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.

Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • OrneryPest

    Actually, I’m rather fond of Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Science addresses reality and I don’t know what religion addresses but it certainly isn’t reality.

  • Nes

    Just some random thoughts I had, don’t really have the time or patience to make them flow more smoothly right now:

    Given that a majority of atheists and/or skeptics that I know of are male, it’s really refreshing to see so many female speakers there.

    Since it’s no longer possible for me to see Carl in person, I’d like to get a chance to see (or even meet!) Ann. I have a copy of The Demon-Haunted World laying around that I read sporadically, and, so far, her chapters are just as good as his.

    I wish I could be there; sounds like it’s a lot of fun!

  • Ebonmuse

    I agree, Nes – this conference drew a very diverse audience. I’m happy to say that there weren’t just a lot of female speakers (and I haven’t yet mentioned Nica Lalli, who was also there today), but a lot of female attendees as well. This is purely anecdotal, but I’d estimate it at between 200 and 300 attendees, of which about one-third were women.

    Also, for the record, Ann Druyan is a brilliant, gifted woman. It’d be doing her a disservice to say that much of Carl Sagan’s spirit lives in her – her intelligence is her own, she didn’t absorb it from him. I’m sure the causation is the other way around, and they married because they each sensed a kindred mind in the other. Nevertheless, many of his ideas and his way of viewing the world live on in her, and for that I’m grateful.

  • Tommykey

    Ornery, I think the problem is that religious fundamentalists believe the Bible or the Quran has something to say about science. For a fundie Jew or Christian, the creation account of Genesis trumps what biology, geology, and astronomy have to say about our world and the universe.

  • JumpingFromConclusions

    I hope you had a good time there; it sounds like you did. The whole event sounds very interesting. I’d love to hear some of those speakers. As someone with a utilitarian philosophy of ethics, I would have really loved to hear Singer speak.

    Thanks for keeping us posted!

  • J Myers

    For a fundie Jew or Christian, the creation account of Genesis trumps what biology, geology, and astronomy have to say…

    This is certainly true, and I’m beginning to suspect it is a situation that rationality alone cannot overcome. Why don’t we write our own book of creation myth–and make it sensible and consistent–and then see if we can’t establish a new religion that will squeeze the extant ones to the point of marginality in a millennium or two? It can have all that fantastical nonsense that religious people so enjoy, it just won’t have any stories about bears mauling hordes of children or instructions to stone anyone for the pettiest of trespasses.

  • Valhar2000

    Possibly becuase, as a british comedian whose name I can’t remember once said, you could have religion without violence, but I’m not sure anyone would see the point.

  • Nes

    I would agree about Ann being smart (like I said, her chapters are every bit as good as Carl’s), and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that she got it all from Carl or anything like that. Meeting her in and of itself would be wonderful.

  • lpetrich

    Valhar2000, it must be said that some forms of religion are very pacifist, but such forms have not been very prominent in recent years; it’s the belligerent and violent forms that have been taking center stage.

  • Polly

    his belief that evolution logically implies atheism,

    Does it? That seems to be extrapolating too much from evolution. There are certainly many god-believers, even xians, who accept evolution as god’s way without qualms. I’d be interested in hearing his train of thought on this.

    I also reject the NOM concept. When a religion has something to say about the natural world, science can confirm or debunk it (almost always the latter). We shouldn’t shy away from that.
    As to the existence of “non-physical” realities, my view is that science can neither confirm nor deny them. But, we can debunk the so-called “evidence” for them – ghosts, seances with apparitions, oui-ja boards giving answers etc. by showing the underlying physical causes behind them…the tricks.

  • Chris Whiley

    I think Richard Dawkins would suggest, kindly of course, that any Christian who professes to accept evolution hasn’t thought the thing through. How can the human species be, on the one hand, one example of many fit-for-purpose combinations of complex organic molecules making a brief experience on one of billions of worlds and, on the other, the sole species for which the humanised Son of God allowed himself to be crucified? It’s the Christians that need NOMA not the scientists.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Evolution is incompatible with theistic beliefs. You can try to fix them but it doesn’t really work. The theory implicitly implies that there are no such things as souls, by making a continuim of intelligent creatures and forcing you to choose when they are added. The exception would probably be animism which holds that everything has a soul.

    Finally, I still get a kick out of Noma. You can use science to prove you or other people exist (the normal way, or the CSI version), why wouldn’t you be able to do the same to god?