Durango Skeptics and Atheists

A Community for Critical Thinkers in the Four Corners Region

Tag: Atheism

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!












Next general meeting:


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/


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:


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”


How can I be a good Atheist?

So by my own self admission I am not a very good atheist. I am a self-described agnostic and I have a sort of, love hate relationship with that term. Honestly I feel it just confuses most people I tell it to and, this as far as I am concerned, is the point. If you describe yourself as agnostic, most of the time you will feel the need to follow that self-description with another non-committal response. My favorite is “I believe in the possibility of something greater than myself, but have not defined it”. If there was a more tactful way of saying “I don’t know but let’s not talk about it”, then please feel free to tell me in the comments. Many of those that describe themselves as agnostics tend to be apathetic. I find this trend stems from the innumerable options on belief and how could one go about differentiating between them in the first place. Secondly I have heard so many stories of people that have gone looking for what may be meaningful to them only to see judgment, coercion or extremism. Many of these agnostics have a very “leave me alone” attitude and I completely understand that sentiment.

I haven’t found my path to be indicative of the apathetic, but of the exhaustive. I have experienced more different spiritual associations than I can count. In some of these cases I have been a silent observer, in others a full-fledged parishioner, and in more than one case a fish out of water. It did not matter if I found the experience exhilarating, enlightening, or frightening, they were all still experiences that shaped my life and my view of the universe. When I read Karl Marx’s quote about religion being an opiate, I took that as a challenge. I might need a stint in a rehab.

Lately I have found myself leaning toward atheism almost by default and I feel that does a disservice to atheists. Yes, I have always been fascinated with science, the discovery of knowledge, and so many of the scientific concepts that atheists identify with, resonate with me as well. There are a few of the ground floor philosophies that I still don’t know enough about to have a firm debatable viewpoint on. As I move closer to the central themes of what constitutes a modern atheist I want to learn from other atheists. I want to know how they form their opinions on so many very important matters.

A fellow atheist once told me she kept her own version of a holy text, or a book that was filled with what constituted her sacred ideas. I find this idea infinitely fascinating and very useful, although the more I learn about atheism the more I realize it requires more of a library than one book. I want to know what ideas you keep close to your heart, and your mind. What books do you fall back on when you need a reaffirmation of your beliefs, who do you go to, to feel secure in your decision, where do you go to feel safe and accepted. As a fledgling atheist I need a few “shoulders of giants” to stand on to get my own foundation in this belief structure. In short, I need a few lessons on how to be a good atheist.


A Letter to Oprah From an Atheist


Dear Oprah,

I heard your interview with Diana Nyad, a self-proclaimed atheist, the other day. As someone who has respected and admired you for all the accomplishments you’ve achieved in your life, I was saddened and disappointed by your inaccurate characterization of atheists. After Ms. Nyad told you she was an “atheist with awe”, you said this:

“Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.” 

Of course, the implication here is that atheists are incapable of experiencing feelings of wonder and awe.

This could not be more false.

Do you really think atheists never watch sunsets or admire a desert sky at night? Do you honestly believe atheists are incapable of feeling the amazement of life as they witness, for example, the birth of their child? Or marvel at the ever-present contradictions between beauty and suffering in Nature?  All of these things and more elicit a sense of wonder and awe that is not the exclusive right of those who claim to be spiritual and/or religious.

It only takes being human.

Not all of us humans buy into the whole god thing. But so what? How a person treats themselves and others is far more important than whether they believe in supernatural beings. I get the feeling you think that a person who does not believe in a god is missing something from their life. Let me assure you that we are not. If one of us is indeed missing something out of life, it most likely has more to do with ourselves. Not whether we believe in a god. Seeking truth instead of relying on faith has its own beauty and rewards.  Astronomer and atheist Carl Sagan once said,

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Does this sound like the musings of a person who does not experience the wonderment of life? He puts it more eloquently than I ever could.

I think back to the early morning hours when my son was born. The feelings associated with seeing him for the first time, holding him during his first moments of life- those emotions were exploding with the awe and wonder! No belief in a god was necessary to experience that. Perhaps you would say, as you did to Ms. Nyad, “well, then I don’t consider you an atheist.” My response to this would be, “why do you get to create your own personal definition of what atheism is?” Atheism is defined as lacking a belief in a god or gods. It’s really that simple. Why must you mold Ms. Nyad’s atheism into something more palatable for you to digest? Perhaps you need to get to know more atheists. I think you would find that we are not all that different from you. We love, we cry, we feel deeply, we fear, we get angry, we admire, we stand out looking at the world and, yes, we do feel the wonder and awe of it all.

Well, according to the doomsayers, we have approximately 24 days to go until the Mayan calendar runs out and life on Earth changes forever….or so they say.

Lucky for you guys, I’ve got your back. After much extensive, googling   in-depth research, I have found the key to protecting yourself and loved ones on the fateful day.  If you want to survive it,  I highly suggest you check this out.

You’re welcome.

For those of you who read our story on the doomsday alien/mayan end of the world  cult out of France, here is a follow-up.

I’m curious. If you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that your life force would cease to exist in a few short weeks, what would you get busy doing?

In the meantime, I’d like to leave you with the  two YouTube Videos below from an excellent podcast, called Reasonable Doubt. One of the hosts of the podcast gave a talk at his local Unitarian Church on the subject of atheism. His eloquence and kindness shine through as he describes a wonderous universe, most likely, absent of a supernatural god. My favorite part is when he discusses the  human chapter in the history of this universe.

Trust me, it’s well worth the 26 minutes.

Part 2:

Our Sign Is Up!

Great news! Our Durango Skeptics and Atheists “Adopt a Highway” sign is finally up.  We are very excited about this and hope that if you are driving up to Coal Bank Pass, you will check it out and let us know how it looks (or if it’s still intact….).

Thanks to Adam for organizing this group effort.

Recap From the Reason Rally

Here is a wonderful recap from the Reason Rally created by The Thinking Atheist.  If you haven’t checked out his website or YouTube page, I highly suggest doing so.

Also, a shout out to DSA member, UnusedGreyMatter for his posts on this amazing event (that I am extremely bummed about missing, damnit!).

Happy Reason Rally Day 2012

Today is a special day for Atheists, Agnostics,  and Freethinkers.

For the first time, non-believers are descending upon the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to let our leaders know that we are here and we want representation.

Additionally, this day celebrates living a fulfilled life without  beliefs  in supernatural beings. It celebrates reality and the beauty contained within. It celebrates the clarity found in a rational worldview unsaddled by superstition and fear.

This day is also for those still grappling with the thought of “coming out” with their non-belief.  This is a difficult position to be in, particularly for those raised with religious beliefs.

But you are not alone.

Brandi, one of our members, is at the Reason Rally and will be blogging a full report on this momentous event when she gets back.

In the meantime, here our a couple of pictures she sent:

Tim Minchin

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén