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PZ Myers' Calgary Talk


  01:05:21 am, by Nimble   , 3000 words  
Categories: Journal, Thoughts, Religion, Science

PZ Myers' Calgary Talk

With the kind babysitting services of mom-in-law, we were able to make our way up to the university in pretty decent time, all the while forcing the TomTom to continually update its trajectory - we're not about to make some annoying merges to save a few putative minutes.

We found a glorious parking spot, but it cost the earth. Unlike City parking, no discount for Sunday here, so we shelled out the money and walked right into the doors of university's ICT building. We found the room in an instant. There were two lists to sign: a petition, and a "more information about the Centre For Inquiry". It would have been nice if the actual wording of the petition was boldly displayed somewhere.

Half an hour before the show, there were about 15 people in seats and a young guy working desperately on a patch to the speaker system. There was an endless loop going on a small TV which looked like it had some interesting snippets from Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, but the volume was turned down, so it was difficult to tell what they were on about.

PZ was up on stage from time to time, looking not particularly menacing, getting the MacBook set up. My wife and I regarded amiably from the third row, whiling away the time whilst wondering what we could name our future other children using capital letters with only straight lines, as turned out to be the case with the first child. I noticed that PZ's e-mail seems to be set up to tell him when there is a comment on his blog... given his blog comment volume, is he crazy?

There was a steady influx of people. We did not suspect the audience would grow to nearly completely full, save the odd seat or two, by the time things got started.

Things started a bit after 2 o'clock.

The president of CFI (Centre for Inquiry) Calgary got up on stage. He was passionate, but just nervous enough that he ended up forgetting to introduce his own self, something he either figured out or was told after he finished speaking.

He's Cliff Erasmus, and he has a son in school in Cochrane, and with the population of literalist Christians in Cochrane, he is understandably worried. The Mitford Middle School, which I ran across in looking up whether there were public school/creationism issues in Alberta, gets 100% funding for their (by their faith statement) literalist Christian program, and that will drop to merely 70% after the pilot is finished.

At that 70% funding, they have to teach the Alberta curriculum, but they get 15% of the course time to teach whatever else they care to, which is where the creationism comes in. He did not mention that creationism is being taught at a grade level where evolution has not yet been encountered, much less taught, but was livid about the funding level of what should have been a private school private program.

One unconfirmed rumour floating around Cochrane is that the program was sponsored or started or somesuch by two Texans belonging to a Baptist Seminary.

Cliff talked about plans to turn CFI Calgary into CFI Alberta with the Calgary branch as merely a head office, and implored people to join.

After pleasantries and passing of the microphone to PZ Myers, we were treated to an interesting and stark yet humorous presentation...

PZ talked a bit about separation of church and state, but made the point that when it comes down to it, it's a last ditch defense to have to employ. The metaphor he used was that of the New Orleans levees: it's a lot better to have the old wetlands in place because the levees hold under normal circumstances, but do not function as well when stressed.

He noted two very valuable groups: the NCSE and Americans United (for separation of church and state). He noted that Canada did not seem to have an equivalent, but that there was no reason why we could not put together an equivalent lobby group.

U.S. legal precedents help. There have been quite a few cases testing the teaching of creationism in all its various guises. In all cases, creationism has lost. Two of these cases, Epperson v. Arkansas and Edwards v. Aguillard have made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and as such, can be used in other court cases around the country.

However, PZ notes, if we were ever to lose one of these cases, somehow, somewhere, it would be an utter disaster, because it would open the floodgates for those wanting to push creationism and other religious derivatives in school to sue for the right to do so.

Where we are losing is in the court of public opinion, despite any number of court cases.

He showed us this chart of public acceptance of evolution, which is pretty dismal in the U.S. We all wondered "...so where is Canada in this list?". PZ did a little research, and though not all other studies are identical, came up with Canada at 56% pro-evolution, just a hair's breadth above Switzerland. Yay, us.

One embarrassing statistic south of the border was from this study. "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so" was the answer of 48% of the general public. What was appalling, though, was that when you narrow the respondents down to just high school biology teachers, that number was still 16%.

We then got to see the map from the 2002 Lawrence Lerner study about science standards and evolution coverage on a state-by-state basis. It was not just north versus south, either. North and South Carolina were rated very good/excellent.

PZ talked a little bit about creationist "moles" (not his term per se) in various graduate programs. Marcus Ross, for example, got his PhD, defended his thesis, and proceeded to turn his back on the knowledge revealed in his education and push young-earth creationism, only now with the "stamp" of PhD. He is as of this writing at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, an institution which PZ compared to... I don't have his exact wording down - it was something like a lint trap... grease trap? of the educational world.

Nathaniel Abraham... that one got himself a masters in biology and Ph.D. in philosophy and took on a job requiring looking at something from an evolutionary perspective and then... refusing to do so on grounds of his beliefs. Sordid affair here.

Then there's Jonathan Wells, who got his degree for the purpose of destroying Darwinism, and who wrote Icons of Evolution, a book which is an absolutely textbook example of being unable to attack evolutionary theory without being thoroughly dishonest.

At this point, PZ gave us a visual quiz. I do not know why he was disappointed that we could not recognize Mel and Norma Gabler; they are important to the subject, yes, but not generally recognizable. Those two, he said, we essentially single-handedly responsible for watering down textbooks in Texas, and consequently everywhere else, since they would take textbooks and mark everything "unbiblical".

He pointed to Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the horrible creation museum as being a lot more relevant and a lot more dangerous than the Discovery Institute, because he is more popular, makes more money, and has a grip on the public's imagination.

PZ then proceeded to talk about the ridiculousness of religion, and did it by means of making up a religion dedicated to an all-powerful sky muffin named Bran. I hope PZ graces us with the text of the presentation, because it was too much to copy down. It will lose something in the translation to mere static text, sure, but enjoyable nonetheless.

He went through the various stages of this muffin religion, from the original which talked about the muffin slaying your enemies and giving you their women through to more "modern" interpretations:

  • The muffin came to earth as a real muffin made in a deli in New York by a Jewish Virgin and was ripped apart and consumed... (orthodoxy)
  • Western world inspired by muffin, foundation of western civilization, believe for the sake of good... (traditional)
  • Loyalty is suspect if you do not love muffins and eat them every day... and your favourite football team will lose (patriotic/jingo)
  • Wise benevolent great muffin looks down on us with love, and that is the most important ingredient in his recipe, love (emotional appeal)
  • You can't prove there was no muffin at the Big Bang, makes me feel good to have faith in the muffin (modernistic?)

You can ridicule all of the above, but if you replace the various pieces of the tracts with Jesus and God, it suddenly must be respected.

The next topic was our current failings...

I'm paraphrasing a little here:

  • Passive strategy, just on the defensive
  • If those court cases are breached, we lose
  • Over-showing compatibility between science and religion gives off some wrong impressions
  • Protecting the classroom but ignoring culture

Ken Miller and the like are great, but their own histrionics to defend their religious views can be very odd indeed. PZ recommended we read Francis Collins own book for an especially odd defense of faith.

The pressure for creationism is coming from the culture, and fixing only the classroom is not going to help enough.

The problem, according to PZ: religion.

What are you going to do about religion, he asks?

Fight back

Not in any violent sense, and "fighting back" sometimes just means saying what you believe. That itself will be construed as an attack, never mind how hypocritical such a response is.

We got to see a bit of Expelled! trailer that showed Dawkins and PZ. PZ's bit talked about hopefully reducing religion to a side dish; make it something like knitting.

The comparison to knitting got a lot of complaints, apparently, but mostly from knitters.

So to avoid such an unseemly comparison again, PZ said that instead of knitting, which people seem to enjoy, religion should be more like masturbation. How so? Because:

  • Feels good
  • Lots of people do it
  • Public exhibitions are inappropriate
  • Enthusiasm for it is not a qualification for office

It's more universal than religion, too, because even atheists do it ;)

More 'fighting back' advice from PZ:

  • Come "out"
  • Don't let Uncle Fred run roughshod over your beliefs at Thanksgiving
  • Question!
  • Blaspheme! (cf. The Blasphemy Challenge)

Let them know that you are not just Christians in disguise, which is one popular way for Christians to rationalize the fact that atheists they know are good people.

He went over the "Cracker controversy", and shared once more the original reasons for it, the flood of mail, and the tone of the mail that convinced him to go through with the originally flippant promise of desecration.

Way to go, Skatje, by the way, for misdirecting the angry bunch of Catholics who stormed onto PZ's campus.

He referred to the earliest incident of an accusation of host desecration, which resulted in a massacre of Jews in Berlitz.

The mail he got, like the letter from someone who thought that what he was doing with the eucharist cracker was much worse than Hitler or 9/11 brought home how evil religion can be, to make words on a page worth much more than actual human lives.

He reiterated the use of ridicule, and how people often believe that using ridicule will just harden people against you and they will not listen to what you have to say. PZ figures that's a myth, though that was one topic that some of the people with questions got into.

There was a small break, during which people could go to the bathroom. I waited patiently in line for a chance to shake PZ's hand, an opportunity which I managed to accomplish at the last moment before the break was over. Upon my mentioning my wife's profession, I think he started worrying - utterly unnecessarily - that we might introduce atheism in class. PZ - don't worry!

There were some books and pamphlets up front as well. Many of the pamphlets were from SOS, a secular alternative to the very religious Alcoholics Anonymous.

In question period, there was one guy who stood up and declaimed "I'm an atheist, and I have a Ph.D", and then proceeded to say how offended he was at the whole talk and how it misrepresented tolerance and all. Then he stormed off... once he managed to get out of the seat. People figured he might have been a creationist "plant". Who knows, he might have been genuine, but I was struck by the odd way he waved his credentials around. Wish I had gotten a picture... anyone know who he was?

In question period, there was a lot of coverage of trying to separate respect of people from respect of beliefs. There were a few people there that just did not seem to "get it".

One of the questioners raised the pretty good point that religion is used as a substitute, at least in political races and the like, for having to figure out whether a candidate is moral or not.

We found out that PZ's sister teaches Sunday school, but that they love each other enough to be able to ridicule each other amiably... at least, from the sounds of it.

Folks were a bit offended that the landing on the Hudson contained so much reference to miracles and God, often completely overlooking the skills of the ex-military pilot. "You don't get to appropriate his skills for your religion", I paraphrase.

Mentioning that Barack Obama actually referred to nonbelievers as part of the nation, one of the questioners was a little miffed at the negativity of 'nonbelievers'. PZ shrugged somewhat - he likes "atheists", thinks "nonbelievers" is okay, and likes "freethinkers", though people think it's old-fashioned. He also thinks "Brights" is just horrible, which was pretty nice to hear, because my wife and I simply gag when we hear that term.

He also mentions that really, nobody gets to choose their own nickname, so to speak. PZ, Dawkins, Harris, etc. get tagged with the epithet "New Atheists" regardless of their own wishes.

Does atheism have something positive to offer? Yes, PZ indicated, the value of this life.

One poor student was in what sounded like a bit of a potential situation with religious teachers and a religious principal, from the sounds of it. The advice: record things, seriously. (We tracked down the student afterward to have a chat and give him some reassurance.)

Cliff also chimed in that religious discrimination is against the law, and that CFI would step in to offer help if asked.

There were definitely a few rambly questioners whose point never quite seemed to be reached.

One questioner who taught philosophy thought that the removal of philosophy from core curricula might be responsible for some of the backslide. PZ agreeds that the likes of philosophy would help, and that in his own class, he goes over a little bit of history of Bacon, and the likes of 19th century geology and how it came to develop.

Another questioner who bemoaned the fact that we do not really have "real experiments" to give to young children made a better point when she indicated that we really have to put a lot more effort into the science classes in earlier grades. She also said we need a better science center. (If you've compared ours to that of Edmonton, or Vancouver, or... well, a lot of places, you know how lacking ours is.)

There was some discussion about whether ridicule is the right option. Some people did not feel comfortable doing it, and wanted to do other approaches, like promoting science. PZ, and I'm paraphrasing here, said really, that's fine: you need multiple approaches overall to succeed.

PZ also made reference to one thing he supports: Cafe Scientifique (well, lookee here, there's a Canadian one as well), and students, even those from high school, are welcome.

Someone had apparently been handing out tracts entitled "Questions Provided For Use At The Upcoming Seminar By P.Z. Myers At The University of Calgary" before the talk, but well after we were already in the auditorium. I managed to snatch a copy that someone left behind (score!)...

...It really is an inane, rehashed set of the same sorts of questions that have been addressed over and over and over again, including the retarded "magnetic field is getting weaker - how could life have existed back when it was that much stronger?" (claim CD701) and many more.

Cliff Erasmus gave a little bit of his background, being in with the Baptists until he was 15. (That clinched for me why Cliff seems to be fairly intense)

We clapped for the volunteers who help set this all up, and especially the one man who did all the posters and whatnot while still making time to see his dying grandma. Strangely, they forgot to set aside a moment to clap for PZ. Someone yelled that out, and some of us clapped through the din.

I hope PZ knows we really appreciated him coming and all :)

All in all, a more interesting talk than I was expecting, especially from being more or less a daily Pharyngula reader and still finding many fresh new things in the presentation.

We made our way out after talking to a couple of folks, and passed by a group outside taking their mandatory puffs, and overheard their conversations. *sigh* There were quite a few people missing the points in the presentation.

It all made for good topics of conversation on the way home. Mayhaps we will investigate CFI Calgary some more.

Thanks for coming to visit our frigid city, PZ. You're welcome back any time, and do tell us whether haggis was in the offing that night :)

If there are any misattributions or corrections to be made here, or there are details I've missed, please let me know.


Comment from: Iranious [Visitor]

Sorry to disappoint you, Ritchie, but while your “hero” PZ Myers is a proficient micro-biologist, by his own admission, he knows next to nothing about theology. See for yourself over at the calvinists4conservatism@wordpress.com blog.They’re chewing him up and spitting him out on the “Richard Dawkins Takes Another Life” thread at that blog. You’ll find that, I believe in the November 2008 Archives.There’s more on him at the same blog in the December 24, 2008 thread. I think that thread was titled: “Obligatory Post-Hiatus Thread.

01/26/09 @ 07:15
Comment from: dena [Member]  

*laugh!* Uh, oh! Someone’s gonna be up late on his computer tonight!

I’ll bring you your dinner at the keyboard, dear. :)

(123 views *already*?!?! Wow…)

01/26/09 @ 17:31
Comment from: Nimble [Member]  

*laugh* Not to worry, Dena :)

Iranious -> Intriguing pseudonym, that of an early, early church father who believed not only in exorcisms and laying on of hands, but of people who had the talent of bringing others back to life! Still, more interesting than the run of the mill.

The accusation of “knowing next to nothing about theology” means a lot less to atheists than it would to you. To my mind, the best of theology is philosophy, the worst, a call to kill, and much of the middle relies on assuming conclusions to be true. To atheists, God is a fictional character, and theology is thus the study as if that fiction were true.

The value of theological arguments is therefore notched down to the exact degree that it relies upon that premise. Aquinas addressing “whether an angel is composed of matter and form” is thus as relevant to the modern world as a Tolkien bestiary. For those of us who have read the usual holy book in question as well, it seems that some heavy filters or even lack of reference to the holy book (e.g. starting from thought experiments or first principles) need be applied to even theologically derive positive modern morality.

Church sects take their morality from their leaders and history, regardless, and then reverse-engineer the holy book to support them: witness the cherry-picking of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the twisting of the story of Onan, the downplay of slavery and the manufactured support for things like abortion that abrogates even the traditional Aquinian precepts of ensoulment and quickening. From this flexibility, it is no wonder that there are so many sects.

As a fiction seems to be the way that many Christians take the East Indian pantheon of gods like Shiva and Vishnu, despite not knowing even a percentage point of the vast quantity of East Indian religious literature stretching a long ways back.

(Of course, some bring in the additional fictional character of the devil who is somehow fooling all those worshippers - without considering it possible the reverse is true - but this brings along all sorts of nasty thoughts ranging from pity to wishing them deserving of death.)

A common follow-on question is often “why be mad at God?", which misses the point, albeit understandably. If God is fictional, then it follows that the only effects that come from this are by believers through belief.

I find that since it is only the effects of belief that are the case, I can easily be friends with a wide variety of religious sorts; I just like people for who they are and how they treat others.

Anyhow, with respect to Jesse Kilgore’s father in the initial article in question, I feel for his loss, as well as his search for a scapegoat, but indications by the uncle were that Jesse was having some problems with his faith in the first place, and suicide is from desperation, lack of control of circumstances and an inability to see that it will get any better, an ability that comes with age and experience. Guilt, shame and attraction to death are also risk factors (JKRapture?). I would surmise that he did not get the reassurances that he needed from family and friends. I am sorry that he did not have the resources or feel he had the support to make it through that time of confusion.

There isn’t really much to see, merit-wise, in the threads to which you refer. It is erroneous to presume that PZ spreads atheism in the classroom. Atheists also come to science, not the other way around, for much the same reason many famous nominal Christians came to science in the 19th century. The paranoia seems to be “if the atheists believe it, it’s wrong, because they have to be believing it just because it denies God", but this is not so.

I find it funny that some from the thread went over to PZ’s blog and act in retrospect as though they were there for civil debate. I know the sorts of things that set off the Pharyngulites, and to pretend, as a member of a Christian Reconstructionist forum, to have gone over there for tea and crumpets is laughable :)

That all said, I’m glad to see that some doubter visitor comments over at that forum are allowed through - that makes it certainly more interesting than many places of that timbre. As for the PZ “savaging", well, it’s summary plus your own opinions (my apologies if you are not actually one of the posters in that forum, but you get my drift) to which you are entitled and with which I disagree.

So thank you for the apologies in disappointing me, but they really were not necessary.

01/27/09 @ 02:00