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Amaz!ng: My Adventures at TAM 9

22 Jul

I recently returned from The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This aptly named event is an annual gathering of the greatest minds and personalities in the skeptical and atheist movements. I felt privileged to be among the 1650 people in attendance and one of many there as the result of a grant. As a matter of fact, I attended the largest TAM ever, with more women in attendance than ever, with approximately (if my memory is correct) over forty of us with the assistance of various grants.

In reflecting on my adventures and trying to decide how to communicate them to friends and readers, I decided that the way to do it would to be to provide a “best of.” So, here it is.

Best Picture

The Amazing James Randi, Founder of the JREF and Host of TAM

James Randi is an incredible presence.  He was kind and accessible.  Shortly after stopping for this photo, he looked me in the eye (yes, at eye level) and said  “Now go learn something.”  So I did.

Most Inspirational

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Keynote Speaker

When I saw that deGrasse Tyson was going to be the keynote speaker at TAM this year, I knew I wouldn’t want to miss it.  He is such an amazing spokesperson and advocate for science.  His keynote speech was about the consequences of living in a society where science literacy is not given priority and let me tell you… it fired me up.  He spoke eloquently about how the United States is falling behind.  He gave examples from his own personal experiences as well as from recent events where people were harmed or progress unachieved due to a lack of science and critical thinking.  The wonderful thing is that he did it all hilariously.  He was so knowledgeable, funny, and down to earth.  In my opinion, deGrasse Tyson is exactly the kind of spokesperson science and skepticism needs and it was an honor to hear him speak.

Best Surprise

Richard Wiseman, Social Psychologist and author of Paranormality

I wasn’t going to hear Wiseman’s 30 minute talk.  I didn’t even put it on the TAM9 app I used as my schedule.  His talk was sandwiched between a talk by Elizabeth Loftus on the fallibility of memory (which I really wanted to attend) and the buffet lunch (which I also really wanted to attend).  I figured half an hour was too little time to do much else, so I decided to sit through his talk. I am so glad I didn’t miss it.  He talked about perception errors, deception, and of course his book.  He played video of people who believed they could walk over hot coals simply by meditating.  He played songs while priming our brains to hear silly lyrics. I was laughing so hard the entire time that I frankly don’t remember much else.  No exaggeration. For half an hour, Richard Wiseman owned that room. So smitten was I that when his presentation concluded, I rushed out of the conference center to get his book in hopes of having it signed.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one impressed because his book sold out in minutes and all I was left with was the stupid buffet lunch.  Not to worry.  There is his blog, his YouTube channel, and future TAMs (click the link above).  I know who you are now, Professor Wiseman.  Having learned my lesson, you will be on my schedule for next year.

Best Fan Girl Moments

It took me all of Thursday and Friday to get up my confidence to actually start approaching some of the people I had come there to hear.

Bob Novella and the rest of the team from The Skeptics Guide to the Universe opened up the conference on Friday morning with a live recording of the SGU.  There, Bob recounted his trip to see the final launch of the space shuttle.  This episode of SGU hasn’t yet aired, so I won’t go into any more detail.  Later on, I spotted him at the SGU table and asked for a picture. He graciously obliged.  And as an added bonus, check out the background over my left shoulder.  TA DA!  There is Dr. Steve Novella!  Two Novellas for the price of one.  And then Jay Novella tried to sell me a t-shirt.  Count the Novellas.  That makes three. It was pretty awesome.

BONUS: Richard Dawkins.  After enjoying his appearance as “special guest” at TAM, I queued for the book signing.  No surprise, Richard Dawkins and his staff comprise a book-signing machine.  With my personal copy of The Greatest Show on Earth in hand, I quickly made my way through the queue and stood there just long enough to get this picture.  Yeah!

Next Year: Dreams for TAM X

My dream for next year is to return and to bring my husband and my little skepling.  During Richard Dawkins’ talk, he said that his foundation would be assisting with childcare during future conferences.  In addition to cost, childcare was a major factor in my initial decision to not attend.  I just didn’t think I could manage it.  If my husband would have come along, then we would have had to take turns watching our son, never getting to attend any of the events together. Let’s make it as easy as possible for skeptical moms and dads to attend.

Overall, it was a fantastic four days.  I can’t wait to attend future TAMs.  Thanks again to the incredible ladies at Surly Ramics and Women Thinking Free for helping me get there.

I’ll leave you all, dear readers, with words of advice from the Amazing Randi.

Now.  Go learn something.

Lazy Atheist

1 Jun

Somebody should really spank me.  Kidding.  Maybe.

Seriously, though.  I have been very lazy and neglectful with this blog.  I was rolling along just fine for a while and goodness knows the religious whackaloons don’t give me any shortage of material.  Maybe it was boredom. Or laziness. Or the feeling that I’m such a small voice in a big, crazy world.  I think maybe everyone trying to establish or maintain an online presence has at some point in time battled feelings of irrelevance.

I needed inspiration.  I needed Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts this week The Non-Prophets supported by the fine folks over at the Atheist Community of Austin.  They interviewed two teenagers who against all odds are standing up for the separation of church and state provided for us in the Constitution.  I had been keeping up with their stories, but hearing their own voices speak out on that podcast was a revelation.

In case you aren’t aware of their stories, I’ll briefly try to summarize.  Damon just graduated from high school in Bastrop, Louisiana.  He sent an email to school administrators stating that if a Christian prayer was recited at graduation, he would file a complaint with the ACLU.  My understanding of the situation is that the school was further informed of the illegality of the Christian graduation prayer.  Word got out that Damon, an atheist, set the wheels in motion for the prayer to be removed.  The slackjawed mouthbreathers of Bastrop, LA bullied and threatened Damon.  His own parents kicked him out of his house.  In the end, the graduation prayer went through and now there might be legal action against the school for this violation of the Constitution.  Damon, for his part, now has the full attention of the atheist movement as well as a respectable college fund.  His Facebook page is Support Damon.

Jessica is in a similar situation.  She is an atheist attending high school in Cranston, Rhode Island.  This Rhode Island community is predominantly Catholic.  When Jessica requested that a prayer be removed from the wall of the public school she attends, she was met with the bullying and animosity of her schoolmates.  She is currently involved in legal action to have the prayer removed.  While she has the support of her family, she is only a sophomore at this school and will continue to attend during the course of the legal proceedings.  Her Facebook page is Support the Removal of the Cranston High School West Prayer.

I cannot thank these brave students enough.  Listening to their interviews woke me out of my laziness and reminded me just how critical atheist activism is.  I admire them for coming to their atheism at such a young age.  I was not that clear-thinking in high school.  Even if I had been, I don’t think I would have had the nerve to stand up for what is right.  I would have been afraid of what my parents and community would say.  I would have been worried about losing friends.  But too long have atheists been closeted in intimidated silence.  People like Damon and Jessica are paving the way for more and more atheists to come out of hiding and to make their stand.

Also, I should note that religious people should be thanking Damon and Jessica as well.  They are not only acting for “atheist rights.”  They are not taking a stand only because the school-sanctioned prayers offended them personally.  They are speaking out because these prayers are in violation of the Constitution. That same Constitution protects Christians from being forced to say Muslim prayers.  Or Muslims being forced to say Hindu prayers.  Or Hindus…  You get the point.  The separation of church and state was not intended by our founding fathers to cripple religion.  It was designed to protect religious freedom.

Please stop by their Facebook pages and tell them thank you.  Damon and Jessica, we need more people out there like you.

Thanks to them, I am all fired up again. I am committing right now to posting a new blog article once per week.  Please do your part and share, share, share.

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