Hope you had a good excuse for missing Philosophy in the Community

Like, not living in Saskatoon. Otherwise, where the heck were ya? Mind you, the room was filled to capacity anyway, so more people would have been a fire hazard.

Last night a hundred or so people crammed into the St. James Church basement to hear a philosophy professor talk atheism. It was the first lecture of the season and a good start to the 6th year Philosophy in the Community has been running in the city. The speaker, George Williamson, is also a key member of our Saskatoon Freethinkers group so that got a good plug.

I won’t bother trying to remember all he said, mostly because many atheist blogs have already said it all in terms of the politics or militant aspects of the new atheist movement and how both Christians (mainstream or extreme) and even atheists (moderate or other) get bent out of shape by what Chris Hitchens or Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins might have to say about what societies should be doing to do away with religious trappings, or what have you. I later told George that I wished he had thought to mention the current Jehovah’s Witness magazine, Awake! and the laughable irony of their complaint about the new atheists: they’re too in your face because they’re “not keeping their views to themselves.” It almost makes me want to accost a JW on the street and get a paper copy. It’s sure to be a collectible.

Something George did note, though: Dawkins’ Out Campaign has really brought atheism into a political arena at a level it’s never had before: completely out in the open. Atheists have never been united well enough under any flag or “dogma” to create a group zeitgeist before and now we can. We can act and react like a party in a political arena, any political arena, anywhere in the world, nearly, and raise our voices to promote secular ideals over religious traditions.

Maybe there aren’t many of us compared to what a religion can boast, but at some point we may be a force to be reckoned with and that probably scares the religiously-inspired politicians from their ears to their boots. They’re so used to being the top dog (so top it barely needs noting as a level) and now here we are, a well-educated, well-meaning group of secularists, humanists, Freethinkers, whatever, putting up our hands and saying, “Now just wait a minute…” They’re not used to facing a challenge and here is this group ready to challenge every idea, every concept, every base belief, no matter how small or strongly held.

More interesting discussion happened during the Q & A portion that was worth staying to hear. A fellow brought up the point that down in the States it’s nearly impossible for anyone to run for public office without publicly providing proof of religious observance. I never got a chance, but I was going to mention the brouhaha surrounding President Obama’s lag in deciding on a church when he first got into power. Time Magazine ran an actual article noting the fact that he and his family didn’t spend Christmas at church, because for readers of Time, and other people in that country, this somehow mattered. Does he have a church now? Is this still a topic of discussion? Or have real issues regarding lack of jobs and the economy and oil spills and war spending become a little more important?

Something else that got belaboured a bit– George had brought up some idea that mainstream religion becomes part of the problem when those followers don’t park on the atheist side of the argument against extremism when they really ought to. By not condemning the actions of those individuals, they are, by and large, tacitly agreeing with their tactics. One woman even mentioned that the real issue isn’t religious extremism by itself but how completely mainstream it’s becoming, which probably isn’t helping moderates decide how to react either.

Other listeners in the audience either misunderstood his points in terms of this, or just took it in a different direction – asking instead how moderate atheists feel about Hitchens and company and their tactics. I thought he’d been pretty clear when he’d explained that, but apparently not. He’d said that not every atheist agreed with those guys either. But at least atheists are making the point of telling people that, rather than quietly letting those cantankerous loudmouths be our only voice.

Eventually this topic led George to tell a story about Yugoslavia before all the strife. Everyone, regardless of religion was getting along as well as could be expected. Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic..whatever, just getting on and many barely practicing religion at all, frankly. Then things happened and suddenly everyone hopped on board their religions and started firing. All of a sudden faith mattered when it didn’t before. That wound up being his big concern about moderately religious people – when push comes to shove, when the moment comes to choose, are they going to take the secular route, or are they going to take the faith route? It’s far more likely that they’ll dive into their faith rather than keep sensible. It’s what happens. It might be what always happens. Faith is down to the bone thanks to childhood indoctrination. But sense and rationality have to be taught and learned and deliberately focused on in order to be completely effective. And how many of us, really, are that well organized in a crisis?

Last thing I’ll mention that kind of ties into the article I wrote about earlier today about science and religion — as important as it is to scrutinize religion and be questioning beliefs and dubious claims, it’s just as important to remain skeptical of what science can do for us as well. There is a tendency to give the scientific method more credit than it might be due, to romanticize its worth. It’s not the answer to everything, it’s just a way to find answers. And the method is flawed sometimes. Sometimes a flaw will exist for years undetected and will still be in science books as a teachable fact.

But a flaw like that doesn’t discredit every field of science, yet that winds up being the way some believers want to play it. If science can be wrong about that, why would anyone trust it to be right about anything? That’s proof to me that we (as a society/educators/governments) don’t do enough to make the realms of science more approachable, inviting and worth understanding.

So all in all, it was a great lecture. There was a bit of a pub thing afterward but I didn’t stay long at that. I took a few notes on my iPod last night for things to look up later for other blog post ideas so hopefully a few of those will become something worth reading… or at least posted. Stay tuned, I guess.

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One Response to Hope you had a good excuse for missing Philosophy in the Community

  1. George W. says:

    What cave were you dwelling in during the last Presidential election? Obama has definitely picked a church, Trinity United Church of Christ; and a pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
    What a sage decision that one was. Since Obama never attends service, I assume he would not have been privy to some of the stuff spewing from this guy’s mouth.
    I think Obama is likely the first atheist President in quite a while, too bad he won’t just come out and say so.

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