Durango Skeptics and Atheists

A Community for Critical Thinkers in the Four Corners Region

Category: Humanism

An Evening With Richard Dawkins

Thanks to Member Robyn Baxendale for sharing this awesome experience with us.

An Evening with Richard Dawkins (aka the best night of my life!)

by Robyn Baxendale

It all started with some random guy handing me his parking pass, score! My daughter Lindsay and I then proceeded to walk along Pearl Street Mall in Boulder looking for a unique place to eat lupper (lunch + supper). On our way we stopped by the Boulder Theater to make sure we knew where to go later that evening (yep, I’m getting old) and I took the opportunity to snap a photo of Lindsay in front of the marquee.

Baxendale 01

The breakfast place Snooze tickled our fancy but they had just closed. We went back to the van and perused my phone for restaurant reviews and decided on the French bistro Brasserie Ten Ten known for their generous happy hour menu. It surely lived up to all the fuss, how could it not with cream filled mozzarella? We still had time before Dawkins so we decided to get our nails done. I’ve only had three manicures in my life, all for weddings (including my own!), Dawkins surely deserved the same attention to detail.

It was then time to head over to the theater. The line was long, snaking into the alley, and it was raining but lucky for me my jacket and pants were water resistant. Lindsay was not so fortunate (what a cruel mother I am!) The seating was general admission so we were a little apprehensive about our place in line. Should we have skipped the nail pampering and waited in line for an extra hour to guarantee choice seating?

As we entered the theater I overheard an employee telling some people that the balcony had a great view of the entire theater.  We headed up the stairs and low and behold found seats in the front row!Baxendale 02

Choosing the seats next to us were a pair of recent college grads and one of them offered to buy us drinks. “Umm, this is my 13 year old daughter and I’m her Mom, so no, she will not be having any Jameson in her Coke!” While he was getting our drinks we learned from his friend that an anthropology degree will get you a job as a beer line tech, good to know. Our drinks were delivered just as Dawkins was taking the stage.

Now was the moment we had all been waiting for! Dawkins was questioned for about hour by Annabelle Gurwitch of whom I was previously unaware but am now a fan. This was followed by a half hour of audience questions. I’m just going to list what Lindsay and I can recall from that time (quotes are paraphrased):

On the topic of new age hippie types Dawkins remarked, “They are pernicious but I don’t believe they are viciously pernicious.” In contrast to pernicious conservatives. Pernicious seemed to be his word of the night.

When asked by an audience member why teeth haven’t evolved to be cavity resistant Dawkins replied that he once asked his own dentist, Dr. Sharp, the same question. Dr. Sharp retired so he started seeing Dr. Tack. Dr. Tack asked Dawkins who his previous dentist was and he told him it was Dr. Sharp. Dr. Tack replied, “This couldn’t possibly be the work of Dr. Sharp. I know his work and this is not it!” But why haven’t our teeth evolved to resist cavities? We eat too much sugar! Dawkins wonders why Americans put sugar in everything, even beef stew!

People were asking Dawkins a plethora of political questions. He is an evolutionary biologist and an outspoken atheist so he was a bit perturbed that he was being asked so many questions outside of his expertise and lamented that he didn’t want to, “sit up here and be the wise old man.” That being said, when one audience member used his question time to make a political statement about the importance of getting involved in politics Dawkins chose to emphasize the point instead of brushing him off. Bravo! Dawkins then added that the squeaky wheel usually gets their way.

Dawkins believes that the arc of history bends towards justice but it’s like a saw tooth and we are on a downturn right now. Wah-wah.

He sees climate change as the most important problem we are facing right now. Not that we should ignore other problems but this is the most pressing.

Dawkins noted that our human tribes are more global now because of the internet rather than geographic as in the past. Gurwitch said that her next book was going to be about tribes versus tribalism.

A recovering Southern Baptist thanked Dawkins for opening his mind and changing his life. Dawkins said, “So many people have said that to me and I can’t tell you how much it means to me.” Applause!

Dawkins is tickled that gay marriage and marijuana were legalized around the same time in Colorado. After all, the Bible says that when a man lies with another man he shall be stoned.

Lastly, he was asked about finding meaning in life, ala Viktor Frankl. Dawkins replied that for genes it is simply about survival and propagation. As people, we create our own meaning.

It was now time for book signings. No selfies and have your book open to the title page, assembly line style. Dang. We were told to stay in our seats and we would be called up by rows. Well, seems they forgot about us lowly balcony dwellers so we just waited until we could see the end of the line. While in line we met Chauncey from Secular Hub in Denver. They have their own building and serve as a hot spot for all things secular. Check them out at: www.secularhub.org  Also while in line I was given a photo of Dawkins from CFI (Center for Inquiry) to be signed.

With these happy distractions my turn to hit the stage came as a shock. Equipped with a smile from ear to ear and a brain on auto pilot I somehow managed to get my book signed. And then this happened…Baxendale 03.jpg

Me: “Can I have a high five?” Dawkins: “What’s that? Like this?” Did he not know what a high five was or was he asking what I had said?! Either way, yay for me! I then proceeded to introduce Lindsay in the fashion of a spokes model, “Up next, the youngest member of our audience, my 13 year old daughter Lindsay!” Annabelle Gurwitch (apparently amused by my shenanigans) told Dawkins to give Lindsay a high five so that she could take a picture to post on social media. Lindsay high fived Dawkins several times and even got to hold the pose for this once in a lifetime photo op (good thing we got our nails done)!Baxendale 04

On our walk back to the car I was an ecstatic mess. I agreed that I would need to calm down before attempting to drive. After some convulsing, steering wheel shaking, and profusely praising Lindsay for having the foresight to take a video of my Dawkins high five encounter we were off.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to my husband or kids to name this the best night of my life but…this is one squeaky wheel still grinning from ear to ear. Creating my own meaning with my daughter by my side, it doesn’t get much better than this!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DURANGO SKEPTICS AND ATHEIST NEWSLETTER JANUARY 2017

 

Next general meeting:

WEDNESDAY JANUARY 18

Meetings are at Irish Embassy, 900 Main St. Durango

Dinner, for those interested, from 5:30PM.

Discussion starts at 6:30

 

The discussion topic for this month:

AI (Artificial Intelligence)

Computerized ‘personal assistants’, androids, machines that learn to play chess and Go, IBM’s Watson, Microsoft’s Tay, self-driving cars and trucks…like it or not, AI is no longer something in the realm of science fiction. AI is here, now. What are the implications? In what ways does AI mirror society’s achievements and its flaws? What happens when interactions with humans turn a machine intelligence ‘racist’? Are machines that are capable of learning autonomously a danger to humanity? ai-004Would the flesh-and-blood robotic ‘hosts’, as depicted in HBO’s futuristic West World, deserve human rights?  What happens when a self-driving vehicle must choose between two bad outcomes? Will future intelligent machines be able to design new and improved versions of itself? The mind reels.

Kathleen O’Conner and Lionel D Giacomo will lead the group discussion to lead off the next general meeting. Ask Siri if you have time to attend!

 

Here are some links to background with some comments by Lionel:

Current state of general purpose AI: I’m very interested in Google’s Deepmind, and although the following video is long, I think he gets across some of the depth and technical aspects of cutting edge AI in a clear way. The first bit mostly focuses on AI in games and AlphaGo, their go-playing AI. The last 15 or so minutes has a lot of the other applications of the general AI they’re developing.
Demis Hassabis, the founder of Deepmind, Nov. 2016 (~45m): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0NuW1j9RPA

Trusting machines with our lives: Self-driving cars is going to be the first time where most people will find themselves consciously trusting themselves to a machine capable of killing them, in the theory that they are actually both safer than human operators and will safe us time. Here’s a great technical TED talk on the most extreme version of that, where humans are no longer even permitted to drive:
Chris Urmson, head of Googles driverless car program June 2015 (~15m): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiwVMrTLUWg

AI, automation, and the economy: I’m very interested in how the promise of automation and AI has often been to free up humans, but the result is usually just even richer capitalists. For instance, Uber sees driverless cars as a way to no longer have to pay human drivers. Here’s an article about basic income (Elon Musk has talked about this too, but I can’t find a good video):

Singularity Hub, Dec 2016: https://singularityhub.com/2016/12/13/if-robots-steal-our-jobs-a-universal-basic-income-could-help/

ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND INFORMATION:

AI, WHAT IT IS AND HOW IT WORKS  https://futurism.com/1-evergreen-making-sense-of-terms-deep-learning-machine-learning-and-ai/

AI IS EVERYWHERE (BUT IT’S NOT UP TO WRITING A MOVIE SCRIPT YET  https://www.engadget.com/2016/12/25/ai-was-everywhere-in-2016/

ON AI AND RACIST ROBOTS    https://techcrunch.com/2016/03/24/microsoft-silences-its-new-a-i-bot-tay-after-twitter-users-teach-it-racism/

MACHINE LEARNING: SIRI GROWS UP https://backchannel.com/an-exclusive-look-at-how-ai-and-machine-learning-work-at-apple-8dbfb131932b#.9vxdggc19

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND MACHINE LEARNING  https://ethnographymatters.net/blog/2016/06/20/the-human-side-of-artificial-intelligence-and-machine-learning/

HOW AI TO TRANSFORMED GOOGLE TRANSLATE http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/14/magazine/the-great-ai-awakening.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share

Skeptics and Atheists of Durango NOVEMBER 2016 NEWSLETTER

 

Next general meeting:

WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 16

Meetings are at Irish Embassy,

900 Main Street Durango

Dinner, for those interested, from 5:30PM.

Discussion starts at 6:30

 

The discussion topic for this month:

Group Co-Founder Kathleen O’Conner will make a presentation regarding the First Amendment and the separation of church and state…when it’s followed and when it’s not. Kathleen says: “Some members expressed an interest in becoming more politically active, so we thought this topic would be a good segue way into discussing the possibilities for promoting secularism here in Durango”

 

Free Raif Badawi- How You Can Help

raif-badawi While Saudi Arabia’s ruling family condemns the Charlie Hebdo attacks from one side of their mouth, the other side keeps silent on the imprisonment and barbaric flogging of  Saudi free speech  blogger, Raif Badawi. Raif was sentenced to 10 years in prison and exactly 1,000 lashes for the crime of insulting Islam via writings found on his website- a website he established to encourage free thought and the exchange of ideas.  Raif is scheduled to receive 50 lashes every Friday for the next 20 weeks. His second round of lashings  was postponed due to the fact that his wounds from the previous first round had not adequately healed. Meanwhile, Raif’s wife and three small children, now living in Quebec, hope for good news.

It’s difficult to believe that something as archaic and cruel as this is still happening in the 21st century. Human progress requires us all. Here is how you can help: http://livewire.amnesty.org/2015/01/15/five-ways-you-can-help-raif-badawi/ #freeraifbadawi

A World Without Gods

So much death in the news these days. My heart aches for those families who lost people they love in this latest round of Boko Haram killings in Baga. Boko Haram’s goal? To establish an Islamic State in Nigeria. I can’t help but wonder how people can believe in an all-powerful and influential God amidst the atrocities we see in the world around us.  If you  are a believer, isn’t everything that happens supposed to be part of God’s perfect plan?

I’m reminded of words from Voltaire’s Candide:

“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?”

If this is what a God-created and supervised world looks like, then what would a world not managed by a supposedly all-loving and all-powerful God look like? What would you expect to observe in such a world? Clearly, if there’s a god looking out for us, he’s pretty inept at his job.

Some  may bring up the fact that according to Christian theology, this is a fallen world and therefore, evil exists. But what of diseases that target the weakest- children and the elderly? Why would this god create such a creature as a virus or a bacterium that inflicts suffering on the innocent? This is exactly what one would expect to see in a world that was not created and supervised by a benevolent god. It’s difficult to rationalize the existence of a god amid a sea of suffering. Suffering we hear about every day, if you are one that happens to check out the news.

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I read an article recently that I think states the problem and solution succinctly:

“But it has often been said, if we don’t play God, then who will? Such was the central takeaway of the European Enlightenment and the rise of secular humanism. Working under the assumption that God does not exist (or at the very least, does not intervene in our affairs), a popular opinion emerged stating that humanity has an obligation to take matters into its own hands if it is to truly understand the world and make it a better place. And by applying reason and the scientific method, humanity stands a much better chance of success than idly waiting for a supernatural force that doesn’t appear to exist or care one whit about us.”

Human progress will march on. And with it, hopefully, will come less and less need for religion. Sure, humans will always find justification for doing bad things. But we will always find justification for doing good things as well. We don’t need religion for that either. As former Seventh-day Adventist pastor, Ryan Bell, who now considers himself an atheist put it: “Why do I need religion to love?”

You don’t.

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Belief, Non-Belief and Common Ground

I decided to wait a few days before writing about our recent participation in the first of maybe other collaborations with people of different faiths.

Overall, I think the night was an enlightening and very valuable first step in better understanding other peoples’ perspectives that differ from our own. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the group of Christians attending seemed to be of an extremely moderate variety. And they were also gracious and kind, as was Ted the quasi-Buddhist. I especially enjoyed talking to Harry- a Christian with three sons, two of whom seem to be somewhere in the atheist/agnostic camp from how he described it. Harry voiced to me his heartfelt concerns about his faith and how he has wrestled with his own beliefs. And how refreshing it was to hear DJ acknowledge that he is probably an agnostic theist. One remark I made during the evening was that at the end of the day, we are all agnostics, as none of us can know with 100% certainty whether or not a god exists (much less if that god is in fact the judeo-christian version).

For me, this first  meeting was about focusing on the common ground we all share. This common ground is really not difficult to identify-  it’s the human experience and the human desire to contribute to the world in a positive and loving way. Does it really matter if our starting points are diametrically opposed? For this meeting, it did not. But it would be interesting to delve deeper into some specific topics. I suspect there is still much more to be learned from each other.

One thing Andy mentioned during his talk was that he would love  if all of us in the room got baptized and dedicated our life to following Jesus (while also acknowledging that this is a personal decision). But here’s the thing: we atheists have a wish concerning believers as well. And, as was the case with Andy’s remark, it’s meant with sincerity.

So with that, I’d like to introduce a video that I think aptly expresses, not only what we non-believers wish for believers, but also beautifully illustrates something far more important than what we would like for each other: our Common Ground.

Enjoy!
(and watch in full screen- the images are beautiful!)

 

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