Saturday, July 19, 2008

Oklahoma Atheist Meetup!

I'm in Oklahoma for the summer, and of course surrounded by religious people on a daily basis, so I needed a little break. I checked to see if there were any Atheist groups in the area, so I could find someone on the level to talk to, and was pleasantly surprised to find FOUR groups in the area. Excited beyond comprehension, I joined the nearest meetup and contacted the organizers, to see if we could schedule something before I left. They arranged for a potluck, and I brought the last non-ramen menu item I had left, brown rice. The energy and excitement of such people to be around others that think like them is amazing. The conversation ranged from liberal politics to renewable energy for a while, only barely skimming upon religion and lack there of.

At one point, I interrupted what looked like the beginnings of a heated argument about the military with the statement "Hey, so, like, we don't believe in god and stuff right?" Which was funny because in any other situation, that statement would have ignited a heated argument, not squelched one!

After we ate, we began a discussion about where our morality comes from, which was really interesting and really got everyone's mind going. It started with a video by Vilayanur Ramachandran on The Science Network, a scientist who talks about the neural structures controlling such things as empathy and consciousness. From there we discussed the idea that empathy is hardwired into the brain, and David (the organizer) made the distinction between this hardwired morality and an "intellectual" ability to make moral decisions. The example he used involved a lifeboat with too many passengers on it. Your instinctual morality tells you to save more people, but your intellectual side realizes that if you let one more person on, the boat will sink.

From there the conversation turned to in-group out-group dynamics, basically the idea that people only care about their "in-group" and disregard anyone outside of it. Brett, a psychology grad student at Oklahoma University, described an experiment he was involved with
that explored the issue. The subjects were presented with one of four news stories and asked what they thought of the main character and how much they should be rewarded or fined for their actions. One story involved an OU student saving a student from the University of Texas (the schools have a rather bitter rivalry), the next a UT student saving an OU student. The last two involved an OU student throwing a keg at a UT student, and a UT student throwing a keg at an OU student. Only one of these was presented to each person, so they didn't get to compare and decide on rewards or fines. Interestingly, people not only rewarded the OU students more highly, they also decided to punish them more harshly. Brett's explanation is that you care more about the actions of the people around you, be they positive or negative, because they have more potential to affect you.

Being in such a red state, the conversation often turned to creationism, and there was much preaching to the choir about why its stupid and evolution rocks. A popular idea of the night was that "God is in the gaps" or that as science continues to explain more and more of the natural world, and the role of god is used less and less to explain natural phenomena, religious people use god as a kind of scientific filler. In the old days, god was invoked for everything from weather to tidal waves, but now we have decent explanations for those things, so intelligent design type people have to find ever more creative places to stick their god.

For example, how did the universe start? Oh, it was the Big Bang. But what about before that? Well, we don't know, so it must have been god. How did DNA first form? We've created early Earth-like conditions and gotten amino acids out, but how do we get from there to DNA? We don't know, so it must have been god. Brett even mentioned an idea he'd heard from some of his colleagues, that "God is in the error" of experiments, hiding in the decimal places you can't get to.

Overall, it was a great night. I asked everyone in the group to email me a story for the blog, so hopefully we'll see some posts come of that in the near future. I believe that might work better than trying to get tons and tons of co-authors on the blog, so if you have a story you'd like to share, please email it to me at

If you're worried about your writing skills or what to put down, let me know and we can even do a phone interview where I can just take notes and write the story for you. And good times will be had by all.


Pablo said...

interesting stuff

though as a UT boy from way back there's no chance i'd save any OUs :P

Cirque du Urk said... who knew