Our First Last Supper

So, everyone else has already blogged about our Monday night mayhem, even including someone who would have only been there in spirit, if such a thing existed. I’m a little late to the game, admittedly, but it’s been a busy couple of weeks.

As I mentioned, last Monday ’roundabout 3:15, Jon and Jess climbed into my station wagon, and we barreled down the rural roads to arrive about 40 minutes before Google Maps suggested. Which put us there an hour and a half early.

After wandering around like fools for a bit, I gave UofI alum Eric a quick call, and we were soon in the right building. Along the way, I picked up a weird Christian newsletter called “Christ is Victor,” which I assumed would lead to hilarity later (it did). Now, I’m not much of a Christian, but I seem to recall Christ’s name being Jesus, not Victor. Is there another Christ I haven’t heard about? Besides Craig, I mean. Maybe Victor Christ is the one responsible for bringing Jesus back from the dead! “It took three days, Igor, but look! It’s alive! Aliiiiive!”

Once in the right building, I began an epic quest for the men’s room, meeting Ben from the Gateway Skeptics along the way. Turns out that Ben and Flavin (at least) were both attendees was an attendee of the Society of Physics Students meeting that was held at Augie a couple of years ago, so this is the second time I’ve met them him. This time was better, as I wasn’t conducting an awkward trivia contest at any time during the evening.

We decided to go find seats, and it’s a good thing we did. The place was fairly empty when we got in, which meant we were able to get seats close to the front. While going up the stairs, I noticed that we passed a guy in a black trenchcoat and hat. I can’t say I thought much of it, until he came down toward the stage and I realized that beneath the oh-so-theatrical outfit was The Amazing Randi himself. That was pretty cool.

While Randi and the techies started setting up, I was just enjoying the feeling of being in an auditorium where I could be reasonably certain that the vast majority of people around me believed the same things I did. Just in my immediate vicinity was someone wearing a Champaign-Urbana Freethinkers t-shirt and two people in the “Science: It works, bitches” t-shirt from XKCD (which I want desperately). It was tremendously liberating; someone remarked at the ease with which 80-year-old Randi hopped onto the stage, I said that it was because he knew The Secret, and we all shared a hearty laugh. I was even able to tell the “why women love Jesus” joke, out loud in a room full of people. Yeah, it’s a small and fairly childish thing, but damn if it didn’t feel good.

Not much happened until I noticed Akusai, Magus, and (though I didn’t know who he was yet) Wikinite come down the aisle. We traded introductions and handshakes, and they sat behind Jon, Jess, and me (carefully avoiding the obviously broken seat). We all talked a bit about various things: our favorite trolls, the new waves of atheist/skeptic bloggers, what we expected from the evening, and so forth.

At some point, a girl in an “Atheists, Agnostics, & Freethinkers” t-shirt sat down near our group, and joined in various conversations going on around us. She seemed nice and all, but…she was really into being an atheist and really trying hard to impress everyone with how much of an atheist she was. Yet, she seemed kind of clueless; now, I don’t expect all atheists to be active in the blogohedron or anything, but she seemed genuinely surprised by some of the really, really basic arguments and names and so on. I don’t know, I kind of got a “protest too much” vibe off her; the Action Skeptics crowd got more of a “trying to seduce someone/anyone” vibe. Both seem like valid hypotheses, but I’m not in a hurry to validate either one.

Anyway, the first speaker of the night was Nobel prize winning biologist Richard Roberts (HT to Akusai and Wikinite for the link), who while interesting, clearly didn’t win his Nobel prize in public speaking…or anthropology, or history, or psychology. It would be easy to say that I’m only drawing the comparison because of the “white-haired British biologist talking about atheism and religion” connection, but he really was like Dawkins-lite. To the point where he was saying a lot of the things that Dawkins says, or saying things that sound like what Dawkins says, and not understanding why Dawkins says those things. The most egregious mistake (on that particular front) was his mention that he thinks religious indoctrination is child abuse. He didn’t elaborate, and it was pretty clear that he was trying to echo Dawkins, but Dawkins’ contention is with religious labeling–calling children “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Jewish” or even “Atheist” children–not with parents’ rights to raise their kids to believe what they want. While I’m sure he’s got issues with that too, it’s much more morally muddy territory, and there’s no good solution to indoctrination that doesn’t remove essential parental rights.

There were other problems with his speech as well; his definition of Bipolar disorder was, in a word, wrong, and his ideas about the development of religion were overly simplistic at best. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard a variant on the Courtier’s Reply (in this case, “how much have you studied religion”) and thought it was a valid criticism. On a more technical note, it’s clear that Roberts was working without notes, and while I found the brevity of his PowerPoint presentation refreshing, it was a little too brief, offering him little guidance with the points he wanted to cover (and leading him to decide on occasion “I don’t want to talk about that”). He could have done with a little more of everything, and consequently we all could have done with a little less of him. At least his anecdotes were entertaining, and it’s always nice to listen to British men talking about biology and atheism.

After Roberts, someone from the UofI Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers group gave an overly long introduction for the man who needed none, James Randi. I’m not sure entirely how much I can say about Randi’s speech; he did some neat tricks to underscore our collective assumptions and imperceptions, he did a neat bit of magic, and he brought out a nice homeopathy debunking that taught me things I didn’t know about Zicam (not actually homeopathic, that’s why it works) and HeadOn (apply directly to the trash can). He was funny, informative, terse, and incredibly sharp, and it was just an absolute joy to listen to him.

Highlights of the Randi talk: calling Montel Williams a “whore,” talking about an Israeli mentalist (“no, not that one”), talking about that Israeli mentalist, and propositioning his magic trick volunteer for coffee and dinner as if he were a shy schoolboy. Randi? Awesome.

After Randi spoke, they opened up two mics on the floor for questions. I don’t remember if this kid was first or second, but one guy–heretofore referred to as “The Preacher”–started off with (some variant of) those dreaded words “before I get to my question…” It seems to be a rule that 95% of the time, people who say “before I get to my question” are going to hog the mic talking about stupid shit that no one wants to hear for a very long time. The Preacher didn’t disappoint. He began with a lengthy, rambling story about how he was involved in a hit-and-run car accident, which he survived “by the grace of God,” and how he was so ashamed of it (so ashamed that he decided to spend five minutes telling it in excruciating detail to a roomful of people). He said we all have things we’re ashamed of, something about God, and (as nearly everyone in the room was calling for him to get to the point) finally ended with “can science prove love?”

Roberts and Randi answered in unison: “No,” then moved on to the next question. I could write a blog post parsing out a longer answer (and touching on the inanities inherent in the question), and Bronze Dog already did, but that was adequate for the time allotted. Akusai wrote a bit more to give context to the answer, and mentioned his brilliant “Someone taze him, bro” comment, but since you’ve already read his post, you already knew that.

The Preacher stood at his mic for a good long time, periodically asking “can I just finish point,” and at one point screeding* off into John 3:16. As if no one in the room, no one on stage, had heard “For God so loved the world yada yada yada” before. What is it about (certain) Christians that either makes them think that “John 3:16” is some magic convert-the-heathens incantation (see also: John 14:6, the “Sinner’s Prayer,” etc.), or that they’re the first people to ever mention it to atheists, despite its omnipresence in our Christianity-soaked culture?

Other people (at the other mic) asked more relevant questions while they cut The Preacher’s mic. That wasn’t exactly the end of his tenure at the head of that line, sadly. You almost have to admire his tenacity; he stood there for a good ten minutes or more, even after someone else took the mic away from him to ask a question. A few other theists asked questions (including the girl in front of me in line), but were generally more polite (if not more coherent) about it.

When I got to the mic, I briefly thanked both of the speakers for coming and mentioned how much I enjoyed Flim-Flam, then asked how they deal with having to answer the same questions and debunk the same things over and over, year after year, without losing hope. There were some noises of approval and understanding around the audience, so I clearly wasn’t the only person with that particular experience (obviously, since Akusai and Magus were in attendance). Randi mentioned the importance of education, and that we do make some progress. I can’t hate Roberts, for all his speech’s flaws, because his answer was more-or-less tailor-made, comparing it to education and “if you reach even one student, then it’s a success.” Like everything else he said, I have some reservations with that as well, but it was a surprisingly apt answer.

After the Q&A was done, I stuck around, thanked Dr. Roberts, and humbly asked Randi for a picture and an autograph. He very kindly obliged, though his fountain pen didn’t work (that wasn’t a joke about his age–he actually had a fountain pen) and he was forced to use a ball-point. He expressed surprise that I owned a hardcover of the book, and I mentioned that I got it on Amazon after his column talked about the problems in the Prometheus Books printing. And then this:

It’s not the best quality picture, but it’s not the picture that matters. It’s the memory of doing something I’ve dreamed of for years–something that, given average human lifespan, I doubted I would ever do. I met James Randi. How cool is that?

After the picture taking and autographing, we met back up with the various skeptics and followed a pirate treasure map toward an initially-elusive pizza restaurant called Papa Del’s. The conversation continued more or less non-stop from then until we got back to our cars at the end of the night, encompassing everything from “Preacher” (the comic series, not the microphone troll) and the current status of Spider-Man to the truth value of cake and the morality of pirated video games, among other things. And the pizza! Oh man, the pizza would have been divine, if there was such a thing. In any case, it was easily the best deep-dish I’ve ever laid tongue on.

As soon as we saw the tables at Papa Del’s, Jon suggested that we take our very own Last Supper picture, something that Jon and I do whenever we get a chance. This time, though, there were almost enough people for the whole crew.
I'm pretty sure this picture means that Magus and I fathered a line of holy descendants or something.
I got to be the big guy, by virtue of how we sat down, but I personally think it should have gone to Magus, who has a much more Jesusy look. I will maintain, however, that Jesus was an avid drinker of Mountain Dew, and that any Last Supper is made better by having a James Randi book in the middle of the table.

The whole thing was a blast. I was incredibly glad (and a little relieved) that I got along with the Action Skeptics guys as well in person as online. But I’ll talk more about that in another post. Suffice it to say that it was a fantastic experience, far better even than I’d hoped, and I hope we can do it again. I’m probably not going to WizardWorld this summer, so that leaves me with a free weekend and a little spending money. Maybe next time we can move it a little farther south, maybe bring Bronze Dog and Bob in on the action.

Anyway, I leave you with the words of Randi:
Just like on the Swift columns!

*Yes, “screeding.” I made it up, and I like it.

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