From the atheist meetings

Time is short, as I’m off to Guatemala this evening, but I wanted to post a brief report on the AAI meetings. I’ve had a look at Pharyngula, and of course P.Z. has been doing a good job reporting on the salient events.

It’s the first time I’ve been in a group of fellow atheists (and I haven’t detected one sign of stridency or militancy), and it gives one a warm supportive feeling. One of the functions of speaking at these meetings, even if one is preaching to the choir, is to give solidarity to the atheist community, many of whom feel isolated and alone.

Pharyngula reported on Robert Richert’s talk on his experiences in Vietnam, but what P.Z. didn’t mention is that Richert broke down in sobs at the end, while he was describing how one of his fellow soldiers bragged that he had been protected by God, while a Vietnamese woman wailed helplessly as the last blood pumped out of her infant son’s body (he had been hit by a grenade fragment). “Where was his miracle?” asked Richert, with tears streaming down his face. It was an enormously moving moment.

P.Z.’s talk was also good (it’s the first time I’ve heard him speak). Although he’s low key on the dais, his message is hard-hitting, and it was about how “design” can result from purely naturalistic processes. Lots of jabs at Dembski et al. P.Z. really shone in the long question session, where he handled the many questions with perspicacity and humor.

It was great to finally meet Russell Blackford, a nice guy who gave a great talk on anti-religion “blasphemy” laws that are passing in various places, including one under consideration by the UN.

I attended a talk (and had breakfast with) William Dav is, better known as “The Cigarette Smoking Man” of X-Files fame. Davis’s nominal topic was a response to Dawkins, who has criticized The X-Files for being inimical to reason (the supernatural explanation always won). Davis’s response basically boiled down to “Well, we all knew it was fiction,” which I think is inadequate. Davis also gave a bit of biography (I learned this morning that his X-Files cigarettes were herbal, and he had somebody else light them), and threw out a few bizarre statements, to wit: it might have been better not to fight against Hitler in WWII, and that perhaps democracy isn’t the best political system for the US (he feels that it’s inefficient at confronting our enormous global challenges).

Bill Maher’s award and talk on Friday were, as P. Z. noted, absolutely hilarious: Maher read from Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life,” making spontaneous sarcastic comments throughout. The guy is a hoot, despite his views on medicine (to which Richard did draw attention during his speech). I sat next to Maher at the ceremony; he has a very young partner with an Archaeopteryx fossil tattooed on her forearm

Yesterday was “science day,” organized by the Dawkins Foundation. Larry Krauss talked on cosmology. Richard called him “The Woody Allen of Cosmology,” and that’s absolutely accurate. The talk was fantastic; one of the best popular talks on physics I’ve ever heard. Krauss is a riveting and hilarious speaker, who leavens his physics with plenty of bon mots (and, in this case, attacks on creationism). I was a bit disappointed in Carolyn Porco’s talk, as I expected her to discuss her work on planet imaging. Instead, she talked about the compatibility of science and faith (she appears to be a bit of an accommodationist), and left the images and science to the very end. But do look at the website for some stunning pictures of Saturn.

Dan Dennett talked about interviews with active priests and ministers who are atheists, and also mounted a hilarious attack on theologians like Karen Armstrong, who mouth pious nonsense like, “God is the God behind God.” Dennett calls this kind of language a “deepity”: a statement that has two meanings, one of which is true but superficial, the other which sounds profound but is meaningless. His exemplar of a deepity is the statement “Love is just a word.” True, it’s a word like “cheeseburger,” but the supposed deeper sense is wrong: love is an emotion, a feeling, a condition, and not just a word in the dictionary. He gave several examples of other deepities from academic theologians; when you see these things laid out — ripped from their texts — in a Powerpoint slide, they make you realize how truly fatuous are the lucubrations of people like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught. Sarcasm will be the best weapon against this stuff.

I think my talk on the evidence for evolution went well, but I’ll let others be the judge of that. Annoyingly, I was slated for a book-signing, and somebody forgot to order my book!! Anybody who wants an autographed copy should feel free to order the book on Amazon, send it to me (with return postage please!), and I’ll sign it and send it back.

Finally, Richard read from the last chapter of The Greatest Show on Earth, which is an exegesis of the famous last paragraph of The Origin.

Eugenie Scott, director of The National Center for Science Education, is speaking in an hour, and I’ll go to her talk (I may report on it later this evening) and take off for LAX.

This is written in haste, in a hotel lobby, so I apologize for any infelicities of grammar, misspellings, and the like.

26 Comments

  1. Posted October 4, 2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Pauling told me to tell you to “take your vitamin C and get plenty of rest.”

    • TonyS
      Posted October 7, 2009 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

      Stridency & militancy should be found at every atheist meeting. They must also(and rightly so) be found when we discuss how to stop pedophiles, racists or genocide. If it should not be I am still unclear on why this is. Possibly through the grace of another I will one day realize why this is.

  2. Edward
    Posted October 4, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    “God is the God behind God.” Osama is the Osama behind Osama. Uhh, The Trinity? Armstrong has really lost it.

    • Posted October 4, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      The omnicreative hiding places for WAM are profoundly covert in a covert essence.

    • Posted October 5, 2009 at 4:34 am | Permalink

      Armstrong forgetfully blasphemes the God who lies behind the God behind “the God behind God” by not giving Him the Glory behind the Glory behind the Glory.

      And she is beginning to irritate the God behind that One, too.

      Plus, she ignores the God is who not the God behind the God behind God behind God, too, which is just as well since that’s only the God behind the God who is not actually God.

      Usually we have to get out the hipwaders to navigate such deep(end)ities.

      Too bad about Carolyn Porco, by the way. She is a good science presenter.

  3. Joseph Heled
    Posted October 4, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Any Video/Audio from the meeting?

    Thanks, Joseph

  4. Neill Raper
    Posted October 4, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Maher is such a disappointment. He really is a hilarious critic of religion, creationism, conspiracy theories, global warming denialism. Everything but medicine. When it comes to medicine though, he is the absolute worst kind of quack. He is Kevin Tredeau without the moneymaking.

    The most frustrating thing is that he says things like this.

    Relevant bit @ 3:30-4:10.

    If only he realized that when he spouted off about medicine he was telling the people with the relevant expertise in medicine that THEY don’t know what they are talking about.

    I really want to like Maher, I really do, but I just can’t. The man is an antivaccinationist, germ theory denying, conspiracy mongering (at least for big pharma), hiv/aids denying, cancer quack.

    • articulett
      Posted October 4, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      I think he’ll evolve. See, I lived in Southern California like he does and there’s this sort of notion that it is wise to be “skeptical” about medicine. I think it has to do with a lot of people letting go of religion through new-agey stuff. It takes time to understand how to think critically.

      Consider that Bill Maher is “evolving” towards becoming a hard core rationalist. These things take time. Many of us have an embarrassing history of wrong beliefs and magical thinking. We can inch him towards the light one step at a time.

      • JC
        Posted October 4, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        What articulett said. Here in LA if I say I’m an atheist people shrug and go on with life, if I say I don’t believe in alternative “medicine” they look at me like I’m insane and assume I need to have my chakras cleansed.

      • Neill Raper
        Posted October 4, 2009 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think you appreciate the extent to which Maher has drunk the kool aid on this issue.
        I was not exaggerating. He actually denies the germ theory of disease. He has flirted with denying the link between HIV and AIDS. He does not believe in the flue vaccine because “it has mercury”.
        He said just recently that we have not made any progress in treating cancer for the last 50 years and that people go down to mexico for “alternative treatments” and come back cured. He’s not just kind of into acupuncture. He believes the entirety of western medicine is a plot to keep people kind of sick but not to sick so they can treat their symptoms and make lots of money. His insanity on this issue is as deep as those who deny evolution, and I dare say that if he did that nobody around here would be waiting for him to come around. They would be criticizing the hell out of him.

        I’m sorry but I’m not holding my breath. He is down the rabbit hole when it comes to medicine and I don’t see him climbing back up anytime soon. Like I said, Maher is an odd guy, I really do enjoy his religious satire, but I simply cannot let his insanity slide.

  5. articulett
    Posted October 4, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    *adds “deepity” to lexicon*

  6. Steve Ulven
    Posted October 4, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I would like to point out that The X-Files did NOT weigh in on the side of the supernatural (well… minus a few psychics, etc). The only skeptical topic ever depicted as real is the alien/government conspiracy and I would not call aliens supernatural. I have been through the entire series a few times (and am actually on season 4 right now going through it again) and am pretty sick of skeptic bashing it. If you even watch the “creature of the week” episodes to the end, you see that there is generally a rational explanation.

    • me
      Posted October 5, 2009 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      There’s also the episode about the pyrokinetic, at least.
      But the problem with the X-Files is not the supernatural elements, but the paranoid schizophrenic style conspiracy theories, many of which are based on beliefs that significant numbers of people have come to hold. And the problem with conspiracy theories is the fundamentally irrational way in which they are developed and constructed such that they cannot be tested: they are a form of meme, a variation on the urban myth.

  7. newenglandbob
    Posted October 4, 2009 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Deepity – it sounds like a music genre like Motown.

    I hope someone was filming all of these talks.

  8. Sili
    Posted October 4, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Did somebody say bullshit?

    It really is disappointing that linguists aren’t better integrated in the skepticosphere (most of them tear appropriately into Chomsky, too).

    Pity about the book. If it’s any consolation it was just pointed out to me today that I’d forgotten to get a signature on a piece of art I bought a while back. Bugger.

  9. Tom Ambel
    Posted October 5, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    is deepity a deepity itself?…hmmmm

  10. Robert
    Posted October 5, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    It really is a shame with Maher’s Kool aide-soaked view on medicine. I know that he has an outmost respect of Dawkins, Harris and Dennett on scientific issues so I don’t quite get it why he’s still jacked-up on the Kool aide. Does he not read the pages on reason and rationlism in their books?

    I feel naive in beliving he could be enlightend on the matter…

  11. santitafarella
    Posted October 5, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne said above: “One of the functions of speaking at these meetings, even if one is preaching to the choir, is to give solidarity to the atheist community, many of whom feel isolated and alone.”

    I attended the conference also, but (as an agnostic) I didn’t see it that way. The atheists I saw at the conference were virtually all white, majority male, and apparently accomplished in their professions (many spectacularly so). I don’t think that most atheists at the conference feel all that much like lonely Sisyphuses pushing their solitary atheist rocks up society’s overwhelming religious hill. Instead, the people looked healthy and confident, as if they ran the hill. They were mostly highly educated people, and financially well off enough to hang out at an atheist conference headlining big time scientists and intellectuals.

    Don’t cry for them, Argentina.

    By the way, Dr. Coyne was kind enough to let me snap a picture of him and Russell Blackford. I told them I’d put the photo on my blog (if it came out), which they both said was fine. They are very easy going people in person. No surprises there. Anyway, here it is:

    http://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/biologist-jerry-coyne-and-philosopher-russell-blackford-at-the-atheist-alliance-international-annual-convention-in-burbank-ca-october-3-2009/

    Oh, and Coyne said he has never censored my comments at his blog’s threads because he likes dissent. He doesn’t think of me as a “troll.” So if you’ve got problems with me periodically contributing to these threads, take it up with Jerry. We’re pals now! (Okay, not pals. But that’s what he said to me. We’re coolio.)

    —Santi

  12. rideforever
    Posted October 6, 2009 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    There seems to be some confusion here. “If evolution is true is” one question, “if atheism is true” is another.

    Evolution might well have occurred but that doesn’t mean that something started it off, for instance.

    But these two questions are often merged into one which is a bit of a trick. A trick of not thinking clearly – which isn’t very scientific.

    At the present time scientists and philosphers are unsure whether we can know anything absolutely because of issues to do with consciousness and also issues todo with quantum physics.

    So when you are entitling an article “Why Evolution Is True” it seems you are clinging on really tight that to an absolute reality that science and metaphysics currently can’t prove exists. It’s not scientific.

    One thing struck me .. that atheists feel “isolated and alone”. That is sad for anyone to feel like that. But being an “atheist” seems to me part of the western way of chopping the world into smaller and smaller bits all living alone, and now you chopped yourself off from the world and you feel alone … well why did you do that ? Because of a book ? Seems even crazier than the Christians and their book.

    • Felix
      Posted October 6, 2009 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      Not one word you wrote in your comment really exists, and neither does my reply. In fact since you can’t be absolutely sure you exist, it’s pretty crazy you even bother to say anything. It’s even crazier of you to have an opinion about anything.
      You know what, just stop existing until we have figured out how to predict quantum events with absolute certainty, otherwise you’re just wasting the universe’s precious time and resources.

  13. santitafarella
    Posted October 6, 2009 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Rideforever:

    I think that the distinction you make is an important one. To think clearly about science and strict philosophical materialism, you have to decouple them.

    God belief and strict materialist belief will always be inferences from the data that science yields. Nature answers the material scientific questions posed to “her”, and we draw larger philosophical conclusions from those answers.

    Does matter precede mind or does mind precede matter? Based on what we know right now, both views have merits (and demerits).

    —Santi

    • newenglandbob
      Posted October 6, 2009 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Here we go again with the mind precedes matter bullshit. This from the guy who tries to make nice to Jerry Coyne in person but actually calls him an asshole in public on his web site:

      defamation by santi here

      This from the supposed agnostic whose web site talks about near death experiences, mind to matter, UFO and supernatural woo and other garbage like “Does Atheism lead to belief in social Darwinism?” He provides a rich diet of character assassination and defamation of Coyne, Dawkins and others.

      If you want to see a cesspool of garbage, supernatural woo,lies and filth then go look at his web site over the last few months.

  14. Leigh Jackson
    Posted October 6, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    It’s not just Islamists and their political allies at the UN agitating for anti-democratic protection of their religion. Notwithstanding Ireland’s change of mind about European political integration, their Government is introducing a new blasphemy law – despite a European Council report last year advising the abolition of European blasphemy laws.

  15. Peter Beattie
    Posted October 9, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    In case somebody was looking for that, here’s an audio version of Bill Maher’s award speech on YouTube.

  16. santitafarella
    Posted October 10, 2009 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    Peter,

    Thanks for that link.

  17. Peter Beattie
    Posted October 10, 2009 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    And this seems to be a torrent of PZ Myers’s talk at AAI that Jerry mentioned: PZ Myers at AAI: Design vs Chance.


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