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Skepticon II Rocked the Midwest

This past weekend’s Skepticon II was so much fun that I wanted to do a quick wrap-up post about it.

Friday began with a debate between students on the topic of Does God Exist. On Twitter I joked that we’d know the answer depending on whether or not He showed up. He did not. QED.

The debate was okay, though the format didn’t allow for as much interaction between panelists or between panelists and the audience as I would have liked. I actually found one of the Christian students very likeable–he even made a joke about how if Jesus had been hit by a donkey cart, he (the student) wouldn’t be on stage that day. The Christian panelists lobbied strongly for the idea of an absolute and unchanging morality established by the God of the Bible, and during Q&A I asked why the Christian idea of morality has changed so drastically since the Bible, since back then slavery was okay and for “adulterers” to be put to death. Did God change his mind later? I followed it up by asking if Jesus had been hit by a donkey card, would they wear a tiny donkey cart on chains around their necks?

They didn’t really answer the former question, and afterward the donkey cart guy came over to chat with me about it. I’m really annoyed because I filmed the discussion but lost the audio. His point was that people were only murdered for adultery before Jesus gave his life for their sins, and that now the punishment for such sins is less. I pointed out that there were other “sins” in the Bible that he’d probably not consider sins today. I used the example of a woman who is raped being punished, but it was suggested to me later that I’m misremembering my Biblical sins. However, the point stands with many other “sins,” like having sex with a menstruating woman, working on a Saturday, or for proselytizing. On the topic of slavery, he suggested that slavery wasn’t so bad back then, so those biblical verses referred to something very different from black slavery in the US. I disagreed but wasn’t able to say much more on the topic, because really? I pointed out that the customs may be different, but surely slavery was no walk in the park 2,000 years ago. It’s not all A Comedy of Errors, is it?

Anyway, briefly on to the other topics of the weekend. That debate was followed by a “pro” debate on the same subject between Christian intellectuals (please, no tired “oxymoron” jokes as it makes us all look bad) and Vic Stenger, Richard Carrier, and the event organizer JT Eberhard, and moderated by DJ Grothe. It was a cordial discussion but not much came out of it, for me at least. The Christians failed to offer anything concrete, and instead stuck to very philosophical arguments that seemed to dance around the subject. I’m hoping DJ or someone else posts something about the debate.

I missed JT’s talk that followed, and part of PZ Myers’ talk because we went to a brewpub for dinner and then got lost coming back and then got lost inside the god damn building. Yeah.

On Saturday, DJ Grothe gave a very interesting talk about morality, inspired by the previous day’s debates since he disagreed with a few of the views of even the atheists. He was defending the idea of an absolute objective morality that man has evolved, as opposed to a purely relative morality. It’s not a topic I’m very familiar with, so I found it very interesting and only very occasionally over my head.

Vic Stenger then gave a talk titled The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. Vic calls himself the stable boy of the Four Horsemen, but he proves he’s more than worthy to stand by their sides. He’s very quick and unafraid to represent atheistic ideas from a physicist’s perspective. The only thing I really disagreed with him on was his stance on marriage and surnames (ahem), which wasn’t actually a part of his talk but a spirited debate we had over cocktails Thursday night.

Next was Robert Price, who has this wonderful off-the-cuff style. He spoke on The Gospels and Thorough-going Skepticism, and any other entertaining thought that popped into his head while talking. It’s at this point that you may realize that Skepticon is pretty damn misnamed. It’s not a skeptical conference nearly as much as it is an atheism conference, which is fine but had a few of us tweaking our talks in order to fit the theme, and would have left any skeptical theists who wandered in feeling a bit annoyed.

Bringing things back around the Skepti- part of Skepticon was Joe Nickell, who never fails to entertain as he discusses his many adventures investigating paranormal claims, from Nessie-like creatures to “haunted” houses. Joe kept everyone entertained all weekend long, because wherever he goes he brings amazing stories that he never fails to share.

Dan Barker got back to the atheism with a talk about the conflicting numbers contained in the Bible and how they can be used to easily disprove the book’s infallibility. One thing I wanted to ask him but didn’t get a chance was his assertion that Dinesh D’Souza believes in evolution, which is weird because I saw Dan debate Dinesh and wrote this:

I’ve seen online clips of D’Souza in debates, and a few times I’ve heard him say this very strange thing: that society makes “laws” to prevent people from behaving in a certain manner, and scientists make “laws” to vainly attempt to make the Universe behave in a certain manner.

I’ll give you a minute to roll that around your head.

Each time, D’Souza’s opponent corrects him, informing him that the word “law” has different meanings. Proscriptive laws are the ones society makes to enforce civility, and descriptive laws are the ones scientists use to describe the behaviors they observe in nature. Tuesday night, D’Souza used the exact same fallacious argument that had been repeatedly corrected for him in the past. This caused me to wonder: is D’Souza just not getting it? Is he unable to understand this simple distinction? Or is he purposely using underhanded tactics to argue his point?

I could have sworn that had something to do with evolution, but maybe not? I can’t rewatch old D’Souza debates or I’d put my own eyes out with a pencil.

After dinner, Richard Carrier gave a talk on the historical Jesus and whether or not he existed, managing to work in a lot of profanity for such a scholarly talk. He was funny and fair as he described the evidence for and against Jesus’ actual existence. Richard comes down on the “no” side but admits that his is the minority view and that there may be some evidence the other way.

Then PZ Myers was back on stage, delivering an hour-long introduction for me overview of all the stupidity that has come his way via creationists. He claimed that it was his cranky talk as compared to the previous day’s more cheerful talk, but I found it pretty damn entertaining nonetheless. I was particularly happy he went over Ray Comfort’s argument that evolution couldn’t have happened because how did men and women evolve at the same time in the same way? When I first read Ray’s argument, I didn’t understand it. I finally realized that I was giving him too much credit: no, he really is so astoundingly ignorant as to believe that early humans reproduced asexually by physically splitting in half. And yes, for evolution to be true that means that some humans developed boy parts and some developed girl parts and they happened to fit together and that’s how babies are made. I know. Seriously.

Eventually it was my turn! I went on at 10pm, which in my head was 4am GMT, so I was basically high as a kite sucking on an enormous 44oz Pepsi to combat my exhaustion. I gave a talk called Why Chicks Matter, which was a sneaky fake name I made up to trick people into attending a talk on skeptical feminism. It worked! Most people didn’t leave and we all had a good time talking about why it’s important for skeptics, nonbelievers, and feminists to work together to combat pseudoscience and superstition. I’ll be posting little bits of it here on Skepchick over the next few weeks or so, I think.

After my talk I was ready to crawl into a small hole and die, but instead we went out drinking. We closed down a bar before going back to our motel and having a party that only got two complaints before we figured out the “inside voices” theory of party-having. Finally we decided to be adults and go to bed, but by the time DJ, PZ and I walked back as far as my room, we decided to not be adults and to instead open our last beers and hang out shooting the shit until PZ literally had to go to the airport for his 7am flight. I then got on chat and talked to my husband, who wondered why I woke up so early when my flight didn’t leave til 2pm. Yeah.

So, the best part of the conference was, for me, JT asking me to come back next year and agreeing to my terms. I told him I would, so long as he got two more women on stage with me. He didn’t even hesitate and is already working on it. I’m pretty sure Skepticon III will rock even harder than this year.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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32 Comments

  1. Perhaps Ray Comfort was thinking we evolved from the hermaphrodite banana slug, who has penis that is so big it often gets stuck during the sex act and has to be gnawed off. It never grows back, so after that the slug can only play the female role. And we know Ray has a thing for bananas already.

  2. I too am very bummed that I wasn’t able to make it, in spite of the fact that I only live 4 hours from the event. Damned kids ;)

    From all the tweets etc and now your report it sounds like I really missed a great conference. I was particularly interested in Joe Nickell as he’s always an entertaining and informative speaker. I’m hoping that DJ does a segment on POI with their look at the Lemp Mansion in STL.

    Do you have any idea what the situation was for childcare? I definitely want to go next year, but do have to be sure there’s something for the kiddles to do.

  3. I have to agree with everything you said. That was a blast of a weekend. It was great to meet you Friday night even if I did skip out on the Karaoke. :-)
    PZ’s talk on Friday was his fun one, with lots of naughty bits thrown in for good effect.

  4. Yeah, it’s a little ironic that the student said he wouldn’t believe in Jesus if he had been hit by a donkey cart, presumably because that would be humiliating. But low and behold the whole point of the crucifixion was that it was *meant* to be humiliating. So apparently Christians are too proud to accept alternate humility. Oopsie. The correct answer would be, “*laugh* Well, technically Jesus’ death was meant to be humiliating and if God has chosen to use the donkey cart method, I’m sure Christians would have adopted that symbol instead.”

  5. You were not incorrect about what the bible considers sins. If a woman is raped *and does not call out* the she is punished. The idea behind this being that unless she cries out against it, then she’s not being raped, and is therefore fornicating.

  6. @MorgannaLeFey: I didn’t know that bit. (For everyone else, that’s at Deuteronomy 22:23-24.)

    The part I knew was just a few verses later (28-29), where the rapist is “punished” by being required to marry the victim. (Oh, and a 50 silver-piece fine, payable to the victim’s father.)

  7. “The Christians failed to offer anything concrete, and instead stuck to very philosophical arguments that seemed to dance around the subject.”

    Isn’t that typical of intelligent theists? My experience suggests they only have hand-waving waffle to give e.g. the Archbishop of Canterbury in Richard Dawkin’s The Genius of Charles Darwin.

  8. I’ll say it again: your talk was a blast! And, at the same time, a real eye-opening shocker, too. What with the very serious and even horrific subject matter (e.g.: FGM). As a father of an 11-year-old girl who loves science and hasn’t yet bumped up against public school’s conspiracy to crush the esteem and self-worth of girls–especially the ones who want to excel at the “boy’s subjects,” I’m thankful for you and the Skepchicks and what you do!
    And still reeling that we had the benefit of you and et. al. in our little burg. Hope to see you again next year! :)

  9. You know, it just occurred to me that this “people once split in half” thing, which Ray Comfort bewilderingly said he’d read in Darwin (not!), actually comes from Plato. Which even Plato’s friends thought was retarded. And that was 2400 years ago. You can read about it in the Symposium. But Plato was almost certainly joking.

  10. P.S. Just to make sure I don’t get elided from history, I was walking back to your room with you guys (that’s DJ, PZ, and RW) at 5am, but I had enough sense to resist additional beer and get those four hours of sleep that common sense demanded. Oh, and of course, because 2 liters of rum was more than enough for me.

  11. The “sense” of Comfort’s argument, if I can call it that, I’ve always assumed is as follows:

    1. The “magic of evolution” creates a man from an ape.

    2. This man must search the globe for a human woman to propagate the species.

    3. He can’t find one, is too prissy to mate with an ape like his mom, and dies.

    4. Ergo, evolution doesn’t work.

    A truly compelling argument … if one is drunk. Or severely concussed. Or Ray Comfort.

  12. My spousal unit and I had a blast! Already have next year on the calendar. Besides Skepticon itself, it had been 26 years since I had been on campus (when I attended there), and the “memory lane” journey was a hoot. Funny how the whole package made me feel so different, yet so the same.

  13. It is amazing that the germ theory of disease not only has the power to heal the sick but also save women from death for witchery. Now, there is a gospel worth spreading.

    I am curious whether more lady speakers at skeptical and/or atheist conventions will lead to greater female attendance. I think we can all agree that both would be awesome.

  14. Maybe I’m misreading this sentence from above: “…The Christians failed to offer anything concrete, and instead stuck to very philosophical arguments that seemed to dance around the subject.”, but it gave me the impression that you thought philosophical arguments weren’t worth as much as concrete arguments.

    While I don’t think that their philosophical arguments were worthwhile, at least as they presented them, I’m not sure how to distinguish concrete from philosophical arguments.

  15. @FUG: Ah. I meant a few things by that: They offered no actual evidence for the existence of a supernatural being. And any points they were trying to make were purely philosophical AND muddled, lost on me and I suspect much of the audience. At the end, I was unable to sum up even one cogent point they may have offered in favor of their premise.

  16. The organizers are working on arranging greater gender diversity at Skepticon III (though note they had one gay presenter at Skepticon II). But racial diversity may be harder to arrange, because there are so few actively involved in the skeptical movement (though note Barker is Native American).

    I personally know many black members of skeptical orgs, for example, but almost none who actively write and speak in defense of skepticism from their professional field. I can only think of two off the top of my head (among men; Watson has already named a few women), and one would be a great “get” but might not be affordable (Neil deGrasse Tyson), while the other would make a good first (Norm Allen Jr.), since he has actually studied the problem and could give a good talk on how to get more black Americans actively involved in openly defending skepticism at his and Tyson’s level. He might also be a good go-to guy to ask for speaker suggestions as well. But there are a few hispanics I could name (Hector Avalos can do an awesome talk on the state of bible studies today), and I know a few Indian brain scientists who might be sympathetic to our cause (but I don’t know how involved they’d want to get), and Hemant Mehta I assume is Indian (too bad he couldn’t come, but worth trying again for next time). However, like black Americans, I also know many Asian members of skeptical orgs, but I can’t name any professional activists. But as in every other case, that might just be a coincidence of whom I’ve seen, read, or interacted with.

    I’ll pass all that on to the organizers, but I am certain there are many more whom readers here could suggest, so please do, and I’ll pass their names on (and I would be keen just to know of them personally). I would say the requirements are that a speaker must be actively involved in the skeptical movement (and thus aware of the issues and devoted to discussing them with the public) and applying a bona fide profession or professional field to the task (Nickell is an actual PI, Barker runs a national organization and has vast debate and speaking experience for the cause, I’m a historian and published philosopher, Stenger a physicist, Watson a feminist skeptic who hosts a famous website and podcast on the subject and has abundant experience promoting the cause, etc.). The organizers may think differently. But unless we want to be patronizing, we need to show there are dedicated professionals on our side with something expert to say. Hence Tyson and Allen are good examples, likewise Avalos and Mehta. Watson has already given the organizers a list of good “gets” among women, many of whom are also of other races, so I’ll suggest the organizers consider that dimension as well.

    In the meantime, I say send your suggestions! I’m sure Rebecca won’t mind this thread being littered with them. As long as they are good ones. And I’ll pass them on.

  17. P.S. Avalos can also speak authoritatively and devastatingly on the claim that Hitler was an atheist and atheism caused the holocaust. In fact, a book will soon be out in which he systematically refutes that argument (The Christian Delusion, cf. http://sites.google.com/site/thechristiandelusion ), which might make this a perfect opportunity to have him talk at Skepticon III on that very issue. He is also expert on a variety of other issues you’d not readily expect.

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