The Atheist Alliance International convention took place over the weekend, October 2-4, 2009, at the Burbank Airport Marriott hotel, and I took my usual level of notes for the talks I attended. But rather than (or perhaps temporarily in lieu of) giving detailed summaries of each talk over the next several weeks, this will be one post with brief comments on each. If there's demand, I can follow this up with more detailed posts on individual talks of interest.
There were over 700 attendees at the conference, and I believe I heard that last year's conference was about 450. It's not as big as The Amazing Meeting, but if that rate of growth isn't an artifact of say, the fact that this conference was co-sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason and featured an unbelievable set of high-powered speakers, then they'll catch up quickly. The AAI conference participation seemed to be more diverse than TAM, with a higher proportion of women and minorities, though it's still not close to representative of the population--there's still a white male dominance.
The conference talks were divided into "tracks" which were really more just rough categories than a system of tracks that could be followed, which were Science, Advocacy, Heritage, and Development. Events that weren't talks included an optional pre-conference event of attending a live studio taping of a TV show ("100 Questions"), an optional post-conference event of an L.A. bus tour and visit to the La Brea tarpits, a live viewing of "Real Time with Bill Maher" featuring Richard Dawkins (shortly before they both showed up in person), entertainment by Mr. Deity (including live performance and a few of the shows, as well as some personal background from Brian Keith Dalton), a live recording of the Dogma Free America podcast with a panel of speakers, a standup comedy showcase hosted by Comedy Jesus Troy Conrad, a "taste of Camp Quest" for kids, and an Atheist Nexus live music party.
I arrived a bit later than planned--my expected driving time of just under six hours turned out to take over seven due to a few traffic issues along the way--and I missed three things I had wanted to attend. Those were Rich Orman's panel discussion for his Dogma Free America podcast, with P.Z. Myers, William B. Davis, and Sunsara Taylor; Alpharabius' talk on atheism in the Arab world; and Russell Blackford's talk on attempts to regulate against "defamation of religion." Fortunately, Alpharabius gave me a capsule summary of his talk and I had a few chances to chat with Russell Blackford and Rich Orman, so that partly made up for it.
P.Z. Myers gave an entertaining talk on "Design v. Chance" that began with a parody of a typical intelligent design creationist presentation, argued that ID arguments are at root an "over-extended metaphor" of design accompanied by misrepresentations of science. He showed how the ID claim that Darwin thought cells were mere "balls of protoplasm" is false, and presented evidence that various features thought to be characteristic of multicellular life have been found to be present in choanoflagellate protists. He ended by sharing a couple of useful words, "kipple" (from Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," meaning accumulated useless objects) and "granfalloon" (from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Cat's Cradle, meaning a label on a group that doesn't really have anything significant in common, like "Hoosier"). For "granfalloon," he quoted the statement from Bokonon in Vonnegut's book, "if you wish to study a granfalloon, just remove the skin of a toy balloon." Isn't "atheist" a good example of a granfalloon, if all we share is lack of a belief in God? (This ended up being relevant to Brian Parra's talk at the end of the conference.)
After a cocktail and socializing session, the main ballroom showed "Real Time with Bill Maher" on a big screen, featuring his guests Janeane Garofalo, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, and Thomas Friedman, then joined by Richard Dawkins. Maher demonstrated the witty and incisive criticism of religion that won him the Dawkins award, though he also made some comments about environmental causes of cancer that have raised controversy about his receiving an award with "science" in its name when he has pseudoscientific opinions about matters such as medicine (as Orac has forcefully argued in a series of posts at his Respectful Insolence blog: one, two, three, four). This was followed by entertainment from Mr. Deity in the form of both live performance and videos, along with some personal history from Brian Keith Dalton. Then Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins entered the room. Dawkins recounted the highlights of Maher's "Religulous" as the reasons for the award, and Maher accepted the award, noting (accurately) that Dawkins summary was better than the movie itself, followed by his routine of reading from Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life which you can find on YouTube. Maher was the least-approachable celebrity at the entire conference; even those sitting at his VIP table were unable to ask him questions, as P.Z. Myers reported firsthand.
Ed Buckner gave a talk about how atheist and freethought organizations are learning to cooperate, which I live-tweeted comments on.
Lawrence Krauss gave a talk on "Our Miserable Future" or "Life, the Universe, and Nothing: The Future of Life and Science in an Expanding Universe," in which he argued that the best evidence shows that we are in a flat, rather than an open or closed universe, which means that it will continue expanding towards some limit. He gave a history of cosmology from the discovery of the expansion of the universe to dark matter, and pointed out that we are fortunate to live in a time when the energy density of dark matter vs. ordinary matter in the universe is approximately the same, and the expanding universe is at a point where other galaxies are still visible. The upshot of this is that we are fortunate to live in a time where we have the evidence of Hubble expansion and the Big Bang. Intelligent civilizations of the distant future will be unable to see any galaxies other than their own, or any evidence of the Big Bang, and will conclude that they are in a static and eternal universe based on the best evidence that they have. Such people will be "lonely and ignorant, but dominant," which Krauss said those of us here in the U.S. are already used to. They will have an irreparably wrong picture of the universe from their epistemological blindness due to state of the universe around them. (What similar blindness do we suffer from due to our current place in the universe and observational abilities?)
Carolyn Porco gave a talk which began as a celebration of Galileo's steps towards a scientific method, which she said couldn't be applied to God because no experiment is possible that is relevant to God. (This strikes me as erroneous in a number of ways, since claims about God usually have empirical consequences, it's possible to make philosophical arguments which draw upon scientific data, and her picture of science seemed to be based on an overly simplified Popperian philosophy of science.) She argued that it is "very difficult to prove a negative" (as if "proof" is what science cares about--but at least she didn't make the mistake of saying it's impossible). She claimed that science and religion are "completely different" and are not only not equivalent (certainly true) but are "not intersecting"--apparently advocating something like Stephen Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" view, which is falsified by the fact that religions do make empirical claims. She complained about Hollywood's depiction of scientists in a negative light and blamed it for deterring young people from going into science, though she supplied no scientific evidence to support this (though she referred to a survey of science-related films from 1920-1994 by two researchers that concluded depictions were overwhelmingly negative). I think it's unlikely that such depictions have much of a negative effect at all, since polls in the U.S. and other countries about what professions are most trusted put doctors, teachers, and scientists very high compared to most other professions. Businessmen are similarly victims of negative portrayals in Hollywood, and are also less trusted, but that doesn't seem to translate into fewer undergraduates choosing to become business majors. I suspect a better explanation of any reduction in science enrollments (if that's actually happening) would be found in elementary and secondary education, along with the fact that people find science and math difficult. She concluded with a series of fantastic photographs of Saturn and its moon Enceladus from the Cassini mission.
Martin Pera spoke about embryonic stem cells, science and policy, arguing that it will revolutionize medicine by allowing restoration of cell loss through transplantation as well as the development of new methods of research using stem cells. He pointed out various challenges to "regenerative medicine," including rejection, tumor formation, and implanted stem cells developing the same pathologies that they're designed to treat, but observed that these also present new opportunities to learn. On the public policy side, he argued that scientists need to engage more with the public, patient advocacy plays a key role in policy discussions, and careful and thoughtful regulation is preferable to "premature prescriptive regulation." (This ties into a lot of the subject matter in law, science, and technology I'm studying this semester, and Pera's talk had considerable overlap with a talk I attended earlier this year at the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix on embryonic stem cells by Prof. Jane Maienschein of ASU. If I write up a more detailed summary of this talk, I'll bring some of that into it.)
Jerry Coyne gave a summary of his book, Why Evolution is True. He defined five constituents of the theory of evolution and pointed out predictions, retrodictions, and evidence supporting each of them from a variety of scientific disciplines. He book-ended his discussion with the famous chart of rate of acceptance of evolution by country (from a study co-authored by Eugenie Scott) at the start, and a suggestion as to why that pattern of acceptance holds at the end (appealing to Greg Paul's evidence that belief in God is correlated with social dysfunction). He concluded that the real way to increase the effectiveness of teaching of evolution is to build a better, more just society. I'm skeptical--I think there are likely other causes behind the correlation, and that the strength of religious belief in the U.S. may be the result of religious competition due to the lack of an official state religion.
Daniel Dennett gave what I thought was the most interesting talk of the conference, titled "The Evolution of Confusion." His initial premise is that you reverse engineer things by trying to break them, and to reverse engineer religion, you can look for "experiments of nature" in the same way neuroscientists reverse engineer the brain by looking for cases of humans with particular brain lesions or damage due to accidents, and compare them to those without. In the case of religion, the form of pathology he chose to study is preachers who are atheists. Not former preachers who are atheists, but those who are still in the pulpit and in the closet, yet don't believe in God. Working with Linda LaScala, he's found six cases of such preachers (who themselves think there are many others), ages 37-72, one female and five male, three in liberal denominations and three in literalist/fundamentalist denominations. These people have fallen into what he called "the not so tender trap" where they have financial dependence upon their jobs, have lost opportunities for other training, and find it "difficult to say to the rest of the world I have wasted the last 40 years of my life." Half of them, though, he thinks will go public in the near future, while two will probably never do so, because they feel like they will do less harm by living a lie than by coming clean.
Dennett compared these closeted atheist clergy to homosexuals in the 1950's, either having no "gaydar" or being afraid to test it. They'll occasionally resort to the age-old subterfuge of saying things like "I have an uncle who thinks X, what do you think of that" to their colleagues to try to identify other possible atheists by expressing their doubts with a thin veil of plausible deniability.
Each traces the roots of their problems to seminary, because professors of Bible studies tend to tell the truth about the evidence, and the evidence isn't good for the Bible. But they do so with a theological spin that is an attempt to use clever ways of speaking to glide over problems and provide ministers with answers to "What can I say to the parishioners?" which have the features of not being a bare-faced lie, relieving skepticism without arousing curiosity, and seeming to be profound. Dennett introduced the concept of a "deepity"--propositions that seem to be profound, because they are actually logically ill-formed, having one meaning that is trivially true and another which is false but would be earth-shattering if true. A familiar deepity is "Love is just a word." On one reading, it's true--"love" is just a word. On another, it's false--"whatever love is, it isn't a word," he observed, and noted "You can't find love in a dictionary--that's almost a deepity itself." This is an elementary logical mistake, failing to distinguish the use of a word (in the latter case) from a mention of a word (in the former case). If you quote a word to talk about the word itself, that's a mention; if you use the word to convey its meaning, in order to refer to the things described by the word, that's a use. This is a common error in undergraduate philosophy papers, so common that many graders identify it as "UME" -- "use-mention error."
Dennett gave examples of such errors in statements by Karen Armstrong, including in the title of her book, A History of God. It's not a history of God, it's a history of the concept of God. Similarly for Robert Wright's recent The Evolution of God. And he provided some further examples from sociologist of religion Rodney Stark (who seems to me to be using the "symmetry principle" just as sociologists of science do) and from Karen Armstrong, including this answer from the latter in response to the question "Do you believe God exists?" from Terry Gross on NPR: "That's the wrong question. It presupposes that God is the sort of being that could exist or not exit. God is no being at all. God is being itself. God is the God beyond God." Dennett observed that "God is no being at all" is sophisticated theology, while "No being at all is God" is crude atheism, yet those are logically equivalent statements. Theology, Dennett argued, is "like a magician doing a trick where you can see the card up his sleeve."
At dinner, we watched a short three-minute promotional video for the Richard Dawkins Foundation that featured Michael Shermer, P.Z. Myers, and Brian Greene, among others, talking about what is science. Richard Dawkins then spoke, summarizing the last chapter of his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which has chapter sections related to and titled from the words of the last paragraph of Darwin's Origin of Species. One of the more memorable sections was about "The Four Memories" we have--the memory of past successes encoded into our biology and preserved by natural selection, the immune system's memory of diseases we've experienced during our lifetime, the memories accumulated by our brains, and the collective memory of transmitted culture.
Dawkins spent a very, very long time signing books, and looked exhausted when he signed my copy of The Blind Watchmaker near the end of the line.
The evening ended with a live music and karaoke party put on by Atheist Nexus.
The first talk of the morning I attended (and live-tweeted) was Gerardo Romero of Ateismo desde Mexico, about atheism in Mexico. His group has been around for about 10 years. It first started on MSN forums but migrated to its own website and forums, and has now begun to migrate into the real world with two atheist marches. The First World Atheist March occurred on September 28, 2008 in Mexico City and Guadalajara in Mexico, as well as in Italy, Spain, Peru, and Colombia. They received newspaper coverage in the Excelsior, a major Mexico City newspaper. A second march was held on September 27, 2009 (Spain did theirs on a different day due to a holiday conflict), with participation also from ArgAtea in Argentina and Ateos from Peru. He talked about ADM's plans for further activism to promote science and critical thinking, separation of church and state, and distribution of condoms. ADM has a podcast, Masa Critica, as well as an electronic magazine, Hidra, published on their website.
Jonathan Kirsch spoke about the "Inquisitorial toolbox," first in the context of the history of the Inquisition and then as applied to more recent events. The main tools he described were the use of torture as punishment for wrong belief (as opposed to wrong action), calling this torture by a different name to conceal the real purpose behind the act, and requiring the "naming of names" as an act of contrition to show the sincerity of a recantation. In practice, this was used to eliminate competition and accumulate wealth, as well as to combat heresy (a word that derives from the Greek word for a free choice). He described the beginnings of the Inquisition as a tool to root out and eliminate the Cathars or Albigensians, whose heresy was to disbelieve in the newly-introduced 13th century doctrine of transsubstantiation. The Cathars reasoned that this doctrine was the opposite of holy belief--if we believe it, we must believe that "when we go to the privy we will piss out the blood of our savior, and excrete the body of our savior." A crusade against them failed to wipe them out, and so the Inquisition was invented to root them out by using informants, the threat and actuality of torture, and the collection of names. The Inquisition was subsequently used to wipe out the Templars and seize their wealth--forfeiture was also a key tool in the toolbox, making the victims pay for the privilege of being tortured.
Kirsch gave more modern examples including the use of "spectral evidence" in the Salem witch trials, the show trials of Stalinist Russia, and Hitler's forcing Jews to wear identifying badges and the identification of Jews in terms of bloodline as elements consciously copied from the Spanish Inquisition. And although the last victim of the Inquisition was executed in 1826 (garroted and placed in a barrel with flames painted on it as a reminder of the glory days of burnings at the stake) and the Inquisition was formally ended in 1834, The Holy Office which was created to run the Inquisition still exists to this day under a different name ("Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith"), headed by the Pope. I was reminded of how the Church of Scientology, after being prosecuted for criminal activity associated with its "Guardian Office," claimed to reform by changing the name of that unit to the "Office of Special Affairs."
Kirsch also observed that the tactics of the McCarthy Era and of the "global war on terror" have also used tools from the Inquisitor's toolbox. I think he could have also pointed out uses of the toolbox in the war on drugs (especially the use of civil forfeiture and "naming of names").
Eugenie Scott gave a talk about intelligent design which focused primarily on the strategies that have been used to try to get it into the public schools. While the direct approach failed in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the latest approach has been with "academic freedom" and "explore alternative evidence" bills and attempts to change state educational standards. She recounted recent events in Texas regarding attempts to put "teach the controversy"-style wording into the Texas Educational Knowledge and Skills document, which started as a requirement to teach "strengths and weaknesses" across all domains, and ended with "all sides of scientific reasoning." She then looked at some 1990's-2000 cases where individual teachers tried to teach creationism and were slapped down (Ray Webster, John Peloza, and Rodney LaVake), and noted that the "academic freedom" bills are essentially an attempt to legislate against such further slapdowns. Such a bill has passed in Louisiana, which allows teachers to bring in supplemental materials to critique biological evolution, global warming, and human cloning. She pointed to a phylogeny of these bills constructed by Anton Mates that showed how they have evolved.
These bills are constructed to try to avoid the possibility of legal challenge. They avoid any mention of religion to avoid establishment clause violations. They stress free speech and academic freedom. They are phrased as protective of a teacher's right to teach alternatives. And they are formulated as permissive rather than directive bills, which means that they have avoided a facial challenge--a judge isn't likely to grant an injunction against them on the vague language of the bill, but only to do so on the basis of an "as applied" challenge if there's a particular case of where a teacher following the bill engages in activity that infringes the constitution and a parent and student with standing can be found to sue.
The final talk of the day I attended was Brian Parra's talk, "All Together Now: Strategies for Growing the Freethought Community." He distinguished identity vs. beliefs, pointing out that the Pew polls on belief are structured by first asking how a person self-identifies, then asking them a series of questions about belief. Only 1.6% of the U.S. population self-identifies as atheist, and it can be daunting to look at 1.6% vs. 98.4% of everybody else. But if you add agnostics, you get another 2.6%, a total of 4.2%, which is a group larger than Jews and Mormons put together. If you add "none"'s, you get another 12.1%, and a total of 16.3%--about the size of the black community. If you add in the "don't know" answerers, and adherents of nontheistic religions, you get up to 18.5%. If you look at not-monotheists, you get 20.1%. And if you look at not-evangelical-Christians, you get 74.3%.
He further noted that if you look at how self-identified Catholics answer the question "Do you believe in God?", you'll find that 25% of them said no. (By the same token, though, if you look at how self-identified atheists answered that question, you'll find that 21% of them said yes.)
He suggested that we define positive aspects of atheism and create coalitions based on common ground, and drew squiggly circles around a diagram that showed all of these groups regarding their answers to the questions, for those who don't believe in God, who believe in a physical universe and natural cause (I believe he meant *only* in, i.e., rejection of the supernatural), who support secular government, humanistic ethics, and have confidence in science and reason. These he identified as the "Big Five" for creating an atheist worldview. Afterward, I asked him what's the difference between his "Big Five" and secular humanism, to which he answered "Nothing." If it is different, it is only in being somewhat more concisely (and vaguely) formulated.
He concluded by saying that a possible model for success is church minus the theology--it's just a community that plans varied activities aimed at different age groups and interests, not just about atheism but in the name of atheism, which stays in touch with constituents via various media, which brings new people into positions of responsibility, and which seeks out "public displays of atheism, not merely for protest and activism, but also to demonstrate that atheists exist and are nice people."
I'm not sure I'm optimistic about that approach. Not only is it already being done by the humanists (including both CFI and AHA), while his initial remarks were about ways to increase the scope and size of coalitions, his "Big Five," by looking at the intersection of those "squigglies" rather than the union, inherently shrinks them. And by far, the one that cuts down the group the most is the first one, nonbelief in Gods. I think this is, to some degree, an advantage that skeptics have over atheists, which is that they put the emphasis on the last item on his list, support for science and critical thinking, rather than the first. I'm inclined to think that the last three of the "Big Five" are far more important things to share in a civil society than the first two.
All in all, it was a great conference, despite a few glitches involving errors in room assignment, last-minute schedule changes, and technology. The most appealing aspects for me were the top-notch speakers on science and the chance to socialize and engage in discussion with many like-minded, intelligent people, even if they are part of a granfalloon.
UPDATE (October 11, 2009): Relevant to Brian Parra's talk is Luke Galen's sociological study of nonbelievers, the Non-Religious Identification Survey, as well as Bruce E. Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer's book Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers, which I just read about in the presentation slides of a talk by Taner Edis of the Secular Outpost.
UPDATE (October 23, 2009): You can find a translation of this summary into Arabic at the Arab Atheists Network website.
UPDATE (November 16, 2009): Daniel Dennett's talk from the AAI conference is online here.
UPDATE (December 27, 2009): Lawrence Krauss's talk, Jerry Coyne's talk, Andy Thomson's talk, Richard Dawkins' talk, P.Z. Myers' talk, and Carolyn Porco's talk are all on YouTube as well.
Other Blogs on the AAI Convention
P.Z. Myers wrote about Russell Blackford's talk on defamation of religion, Toni Marano, Robert Richert's talk on Vietnam, Maurice Bisheff's apparently kooky talk on Thomas Paine, the Dogma Free America panel, the Maher/Dawkins Award ceremony, an exhibit on Evolutionary Genealogy, a gift of a bottle of wine supplied while having dinner with Daniel Dennett, acting in a forthcoming Mr. Deity episode, other gifts of wine and Surly-Ramics jewelry, proof of meeting Mr. Deity and Lucy supplied by your truly, and a challenge regarding the Atheist Nexus.
Paul Fidalgo wrote summaries of the Dogma Free America panel, Lawrence Krauss's talk, Caroline Porco's talk, and the Bill Maher award.
John Crippen describes his AAI convention experience in three posts: one, two, and three.
Surly Amy offers her observations on why "You Don't Have to Be a Skeptic to Be an Atheist," which nicely complements P.Z. Myers' review of Maurice Bisheff's talk. I agree with her, and also note that you don't have to be an atheist to be a skeptic. These two posts illustrate why I prefer to self-identify with skeptics.
Rich Orman interviewed a number of the speakers for his Dogma Free America podcast, including P.Z. Myers, Ed Buckner, Stuart Bechman, Sean Faircloth, Alpharabius, and Brother Richard of AtheistNexus.
If anyone comes across other summaries worthy of mention, note them in the comments or in email and I'll append them here.
(Photo of UFO sighting in Marriott lobby by Reed Esau.)