Gender politics in xkcd’s Time

This is coming way late, but I’ve been having some thoughts about xkcd’s Time comic percolating in my brain for a while. Because xkcd is a stick figure webcomic, the only gender cues available are longer hair on female characters or facial hair on male ones; characters’ genders are just not an issue, unless the storyline demands it. Women in the comic are just as nerdy and weird as men, and appear in about equal numbers overall—a couple times even outnumbering them. This is kind of a big deal, because I can’t think of any nominally gender-neutral media or space that regularly achieve that kind of parity, and makes it look so natural and normal. Which to me makes the comic a feminist one, though I don’t know if Randall Munroe would agree with that label.

In any case, I think I was primed to see the character dynamics in Time partly as some kind of statement. The story starts off with one male (let’s call him Y) and one female protagonist (let’s call her X), both interesting and nicely developed, and it seemed to me on first reading that X was more adventurous, more curious and a better scientist, and Y more passive. A third character they meet later on, a woman, is the leader of her community, which just seemed to confirm my first impression.

However, when I went back and reread it again some months later, I found the truth was a lot more nuanced. It looks like I was dealing either with confirmation bias—just a few frames stuck in my mind and coloured my entire memory of the story—or some kind of gender-based bias where a female character’s coolness jumps out at me more. Which is a weird one, and I don’t know if there’s a name for that.

For reference, here are the frames that stuck in my mind on first reading:

But, there’s context for all of these, and they tell a somewhat different story. The trees, for instance: in the previous frame X has asked if the tree was supposed to be like that; i.e.: she was worried that it might be sick. So Y’s reply reads not so much as apathy, but rather trust that Nature generally knows what it’s doing. And, the belief that plants can be both weird-looking and healthy.

Overall I got the impression that Y has a very deep curiosity about the natural world. He loves to think about big and abstract things, like the sea, rivers, logic, and physics. His world is full of mysteries, which may someday be discovered, or maybe not—but the journey’s still worth it. He’s a big-picture kind of guy, less comfortable with living things or with nitty-gritty details. That’s more X’s department.

Where Y is mostly about theory, X is all about practice. She’s the hands-on engineering yang to his abstract yin—building sand castles, dreaming of building even bigger castles, easily excited about new technology and new shiny questions. Not the big questions Y likes, mind you, but specific, concrete, answerable questions. She’s brave and a bit reckless in the pursuit of those questions, but not so much that she doesn’t empathise with her companion and the cute little critters they meet.

I felt at first that X was the driving force behind their expedition, based (I think) on one frame where Y floats the idea of going home. But that comes after many lines of him thirsting for more understanding. But I guess everybody has limits. I’m also wondering if he gets antsier the further he gets from water?

More questions and not that many answers, but that’s okay. It was an interesting exercise in unbiasing myself, and—bonus!—I found a lot of beautiful places in re-exploring this amazing story. So it was totally worth it.

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.

The Secret Doctrine

Last night I went to see The Secret Doctrine, a play about the 19th century mystic, cult leader and huckster Madame Helena Blavatsky. It is directed by Ines Buchli and shown at the SFU Woodward’s Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. It’s a great play, with some very impressive sound and visual effects, and though condensed and somewhat fictionalised, it’s a fascinating summary of Madame Blavatsky at her peak—the conjuring tricks, the philosophy, the intelligence and charisma.

Last night I went to see The Secret Doctrine, a play about the 19th century mystic, cult leader and huckster Madame Helena Blavatsky. It is directed by Ines Buchli and shown at the SFU Woodward’s Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. It’s a great play, with some very impressive sound and visual effects, and though condensed and somewhat fictionalised, it’s a fascinating look at Madame Blavatsky at her peak—the conjuring tricks, the philosophy, the intelligence and charisma.

The other main character is Richard Hodgson; historically, he was an Australian-born lawyer sent by the Society for Psychical Research to do a report on Blavatsky. Though he concluded she was a fraud, he did believe in paranormal phenomena. The play made him a Canadian-born physicist working on electromagnetic theory. His first scene shows him doing work related to the Michelson-Morley experiment, trying vainly to prove the existence of the luminiferous aether. He is also a strong skeptic, pooh-poohing his colleague’s latching on to Blavatsky’s teachings. This Hodgson traveled of his own volition to India to live in Madame’s compound, mostly to keep a promise to his dead colleague to give her a fair chance. He falls under her spell a little, but eventually snaps out of it and denounces Blavatsky to the SPR.

Making Hodgson a scientist was an interesting choice, because while the story is centred on Blavatsky and Hodgson, it’s really about the 19th Century as a whole: an age struggling towards reason, trying to build an understanding of the universe based on science instead of faith. Darwin killed God, so they said, or at least made Him unnecessary, but many people were still hungry for miracles and revelation. Add to that a more connected world enabling increased contact with other cultures, and it made for a strange and potent mix. Blavatsky’s Theosophy borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism and various mystery religions, but also the language of science, and tried to connect all of them into a sort of Grand Unified Spiritual Theory.

In the play, some of the Mahatmas’ revelations hinted very strongly at Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, both theories still a couple decades away. More poetic license, I guess, especially since they end up guiding Hodgson’s research towards brilliant new discoveries upon his return to London. But here’s a thought: yes, Theosophy was a gobbledigook mish-mash of conflicting philosophies and faiths, claiming to deep and ancient truth but not delivering. However: it inspired scientists. It apparently inspired Einstein, who was said to own a copy of Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine. That may or may not be true but if it is, it’s not really that surprising; isn’t one of his most famous quotes that “Imagination is more important than knowledge”? Atheist though he was, I always found Einstein to have a little bit of the mystical about him.

So you could look at Theosophy and similar cults as a kind of Victorian proto-science-fiction, collections of narratives, tropes and memes centered (to varying degrees) around science and scientific knowledge, guiding practitioners to build on them and take them to the next level. We take it for granted now, but science as a institution and a culture was still very new. The scientists and engineers who got men on the Moon were inspired by old-time sci-fi pulps—Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and Captain Future; those writers and the scientists of their time owe much to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; but where did Victorian scientists find their inspiration? From what was there: esoteric ecumenical philosophies, outdated (to us) and rather mystical beliefs about energy and life and electricity/magnetism, and Enlightenment-friendly organised religions. I guess inspiration is where you find it. And beliefs don’t have to be true to be inspirational.

It’s possible I’m overanalysing this. That’s okay, though. I expected The Secret Doctrine to just be a critique of a fraud and/or the weird pseudo-scientific philosophies she preached, but it gave me a lot of food for thought. I love when that happens!

Imagine No Religion 3, Day 2

Day 2, from DJ Grothe to Daniel Dennett

D.J. Grothe

Skepticism is about doing good by being right

That’s how D.J Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation, summarised their mission and their work. The JREF has been working to expose psychics, faith healers and other fakes for years, through the Million Dollar Challenge, as well as outreach, literature, podcasts They never engage the credulous, because they are not the bad guys. Skepticism, as Grothe reminds us, is not about some snooty elitists in a bar finding reasons why Bigfoot doesn’t exist. Psychics and fakes hurt and exploit people, usually at their most vulnerable.

And the JREF is moving into the classroom! At the JREF table in the lobby were copies of their excellent new classroom kits, designed to teach skepticism to high school kids.

William B. Davis: Living With Belief

Yes, William B. Davis, the Cigarette-Smoking Man from X-Files. He started by talking about his early life, dealing with religion. Nothing terribly out of the ordinary growing up in rural Ontario in the 50’s: learning that Jews are bad in Grade 2; having people try to save him after publicly admitting he’s not a Christian in high school… thankfully, he found other unbelievers in university.

After he became part of X-Files, people naturally assumed he believed in UFOs, but it was always just a gig to him. Still, he was curious, so he did some research, found Barry Beyerstein and CSICOP, and now he’s got arguments against UFOlogists!

But speaking of X-Files, he did also mention how Dawkins (who he greatly admires) once criticised the show for feeding paranormal beliefs. And you know, that’s one thing that bothered me too, even before I identified as a skeptic. But what could Davis do? He didn’t want to quit. In the end he decided that the show wasn’t that bad, and he didn’t really see that it increased beliefs in UFOs. Fair enough, I probably would have done the same.

He ended with criticism of Stephen Harper, and how the biggest issue of our time is climate change.

So that was interesting. A bit scattered but engaging.

Cristina Rad: The Nature of Evil

Christina (aka ZOMGitsCriss is a Romanian YouTuber, and she’s freaking hilarious. Go check out her videos now. Her talk was not about the nature of evil, that’s just a title she came up with for the schedule. No, the talk is about anti-theism. If you don’t believe it’s important to speak up, because religious beliefs are still shaping the world. A secular world may not be paradise, but at least it’d be one less excuse to oppress and discriminate.

Bottom line? Don’t be a dick. But don’t be a pussy either.

And seriously, check out her channel!

Sean Faircloth: Attack of the Theocrats

Sean Faircloth is an attorney and former Maine state senator (in his last term, he was the Majority Whip). He came to talk to us about religious fundamentalism, and how it’s a booming business. American-style religiosity is exported to countries like Uganda, and even New Zealand: it seems NZ has special religious education in the public school system. Kids of minority religions have segregated and punished for no reason. In Canada, public funding is increasingly going to right wing Christian or Muslim schools.

But all is not lost! Humanists and freethinkers can be organised as well.

If the religious right can organise for intolerance and injustice then we can organise for reason and science and compassion

Victor Stenger: The Atheistic Atom

Dr Stenger is not a very engaging speaker, I’m sorry to say. The main thrust of his talk was that atomic theories and atheism have historically gone hand-in-hand. From the early Greek philosopher who believed that the vengeful gods of stories didn’t exist (and if any gods did exist, they didn’t care about humankind) to Renaissance scientists who rediscovered their theories, to modern scientists who discovered that atoms are themselves divisible…

He went over the Standard Model quite a bit, but there was no explicit link to atheism. Is it that visualising the universe as a collection of particles interacting in quantifiable ways tends to lead to atheism? Maybe. My notes don’t say. A crash course on particle physics is not really what I signed up for.

Aron Ra: How Religion Reverses Everything

Hey look, his talk is on YouTube! The bottom line: religious fundamentalism turns everything upside down. Knowledge and progresss are disdained, ignorance is elevated, abstinence is preached but never practised (Evangelical xians have the highest divorce, teen pregnancy and abortion rates), religious people are more likely to condone torture or the death penalty, and on and on.

Also, heavy metal caused a drop in violent crime in 1981. There was a similar drop in the mid-90’s, possibly due to the availability of downloadable porn. Check it out at 22:00

Taslima Nasrin: A Woman’s Life in a Muslim Country

Dr. Nasrin is a writer who was exiled from her native Bangladesh for criticising Islamic misogyny. There are fatwas against her even in India, and her writings are banned in her native country.

(I took very few notes during her talk because it was so engrossing.)

Daniel Dennett: Non-Believing Clergy

The closing keynote speech was a whopper. Dr. Dennett talked about his work with non-believing clergy

It’s got to be a horrible situation, and Dr. Dennett was very good about making us empathise. You grow up believing that priests / ministers are all good people, doing good for others, so naturally you want to join them. But then you get to a seminary, and you have to actually question and analyse scriptures, taught by people who may be a lot more cynical and jaded than you. It’s a shock, and apparently a lot of such schools have counselors specifically to deal with crises of faith.

Even if you make it through, it’s an incredibly isolating life. Non-believing priests may think they’re the only one to doubt, probably don’t have any peers they can spill their guts to (especially not their parishioners) and in general will feel trapped in a non-believing closet. If they quit, they’re letting their flock and their own dreams down. It’s a dreadful bind.

Mind you, that’s if they make it through. Fewer and fewer prospective priests are even making it through religious schools; on top of that, fewer and fewer people are called to the priesthood; worst of all for religious authorities, fewer and fewer parents are successfully passing on their religious traditions to their children. What will happen to religious structures when they run out of people?

Dr. Dennett used an excellent analogy, that of the cell. Now, biological cells can be reduced to just a few processes and elements: a membrane, to keep the insides in and the outside out; energy consumption, to keep on living; and reproduction. Could we look at social groups in the same way? In this analogy, energy would be cash to keep the group going; the membrane would be whatever hoops one has to go through to join; and reproduction would be whatever is necessary to keep the group going or expanding.

We looked at four types of social cells: Japanese tea ceremony schools; debutante cotillion training programs; Ponzi schemes; and religion. Without going into too many details, the first two are very similar in that members pay buttloads of money for something that is supposed to enhance social status but (a) serves no actual social purpose and (b) at least for cotillions is increasingly seen as silly and irrelevant in today’s world. For the last two, people often get started without realising what they’re getting themselves into, and by the time they realise the costs it’s too late to easily quit.

And what will the world look like in a generation or two, when today’s religions have shrunk or mutated beyond recognition? Will the Vatican be reduced to a museum and gift shop? Will Mecca be a Disney subsidiary? What social structures will replace churches? Should we need to worry about it? How painful will the transition be? That’s still an open question, obviously, but we can can find clues by looking at the deeply secular parts of Western Europe and Australia: people still form relationships, and find purpose in their lives. You don’t need religion or religious social clubs to do that. The reactionary elements will fight back, of course, but that’s another story.

Imagine No Religion 3, Day 1

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go this year. Last year’s INR was fun, and had some great speakers, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to shell out the bucks again. But then a friend of mine was going, and needed both a ride and a roommate, so I figured what the hell.

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go this year. Last year’s INR was fun, and had some great speakers, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to shell out the bucks again. But then a friend of mine was going, and needed both a ride and a roommate, so I figured what the hell.

And I’m glad I went! The drive was lovely as always, and the speakers were generally excellent.

Dr. K. Sohail: Secular Ideas, Humanist Ideals

The first talk was by Dr. K. Sohail, an ex-Muslim secular humanist and psychotherapist. He started with the story of his childhood in conservative Pakistan, surrounded by superstition and hardline dogma but also—fortunately—a couple of freethinking older relatives who encouraged his questioning, and how he gradually moved away from religion.

His talk was mainly on the harm caused by organised religion, both to individuals (eg: blind faith, wilfull ignorance, sexual guilt and other problems) and societies (eg: discrimination, violence). He’s seen both, first-hand: in particular, he told of a holy war against India taking place when he was 13, and how he was swept up in the fervor of it all.

But Dr. Sohail’s focus was on compassion, and how important it is if you want to establish a dialog with religious people and form intercultural alliances. Freedom of religion (other spiritual paths) and freedom from religion (secularism) can both challenge organised religion. Having multiple faiths coexisting peacefully is a step in the right direction.

Other people’s journeys had helped me, maybe my journey would help others.

Peter Boghossian: Street Epistemology

Dr. Boghossian used material from his upcoming book A Manual for Creating Atheists to give us some extra tools for talking people out of their faiths. The basic idea is that religious people can be classified on a scale, starting with “pre-contemplative” (not questioning their beliefs at all, being 100% convinced of their truths). The goal is not to immediately create freethinkers, but to nudge people up on the scale of non-belief.

He went over one technique he called “street epistemology:” because it can be used anywhere, even on the street, and it focuses on faith as epistemology. It’s not about debunking particular beliefs; precontemplative people, Boghossian argues, wouldn’t be receptive to facts and education. However, they may respond to being asked why and how they believe the things they believe, turning their focus on themselves without any need for defensiveness.

Thing is, though… that technique may work in his practice, in controlled conditions, but I question whether it’s particularly useful on the street. It’s certainly one more tool in your rhetorical kit, but people can find a lot of rationalisations for the kookiest beliefs.

Another thing that bothered me, and this hit me only after several hours of picking away at it, was that his approach to street evangelism seemed condescending and even manipulative. In my notes, I wrote that it was a more aggressive counterpoint to Dr. Sohail’s talk, with a different tone but with similar goals. But then I realised it really wasn’t. Dr. Boghossian repeated several times the phrase “sitting at the adult table” to mean have a rational discussion about one’s beliefs and epistemology, and if you couldn’t do that there was no point in having a conversation. My problem is that approaching people to evangelise to them, while looking down on them in that way, is not a good attitude to have. This is not the compassion espoused by Dr. Sohail, it feels more like pity.

Plus, it’s inaccurate. As a couple other speakers prove over the weekend, even precontemplative people can be de-converted by facts and education. Even when those facts come from New Atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens.

Aruna Papp: Unworthy Creature

Aruna Papp grew up as the daughter of a church pastor (Seventh Day Adventist) in India. All her life she was despised just for being a girl, and her mother equally despised for giving birth only to daughters. Married against her will, her family relocated to Canada—a good Christian country, she was told, almost paradise. She started taking classes, making friends with other immigrant women who were also abused, and eventually found her independence.

This deeply moving talk got the first standing ovation of the day.

Richard Carrier: Bayes’ Theorem

After a lunch break, we’re back to academia! Here Dr. Richard Carrier looks at the question of the historicity of Jesus using Baye’s Theorem as a starting point to discuss how likely the Jesus story is, versus other dead and resurrected saviours.

Turns out, there are quite a lot of them—including Romulus, which I didn’t know—and they can be ranked according to a checklist.

A fascinating talk, though the mathematical stuff went a bit over my head. But I learned a few neat factoids, a couple new historical terms, so it’s all good.

Christopher DiCarlo: The Future of Ethics

Dr. DiCarlo examined the problem of free will. Namely, how much do we really have? Total free will? Some free will? None at all? Some probably have more than others, being pulled and pushed by faulty brain chemistry… So the question is, what if there is no free will? What if we are nothing more than agents in complex webs of systems?

The goal, then, is to understand and model these systems. This is what he calls the Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge (or OSTOK); like onion skins, knowledge modeled this way would be extremely complex and multilayered.

This is actually not too different from this talk last year. And maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see how this new conceptualisation of human behaviour can really move us further along, since we don’t know how much free will we actually have. So that was a bit disappointing.

Louise Antony: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Friendships are based on common values, not metaphysics. It shouldn’t stand in the way of making common cause.

And that’s mostly what I got from Dr. Antony’s talk. She admitted at the start that she was going off script (I think, to respond to earlier talks), so it ended up kind of rambly and disorganised. Originally it was going to be a double challenge: to theists, it was to speak out against extremists of their own religion as much as we do. To New Atheists, it was to avoid replacing religious extremism with atheist extremism.

Which… is a really problematic equivalence. It’s true that secularism is no guarantee of ethical behavior, but using the Tuskegee Experiments (done “in the name of science”) as an example that science can be just as bad? No. So, I didn’t get a lot out of this talk either

Brian Dalton: Mr. Deity

I guess I’ve been horribly deprived, because I’ve never watched Mr. Deity. Well, I’m remedying that as we speak. I didn’t take any notes during his talk, which largely consisted of clips of his show.

Zoltan the Adequate

After dinner, we had a fun little magic show by a skeptical magician. Educational, too: he repeatedly counseled against looking down on victims of psychics and so on. It’s too easy to say, “well, they deserve it for being stupid/ignorant/gullible”, and easier to say “I’d never fall for such obvious scams.” But we’re all human, and vulnerable people deserve our support, not our scorn. Educate them, sure. But it has to be done from a place of empathy. We the skeptics have to know what it’s like to feel stupid.