Archive for the ‘community’ Category

Keynote address: Matt Dillahunty


Matt Dillahunty, our master debater of the night before returned to close out the conference with a keynote address.

Matt Dillahunty

He started by saying it sounds very fancy and formal to call it a keynote, and it would really just be some stuff he thinks, shared in his typical casual style.

Honestly, I think it was both. Matt is one of those people who is capable of communicating important, even profound ideas in an accessible, informal way that feels like (that is) just him shooting the breeze with you.

So here’s the general idea. When you’re in a debate situation – whether it’s a formal debate or a casual conversation between folks who simply disagree over things – try to keep some things in mind.

  • Pick your strengths. Don’t try to go head-to-head over the philosophy of religion if what you know is psychology, or history, or education. Work to your strengths.
  • Find the core of their argument. Not the fluff. Not the Gish gallop of zingers they’ve recited to swamp you. Find the centre of their case – whether it’s personal experience, an appeal to Biblical authority, or whatever – and deal with that. Don’t get distracted or side-tracked.
  • Be yourself. Whether you’re speaking in a public debate or one-on-one, do it as you. That’s the best way to come across knowledgeable and genuine. Share what you know. Be honest about what you don’t know. (Remember that “being comfortable with ignorance” thing from Greg Hart’s talk!)
  • They are trying to sell you something. Let them try. You don’t have to sell anything back. You just have to discuss whether their offering is worth buying, and why. Ask questions. Once again, be comfortable not knowing.
  • Review how things went after the debate. What did you do right? What did you do wrong? What did your opponent do right? What did your opponent do wrong? What will you do differently next time?
  • Care about truth, not about winning. If you are trying to win, you will be tempted to take shortcuts. To set good reasoning aside in an attempt to score easy points. But if you are trying to get at the truth – if you are willing to revise your own beliefs on learning new things – then you will always win, no matter whose position turns out to be right.

I can’t think of a better way to close out this series on the conference than with the following quote – something I’ve heard Matt say other times in podcasts and videos. It captures not only his own main point, but one of the recurring themes of the conference. It is a principle at or near the core of most secular people’s worldview.

I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

Education panel


(This is part of a series of posts about the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

After lunch on the second day of the conference, we had a panel of three speakers to discuss the issue of religious intrusions into education here in Alberta. This was very interesting – in part because it connected directly to me in two ways: as someone who has been through the public school system, and as someone with kids in it now.

Scott Rowed

First, we heard from Scott Rowed on Creationism in science education. Did you know that we have not one but two creation museums here in Alberta? One down in Big Valley*, and the other in Brooks**. (This latter doesn’t even call itself a museum – it is openly a ministry.)

I know a reader from certain parts of the US, or from many other places in the world, might roll their eyes that I’m complaining about this. But this is Canada. This is 2015. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed in my fellow Albertans, that they are credulous enough to keep places like this in business. And not only that, but there are teachers in this province (not many, so far as I know) who think it’s okay to treat this dogmatic rubbish as science.

Here are some articles about the intrusion of creationism into Alberta education:

My comfort is that our new government in Alberta seems happy to take things in hand and straighten out wayward educators who think public schooling is their playground for the sectarian interference in giving children a free and safe environment to learn and to thrive in the modern world.

Kathy Dawson

After that, we heard from Kathy Dawson, a tireless campaigner for comprehensive sex education. We learned that various loopholes in the educational system here in Alberta allow school administrators to bring in external groups to teach certain topics. So, without notice to their parents, some students are being subjected to propaganda-laden presentations from anti-choice abstinence-only groups rather than being given science-based, balanced, and complete instruction about crucial topics in sexual health. Kathy’s daughter was one victim of these loopholes, and she’s been working ever since to get this garbage kept out of public schools. Here are CBC and Edmonton Journal reports on their story and its immediate aftermath.

Yes, this has my steam up. Next year my daughter will be in Grade Four, the first year where sex education is part of the curriculum here in Alberta. Deena and I may be able to help counteract any misinformation she is given. (I’m hopeful – our school administrators seem to have their heads screwed on right.) But we can’t reach every kid, and when she becomes sexually active, there is a good chance any partner she has will be playing from a broken rulebook when it comes to safe and enjoyable sexual behaviours.

Kathy pointed us to Alberta AIM – “Accessing Information, not Myths”. According to their website,

Accessing Information Not Myths is a group of community stakeholders and concerned citizens addressing gaps in the Alberta Education curriculum and curriculum revisions.

Our current campaign focuses on the lack of clear parameters for sexual education in the CALM curriculum.  After successfully having groups that teach medically inaccurate, anti-gay, faith-and fear-based sex education banned from presenting in Edmonton public schools, we are now expanding this campaign across the province.

Follow current developments on Twitter: @AlbertaAIM.

Luke Fevin

Third, we heard from Luke Fevin, the main public voice of A PUPIL – “Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning”, an organization that works to remove exclusionary and divisive practices from Alberta schools, including school prayer (yes, it still happens in some places!) and the dual school system.

On school prayer, it’s hard to see why it’s even a question. For a school to actively promote prayer for one religious belief over others is blatantly, inescapably divisive, setting up some children as “normal” and others as “different”. Especially in places that are majority Christian, this is an intolerable imposition on the children whose own beliefs or family traditions are not Christian (whether they are atheist or of another religion). Even different Christian sects who pray in a different way are excluded. And of course, despite what the defenders of school prayer like to cry, nobody is trying to prevent kids from praying on their own. We just want schools to stop officially promoting prayer.

We currently have public money going not only to a public, inclusive school system, but also to a parallel Catholic school system. Luke talked about the inefficiency of this redundant setup – to the tune of $200 million in extra costs (ie, money we would save by combining the systems). The recent difficulty establishing a trans-friendly environment in a Catholic school highlights the sort of problem that can arise when one group thinks they are special and don’t need to follow the basic rules of decency that the rest of us take for granted.

Of course, it is part of the Alberta Act (our provincial “constitution”) that we have these two systems, but the privileging of one religion (not a majority, not even when the province was founded in 1905) over all others is a Bad Idea, and that is just the sort of thing that constitutional amendments – in this case, updating the Alberta Act – are really good at fixing.

It’s been done before – Québec (a culturally very Catholic province) abolished their separate system in 2000.

I want to be clear: I have nothing against Catholics. At the risk of sounding trite, my best friend is Catholic, and her kids attend a Catholic school. I just think that, in an age when governments watch budgets, there ought to be a pretty solid case for spending $200 million extra dollars on education, and I haven’t heard that case here. And, in a province that has a great variety of religious, political, and cultural backgrounds among its people, the idea of picking one particular identity and saying, “Those people get their own school system; everyone else goes in the other system” is beyond ludicrous.

You can find A PUPIL on Facebook here. (I actually wrote about them back in June, when I first found them.)


After the speakers had each given their presentation, there was a general discussion around the issues at hand. Many of the attendees are either alumni of Alberta schools (like me) or have kids in Alberta schools (like me). This (along with the Dying with Dignity talk) was perhaps the most close-to-home of all the events at the conference – directly relevant, something we could sink our teeth into, and even start acting on right now.

I have not yet determined how I want to approach these topics at my kids’ school. Like I said, they seem pretty sensible about things. (No school prayer, thank goodness.) I don’t want to start out antagonistic. But I also don’t want these to be invisible issues. If I run into any issues, I’m sure you’ll hear about it here on the blog. If I don’t, it probably means everything is fine.


* No, I’m not linking to them directly. I’m giving the Wikipedia link.

** Yes, this one is not popular enough to have a Wikipedia link (happily), so I’m (reluctantly) linking to them directly. Please don’t feel obliged to follow the link.

Greg Hart: Critical thinking


(This is one of a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)Greg Hart

The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1 was the opening talk of Day 2 in our conference.

In it, Greg Hart wound through several pitfalls people fall into when attempting to think critically.

For example, many of us have a vague idea that critical thinking involves thinking carefully, maybe following particular rules, but we can’t define it. Greg gave a useful general description – a quote he attributed to Richard Paul:

“Critical thinking is the act of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.”

Cool. Other problems he identified include confusing skepticism, critical thinking, and scientific thinking; treating critical thinking as just problem solving; and thinking mechanically.

I’ll expand on that one a bit too. (I’m trying not to give away the whole talk here. If you get a chance to listen to Greg speak, you’ll probably find it worth your time.)

He gave the example of this problem, given to grade 3 students:

There are 75 sheep in a pasture and 5 sheep dogs. How old is the shepherd?

Common answers, accounting for 90% of the responses from the kids, included 75+5=80 years old, and 75-5=70 years old. Why wouldn’t they just say “I don’t know”? Well, first, most numerical problems they see can be solved by some simple operation like this. And second, even as adults, we live in a culture where the answer “I don’t know” is seen as a failure.

This ties in with another of his points: leaping to evaluation before you have thought things through carefully. But more generally, we need to become comfortable with ignorance. Not that we need to give up trying to understand things. Just that we need to value the recognition of where our understanding ends. If I want to learn how economic stimulus works (to pick a random example), then I first have to acknowledge that, however strong my opinions, and however much I may have thought about it, there is a possibility that I don’t have the full picture. That I am, in fact, ignorant of some important fact or principle that is key to understanding or finding the answer.

We mustn’t just apply critical thinking to the easy stuff. We mustn’t just do it when we have a thorny problem to solve. We especially mustn’t just use it on other people’s ideas. We have to use it always and everywhere.

Does that sound like a daunting task?

Yes. But that’s what it takes to be intellectually grown up. To think better.

This wasn’t a talk about how “we” do it so much better than “them” – an attitude that may sometimes surface in the secular community. It was a talk about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.

Here are a couple of places you can find Greg Hart online:

Lynne Honey: Statistics


(This is the fourth in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

Lynne Honey

I enjoyed Lynne Honey’s presentation. It could have been a presentation in a university classroom. Perhaps it is – she teaches Psychology at a university here in Edmonton. Many of the tricks and ideas she presented – ways that people mislead you by distorting the numbers or presenting them in a skewed way – were familiar to me as a trained scientist. Some were not.

I took two things away from this. One is that there is hope, with people like her presenting this stuff, that students (and possibly people more broadly) can get inoculated against the misdirection that so many people think is an inherent part of statistics. (Stats don’t lie. People lie.)

The other is that I want to be able to do for linguistics (my field) what she does for statistics. I want to be able to distill all that I think is awesome about the scientific study of language into a forty-minute talk that can engage, educate, and maybe even inspire a room full of people who haven’t given a thought to linguistics before. I’ll let you know how I get on with that.

(Several people at this conference inspired me not just to think about things, but to do something about it.)

Muslim without Islam


(This is the third in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)Ali Rizvi

Ali Rizvi is Muslim who no longer believes in Islam. Does that mean he’s no longer a Muslim? In one sense, yes of course it does: a Muslim is someone who adheres to the religion of Islam.

But in another sense, no.

Former evangelical Christians often suffer from nightmares about hell and eternal torture for years after extracting themselves from those beliefs. Ali faces similar issues – one vivid example he shared was his first encounter with someone from Israel after leaving his Muslim family.

And there is the social side of things. Ali is not a Muslim, but people – Muslim and non-Muslim – who see him often assume, by his visible ethnicity, that he shares a raft of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes connected with Muslims and Muslim culture. Imagine if you will what it might have been like after the September 11 attacks in 2001, being a Muslim in America. Now imagine you are receiving all that vitriol but don’t actually believe in Islam. You’re just getting it because of assumptions people are making from the way you look.

But it’s not just the beliefs he rejects, or the identity that people falsely impute to him, that he talked about.

He also talked about those things he keeps. My family celebrates Christmas and Easter, as primarily secular festivals that reflect, in part, the religion-steeped heritage of my grandparents and ancestors (and some of my contemporary extended family). Secular Jews often celebrate secularized versions of the traditional Jewish observances. In the same way, Ali enjoys the celebrations he grew up with. While he no longer imbues them with the religious significance his family does, they still have emotional and personal meaning for him.

I would love to see “secular Muslim” emerge as an accepted identity, alongside secular Jew and secular Christian. It is absolutely not necessary to reinvent our culture entirely in order to live authentic lives as nonbelievers. We are free to do so, but we are not obliged to. That’s the main thing I took away from Ali’s talk.

Secular in the media


(This is the second in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)
Rob Breakenridge

Rob Breakenridge is a media personality. He co-hosts a daytime radio show and hosts an evening radio news show (also heard here), as well as being a regular columnist in one of the province’s main newspapers.

He talked to us about being openly secular in the media. I did not take many notes – mainly because he is an engaging speaker, but also because there were no action points – things he was encouraging us to do to follow up on what he talked about. So this is a short post.

My main takeaway from his talk was twofold. First, his experience is that it is possible to be blunt and honest about what you do and do not believe, without suffering in the media. He does not feel editorial pressure to present a particular message or gloss over things or any of that. Second, that sort of pressure is more likely to occur in some places (small, local outlets in predominantly religious areas) than in others (larger media outlets and those in more diverse communities). As consumers, we should be aware of this, and not be afraid to let media outlets know when we feel they are taking a biased or unprofessional stance against our community (or any other group).

(If anyone from the conference is reading this, I would be grateful for comments to fill in the gaps – I know Rob talked about more, but as I said, I didn’t take copious notes.)

Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity


(This is the first in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

Bradley Peter is a tall, slender man with a soft voice and a gentle, methodical manner. He is just the sort of person you can imagine being a therapist or a funeral director.

Actually, he’s a biologist.

But after witnessing his grandmother’s final weeks – where her options were to keep suffering, be drugged and “live” as a vegetable until her body expired, or to voluntarily starve to death – he found a passion for reforming our laws around death to enable people more dignity when the choice is no longer one between life and death, but between an excruciating, humiliating death and a dignified, comfortable death.

This February, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition on physician-assisted death is contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, denying people important rights. (It’s more involved than you might think. Apparently suicide itself isn’t a criminal act in Canada, but someone – including a doctor – can be jailed for up to 14 years for counselling or aiding in a suicide.) The ruling itself is here (somewhat hard to read, but it’s there), and there are many news reports and commentaries – here are some: 1, 2, 3. Their ruling, which strikes down the portion of the Criminal Code that pertains to physician-assisted death, comes into effect in 2016, on February 6. If nothing else happens, we will be left in something of a vacuum, with no prohibition and no clear guidelines on how to deal with patient requests for assistance in dying.

Our new Alberta provincial government, our new Canadian federal government, and various medical bodies all bear responsibility to prepare for this deadline by consulting with public and medical professionals and drafting legislation. Dying With Dignity, an organization which Brad is part of, is campaigning on various fronts to ensure that the rules we end up with respect patient rights, physicians’ conscience, and court rulings. We need to ensure that people are not abused – either by greedy relatives pressuring aging invalids into suicide, or by moralizing naysayers who would see suffering as some sort of heavenly gift, or anyone else.

A couple of things you can do right now from the comfort of your own browser are to complete online surveys for the External Panel on Options for a Legislative Response to Carter v. Canada (which will advise the federal ministers of justice and health – survey here) and the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (which will determine best practice in Alberta for physicians around this part of end-of-life care – survey here). I am sure the colleges of physicians and surgeons of other provinces are also working on this – if you know of them and any surveys they have going, leave a comment with links and I’ll add them to the post.

It is important to be aware that these surveys are not necessarily unbiased. Whether intentionally or not, some of the questions may be leading. Read carefully, and respond honestly and thoughtfully. At least the first one has space throughout and at the end for you to note things you think are important but were not covered in the wording or choices on the survey.

Brad’s presentation came at a perfect time to motivate many of us in the audience to take an active role in shaping the attitudes of legislators and informing our fellow citizens about the issue at stake.

There is also an upcoming National Day of Action on November 4th (Wednesday next week – there are events in cities across Canada). Will you join us, and Brad, and others who feel that the time has come for a careful, compassionate look at how we treat death and dying people in our country?

Dying With Dignity logo

None of the Above conference


Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above

Earlier this month, on October 17 and 18, Deena and I attended our first ever secular conference: “None of the Above”. Around a hundred people, variously identifying as humanists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers – the usual spectrum of labels you get in this community – came together in Red Deer. (For non-Albertans, Red Deer is a delightful small city, about equidistant between Alberta’s two larger cities, Calgary and Edmonton.)

If you’re not an active member of the community, you may expect we spent the time congratulating ourselves on escaping the “delusion” of religion, and whingeing about how religious people make everything worse.

Yes, there was a bit of self-congratulation – though it was tempered with the knowledge that all human understanding is fallible, and we might be wrong.

And yes, there was some complaining – though it was focused and action-oriented rather than just self-pitying.

There were several social action issues raised that are important, not just for non-believers, but for anyone interested in having a tolerant, open, free society.

And then there was the whole social side of it: meeting people (some local to my own city) who I had never seen before, but who hold similar values and beliefs to me. It reminded me that I’m part of a larger community.

The fact that the conference was immediately before our federal election gave it an interesting tenor, especially when we were discussing politically potent topics.

So what did we get for our delightfully modest attendance fee? Here is a quick rundown of the schedule. I will be posting a series of short articles over the coming days on some of the talks and discussions.

Day 1:

Opening remarks. The MC for the conference was Karen Kerr, president of the Society of Edmonton Atheists, one of the conference’s two sponsors. (The other was Atheist Alliance International.) She set a nice tone – neither too formal nor too loose.
Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity. Canada is on the verge of a shift here, as a Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing physician-assisted death will come into effect in February. What things will look like after that will depend on how legislators prepare for this shift. How legislators prepare will depend on what they hear from constituents. Now is the time!
Rob Breakenridge: Openly Secular in the Media. An Alberta radio and newspaper personality, Rob talked about the issues faced by public personalities around their beliefs and identities.
Lunch. Not really relevant to a summary of the conference’s events, you say? Of course it is! This is where the ideas are digested, batted around, and where the human connections are made. People differed on the gastronomic value of the food on offer, but the opportunity to break bread together and share our thoughts was a crucial part of the whole conference experience.
Ali Rivzi. A Muslim who no longer believes in Islam. This was a compelling presentation on the difference between culture and beliefs, and on the danger of conflating the two, especially in areas of the world where democratic freedoms are still tenuous at best.
Lynn Honey: Statistics. Oh, to live in a world where every community of belief spent some of their time together talking about how to critically examine the numbers that wash over us in the media. And oh, to live in a world where Lynn Honey can teach these things to everyone!
Nathan Phelps: Son of Westboro. This presentation moved through Nate’s childhood in one of the most poisonous and hateful churches on the continent, through to a call for action and encouragement to vigilance. Not all religion is bad, but too many people use religion as a cover not just to be assholes, but to actively harm others in many ways.
Debate: Matt Dillahunty vs Jon Morrison on whether science points to God. An atheist heavy-hitter with dozens of debates behind him, against a Christian with no debate experience. This debate turned out much more engaging and worthwhile than I had feared.

Day 2:

Greg Hart: Critical Thinking. The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1, this talk wound through several pitfalls of critical thinking. Just to reiterate: this wasn’t a talk about how we do it so much better than them, but about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.
Shelley Segal. A musical interlude with a thoughtful, expressive artist whose songs, often, express feelings and experiences in the world that no religious singer can capture, but which are central to the experience of an atheist life.
Panel discussion: Education in Alberta. Three panelists, with experience and knowledge about different aspects of education as it is influenced by religion: prayer in schools, creationism, and sex-ed. Enlightening, rather horrifying at times, and well-articulated.
Keynote: Matt Dillahunty. A wonderful, personal call to action – Matt responded to some of the things he had learned about “Canadia” during the conference, and gave a talk that left room for everyone – from a timid, closeted agnostic to a brash, letter-writing, sign-toting activist – to do their bit in making the world a better place for us all to live.

Deena and I left this conference energized, motivated to do a little bit more to engage with our atheist community and to push against infringements on our rights and values. In the posts to come, I will dive down a little deeper and give you a more complete recap of the message I took away from each presentation and event at the conference.

This was not just our first secular conference. It was Alberta’s first secular conference. There is already a plan afoot to hold another, to make it a recurring event in the province, rotating between the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer (at least). Things are looking up!

If you are in the area next year, I hope you will join us.

When are you old enough for a double standard?


The other day on the radio I overheard the tail end of a discussion around a recent incident where a swimming pool attendant confronted an eight-year-old girl who was not wearing a top. (Here are a couple of articles about the incident: 1, 2.)

At the end, the radio host asked listeners to let them know: What do you think is the right age at which girls should be required to wear tops when swimming? I missed most of the radio piece, but I can imagine arguments – the prudes on the one side, the nudists on the other side, and a lot of sensible people who are neither prudes nor nudists taking positions between.

But the obvious answer lodged itself in my head pretty quickly. Girls should be required to wear tops at the same age that boys are.

If you think (as the City of Guelph apparently does) that “females ages four and older must wear a bathing top” in public pools, then require males four and older to do the same. Surely covered male bodies won’t offend anyone, so that should be an easy sell, right?

On the other hand, if we are unable or unwilling to make men and boys relinquish a freedom, then perhaps we should not be so ready to take that freedom from women and girls either.

I have a mountain of points I would like to make on this issue, but I suspect I would just fall into ranting tl;dr territory. So instead I’m going to leave it there. What do you think? Is there an appropriate age to require people to cover up? Is there any good reason to restrict one group more than another in this sort of issue? Let me know in the comments.

A new voice in the Tapestry



In the car going grocery shopping on Sunday, I heard a voice on CBC that I recognized from secular podcasts I regularly follow: Mandisa Thomas. Then there was an interview with Karl Giberson, a physicist who learned how to break the literalist Creationist mold as he learned about how science really works, and what it reveals (without abandoning his Christianity).

The show is Tapestry, a weekly show airing on Sundays, also available as a podcast. The website says about the show:

Governments change, economies tumble and soar, and headlines trumpet the scandal of the day. All the while, Tapestry deals with the more subtle news of life — a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be human.

Tapestry is the place where you can wonder about the big questions you’ve been too busy to consider during the week.  We’ll hear rabbis and gardeners getting equal time on the topic of belief. Science-fiction writers and physicist-priests kick around the world’s great creation myths.  Athletes explore the hero’s journey as a spiritual metaphor, and musicians make the connection between song and the human spirit.

We’ll also meet regular people just trying to make sense of the world, whether they’re finding their way as believers or atheists – or everything in-between.

What stands out to me is that this show is clearly about the topics that religions try to address (and, often, to monopolize). It’s about “what it means to be human”. But, unlike many radio shows addressing these topics, this one doesn’t even pretend that religions have a key (or even particularly special) place in this conversation. Guests are “rabbis and gardeners … science-fiction writers and physicist-priests … athletes … musicians … regular people … believers or atheists – or everything in-between”.

I have gone back now and listened to the whole episode. (The opening interview, which I had initially missed, was with James Grupa, a teacher of evolution at a university in Kentucky.) It’s a fascinating way of approaching this conversation – dismissing neither non-religious voices (like some shows do) nor religious voices (like many atheist blogs and podcasts do that I listen to).

I’ve subscribed to their podcast feed – I look forward to seeing what else they have, upcoming and in their archives. I’ll let you know if I come across any particular gems.

If you know the show or another that fills a similar niche, please leave a link to any episode you think is especially worth checking out.


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