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Report from the Secular Society Conference: Day Two

The second day of The Secular Society and Its Enemies was largely devoted to panel discussions. I mentioned yesterday that the conference site at the New York Academy of Sciences had some spectacular views of Ground Zero and lower Manhattan; here are a few of them I took that morning:





Looking down on Ground Zero.





Looking east across the river into Brooklyn.





Looking north.

The morning opened with a panel titled "Secularism Through History: From Spinoza to JFK", with participants Susan Jacoby (author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism), Rebecca Goldstein (Betraying Spinoza), and Jennifer Michael Hecht (Doubt: A History). There was also a panel named "The Age of American Unreason: Religion & Politics in America", which included Wendy Kaminer (Sleeping with Extraterrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety), Edward Tabash of CFI Los Angeles, Michelle Goldberg (Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism), and Damon Linker (The Theocons). Both were good, but for my money, the morning's most interesting event was a panel on science and the public, which featured Richard Dawkins, Ann Druyan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis).





Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan. (Sorry for the obstructed view.)

The panelists discussed why we need science, how learning science pays off (Richard Dawkins: saying science has only practical applications is like saying that "a symphony is exercise for the violinist's right arm"), and how we can best teach scientific principles to children. Dr. Tyson said that science's primary value is to "remove our own urges to delude ourselves", while Ann Druyan poetically spoke of how it has "wean[ed] us of our need to be at the center of the universe". They spoke of the obstacles to science, including postmodernism, religious fundamentalism, and the inability of the human mind to grasp the time scales of many natural processes. Richard Dawkins insightfully pointed out that human beings are an artifact-creating species and tend to attribute agency when we see natural mechanisms, like the eye, that perform similarly to made artifacts.

On the topic of science and religion, Ann Druyan and Richard Dawkins had a gentle clash. Ann Druyan, following in Carl Sagan's footsteps, said that we should strive to be more patient and more gentle in dealing with religious claims (although she did say that "science has a better story to tell" and we should point that out). Happily, all four panelists were unanimous in their rejection of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA principle, holding that it was "a cop-out" and that science most certainly can address supernatural claims.

There was a book signing after the morning's panels, and Jennifer Michael Hecht and Michelle Goldberg (in that order below) graciously consented to photos:

I didn't get a picture of Susan Jacoby, but she did autograph my copy of Freethinkers (with a message reading, "To Adam, Constitutionally yours, Susan Jacoby.")

After lunch, there were addresses by Christopher Hitchens (pre-taped), Peter Singer, and Richard Dawkins. Hitchens, interviewed by Derek Araujo of CFI, was his usual firebrand self. He spoke of the threat posed by Islamic extremists, of the resurgent Orthodox church in Russia and its dangerous alignment with the state, and Christian evangelicals in America, whom he considers the least serious of those three dangers. He spoke of how, on his book tour through the South, he found many supportive audience members and sensed a change in the national zeitgeist, a greater willingness to criticize religious ideas. He spoke of Mother Teresa and the recent revelation of her doubts, which he said she "overcompensated" for through hysterical fundamentalism, with the consent of male church superiors who exploited her. (Apparently her Nobel Peace Prize money went straight into founding a convent and was not used to help the poor.) On the subject of politics, he pointed out that he, as a new U.S. citizen, was a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit against warrantless wiretapping; but he also defended the view that we don't necessarily know that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction before the war. Finally, he spoke of European totalitarianism's link to religious traditions, and how Stalin exploited a culture, created and promoted by the tsars, that purposely sought to deify Russian leaders in the eyes of the populace.

Next was Peter Singer, who spoke about the ethics of euthanasia, abortion, stem-cell research, and the use of animals for meat and medical research. I'd had my doubts about Singer before, but after hearing him speak, I feel I've misjudged him. As usual, I should have known not to trust the inflammatory falsehoods thrown around by the religious right. His most controversial position, the support of active euthanasia for severely disabled infants (the Groningen Protocol), is a far more reasonable and merciful position than the gross distortions that religious anti-humanists make of it.

Finally, the evening ended with Richard Dawkins interviewed by D.J. Grothe, with the interview taped for a future episode of Point of Inquiry. (I'll post the link when it's available.) In this candid and fascinating interview, Dawkins spoke of the positive side of atheism and humanism. He also admitted that his unstinting critiques of religion, and his belief that evolution logically implies atheism, might drive some religious people away from considering evolutionary theory. As an evolutionary biologist tasked with improving the public understanding of science, he admits that he has "divided loyalties" on this matter. However, he also feels that he's fighting a somewhat different battle, one that doesn't just defend the teaching of science at the flashpoints but seeks to defeat faith and unreason itself in the long run.





As a postscript: There was one final book signing after the evening's last event, courtesy of Richard Dawkins. I'm still extremely proud and humbled to say that he agreed to sign my copy of The God Delusion on the page where he mentions my website!

Coming up: A report from the third and final day of the Secular Society conference.

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