Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Secular Society and Its Enemies - From Christopher Hitchens to Richard Dawkins

After the lunch break, the next event in the conference was a video interview with Christopher Hitchens conducted by Derek Araujo of the Center for Inquiry. Unfortunately, because I did not get a satisfactory night's sleep, I nodded off a few times during the interview. While Hitchens has a deep voice, the volume of his voice drops to inaudibility at times, which was not helped by the poor audio quality of the video. One of the most salient points he made was that one of the keys to ending poverty in the developing world was the liberation of its women. The Muslim Arab states of the Middle East are a good example of this. With women in some states forbidden to interact publicly with men who are not their family members, they are effectively prevented from participating in the work force.

It also touches on what Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke about earlier in the day, when he mentioned the prejucides he had to overcome in pursuit of his ambition to become an astrophysicist. While the damage that racism, sexism and prejudice inflicts on those who are on the receiving end of such discriminatory treatment is almost universally acknowledged, what is rarely mentioned is the damage that is inflicted on the societies that practice discrimination. By thwarting the career ambitions of people because of their gender, race or sexual orientation, societies that sanction such discrimination deprive themselves of the contributions that the victims of discrimination might have made had there been a level playing field. Conservative Muslim societies, in failing to educate their female populations and giving them a chance to compete in the labor force, are stupidly depriving themselves of the brain power of nearly half their adult population.

After the Hitchens video, several members of the Center for Inquiry spoke to the audience about the Center, what it has to offer, and why it is necessary to support it. The first speaker was Paul Kurtz, the president of the Center for Inquiry (hereinafter the "CFI") and the eminence grise of secular humanism. Kurtz got a good laugh from the audience when he was talking about how Sunnis don't recognize Shiites, how Protestants don't recognize the Catholic Pope, and how Baptists don't recognize each other at Hooters. When I saw him today, I told him that I liked that line, and then suggested to him another, "Republicans don't recognize each other in public restrooms." That elicited a chuckle from him.

After Kurtz and the other CFI speakers did their part to tout the benefits of the CFI, it was time for the next speaker, Peter Singer. Again, I failed to take notes, so I don't recall at the moment most of what Singer said. One thing I remember clearly though was his taking to task American conservatives for the slogan "culture of life" as applied to restricting abortion and the right to die, when America's infant mortality rate is about the same as Cuba's and much worse than nations like Sweden or the Netherlands. Singer pointed out that if the United States reduced it's infant mortality rate to that of the Netherlands, that would result in saving the lives of thousands of infants every year in the United States. He also informed the audience that as tragic as the events of September 11, 2001 are for Americans, many thousands of people around the world die every day from preventable diseases.

The day's events were capped off with a live interview of Richard Dawkins by the CFI's DJ Grothe, who hosts CFI's podcast radio program Point of Inquiry. Interestingly, rather than lobbing softball questions at Dawkins as one might have expected in front of a rather friendly audience, Grothe actually asked him some rather pointed questions.

Dawkins compared his Out Campaign to the gay rights movement and expressed his wish that atheists would be able to achieve a similar success, though I couldn't help thinking that the gay rights movement has not quite yet succeeded in achieving its goals, and what success they have managed to achieve has served as a rallying point for the Religious Right. Grothe also told Dawkins that being himself gay, he had some reservations about Dawkins equating the atheist cause with the gay rights movement. Dawkins clarified his remarks by saying that he was inspired by what other minority groups have managed to achieved in spite of their small numbers, and that since the number of atheists in the United States was in many cases larger than the other minority groups, that it should be possible for them to achieve greater social acceptance. I could tell Dawkins was trying to choose his words carefully and that he did not mention Jewish-Americans as an example of a successfuly minority group, after he aroused some ire recently by telling an interviewer that the Jews had a monopoly on U.S. foreign policy

Hopefully the Point of Inquiry podcast of the interview will be up and running and when it is I will update this post with a link to it.


Anonymous said...

well, atheists as a group maybe comparably larger that other minority groups but atheists are less organized. i hope someday atheist could have greater social and cultural impact.

Anonymous said...

The interview is online now and it is as you describe, hard questions and brilliant answers. It is now on as of last Friday night.