Conference Notes

Why imagine that there is a god?I recently returned from the Orange County Freethought Alliance conference.  Though a local conference, it had an impressive lineup.  Of course, they had an advantage with some well-known Los Angeles-area speakers: Michael Shermer (Skeptic magazine), Phil Zuckerman, Jim Underdown, Brian Dunning, Mr. Deity (Brian Dalton), Eddie Tabash, and Heina Dadabhoy (Muslim blogger at  But they also had some great out-of-towners: Robert Price, Aron Ra, Richard Carrier, Barbara Forrest (expert witness in Kitzmiller v. Dover), David Silverman, and Dan Barker (FFRF).

I’ll give some (probably disjointed) highlights.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said that the next Reason Rally is scheduled for 2016 (location unknown).  He also said that Fox News has reported that they will become more centrist.

Lawyer Eddie Tabash emphasized that the next president will almost surely pick a Supreme Court justice to replace Justice Ginsberg (now 79 years old) at least.  He spoke about being at the recent $15 million Obama fundraiser hosted by George Clooney.  When he got his two minutes with Obama, Tabash quipped, “I am the first atheist in history to be in the presence of his savior.”

To emphasize the judicial predicament that thoughtful Americans are in, he gave this fun quote:

Disfavoring practicing homosexuals in custody matters promotes the general welfare of the people of our State. … The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution.  It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle…  Homosexual behavior is a ground for divorce, an act of sexual misconduct punishable as a crime in Alabama, a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.

That’s Alabama Supreme Court judge Roy Moore referring to a 2002 custody case involving a lesbian mother.  He was later removed from office after refusing to remove a stone monument of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse.  (Perhaps that humiliation is a selling point to some voters since he’s the favorite to regain his former job this November.)

In June 2005, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that

The [First Amendment’s] Establishment Clause … permits the disregard of devout atheists.

And Clarence Thomas has said that the Establishment Clause limits only the federal government, not state governments.  That is, in his mind state governments aren’t bound by the constraint to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Sounds more like April Fool’s Day than that these are the considered opinions of state and federal Supreme Court justices.

On a lighter note, Brian Dunning (Skeptoid podcast) gave a puzzle.  The full moon is the same size as what held at arm’s length?  Is it a ball bearing, a pea, a dime, a nickel, a quarter, a silver dollar, a plum, or a baseball?  (The answer is below.)  This was an especially apt puzzle since we had a spectacular partial (80%) solar eclipse at the end of the conference.

Dunning gave himself as an example of how tenacious false beliefs can be.  After he concluded that vitamin C had no effect on colds, it took a year to wean himself off of it.  This is like Greta Christina’s gradual acceptance of the lack of evidence for glucosamine as joint medicine or Sam Harris’s Fireplace Delusion.  It helps to understand our own blind spots when we try to understand those of other people.

Richard Carrier, newly famous because of his online argument with Bart Ehrman about the Jesus Myth theory, talked about the fine-tuning argument.  It was a good talk and especially helpful because I’d read Vic Stenger’s The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning and hadn’t gotten the concise summary that I was hoping for.  I’ll leave a more detailed summary of this talk for later.

Michael Shermer talked about “The Moral Arc of Reason.”  He noted that asking, “Why should we be good without God?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry (or jealous or happy or any other human feeling) without God?”  These are all natural feelings with plausible natural causes.

He used graphs and statistics to argue that things are getting better within society (wars, income, and other social metrics), much like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.  But why is this not simply an aberration?  Why imagine that this is a legitimate trend within society and not cherry picking of the data?  Shermer argued for a moral equivalent of the Flynn Effect, the startling effect that has caused an increase in average IQ scores of about three points per decade, perhaps for as long as a century.  The Flynn Effect has been (tentatively) explained with the hypothesis that modern society has trained us to be better in abstract reasoning (mentally moving 3D shapes, for example).  Perhaps there is a moral equivalent at work as well, that modern society has given us a new appreciation for peace and harmony.

I have long been fascinated with the work of Phil Zuckerman, who (along with Gregory Paul) has shown the far better social metrics of less-religious countries compared to the religious U.S.  Zuckerman talked about the new Secular Studies major he developed at Pitzer.

Barbara Forrest of SE Louisiana University, an expert witness in the Dover trial, says that “critical analysis of evolution” and “academic freedom” are some of the new creationist code words.

Jim Underdown is a paranormal investigator who will be on Dr. Phil debunking psychics this week (“Inside the Other Side,” 5/25/12).  He noted that the Bible’s miracle claims are similar to today’s paranormal claims, which have been tested and debunked.  The one million dollar JREF prize for a successful paranormal demonstration remains unclaimed, for example.

The answer to Brian Dunning’s puzzle: the full moon is the same size as a pea held at arm’s length.  My guess was a dime, so I need to try this myself to verify it.

Played at the conference, here’s Jesus singing “I will survive” (a must-see if you haven’t watched this before).

Photo credit: Mirror

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