Saturday was a real marathon of speakers, and required making choices, so there was no way to see all speakers (I hope other people, who have seen the speakers I’ve missed over the weekend will write-up their experiences and impressions as well). It also required notes, since my brain can’t absorb and remember that much information all at once :-p
We didn’t manage to leave Kristjan’s place early enough to get to the convention in time for the first speaker, because we miscalculated how long it would take for 6 people to get ready with only one bathroom. So the morning turned a bit chaotic; but at least there was real bread and real coffee (gotta like a man who knows how to use a French Press!!) for breakfast. Also, I’m glad to note that this time, the conference had food, too: coffee and coffecake for morning snack, beer and buffet for lunch, and more coffee and cake for evening snack :-)
Saw a few minutes of Jens Morten Hansen’s presentation, but not really enough to have an opinion on it. The next speaker was Lone Frank* who in my opinion was one of the best speakers for several reasons. For one, her speech was more locally relevant to the European atheists (especially in contrast to the previous day, which was very heavily America-centric), and from my point of view it was simply a different method of dealing with a different kind of believer than what I’m used to from the US and its fundies and passionately bible-believing Christians; she spoke about the almost instinctive, unearned respect for religion, and for clergy and their opinions, and how this is dangerous and nonsensical, and needs to be repeatedly pointed out as such. And two, she made a pretty good argument why that European, fuzzy, feel-good individualistic religion (AKA “spirituality”) is a kind of “chronic infection” of the brain which we need to learn to treat and minimize and keep from doing damage to our societies, but which is incurable, because of the way our brain is wired for interpreting everything in social terms. And three, she started her presentation with this picture ;-)
The next presentation was by Richard Wiseman*, who is an incredibly funny guy. His presentation was mostly about woo and irrational beliefs in general, but the point of it was to show how people get their irrational beliefs, how their own brains trick them, and how attached people become to these beliefs, and he suggested some methods of teaching rational thinking without ignoring this emotional investment.
Rebecca Watson’s presentation was probably the weakest one. But then, I might be just biased, since it was pink and about tone. She called it “don’t be a dick”, but I think it would more reasonably be “sometimes, it’s not about you”. One of the most annoying habits of evangelicals and new Christians is that they insert their god into every possible conversation. There’s no point in atheists&skeptics becoming like them, but OTOH sometimes, when it actually is about you, I think being rude is perfectly reasonable. For example, while it’s an asshole move to break out into lecturing when a birthday kid is being told to make a wish, it’s entirely reasonable when planning one’s own birthday party to explained to concerned Germans you don’t believe in luck and superstitions, and therefore don’t care that the party is before your birthday instead of after. Similarly, it’s ok to explain the same to someone trying to stop you from walking under a ladder, etc. Also appropriate in my opinion is pointing out that “how very Christian of you” is not a compliment, just like “that’s mighty white of you” isn’t.
I was already very familiar with most of the stuff in Aroup Chatterjee’s presentation of Mother Teresa’s entirely undeserved image as a good woman, so what caught my attention most was the effect she and her PR campaign had on the reputation of Kolkata (Calcutta): while it’s a city plagued by poverty, just like all of India, MT managed to make the world think of it as just one ginormous slum full of starving beggars, and nothing else, disappearing the existence of a middle class and of wealth, culture, and infrastructure. He was very much complaining about how MT’s work made foreigners ignore Kolkata when traveling to India, for example.
The last two presentations were Richard Dawkins and James Randi. Dawkins’ presentation felt oddly generic. He talked mostly about the concept of selection at the level of the gene, and how that’s, in the end, the only level at which it happened. So, basically, “The Selfish Gene” material. Randi’s presentation was hilarious, and made a good point that even a PhD or two don’t protect against being fooled by charlatans, and how a lot of people seem to want to be fooled.
And then we went to have dinner. The speakers were provided a separate table, which I don’t think should have happened; the whole appeal of a dinner like that, after all, is to mingle with the speakers. The Trophy Wife joined us for a large part of it, and PZ towards the end, but all mingling really only happened right at the beginning, before people figured out that it was ok to sit down**. Food itself was ok, but not precisely spectacular (it’s actually depressing that my flight-food was better; ok, it was business-class for once, but still), primarily because it was a buffet. I did pig out on the fancy cheese plate and fruit that were served as dessert. yumyum. Afterwards, we went to another bar to continue our conversations, but were kicked out indecently early, at 2am. I did end up sleeping through all but one Sunday sessions, but that was because I didn’t get to sleep till way past 5am (stoopid internet…).
So, all I’ve seen on Sunday was Victor Stenger. He went relatively superficially through some of the “fine tuning” arguments. Physics is entirely beyond me, so all I’ve gotten out of that was that all these “precisely tuned” parameters are actually often within a range, and/or pre-determined by some other physical parameters/attributes. I really regret missing Michael Nugent’s speech, since apparently a lot of other people liked it, and it could have spared me the mild embarrassment of not realizing that I’d spent half the night talking to him, hehe. Anyway, the sightseeing afterwards unfortunately was cut short by extremely rainy weather; combined with the 24hr delay of my flight, this basically meant I haven’t actually seen much of Copenhagen, which is somewhat disappointing. Dinner was at a Thai restaurant that offered “octopus with holy basil”, I was tempted, but opted instead for the spicy red curry with duck instead. And then I finally got to see the by now famous Ørsted Ølbar, which is cosy and has decent beer, but shitty lighting that nearly put me to sleep. And then we got kicked out, and the last bar we went to mostly excited Rorschach and Ye Olde Blacksmith, cuz they could smoke inside :-p Anyway, that’s where we got into a conversation with Michael Nugent about how to create a more non-Englishspeaker-centric conference, i.e. involving more south and east European participants and speakers. A lot of really good ideas were bandied about, and I hope they will be able to implement a lot of them, over time.
Ok, this is waaaay too freaking long already. Hope no-one fell asleep while reading it!
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*I’m going to write a more thorough recap/review of my favorite presentations, because including them in this post made it WAAAAAAAAY too long and unfocused.
** interesting phenomenon, btw… all the people trickling in were just sort of standing around in the middle, while the seating-section was completely empty. Eventually, a couple pharyngulites realized the absurdity of the increasingly crowded situation, so we found ourselves a nice, big table. there was still some off-table mingling, but we didn’t have to stand in the way of everybody else. most other people didn’t sit down until the announcement was made, though…