Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Skeptics in the Pub (21/7/08)

Last night, I went to the London Skeptics in the Pub event. Here’s their site: http://www.skeptic.org.uk/pub/ . They hold a free lecture and meet-up every month in the Penderel’s Oak pub on High Holborn London, near Covent Garden. Why did I go there? Well, we’ll come to that later on. I didn’t tell anyone of my plans because I wanted to go in disguise. I know it says “non-Skeptics welcome”, but I wanted them to open up to me and let me understand their thoughts and feelings, and I thought they’re more likely to do that if they think I’m one of them. So I dressed differently from how I normally do and gave myself a false name and background. As it happened such a move was unnecessary because I never had any conversations all night. However, if I pay a visit there again I will not be able to infiltrate undercover because right now an enraged former member of the HPANWO Forum, and most other forums I’ve been on, will be frantically contacting SITP’s organizers to warn them that they had a mole in their midst! Yes, by the time you read this I will have been outed as an illicit “Woo”!

I detest prejudice of any sort, so therefore I feel uncomfortable and slightly guilty when I find that one of the few I hold is confirmed by experience. I had an image in my head of what a typical Skepmeister was like and 95% of the SITP attendees fulfilled that image exactly. They were very middle class and academic-looking. The young ones were like the students I meet in Oxford and the old ones were well-dressed, but slightly scruffy as intellectuals tend to be; overgrown grey hair and beards, old-fashioned spectacles. The women were mostly slim and wool-clad without make-up, and either with unusual and ostentatious jewelry or none at all. They spoke quietly amongst themselves in hushed and sophisticated tones; those on their own sat and read books rather than stare into space in contemplation like most pub-drinkers do. My foresight helped me to blend in though because I correctly anticipated their appearance code. I discarded my track suit bottoms and dressed in a smart pair of black terylenes with brogues in place of my usual trainers and a cotton shirt where a T-shirt usually suffices. I kept my baseball cap because I had to stop my head getting sunburned on the journey, but I took it off and put it in my bag before entering the pub. When people were in earshot I imitated a “posh” accent when ordering drinks from the bar. My thumbed copy of The God Delusion tucked under my arm completed my masquerade.

The atmosphere was totally different to any of the various pro-paranormal conferences I’ve been to. I was expecting people to come up, introduce themselves and begin a conversation which is what usually happens at Probe and the Now That’s Weird Conference; but not here. There was no overt hostility, but people kept themselves to themselves, locked into their own social groups; talking to strangers seemed to be taboo, hence I was left alone. The function bar in the cellar was completely packed out and it was standing-room only. I did a double-take when I noticed that the man who came and stood beside me was someone I immediately recognized; Professor Chris French! (Background: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/01/chris-french-mba-gold.html and http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/01/who-really-runs-world.html ) This was someone I’ve written about many times in less than flattering terms! He looked at me briefly and smiled in greeting. I wonder; were his ears burning!? He was selling copies of Skeptic magazine ( http://www.skeptic.org.uk/ ) with discount subscriptions. At first I had no intention of buying one, but then I saw on the cover that they had an article entitled Cognitive Neuroscience and the Dying Brain. I presumed it was about Near-Death Experiences which I’m very interested in (background: http://hpanwo-voice.blogspot.com/2008/07/dr-raymond-moodys-life-after-life.html ). I don’t agree with the Skeptics’ view of NDE’s which is that they are merely hallucinations, but I’m keen to read anything on the subject; unfortunately French was sold out by the time I got to him. He offered me a one-year subscription with a free sample copy, but I declined.

The speaker was a man called Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society (http://www.secularism.org.uk/ ), an organization whose aim is to keep organized religion out of politics and prevent its values being imposed on those who don’t believe in it. In a way I was disappointed that he was speaking because my full SITP experience would have been enhanced if I had been face-to-face with one of these idiotic left-brain Robinson Crusoe’s like Richard Dawkins, or the type who try to persuade you that crop circles are all made by blokes with planks or that highly-trained fighter pilots can’t tell the difference between a genuine UFO and a lighthouse (Background: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/04/god-delusion-by-richard-dawkins.html , http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/05/plankers.html and http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/06/rendlesham-forest-incident.html ). It’s a shame I didn’t go there a few months ago when Chris French-MBA Gold was speaking himself! But I rather liked Sanderson and admired his mission. I’m actually a secularist myself. Sanderson is very keen to point out that there is a big difference between secularism and atheism. Secularists are not all atheists and secularists are not anti-religion, they just want to counter enforced religion and defend the rights of those who don’t believe in God, a perfectly just cause. He said in as many words that he is opposed to an enforced atheist state, which is a relief to hear after reading some of the Stalinist rantings by JREF forum members! He began his speech by quoting from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s statistics on the growth of the various religions. Sanderson asks why there are no figures from Carnegie for what he believes is the fastest growing group of all: secularists and agnostics. He reckons that there are a billion in the world today, a huge growth from just 3.2 million in 1900. The majority of those billion are in the Western World because of our comparatively lavish lifestyle. Religion flourishes mostly in the Third World because life is so much harder and that religion provides comfort; this was his address’ only indulgence with MBA. The reason the USA is so devoutly Christian is because, despite its image as the ultimate Western developed country, it shares a lot of features of the Third World: no state-funded healthcare, inadequate social security schemes and extreme poverty; also the social humiliation of those who fail to achieve the “American Dream”. Historically, the region of North America that became the USA also has a cultural Christian tradition dating back to the first Virginian colonists; they were Puritan exiles from England. Most Britons are what he terms “the Indifferents”, those for whom religion hardly ever enters their thoughts. They are not necessarily positively atheistic, but they are neither positive believers; most are agnostic. In the last census 75% described themselves as Christians, a statistic the Church has jumped upon, but Sanderson thinks that most of those people just said that they were Christian to make a statement that they were not Muslim! Sanderson riles at how the current government are promoting faith-based schools and giving a lot of power to community religious foundations. One “interfaith unity” scheme has been given a grant of £7.5 million of taxpayers' money. Sanderson claims that any interfaith organizations are a waste of time and money because religions are inherently self-contained, insular and intolerant of other religions; this is the cause of most of the world’s wars. This is where I considerably differ from him. I doubt if he has studied religion in any depth, and this was confirmed when he echoed Dawkins’ blinkered and dull-witted stance: “Theology is all bollocks because it the study of nothing. It’s meaningless and futile.” It’s a shame that he should take such a view because the other things he said rather resonated with me.

At the end of a long Q-and-A session there was a raffle and somebody won a “Skepti-chicks” calendar! It was a pin-up calendar like many others except that the women in it were famous female Skeptics photographed in alluring poses holding science books and scientific instruments (I noticed that it was small enough to hold in one hand!). Eager to uphold their liberal, egalitarian image, there was also a “Skepti-dudes” one for the ladies. I left the event at 9.30PM, to catch the coach back home to Oxford. By “coincidence” on the way back to the coach station on the Tube train I ended up sitting next to a lady who had a copy of The God Delusion. She told me she had just bought it. “Snap!” I said and showed her my copy. “Have you just bought that too?” she asked. “No I’ve read it.” I replied. She asked “What’s it like?” I obviously didn’t have time to quote my entire review ( http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/04/god-delusion-by-richard-dawkins.html ) as it was just a one-stop journey from Green Park to Victoria, but I gave her an honest précis: “It’ll make you think about things. I don’t agree with all of it, in fact some of it is total rubbish, but I’d certainly recommend reading it.”

So, what was I doing at a Skeptics event when I’m a believer in many paranormal phenomena and conspiracy theories? To be honest I’m not entirely sure of my own motives. I’m guess I’m just curious about Skeptics; I’d like to know what motivates them, what goes through their heads. This is probably because over the last few years I’ve been the target of an organized and persistent smear campaign along with a torrent of abuse and slander from one or two members of the Skeptic Movement. In the same way that a victim of knife-crime wishes to have a meeting with convicted stabbers, I’d like to learn more about Skeppers and what motivates them. What forces are at work in their psyches that can drive them to such verbal and social violence? Will I go to the SITP next month? Apparently there’s a surprise guest! Hmm, I wonder who it could be!

11 comments:

marmitelover@mac.com said...

funnily enough ben, I was going to go to this meeting but am busy living in a field at present. See you at the next one maybe?
Loved the write up and the disguise made me LOL

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks, ML.

If you'd been there you might not have recongized me! In fact even my own dad could have had trouble!

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

I wish I had asked Sanderson's opinion on what I wrote here:

http://hpanwo-voice.blogspot.com/2008/07/truth-oath-in-british-and-commonwealth.html

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Just relaized I got the date wrong in the title. It's corrected now.

Mark said...

Wow. It's hard to know where the logical fallacies end and the insults begin...

Jack of Kent said...

There was really no need to be in disguise. All sorts come along to SitP. You would have been most welcome in whatever guise!

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Hi Jack. That's good to know. Thanks. If I come to the next one I'll "go overt" as we used to say in MI5!

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Mark, my "insults" are nothing compared to how Skeppies write about us Woo's.

Jack of Kent said...

I will look out for you when you next come (if I can see through the disguise!) and introduce myself.

I am the charming, friendly, smartly-dressed, and not-at-all-socially-awkward face of Skepticism.

Best wishes, Jack of Kent

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

That's cool, Jack. It will be nice to meet you. Excuse my reticence; it is born out of my experiences with other Skeptics I've met on the net who are anything but charming and friendly!

Scott said...

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