Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Brunch with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

So, this is pretty long, and there may not be many who will enjoy it. But if you've ever met one of your heroes, perhaps you will relate...

On May 1, 2013, I attended an event at a swanky hotel in downtown Toronto, Ontario. I found out about the event on Sunday. When I saw the announcement, I almost fell off my chair in my rush to email my bosses and ask if I could have Wednesday off. Then I waited on tenterhooks for 24 hours -- 24 hours!! -- for an answer.

Yes, sure! Take the day, came the answer.

I swooned with delight and rushed to send in my registration online. I opted for the premium registration, for which I would receive a free book and preferred seating at the event. It was ridiculously expensive, even for the regular registration, but I reasoned that I would possibly never have such an opportunity again, and I didn't want to cheap out and deprive myself of the full experience. We're talking about the level of event of a lifelong hockey fan meeting his hero, Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky, that's how big these guys are to me, and I didn't want to miss out on anything.

So, I drove down to Toronto on Tuesday night and stayed in a Holiday Inn downtown. In the morning I got up early and went to find the other hotel where the event was taking place (I couldn't afford to stay there, which would have been was $450 a night!). As I entered the hotel, who did I pass within two feet of but one of the two fellows I'd gone down there to see. Almost fainted with excitement and didn't have the presence of mind to say hello.

The next two hours or so were waiting to get into the event room and then waiting for things to really begin. The man sitting next to me had the same surname as I do (I guess the organizers thought we were related). Lucky you will see very soon. The woman across from me was doing her best to have a terrible time. The moment she sat down, all she did was sniff her nose at the measly trade paperback she got for free because it wasn't the hard-cover, colour, illustrated version, which she already owned anyway, and dug around in the little goodie bag we each got and criticized everything in it (it was a wee bottle of Magic Water...very cute LOL). She just sat there saying how cheap the organizers were and being a total cunt. I just watched her. I couldn't believe anyone could be such a high-toned bitch. Didn't ruin MY day though, no sir! LOL She probably went home and whined about everything. I went home walking three feet off the ground. Can you guess who had a better time?

Finally the big moment arrived and the two guests of honor walked into the room to a rousing standing ovation...there were only fifty or sixty people, so the noise we made was quite astonishing.

Professors Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist, and Lawrence Krauss the American theoretical physicist.

I almost wet myself with excitement. Richard Dawkins!!!! He of "The God Delusion" and "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blind Watchmaker" and many other wonderful books. One of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheist movement (the other three being Dan Dennet, Sam Harris, and the sadly departed Christopher Hitchens). The only way I could possibly have been more excited would have been if Hitchens was still alive and there in the room with us.

Lawrence Krauss was quite a thrill to see also. I have only more recently become aware of him. He's kind of moved in to fill the gaping hole left in the atheist community by the death of Hitchens. He's a wonderful communicator.

So these two men moved through the middle of the room and walked right past me to the front. (By the way, I was seated at the very front, centre of the room, just five feet away from where Dawkins and Krauss would be seated). SO glad I bought the premium ticket!!

As they reached the front, Dawkins did a double take at the man next to me who shared my surname and made a beeline for him with his hand out. "I remember you! We met in Oxford!" And so began a five or ten minute conversation between the two, with me sitting right there nodding and smiling and just totally basking in the fact that Richard Dawkins...RICHARD DAWKINS!! Was chatting with a guy right beside me. The guy, who said he was a friend of P.Z. Myers, another American biologist extremely well known in the atheist world, had gone with P.Z. to Oxford to meet with Dawkins to discuss their differences about evolution. Oh, how I wish I'd had time to chat with my seatmate about all that fascinating stuff.

Krauss eventually came around to our table also and used the empty part of it to sign peoples' books and stuff. I got him to sign my event agenda. He even asked my name and wrote his own name out in printing as well, as he knew people would doubt who it was since the signature itself was unintelligible LOL. See? Fangirl!

Eventually everyone got back to their seats and the formal part of the event began. Krauss spoke first, for about 15 minutes because he had to leave at 10:15. But I found him to be a wonderful communicator who was really enjoyable to listen to. His childlike excitement about the things he studies, about the wonders of the cosmos, was truly a delight to witness, and totally infectious. He's like the new Carl Sagan, I swear...but he's funnier than Sagan, which is really groovy. You could think of Krauss as the love child of Carl Sagan and Woody Allen (except without Allen's annoying self-deprecation). Small, very casual, and with a face so severely pock-marked by teenaged acne scars you can't help wondering how he even survived those years with the teasing he must have gotten. Pizza-face doesn't even begin to describe it. His skin must have resembled raw hamburger.

Dawkins presents a much more elegant picture. You could maybe call it shabby elegance. He wears his hair in such a way that it always seems to be floating around his head, a little bit uncontrolled, and his tentative smile is given out very selfishly, perhaps because of a ingrained British reticence, or maybe it's those bad British teeth. He has a very appealing, soft voice, very cultured...and don't British people always just *sound* smarter?? LOL

Dawkins was at the podium for at least an hour and a quarter, almost all of which was answering questions from the audience, which was really much more enjoyable than just sitting and watching him deliver a prepared speech. He does have an excellent sense of humour also...more ironic, dry and sardonic than Krauss's, but I guess that's to be expected from a Brit.

Truly, I barely remember a thing either of them said. I was just so thrilled to be there, hearing them speak live, interacting with the people around me. There was a guy there videoing the whole thing, so I hope that's available soon to be viewed online. If/when it is, I may post a link here.

After all the speaking was done, there was another hour or so of mingling. I got Dawkins to sign my copy of his book "The Magic of Reality" which I received as a gift for my premium registration. Squee!!! I was so excited I got tongue-tied just saying "So happy to meet you, Profess..fessor Dawkins." LOL

After a while, Dawkins went back to his seat at the head table to sign more books, and I noticed some people were giving their digital cameras and cell phones to the event photographer and going to sit next to Dawkins to have their photo taken with him. So, I braved up and did the same and now I'm tickled pink to have a really nice photo of myself sitting right beside him. He stopped signing and posed with nice. I'm going to have it printed on nice paper and framed. (It'll go right next to my only other famous-person photo, the pic of me with now-ex-Canadian-prime-minister Paul Martin on the day he took office).

I confess, once I got the photo taken, I didn't really see a point in sticking around. There were so many people crowding in front of him I couldn't see him anyway, so at that point I left. Driving home, I had this wonderful feeling of euphoria, which still lingers a little today.

There are very few people on this planet who I can say would affect me in such a way. If Hitchens were still alive and I got to meet him, I swear I'd probably break down and cry like a teenager at a Beatles concert (though I wouldn't scream...that wouldn't be seemly LOL). I saw Stephen King interviewed live in Toronto one time a couple of years ago, and I was just as excited to see that giant of my reading world sitting right there thirty feet from me on the stage. Got a little teary, I did! Dawkins and Krauss was so much better though because I got to meet them, shake their hands, get their signatures, say a word with them. So freaking awesome. I'll never forget it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Catching flies with honey

I've been having an interesting dialogue with an acquaintance who I find to be a witty, intelligent, delightful person with whom I have quite a bit in common, not least of which are an appetite for good conversation and a cold glass of Fresca. She's young, she's hip, she's funny and gregarious, and comes across like your typical young urban career girl.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that she is a young-earth creationist.

Until learning this, I had never encountered (to my knowledge, obviously) anyone who honestly believes the earth, and everything on it, were created out of nothing by the god of the Bible only 6,000 or so years ago. I thought people like that were mostly confined to the southern U.S. states, plus a few isolated pockets here and there around the rest of the U.S. I never would have expected to find anyone with those beliefs in Canada, and especially not doing the job this person does. Once again I am reminded how very naive I can be.

We made a date to go for dinner and discuss our respective world views. It was a fascinating discussion. She gave me a first-person experience of what it's like to deal with true believers. We both worked very, very hard to keep the conversation friendly and open-minded. minded might be the wrong choice of words. Let's say we worked hard not to succumb to the temptation to shake our heads and say "Are you serious?? You really believe that, eh? Wow...that's wild." Well, I was trying very hard not to say things like that. She seemed quite composed. I suppose she's more experienced with that kind of discussion than I am.

I also think she seemed more composed because she has moments when she seems to be questioning what she believes. I guess that makes one less apt to pound the table with the certainty of the true believer. I'm not sure whether her slight misgivings are due to the overwhelming number of people who believe differently than she does, or to her admitted lack of understanding of the "other side." Both of these conditions would naturally cause uncertainty in any intelligent person.

And she is an intelligent person. This is what baffles me the most about learning of her beliefs. I'm having an incredibly difficult time processing the fact that someone really can believe what she believes. She might as well have told me she still believes in Santa Claus and the toy factory at the North Pole. Say what??

She loaned me a couple of books which she said might explain her thoughts better than she can. One was called The Case for Christ which tries to prove that Jesus existed and was the son of God. The other book was Mere Christianity by CS Lewis (yes, that CS Lewis). I started reading The Case for Christ. It reminded me of one of those documentaries on the Discovery Channel which explains the details of some huge event in the past that none of us was around to witness. Of the little I read, the writer tried very hard to only use facts that could be historically verified, and if not verified by hard evidence, then by basing his assumptions on the cultural norms of Jesus' day (for instance, the custom of passing information from generation to generation by word of mouth). Mere Christianity was much too dense and circuitous for me to even want to try to read.

In return, I loaned her my copy of Letter to a Christian Nation, which she read in its entirety over the space of one weekend. Wow. She's got me on that one. Does it count that I downloaded the video documentary of Case for Christ even though I haven't watched it yet? I guess I can console myself that I'm still ahead of her in that she doesn't understand how evolution works yet, and I have a pretty good grasp of the goings-on of the Bible etc.

We've also sent each other numerous links to check out online. Most of mine were video-based, but she says she hasn't watched them because she prefers written material. Most of hers just kept making me want to go and look up rebuttals and I found myself spending more time reading material that supported my own convictions than reading the material she wanted me to read. Well, on the positive side, I've rediscovered my passion for atheist reading material.

All this exchange of reading material has reminded me of something I've complained about in the past: atheists cannot challenge believers without belittling and insulting them. It's a problem for me. You see, I don't like to insult or belittle people if I can avoid it. At least, not to their face or in front of anyone who might tattle on me. It's much more constructive to speak respectfully. You catch more flies with honey, as they say. Sam Harris peppering his otherwise excellent little book with insulting personal opinions just makes it less likely that he will get through to a believer who might otherwise be open-minded enough to hear him out.

On the other hand, I guess the believers have their own way of doing the same thing. Preaching to anyone who'll listen that you're going to go to hell and burn in eternal torment if you don't believe in Jesus in exactly the same fashion that he does is not going to make many friends or converts for the Bible-thumper. All he'll end up with are the weak-willed already-convinced who are goaded by fright into practicing that particular Bible-thumper's particular brand of religion.

I was so anxious to find a non-aggressive book for my friend to read that I turned to the forums for advice. Ironically, the only books that were suggested that avoided insult were the simple science books that explained evolution etc. Any of the books written by anyone trying to refute religion and belief in god(s) were pretty much guaranteed to be insulting. So, I have to wonder, is it not possible to write a book to argue against something without insulting it in the process? Is it the same for other Big Debates? Do conservatives necessarily belittle liberals in their writing or can they state their opinion without grinding the opposition under their heel? Can a Mac lover write a book about how much he loves Macs without insulting the Windows users of the world? I don't know. I'm not well-read enough to say.

Whatever the answer, while we're all busy insulting and threatening each other, are we really getting anywhere? Well, it appears so. One website I read (a Christian-based one at that) stated that, at the present rate of change, the majority of adults in the U.S.A. would identify themselves as either non-religious or non-christian by 2035. That's less than 20 years from now. This is a pretty powerful statistic when you consider that, while interest in mainstream Christianity is waning, interest and attendance in conservative and fundamental denominations is growing. In spite of that growth, in the end, it will all fizzle out and even the world's most Christian nation will be mostly agnostic or atheist. In only 20 years! I'll only be 70. Considering that I was born at the end of the traditional mom-and-pop, nuclear family, Sunday-go-to-meetin' 1950s, that's quite the change in one lifetime!

Maybe if more of us atheists flavoured our rhetoric with honey rather than hot sauce, we could hasten the inevitable!

Friday, December 21, 2007

"I will touch your children"

I occasionally have a weird fascination with watching Christian programming on TV. I equate it with watching horror movies.

Tonight I tuned in Benny Hinn's talk show, and he's hosting some slick, pompadoured, dyed-hair old man named Steve Munsey. Ol' Steve is talking up a storm, amen, and he's just noise in the background, paraphrasing some bible story about a dying kid's mother feeding the propet Elijah the boy's last meal, while I poke around online, but I did hear some of it. And what I heard made me do a mental double take.

Not once, not twice, but three times, this guy says "I will touch your children."

Does this dude not read the news?? Is he completely naive? What is the very first thing almost anyone who isn't a monk cloistered on a mountaintop is going to think when they hear those words spoken by a preacher?


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Ten Commandments, Illustrated

ONE: 'You shall have no other gods before Me.'

TWO: 'You shall not make for yourself a carved image--any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.'

THREE: 'You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.'
The "Reverend" Fred Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church

FOUR: 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.'

FIVE: 'Honor your father and your mother.'

Jesus said, in Matthew 10:37: He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

SIX: 'You shall not murder.'
Portrait of George W. Bush made up of portraits of soldiers killed in Iraq

SEVEN: 'You shall not commit adultery.'
Publicity still from the TV show "Big Love," about a Mormon Polygamist

EIGHT: 'You shall not steal.'
Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, former televangelists

NINE: 'You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.'
The "Reverend" Ted Haggard, who preached against homosexuality but was exposed as a closeted homosexual and drug user himself

TEN: 'You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.'
The high altar at the Vatican

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The afterlife and sex education addressed on TV series

Interesting to see two frequently discussed subjects in atheist blogs popping up on two consecutive TV shows this evening.

On House, a patient deliberately electrocuted himself at the hospital in order to have a near-death experience. He'd had his first one after almost dying in a car accident a week before, and he said it was "the best 97 seconds of my life." He wanted to experience it again. Later in the show, after House is chastised by Wilson for arguing with another patient about what happens after you die (House is an atheist), House deliberately electrocutes HIMself, in order to find out if the near death experience is all it's cracked up to be.

It wasn't.

Next, on Boston Legal, a 15-year-old girl sues her school board because she got AIDS after unprotected sex. And the sex was unprotected because her school teaches only abstinence as an acceptable form of birth control, therefore, neither she nor her boyfriend had a condom on them on the fateful night. Allan Shore gives a brilliant and impassioned closing argument which I wish had happened in a real courtroom and gotten a LOT of press.

It's great to see these storylines on popular TV shows. You can't argue with a TV's not a conversation. You just have to absorb whey they say and if you don't dismiss it outright you may spend a little time thinking about the message. Hopefully a lot of people will think about the messages in these two shows tonight.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Being nice is the best tactic

I've been reading all the new "new atheism" books out there lately...The God Delusion, God is not Great, Letter to a Christian Nation, etc. Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett et al are brilliant. Their ability to get their points across leaves me breathless with envy.

But they're so darn mean!

Don't get me wrong. I agree with them. I believe religion, especially the fundamentalist versions of it, is bad. It makes no sense and I don't understand how intelligent people can possibly believe any of it.

But I'm just having a hard time dealing with the meanness I'm reading. It doesn't seem necessary. Maybe it's a reaction to the agression atheists have received from theists all over the world for centuries. I confess I find it highly entertaining in a way. It's sure more interesting to read than most of the philosophical, professorial stuff I read on a lot of the atheism blogs I follow. But after I finish reading, I feel a little bad.

It's not in my nature to be mean like that. Not as a rule, anyway. I can be grumpy with the best of them at times. For most of my life, I've been a committed atheist, but I've always felt that religion, when practiced with the best intentions, is not really a bad thing, and can inspire people to do good things (even if it is for a heavenly reward and not true altruism). I'm doing it! I'm being mean. Well, I'll reserve the one can be sweetness and light 24/7.

But I had a thought a few minutes ago while reading yet another blog entry about how vitriolic some of these atheist writers can be. I thought... "wouldn't it be the best demonstration of how great atheists are if we all just acted really nice all the time?" It's like they well is the best revenge. Well...being nice would prove all the theists wrong about us being amoral and evil and all that nonsense.

So, now I can continue to be my natural, nice self, being open about my atheism, and knowing that my nature will show dubious theists that atheists are nice people too.