Last Copenhagen update

Note: there will be pictures to go with this, but I’m using my dad’s computer and internet right now, which can’t handle uploading images. As soon as I’m back in Germany, I’ll add the photos. Until then, the text will have to suffice, hehe.

When writing the previous whole-day descriptions, I realized I wanted to talk a bit longer about a few of the speakers and the stuff they talked about, but that would have made the other posts way too long, so I saved that for a separate post. I just didn’t think it would take me three weeks to write it. Vacationing makes me lazy, I guess.

The first speaker who really pleasantly surprised me was AC Grayling. Last time I cared about philosophy, I was in High-School, and the philosophy class was basically a meatspace version of Pharyngula with people arguing about everything. Afterwards, all philosophy I encountered was the sort of mental masturbation best exemplified by Christian apologists: building extensive rhetorical and highly hypothetical constructs with no connection to the real world. It seemed like a futile exercise in justifying what you already think is true, as well as creating fanciful world-concepts I had no reason to be interested in, much less accept as possible.
So, AC Grayling’s talk was a sort of re-introduction to a subject I’d completely lost interest in a long time ago. Mostly, I think, I liked that what he talked about was a sort of “applied philosophy”, or “how to live a more atheisty life”. And interestingly enough, it didn’t have anything to do with eating babies :-p
He talked about atheism as more than just the disbelief in deities; rather, he talked about it as part of a secular/skeptical/rational ethical framework. The first time I encountered this idea was in a completely different context: a video by Greta Cristina about secular sexual ethics, which boiled down to “we don’t need to accept authoritarian morality/ethics, because there’s no super-being above us; instead, we’re free to construct sexual ethics based on a rational view that focuses on consent and human needs”. AC Grayling’s talk was a broader, wider applicable version of this: making rationality and skeptical thinking the basis for a person’s (and a community’s) entire moral and ethical framework in all situations. And certainly, such a framework is sorely needed, since even atheists and skeptics usually function within the already-present religion-based frameworks, merely with minor modifications.
At first, he talked about the flaws in religious systems of morality & ethics: he mentioned that they were unreflective, which is certainly true, with their emphasis on authority and tradition on the one hand, and personal experience and “common sense” on the other; fostered acceptance of magic, which sort of works like “crank-magnetism”, since accepting one fantastic thing makes it so much easier to accept more and more of them; and in the case of Christianity, it doesn’t provide a framework for planning for the future, since at heart, Christianity has always been an apocalyptic cult (and I’d say that the Rapture fantasies are the single best example of this;. So is AGW and other environmental denialism along the lines of “humans cannot destroy what god created, that’s hubris!”). He then explained how a rational system should look, and how it would avoid and/or correct the flaws of the religious systems. He talked about Popper’s work, but that mostly just made me realize that I finally need to read more about that myself, since all I got out of that was the basic concept of training oneself to only accept testable ideas. More generally, he talked about the ethics of rationality and inquiry, or the “well-considered life”: living in such a way that decisions are made, and ideas accepted, deliberately, after considering options rationally and skeptically, instead of just going with the flow of society (or family, or even personal previously accepted convictions) by following its traditions and traditional authorities mindlessly. It was primarily about moral traditions, but this is highly applicable to politics, economics, and pretty much every other area of public live where “business as usual” and “staying the course” are pretty much inherently wrong. Lastly, he talked about what sort of society is most conductive to fostering this kind of reflective, rational life: a multicultural society that isn’t afraid of foreign, strange ideas and ways of doing things, and where the legal and cultural structure is such that it fosters and protects individual development, thought and expression, while at the same time making an individual’s responsibilities clear, as well.
It was a great talk. The only problem I had was the way he talked about what is actually skepticism, but called it “atheism”. While atheism is certainly a rational conclusion of a rational, skeptical “well-considered” life that only accepts ideas that are testable, and should be accepted as such by the wider skeptical community, it’s not the entirety of skepticism, and this kind of rational, skeptical atheism isn’t the only atheism out there, either. I don’t know whether he was blurring the line, or making the point that atheism should be pushed as much as possible into the position of rational, skeptical atheism, but it seemed a bad idea to treat atheism and skepticism as sort of synonymous.

The second speaker who made a great impression on me was Lone Frank. She’s a journalist and a has a PhD in neurology, so a lot of her talk was about our brains and how/why they “do” religion. She considers religion a mental parasite rather than an adaptation. She described the brain as a “social machine”, with functions highly adapted to primarily understanding the human environment, and that the “understanding how humans work” spills into the non-human environment, which we then tend to understand and interpret the same way we interpret societies: we anthropomorphize it. One effect of this she highlighted was the tendency to look for intent and purpose in everything (that infamous question “why”), while at the same time having a very hard time understanding the concepts of statistics and chance. This “promiscuous teleology” is most visible in young children: the question “what’s this animal for” might look nonsensical to an adult, but a child will likely answer it with an example of what they’d do with that animal (a lion is for visiting at the zoo, a bunny is for petting, a frog is for catching, etc.). Religion uses and reinforces this anthropomorphizing and teleology by giving people a supernatural force that creates (for a purpose), and cares about and reacts to human behavior. And personally, I even suspect that it might cause a sort of “damage” that makes people even more susceptible to these brain-errors: like just said, young children are extremely teleological, but most adults are much less so. But a young child who is told, throughout their childhood, that their teleological way of looking at the world is indeed correct, may not grow out of it, unlike someone who is taught that most things really aren’t “for” anything, and things don’t always happen for a reason (and fundies constantly demonstrate that they haven’t left the childhood stage of promiscuous teleology, be it with their obsession of Gods Will For Your Life; explanation of all events as either “tests”, rewards, or results of rightfulness or sinfulness; their resentment of environmentalism, etc.).
Anyway, because religion prays on those universal, inherent human attributes, Frank thinks that it will probably never go away (and therefore we need containment strategies, rather than hoping for its disappearance). It does however change to fit in with the society it finds itself in. In the West, this is increasingly a more fuzzy, less literal religion. More and more, especially in Europe but also in more secular regions and denominations in the USA, religion “mutates” into a sort an individualized, cherry-picked personal theology. Conversations about this form of religion center on its positive effects on those who have it: religion is good for your health, religion makes people happy, religion creates community, religion provides a base for personal ethics/morals, etc. and in this form remains at the center even of a society that is supposedly secular and non-religious. Even non-religious people often automatically give respect to the religion of fuzzy goodness, accepting the opinions of religious leaders and religious people in general on all sorts of matters of ethics, even in areas they have no expertise and knowledge (bioethics for example), and rarely argue against it because of the perception of religion as good for people, religious leaders as somehow more moral and more knowledgeable about morals, and personal opinions and beliefs being a matter of taste and not really something one should “attack” and argue about.
In reality, lack of expertise in the fields the religious judge, as well as the inherent flaws in religion-based systems of ethics I wrote about above, mean that there is not only no reason to listen to religious leaders’ opinions about ethics, it can be counterproductive and dangerous to do so. I asked Lone Frank about how she thinks this accepting attitude towards fuzzy religiosity, and their infiltration into everything, can be fought. She answered that we need to highlight their lack of expertise, and refuse to give them a place at the table when discussing ethics, refuse to give their words any influence when they give their opinions unasked, and insist that the media stop asking them. IOW, we need to repeatedly and loudly make it clear that their opinions on ethics just aren’t relevant, and treat them as such when we encounter them. And I think that creating the “rational ethics” system that AC Grayling talked about and popularizing it would help immensely in taking back ethics from the religions which have hijacked it and declared themselves experts, since a rational, skeptical system of ethics simply wouldn’t accept their self-declared authority when they demonstrate no understanding or knowledge of, much less a necessary expertise in, the subjects they’re making judgments about.

The last speaker I wanted to highlight here was Richard Wiseman, for reasons that have nothing to do with the last two speakers. His research into human psychology, especially human perception, was very fascinating to me, especially his research into lucky and unlucky, since the results were very familiar to those from studies about depressed people. It seems both unlucky and depressed people create a story-of-their-life that highlights the negative results, even of positive events (most notably, a lottery-winner who considered himself unlucky, because a bunch of others had the same numbers, so he had to share the prize-money), and are also hyperfocused in such a way that they’re more likely to miss things and opportunities that happen on the periphery of their lives. Similarly, the suggestions for how to stop being “unlucky” also work for training oneself to lessen the effects of depression, by changing these thought- and perception-patterns.
He used this example of the lucky and unlucky people and their emotional and subconscious self-perception as an example of the importance of understanding the human mind and its workings to the ability to find ways of changing these perceptions. This being an atheist conference, he focused his talk on changing the mind of theists. Basically, he was saying that many theists won’t simply reason themselves out of a world-view they’re emotionally invested, and that has for a very long time shaped their way of thinking; to change their minds, we need to address this emotional investment in addition to the cold, hard, facts. Unfortunately I don’t remember if he made any specific suggestions as to how to do that, and my notes don’t show anything either. I didn’t get the impression, luckily, that he was suggesting an accomodationist stance of hushing up “uncomfortable” truths to get theists to accept certain facts about the world. But I’ll have to read and watch more of his stuff to get a better idea of whether his “framing” is any good :-p

So, I guess I’ll have to add a book or two by AC Grayling, Lone Frank’s Mindfield, and Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor to my reading list :-)

Copenhagen, days two and three

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…

Copenhagen pictures

Here are a few pictures from the God & Politics Conference:

Group photo of the attending pharynguloids; only the Trophy Wife is missing.

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we took over the longest table during the Dinner. PZ ate mostly at the “speaker’s table” (pfffffttt…..), but the Trophy Wife joined us for a large part of the evening.

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Kristjan explaining stuff to PZ

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Moose Elk for sale! ;-)

Copenhagen, day one (updated)

So, a day late, but I did finally make it to the Atheist Conference in Copenhagen. Unfortunately my flight in was also late, so after landing I had the choice between going straight from the airport to the conference, in clothes I’ve been wearing for two days, missing the beginning of the conference and showering. I went to have the shower, since I could literally smell myself. And btw, showering at Kristjan’s place is quite the experience… there apparently wasn’t enough room for a shower, so there’s a showerhead just randomly installed over the sink. Fun times.

So anyway, I missed the intro and part of the speech by the first speaker, Roy Brown. Pretty much the only part of that that I remember was a list of things to teach in schools to promote rational and critical thinking, such as Comparative Religion. After that, I missed Gregory Paul and Dan Barker, because I went to watch the Germany-Serbia game with Rorschach instead. And let me tell you, that was NOT a pleasant experience (edit: the game, not the company!) :-p

So as a result, the only two speakers I caught in full were PZ Myers and AC Grayling. PZ talked about science education (d’uh): basically, it was about how the science classroom needs to be, ultimately, “atheistic”, in the sense that there simply isn’t any room for any gods in science class. That even people who were good scientists, like Ken Miller, got fuzzy-brained and said stupid, unscientific, unevidenced, silly and just plain wrong things just to make a god fit somewhere. And for that reason, a good scientist shouldn’t try to fit a god, or magic, or whatever other private belief they had into the science; science is godless, magic-less, woo-less. And so should science-education.
Oh, and there was a cephalopod joke, kook-quotes in Comic Sans, and PZ calling Michael Ruse a clueless gobshite. And a Vedic Creationist calling atheism a religion during Q&A. It felt almost like homePharyngula ;-)

AC Grayling’s speech fit very well with what PZ was saying specifically about science education, but in a way extended it. He talked about atheism as not just a-theism AKA “not collecting stamps”, not just as a rejection of the theist way of thinking and the theist ethics of faith and personal belief and fuzzy feelings, but as a positive attribute, as part of (or at least relevant to) a humanist ethic: he described this as an “Ethic of Inquiry/Rationality”, i.e. living a life in which no beliefs and opinions are taken on unless they can be tested and confirmed by the evidence (as opposed to “making a leap of faith”); and that as such, atheism is a philosophy in which you take your own life in your own hands and make choices about it, instead of having religious (or other, for that matter) authorities give you the decisions wholesale. It was a pretty neat talk and included many more interesting details, and it might well be enough to convince me to actually start reading philosophy again.

In between and after the talks, I got to meet a bunch of other Pharyngulites, pretty much none of which looked the way I imagined (well, except for David and Rorschach, whose pictures I’d seen previously). Good thing some of them included their nicknames on their tags :-p

After the talks finished, a group that included Kristjan Wager, Rorschach(who was freezing his butt off, because he’s spoiled by Australian weather, and apparently Copenhagen summer is worse than Australia winter, temperature-wise), David M, Knockgoats (in a severely distracting, colorful shirt), and windy went to have some food, because we were absolutely not sufficientlyat all, whatsoever fed and watered during the conference earlier. I vaguely remember the conversation being rather fascinating, but all I really remember was “nachos” that were basically doritos covered in cheese, some conversation about farming and water supplies, and another couple conversations about languages. My brain is clearly too fried to think straight and remember these essential details. Maybe i should have written it all down :-p

Anyway, we ended up being a couple minutes late to the “godless entertainment”, because food appeared too slowly, so dinner lasted longer than planned. And too bad, because Robin Ince turned out to be fucking hilarious. Severely confused, but hilarious. We walked in just as he quoted Ann Coulter’s wonderful statement that “for liberals, abortion is mandatory”; it very much only got better and more hilarious from there. The music group after, called Carbon Traders was a bit weird, if very entertaining. Some songs I thought were really good, but emo/political punk lyrics to happy fun music was…. well, weird like I said. These lyrics required proper electric guitars (instead of fakey acoustic/electronic guitars) and angryness. Though, the solo songs by the lead singer/songwriter about atheism were fun, and pretty good as-is.

And now I’m gonna go crash. I’m fucking tired, still jetlagged a bit, and it’s been a long day. Tomorrow maybe I’ll do a bit more details. I’ll try to remember to take some pictures, too. But those won’t get posted in any case until the end of the weekend, because there’s no way I’ll get any editing done until then.

(update: corrected a few minor mistakes and added links to the event and speakers; just on the off chance a non-Pharyngulite might read this blog :-p )