Ramona and I went to a great conference in Burbank, CA in early October. Darwin’s Legacy was co-hosted by the Atheist Alliance International and the Richard Dawkins Foundation. We arrived mid-day on Friday and jumped right in by attending a live recording of the Dogma Free America podcast with panelists P.Z. Myers, Sunsara Taylor and William B. Davis. The following sessions that afternoon were running in three simultaneous tracks. First, I listened to a self-identified Arab-American (who asked us to maintain his anonymity) describe the Arab Atheist Network. His talk ended up being a disjointed primer on the negative cultural aspects of Islam, specifically the absence of women’s rights, the absence of freedom of expression and the patriarchal biases. He closed his presentation with a list of ways to not help Arab Atheists, which included continuing superficial critiques of Islam and triggering in-group solidarity reactions. His list of ways to help Arab Atheists was short and the main way was to translate or to contribute to the translation and distribution of critical thinking literature.
Next I attended Russell Blackford’s presentation on Defamation of Religion. I enjoy many of the posts on Blackford’s Metamagician and the Hellfire Club blog and it was nice to get to hear him speak. He had a quirky, irreverent presentation which drew a lot of laughs from the audience. The scariest part of the presentation came after his discussion of the proposed UN Defamation of Religion resolution. Turns out Articles 19 and 20 of the The United Nations INTERNATIONAL COVENANT ON CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS (ICCPR) adopted in 1976 contain clauses which could be precursors to what some Muslim countries are trying to do with the Defamation of Religion proposal.
Met up with Ramona to attend William B. Davis’ presentation. Davis played the Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-files. He gave a very pleasant presentation which included several vignettes from his upcoming memoir (odd that he didn’t reference the X-files episode where his character was a thwarted writer…..) and then talked about whether The X-files hurt or helped critical thinking. Evidently, Richard Dawkins had at some point in the past criticized the show for supporting pseudo-science. His short answer to Dawkins was that there was no evidence for his claim. Davis credited the popularity of the show with the observation that it (like Shakespeare’s works) described a scenario on the cusp between two worlds with great tension between the two worlds. Then Davis drifted off-topic with some odd comments about capitalism and global warming. Davis was in attendance throughout the conference, and I have to say that it was somewhat surreal to have the Cigarette Smoking Man lurking around in his cashmere sweater all weekend, bumping into him at breakfast, seeing him mill through the lobby of the expo. I kept wanting to say “honey, watch out!” even though we was a very nice guy.
While Ramona listened to a great talk by Sean Faircloth of the Secular Coalition for America, I went to Kate Lovelady’s talk on Building Thriving Non-theist Communities. Kate is the leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis. I enjoyed this as much for the insights into Ethical Societies as I did for its content on the life cycle of communities/groups/projects. Unrelated to Darwin, evolution, critical thinking or woo, Kate quoted a mentor of hers regarding how to approach things when you join a new group which I paraphrased in my notes as “If you join an organization and you see some good things going on and you see some bad things going on, don’t spend any of your energy on trying to stop the bad things. Spend your energy working on making the good stuff even better.” This advice may well have more effect on me than most of the rest of the content of the conference.
Next up, the ubiquitous and loquacious P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula fame. Myers drew a standing room only crowd for his presentation on Design vs. Chance. He started off with a caricature of the standard Intelligent Design (ID) argument, then spent the next thirty minutes giving logical example after logical example to refute it. Much better and much more on-target than his presentation at TAM6 last year.
As the sun set, we rolled into a happy hour (fun group with which to relax) followed by a viewing of a streaming of Real Time with Bill Maher on the big screen. Richard Dawkins was his guest, although he didn’t get to say much thanks to the panel and Maher. Next the full cast from Mr. Deity entertained us for an hour while Maher and Dawkins made the long trip from the studio to the conference. Brian Keith Dalton gave a (thankfully) abbreviated version of the presentation I heard at Shermer’s convention last fall, then he and the cast performed a few episodes live and showed us a few episodes on the big screen. There was much laughter. Then Dawkins and Maher and their entourage arrived. Dawkins presented the Richard Dawkins Foundation Award to Maher (after making a very pointed commentary that he did not agree with Maher’s view on alternative medicine) and then Maher took the stage and delivered a great stand-up comedy act based on readings from The Purpose-Driven Life . I think the RDF award was given mainly based on Maher’s movie Religulous, which is really funny and really sad. The last thing on the agenda Friday night was a Comedy Night in a smaller venue (the main conference room was filled approximately five hundred attendees) with several younger comics followed by Jimmy Dore as the headliner.
….on to Day Two