Thursday, May 31, 2012

Meeting Matt and Seth and more: Reflections of an exciting Imagine No Religion 2

It happens over and over and over again. Each time I think that I have reached that one moment that defines my atheist journey, something comes along that blows that previous landmark straight out of the water.

The weekend before last in Kamloops was another one of those 'moments' that had that toppling effect. As I got ready to leave from Calgary there was a definite feeling of excitement. So much of my atheist life is typing away at a keyboard, communicating with anonymous souls at various corners of the globe. I have been to many meet-ups now, had my share of one to one interactions, but this was my first atheist 'mass' event and I figured it was not going to be like the old time Sunday morning ones. For some reason I felt a bit of apprehension. I was not quite sure why. I was just going to observe. I was not a speaker or presenter. No need to worry about things like computer compatibility with equipment, flash drive failures or mixed fonts on power point slides.

Still, it felt strange, like if I was  going on some type of pilgrimage into the unknown. I think it is because in many ways this was my first real 'journey' into atheism. Yes, I have gone out of my way to meet with atheists before, as I did last year in the Caribbean and New York. But those were different, I happened to be in those places for other reasons and I took the opportunity to make allies, connections and friendships. Now, it was me venturing out somewhere and atheism was the only reason. This was no little sojourn either, this was an eight hour road trip. Something completely outside the experience of a little island boy growing up in tiny Barbados where a 45 minute drive is considered an excursion.

Well, how did it go? Firstly, please don't ask me anything about Kamloops. I have no  idea what it looks like, although I can tell you the views of the mountains on the way there were amazing. The weekend was spent totally on the hotel premises. Hotel room, convention centre, bar that was the program. Three in one and one in three, that was the simple trinity.

Atheist and Proud

It didn't take me long to realise that this was a bit different from your average atheist meet-up. Of course nowadays there is nothing particularly strange about me being around people that are deity free, but what I realised was unusual was the way that the people I met felt about their non belief. It was something they wore proudly and were excited to talk about. There was none of that energy zapping apathy that I have experienced from time to time in other places. Those people that tell you they don't believe in God just like they don't believe in unicorns. The ones that say that it makes as much sense spending time talking about one category of mythical being as it does another. No, I didn't meet a single example of that type of non-believer. I met 'out and out' atheists and some people who identified primarily as humanists or skeptics, but nobody who said that they felt that calling ourselves atheists was something we should go out of our way to avoid.

What I saw on show in Kamloops was atheist pride and it was heart warming. I can't count the number of times I told my 'coming out' story and I remember even while I was talking being able to hear four or five simultaneous discussions around me where others were doing the same. I now understand why so many atheists get energized by these type of gatherings. These events often require a bit of travel to get to them and like any other conference, are not exactly cheap. It stands to reason, that those that make the effort to be there have a passion. That combined energy is something amazing to feed off of. It's something that I hope every atheist I know gets to feel one day.

Still have to work on diversity

Another thing that stood out about the audience was the racial mix, or should I say lack of it. To put it diplomatically there was a pronounced melanin deficiency. Indeed up to about two minutes before the start of the event I had spotted not a single other black person, in spite of the fact that the room was filling up and had to be close to 300. Eventually two others were spotted and we had a great time laughing and joking later in the evening about the rarity of our species in this particular gathering. It was funny that the three of us were thinking the same thing at the same time as we entered the auditorium.

Crommunist - ' I  just care too much, I have to, have to, have to write.'

 Me with  'Crommunist ' 
Both of these gentlemen of colour had interesting stories to tell  that were inspiring in their own ways. There was Ian Cromwell aka  "Crommunist" a blogger from Vancouver, who blogs on the popular Freethought Blog. It was great to have an extended conversation with a fellow blogger. Speaking of the challenges of writing when you don't know who's listening out there. Crommunist blogs everyday! That is something  that still amazes me. I loved his passion for writing and he certainly gave me great encouragement to keep on keeping on.

 Matt who had come up from Las Vegas, recently identifying as an atheist and  was making the trip to find a new community. It was great to meet them both. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty about concerning myself with the ' find the other black people' game when there are so many other things to be thinking about, but it is natural. Of course this lack of black is something that has been mentioned in the atheist movement quite a bit and obviously work still needs to be done, but that is a subject for another day.

As it turned out, there were a lot of the Calgary skeptic community that made the trek up, so in a way it was a bit of a home away from home. I began to realise how fortunate I was as an atheist, to live in a city like Calgary. I think we were the city with the most representatives. We got quite a few comments from others about how tight we all seemed to be. It is true, there is quite a bond between members of the Calagary CFI crew, even though we badly missed having our president Nate Phelps around. A person whose inspirational story speaks to many in Canada, USA and thousands across the world.

The weekend certainly had its moments of humour. It made me laugh to see members of the skeptic community try to maintain that cool rational exterior while you know that inside there was a teenage rock star groupie within them when they saw Matt Dillahunty walking through the restaurant or PZ Myers hanging around the lobby. There was a memorable moment when a youngster out of breath  ran up to me and said

" I just met Lawrence Krauss in the elevator and I wanted to say something really profound to him, but all I could end up telling him was that he was much shorter than I imagined, I feel like such an idiot!"

This was typical of the sort of thing I heard right through the conference. I even heard talk going around that  the well known youtube atheist 'Thunderfoot' was in the house. That one turned out to be just a rumour, proving that atheists are by no means immune to believing unsubstantiated claims.

Changing attitude

By the end of the first evening , I could already  feel a change in myself. Before that  night in British Columbia, whenever I told someone that I was an atheist, it was a statement I made cloaked in a thick veil of  'I am sorry.' The idea I would portray was that I wished I could say I believed in their God, but I just couldn't. Here, it was hitting home to me in a big way, that we have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of or to apologise about. We are honestly making a judgement based on what we see in reality and there is no way that that should be seen as something with a shred of negativity surrounding it. I vowed even as I was there, that I will never be apologetic about saying I was an atheist again. If that is one thing that I can stick to as a result of Imagine No Religion 2, that on its own would make the entire experience worth it.

I kept remembering as I spoke with these people that my dictionary told me that atheism is simply a 'lack of belief.' That seemed so incongruous with what I was seeing here. 'Lack' was just not a word that fit anyone I met. This was a group overflowing as much in spirit as they were in spirits. There were many differences expressed on topics relating to things like gender, diversity and vegetarianism in informal discussions. It did get rather heated at many tables in the bar. But, there was no doubt in my mind that this was a family, and in spite of how recently I had come acquainted with this movement, this was my family.

There is so much that could be written on the weekend, and I took copious notes while I was there. I have about a page or two on every speaker. Each of them brought something unique to the table and it is an almost impossible task to single people out, to say nothing of all the informal discussions I had along the way and our Sunday 'Revival Service.' What I will do is to file all of these writings away and  bring them out over the next few weeks and months. Some things just need the appropriate paragraph space to give them their due and I don't want to be giving anyone an overdose of writing today. After all, it's not as if this is blog about homeopathy.

Matt Dillahunty- ' God should be found not guilty of the crime of existing'

 with Matt Dillahunty ' The Atheist Experience'
I'll focus for the time being on two podcast  personalities  that I was anxious to  meet on this trip as well as the speaker that I think ultimately made the biggest impact . The first podcast personality is Matt Dillahunty from 'The Atheist Experience.' Matt has no books penned, no tenure at a prestigious university, but there is no doubt that Dillahunty is a star in the movement.  Say what you want, but when it comes to talking, few people can touch the 'kick ass' host from Atheist Experience. In my travels talking to atheists from the Caribbean to Calgary to Kamloops, everybody loves Matt.

I discovered "The Atheist Experience" in 2008 when I was still identifying as a Christian. I was impressed by how the show broke down the arguments for God so clearly and logically. Matt was particularly skilled in this regard.That show for about one year and a half was my only link to atheist conversation. The only place I heard such arguments addressed. It eventually helped to dragged me from a weak form of agnosticism to firm non belief. I know that show has played a similarly significant role for countless more.

The great success of the show has of course thrust Matt straight into the limelight which he recognises and  seems at ease with . From the time he walked into the hall for the Friday night debate, hands were reaching out from the aisles to him. His nonchalant reply was ," It's Ok I am  going to be here all weekend."

Matt distinguished himself in the debate, although I thought Chris di Carlo our other representative was also very effective. What impressed me about Matt in the debate was the quick and confident way he would respond to the theist questions put to him. This I think is the great advantage about being on a show like 'The Atheist Experience' for so many years. Practice really does make perfect. It's like playing chess, Matt can often see the move that the opposition is lining up for way ahead of time and he can be sure he is not going to find himself in a trap. I have seen other atheists in debates, hem and haw rather more, which is understandable, because often answers to questions are not clear cut and you want to be careful that someone doesn't run with a wrong context. Matt, even if he makes a mistake, has a consistency in the argument that makes him hard to beat. It was a delight to see him in action. I love the way he said that God should be found not guilty of the crime of existing.

It was also great to sit with Matt after and hear him talking.  He is a man always ready to chat with anyone and debate issues rigorously, enjoying having a keen audience of listeners around him. If you think that Matt is sharp and clinical on the show he is even more so over beers. I think it is his straightforwardness and honesty that people like even when he's in a hostile mood. Atheist Experience fans all know that no one can say "You're done!" quite like Matt.

One thing Matt said that I will remember was an answer to a question from a fan about why he does the show. What motivates him? His answer was simple. " I do it because I give a shit!" I don't think there is any better way you can put that. It was a good motif for the weekend.

The Thinking Atheist- Showed  us the 'theist songs' with lyrics that never change.

 with Seth Andrews ' TheThinking Atheist" 
The second of the podcast protagonists I wanted to see at the conference was Seth Andrews , 'The Thinking Atheist." Perhaps my moment of the weekend came through the way  I met him. I was sitting listening to PZ Myers' talk at the back of the auditorium. I heard this person whispering asking me if the unoccupied chair next to me was taken. I looked up to realise it was none other than Seth himself, the host of the popular podcast and several great youtube videos.  I invited him to sit down and he greeted me with a simple " Hi, I'm Seth" and then introduced his spouse Natalie. I introduced myself and told him how I was pleased to meet him. Then we just simply settled back down and continued watching the proceedings.

This was a bit of an unreal moment. I don't think Seth knew whether I even knew who he was. In off stage personalities, Matt and  Seth could not be more different. Seth seemed  so different to the vibrant personality on the airwaves. Here he was quiet and unassuming even maybe a little nervous.  It occurred to me at that moment, that Seth's frequent discussions on his program about the overwhelming challenge of being a speaker at this conference among the PhDs and other lettered speakers was by no means false modesty. In a sense, I could understand where he was coming from. This was not one of those conferences of, 'I used to be a Christian and now praise the Lord I found reason.' This was much more along the lines of a university lecture series, dealing with issues of social psychology, gender discrimination, theoretical physics and the like. Seth was obviously coming from a vastly different kind of angle.

What Seth didn't know as he sat there, was that beside him was someone on  whom he had a profound influence. Seth  is fast becoming one of my favourite people in the movement and this weekend in my eyes only enhanced his reputation. A down to earth guy if there ever was one. His voice is far more famous than his face and  for that reason I think many people passed him by in the conference without too much fuss. But for me he is one who always resonates. I think it is partly because he, like me, let go of the faith approaching the age of 40. Like me, he was a little bit late arriving at the atheist party, but I think he has a quality  that sets him apart from many other atheists out there.

Everybody says, it's the voice. Yes, that's undoubtedly part of it, but not the whole story. It's the way in which he can change your emotion on a hairpin. In a single show he can make you laugh hysterically, feel motivated and empowered, get pissed off and sit in silence on the brink of tears. All this through the inflexion of the voice, the pause for effect, variations in volume and speed of delivery. It is a talent that few have and even fewer within the skeptic community. Others tend to have a personality which swings markedly either towards confrontation or compassion. Seth has managed to get that 'good cop, bad cop'  balance almost right. I know Seth feels that we give him far more credit than he deserves but I think he is just too much involved on the inside to see the full extent of the impact he makes on those of us out here.

One thing he said that I took to heart on one of the first of the programs I listened to with him, was his advice to know your strength, concentrate on that and try to excel in it for the benefit of the freethought community. For him, his talents are radio and video production and he has given that in huge proportions to the atheist community. He made me think about what I could bring to the table that could make a difference out there. Where was my strength? For me it is writing, at least that's what other people tell me, so I have just concentrated on the blog, writing on atheism and faith and capitalising on the talent as much as I can. People have asked at times why I don't do different things. Diversify a bit, maybe do videos, write on other topics. Perhaps get into talking on wider skepticism, psychics, alternative medicine, racism, gender, sexuality, there are so many other things out there that need to be addressed. Maybe, one day I will do those things, but I am concentrating on where my strength is, where I believe I can really make a difference. Expounding on issues relating to atheism and trying to emphasise the logical frailties of the theistic position, using metaphors and examples that will make the point without provoking anger. It's the type of writing I think I do best and I have stuck with it, hopefully improving as I go along. I leave people with expertise in other areas of the movement to take other approaches. I have to thank Seth in part for giving me that little piece of advice.

Seth asked me how long it took to get to Kamloops from where I lived. I told him the drive was eight hours. He seemed to find it incredulous that I would travel such distances to hear these talks, I am sure he would have fallen out of that chair I said he could sit in, if he had found out that the fact that he was in the lineup was a large part of the reason that I made the effort. It seemed it was worth it for Seth to sit next to me too. He was rather taken by my computer that I had with me to take notes. It was my all in one ipad case/stand  and bluetooth keyboard. I had no idea that he was watching my machine the whole time. I wondered if he was watching the screen too. If he had, he would have seen me write the words,

"Seth the Thinking Atheist has just come up and sat next to me as I listen to PZ Myers. This is just unreal"

 Boy would it be funny if he read that. Thankfully, I don't think the font was big enough.

Seth's presentation itself did not disappoint and his visuals were some of the most memorable of the weekend. He just transformed when he went onstage and became "The Thinking Atheist" we all know and love. Using his DJ experience he spoke of the 'theist songs' we hear over and over again.  There was also the tribute to Carl Saigan video that again made it hard to keep back the tears. He seemed himself overcome when he admitted to the audience that he was 38 years old before he discovered Saigan. I felt like putting up my hand as well to say I was in my 30s too when I first came across his work.

Maryam Namazie-  Threw out a Challenge to Secularists

My eyes  remained moist for the next presentation. Maryam Namazie an activist from Britain and strong spokesperson against islam extremists was next up and  she seemed to have drawn a difficult position after Seth and before the keynote world class phycisist Lawrence Krauss. She started in a rather subdued manner.  She spoke about how this was only the second time she was using power point and apologised in advance for the quality of the slides. She quickly got into stride however and shook up the audience, proceeding to give a presentation that was full of passion. So great was her impact that she earned the only standing ovation of the entire weekend. It struck me from early that her discussions on the absurdity of islam got muted laughter compared to the belly laughs that pokes at Christianity had got over the course of the two days. It is poignant to recognise that even in an atheist conference, there is a little fear we all live with when it comes to making fun of islam and the Koran. In any case, as she went on there became less and less to laugh about as details were given for the science behind determining the correct size and material to use for a stoning  of a woman, to ensure that death does not happen too quickly nor too slowly. Yes, there is actually a 'just right Goldilocks' stone!!!

Maryam appealed to us in the audience to play our part in speaking up against such injustices as members of the secular community. She spoke of people in the middle east facing jail time and death for the crime of blasphemy. The young man in Indonesia who faces death for saying that "God does not exist." on his facebook page and others in trouble for posting ' Jesus and Mo' cartoons. At that moment I remember thinking about how much I had to be thankful knowing that there are many parts of the world where I couldn't write an atheistic paragraph without getting a death sentence.

Trying to find my niche

I  recall also feeling rather small about my part in the freethought movement when I was listening to Maryam. It seemed that writing  light hearted blogposts about God and how we know he 's not here, was rather trivial compared to other work that needed to be done, urgent civil rights issues that had  to be dealt with where religion was the entity wielding the  big stick. Then I remembered what Seth said about concentrating on our strengths. I also remembered that the church used to tell us that we as members were like different parts of the body, all working together to do God's work, none was more important than the other. The atheist community is like that too. We have hands and feet, eyes and ears, lots of mouth, plenty of spine, brains in abundance and as a friend of mine reminded me, some of us are rather skilled at being dicks.

So, I recognised I didn't have to be me at the forefront of every activity. I can give my support, but it is important that I keep my fight on the front where I engage. I remembered how long the journey was to get to Kamloops. The one that began long before 5:00 am on a Friday morning in Calgary. It all started because I was able to look at myself, question my deeply held beliefs and realise that I was part of the problem rather than the solution. From that point I have reached a stage where I can now see what needs to be done, which is at least a start.  There are many ways I can think of helping the cause now, but none of this could have started without a doubt. Without a doubt that told me that what I believed might not be true.

Got to keep knocking 

So, now I need to pass it on, just like the popular church song tells us. In the comedy show we saw on the Saturday night of the conference, there was a routine that imagined what it would be like if atheists used to knock on doors to spread the ' Not so good news.'  It was brilliantly funny but hearing it in conjunction with all the speeches of the weekend made me realise that we in the atheist movement do need to start doing some of this door to door stuff.

For the Christians that keep knocking us we have to give them something back. Yes, we too have to start knocking on doors. Not on the ones that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons exercise their knuckles on, but on the ones that are embedded in walls that cordon off the brain. Those that keep minds forever locked off from reality. Those for which it seems faith alone is the key. We may get ignored for a while, people may refuse to take a break from their their busy daily schedules to hear the 'Word' that we bring. They may consider our interruption to their 'thinking as usual'  to be a nuisance and warn us to get off their property. But if we can go through the neighbourhoods with the type of people I met in Kamloops, the persistent pounding will one day become impossible to ignore.  Those sitting comfortably in their houses of faith, will then  feel obliged  to peep through that small crack in their curtain and will realise to their surprise that there is indeed light on the outside.


  1. It was great meeting you, David. I hope we can connect again soon!

  2. Great post, David. As a guy from Long Beach, California, I too noticed the lack of "diversity." I don't think you were the only three black guys at the convention, I think you were the only three black dudes in the city of Kamloops!

    It was nice to re-live that weekend through your post. I was a little distracted and didn't break free of my local group as much as I would have liked, but I'm glad we got to chat, even though it was short.

    Thanks for reminding me that conventions are a lot of fun. Kind of hard to remember that this week. Can't wait for INR3!

  3. Thanks for the kind words! I really enjoyed meeting you, and everyone else who came to Kamloops.

    And if I made a mistake, I'd like to know about it. Consistency in mistakes is not something I'd look at as a good thing. :)

  4. Matt,you're welcome. The pleasure was mine. It was great to have the chance to meet you in person and tell you how much I enjoy the show. I am happy that you enjoyed the weekend as well.

    When I mentioned a 'mistake' I wasn't referring to the debate in particular. I was speaking more in the hypothetical. :) That being said, I did have one area of disagreement with you during the debate.

    I understood you to be saying that the burden of proof is on the atheist if he/she is making the positive claim, "There are no Gods." I don't see it that way. I still see the statement as a response even though it is framed as an assertion.

    The speaker is stating an opinion about a notion of God which has been postulated by a theist. The statement "There is no God" would have no meaning unless some theist somewhere first defined what a God is. So I still see the burden of proof as being on the person who is claimimg that the God under discussion exists. If I make the positive statement " There are no fairies." Do I have the burden of proof, to give positive evidence for their non existence?

    This was something I was reflecting on after the debate, but didn't include in the blog, because it really didn't make a difference to that argument on the night. I would love to hear more of your take on this sometime though.

    Thanks once again for all that you are doing and it is great to have your participation here on the blog as well.

  5. Thomas, thanks for the kind comment. It was great to chat with you too, but as you said it was a bit short. Maybe there is an argument to extend these conferences, but of course it's a matter of both cost and people's schedules.

    Interestig that you recognised the lack of 'diversity' too. I always wonder about what sensitivities I may be affecting when I write about something like this . I know that there aren't that many black guys over here, but I still think we are rather under represented in skeptical forums.

    I have been to religious services at the University of Calgary here and seen the room teeming with black people, to such an extent that I wonder if they have been shipped in from across the country.

    I have been to secular lectures held in the same room and not one of them in sight. Dan Dennett came to speak here a couple of months ago and the place was packed, standing room only, maybe 400 +. There was one other black person present and I discovered she was non english speaking and had travelled with her boyfriend that had come down from Edmonton.

    So, it's definitely not just a Kamloops thing.

  6. Ian, was great meeting you too. Thanks again for the chats and featuring some of my writing on your blog. We must definitely connect again soon!

  7. I was being a little cheeky about the lack of diversity in Kamloops. After I commented, I remembered that there was actually an African-Canadian family having a large birthday party in a room below the restaurant. Not Caribbean, though. Like African, African. So my little snark about Kamloops was uncalled for. And Sunday there was an Indian wedding going on, so shame on me. Kamloops rocks in the diversity department.

  8. I was glad to see so many Calgarians at the convention, but I think you might be expecting too many black people for the BC interior. You and Ian were the 2nd and 3rd I've met this year.

    I was pretty shocked, though, by the relative lack of Asians, especially East Asians. And I'm not sure if there were any natives at all. Something to work on, for sure.

  9. Yes, I noticed the lack of Asians as well. However,my east asian friends tell me that Chinese and Japanese don't need to go to such events because they are all already atheists anyway. I suppose they don't have to 'imagine', because religion is already virtually absent in the worlds they live in. Still, it may be in their best interest not to be complacent.