an hour.

The really interesting job, though, was inside scrutineering. As I said, it was totally new to me, but it makes perfect sense it invites participation to the election process (both voting and counting). Just like scientific inquiry, the more eyes you have the better; everyone has the opportunity to learn and help make the whole thing go as smoothly and fairly as possible. I am proud to live in a country that allows this, and I intend to keep giving back in future elections.

Sadly Constance Barnes did not win, as Hedy Fry handily kept her seat with about 50% of the votes. And yes, I was disappointed. But you know what? This isn’t the end. I still believe in the NDP, I still believe in Constance, and I’ll do my best to help her if and when she runs again. This won’t be new territory for me; I have new skills, new confidence, and I’ll be able to do a lot more next time.

On that topic, I had the most amazing revelation at the post-election party. I’d been feeling vaguely guilty about the volunteering I’d done, wondering if maybe I should have pushed my envelope a bit more. If I had, if I’d committed more, maybe that would have put Constance over the top? There’s no satisfying answer to that question, but here’s the thing: when I spoke to some other volunteers at the party, they all felt the same way! It just goes to show: we’re not alone in our fears. And that makes me feel a whole lot better about mine.

This post has been a long time percolating, and I considered abandoning it a few times, thinking it Old News. But no, it’s never too late. And with the new year coming, it seems like a good time to post it. Though I’m still digesting the lessons it taught me, I feel this volunteering gig was the first step towards something new. I’m eager to see what 2016 will bring me, and what I will bring to it.

The Longest Day

On new year’s day, I was in three cities: Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa.

I’d spent New Year’s Eve with my brother in Montreal, as is my wont, but this year I decided to do something a little different. I knew a friend of mine from Toronto had a non-alcoholic New Year’s Day recovery party, and he kept inviting me. Well, this time I took him up on it. So with only a few hours’ sleep under my belt I bade farewell to my brother, his girlfriend and their cats, taxied off to YUL just as the sun rose, and thence to YTZ.

It wasn’t a particularly pleasant flight. I was in one of those little propellor planes, and it felt fairly shaky. I didn’t get sick, thank gawd, but it was a bit nerve-wracking all the same.

And then… Toronto. Would you believe it had been over 18 years since I visited Toronto? Yes, for Pride ’96, shortly before moving out west. Wow, how time flies.

And the party was fun! I knew very few people and I’m not naturally outgoing, so I had the urge to glom onto my friend and his partner, or hang around the pinball machine in the Monopoly room*—but I did an okay job of being sociable. It was kind of challenging, but I did my best, and isn’t that all anyone can ask?

(* Really, they had a whole room devoted to Monopoly collectibles: games, coasters, pillows, candles, and an actual, fully functional, pinball machine.)

Socialising aside, Toronto’s an interesting place. I was only able to take in a bit of the downtown area, but it feels very different from Vancouver and Ottawa. It feels like I imagine New York City would feel: loud, bright, kind of oppressive, and architecturally a neat mix of the very old with the very new. Also it’s got streetcars! And Dundas Square, which is like Times Square, except 1/50 as big! Fun times.

Then, the bus back to Ottawa. Leaving at 9PM, arriving at 2AM. This was… different from being on a plane. On a plane you’re high up in the sky, and even if you can see landmarks around you, you’re completely separate from everything. Sure, it’s fun to take pictures of prairie lakes and towns and such… but on a bus you’re part of it. You’re ever so briefly within touching distance of homes, stores, some with familiar names and some without. You get to peek into people’s living rooms, just for a split second, see the Christmas decorations they still haven’t put away, ponder what kind of lives they lead, in these tiny-ass towns… and then you’re off again.

The bus had wifi, and an outlet to plug my phone, so I spent a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook, but there wasn’t a lot going on, so I also followed the bus’s progress on Google Maps. It felt a bit wrong to filter my perception through satellites and fancy software, but it was dark, and I just couldn’t see anything out the window most of the time. So, fuck it, hooray for technology if it told me the names of these towns and rivers, and how far I was from civilisation.

But every once in a while, I did turn off the phone. Not to look, but to ponder. To think about my choices and my life in these last 18.5 years. It’s been a somewhat uneven road, and I have a few regrets, in addition to spending far too long between Toronto visits. And also thinking about the day, which I mostly spent travelling alone. I felt uprooted and dislocated, but in a good way. Not lonely, but cool and adventurous, blazing new paths—or re-exploring very old ones, which was almost as good.

Got to Ottawa a bit late, and I decided to walk back to my parents’ place. No need for a cab, it wasn’t that far. I did come to question that decision a couple times because I was dead tired, and it was really cold. But I enjoyed the empty streets, the quiet. Gave me time to navel-gaze some more. Soon enough, I’d go back to Vancouver, back to real life, put all my new resolutions into practice. But for just one more day, I could relax.

I went to bed around 3AM, almost 21 hours after waking up. Not a bad day at all, if I do say so myself. And a good omen for the coming year.

2015: Movin’ On Up

2014 was better than 2013. In February of that year I took the plunge into full-time freelancing… and failed. I didn’t get enough work to make a living, I wasn’t proactive enough in finding new work, and to bring honest I wasn’t disciplined enough to effectively work from home. So in October, when my old boss offered me my old job back, I accepted. Part of me didn’t want to, but I had to face facts: I just wasn’t ready for the freelance world.

Since then I’ve been slowly building up my skills, both technical and non-, and working on a few smaller freelance projects in my spare time. It’s been good, but I need to take it to the next level: practice my communication skills. First, dust off this blog of mine and write regularly. Also, stand up in front of people to do a presentation. Maybe at a WordPress meetup? True, it wouldn’t technically be my first time but my one ultra-brief meetup talk wasn’t too great, and this whole public speaking thing is way outside my comfort zone. But I’m confident I will improve.

Speaking of freelance projects, so far they’ve all come my way through word of mouth. And that’s fine for now, I can’t handle any more work right at the moment. However, I also can’t rely just on word of mouth, so I need to think about being more proactive in finding work—there will be no repeat of 2013, either this year or any year after that.

More proactivity: working out. Yes, I’ve been going to the Y every weekday for… what, a couple years, now? But I’ve gotten into a routine, I could use more discipline, and I haven’t seen much progress. Got to shake things up, track my food intake consistently, and get out of this rut. Sign up with a trainer if necessary, even if it’s just for a session or two to point me in the right direction.

Likewise with volleyball. Once again this year, I disappointingly did not make it into the Competitive division with VGVA. My game is getting better (and it’s not just my opinion), but maybe I could give it a little nudge, make it get better a little faster? Yes, I think I could. Watch YouTube videos, learn from the pros. It would be awesome to get into Competitive next year, wouldn’t it?

2013 was the year I started travelling a little bit, going to Calgary and Regina for volleyball tournaments. Also Ottawa, though being my hometown and all, that doesn’t really count. This year there wasn’t much traveling, but I did get to see two cities in a new light. With Montreal in April, I visited the gay village for the first time. With Toronto on New Year’s Day 2015 (which I still count because it’s part of the holidays) I visited a place I hadn’t been to in 18 years, not since I moved out west. I’ll write more on NYD soon.

I don’t know where I’ll go in 2015, but I do want to keep expanding my horizons.

In 2014 I got myself tattooed. Twice. I’d been planning it for a long time, but I couldn’t work up the nerve to do it until spring of this year. My first idea was to tattoo the number “42” on my back when I turned 42 (ie: in 2013) but I soon got better ideas. Now that I caught the tattooing bug, I’m planning several more inkings over the coming year. More on those later.

This hasn’t been an easy post to write. Partly, it’s the frustration at seeing myself in ruts. Partly, it’s that I get hard on myself, and focus too much on the flaws, on the mistakes, instead of looking towards the future. So that’s another resolution to add to the list.

And in conclusion, my three words for 2015: Mindfulness. Trust. Motion.

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.