Imagine 7: A Secular Retreat – A Report from the Field, Part Two

by Matt Sheedy

  • For part one in this series of posts, see here.

Imagine 7: A Secular Retreat, which I recently attended in Toronto from June 2-4, is the seventh annual Imagine No Religion conference that was started by Bill Ligertwood and Kathy Cruickshank. This year’s conference featured such popular figures in atheists circles as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and Laurence Krauss.

In this second of three posts, I will offer descriptions of the presenters and their talks from day two, followed by a description of concession literature, sponsors, and some theoretical analysis in part three. My aim here is to provide a first-hand account of the various ideas, ideologies, interests, and organizations coming out of this event, which I hope can serve as both a resource for those interested in studies in/on/about secularism, humanism, secular movements, non-religion, and atheism, as well as an example of the wider phenomenon of social formation.

Richard Dawkins – In his keynote address, “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind,” the crowd swelled to over 500 participants to hear the famed evolutionary biologist and popular atheist’s latest musings. Dawkins began with examples from seagull and salamander species in order to highlight the naturally occurring spectrum of variations within these species, both today and on an evolutionary scale. He went on to note, by analogy, that it’s a mere accident that humans discovered a missing link from chimpanzees, and that if this particular species was alive today we’d likely have courts of law like they did in South Africa to determine whether or not they would pass as human. The inability to see these links as existing on a continuum (as opposed to a static binary) is what Dawkins calls the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind,” which he linked to the idea of “essentialism” in philosophy: “If you think that the essence of ‘rabbitness’ is prior to the existence of rabbits, evolution is not an idea that will spring to your mind, and you may resist it when someone else suggests it.” A series of examples of the discontinuous mind followed in order to highlight the ubiquitous nature of this phenomenon, such as how we measure poverty rates, which states (in the U.S.) are “red” or “blue,” to matters of classifying “race.” Dawkins’s point (and here he called out Plato’s philosophy for special condemnation) is that the discontinuous mind inhibits us from thinking about things in terms of intermediaries, be it the classification of people as “African Americans” with 1/8 African ancestry, or the need to obtain a verdict of 100% guilt amongst jurors in a court of law. It was at this point that Dawkins made his first analogy to religion with a slide featuring a naked Jain monk (he did not distinguish the man as a Digambara or “Sky Clad” monk) juxtaposed with a protest sign against Islam (see below) right.

These two examples, in case it isn’t ‘healing crystal’ clear, are meant to refute the claim that “all religions are equally bad.” Some religions, like Islam, are clearly worse. Dawkins then got personal by recounting an incident for which he drew a fair bit of flack, where he argued that all pedophilia is not equally bad, noting a spectrum from inappropriate touching to “repeated violent buggery.” His own experience as a young boy with the former was meant to highlight this point through a personal experience that, while uncomfortable at the time, did not lead to lasting trauma as in the case of the latter. In conclusion, Dawkins urged atheists to become activists against the influence of “idiotic ideas” influencing public policy. This includes “Islam,” which he used interchangeably with “Islamism,” stressing that Islam is a major problem, must be condemned, and that this has nothing to do with condemning every Muslim. To confuse the two is yet another example of the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.

Julien Musolino is a professor at Rutgers University in the Departments of Psychology and the Center for Cognitive Science. He is the author of The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs. In his talk “The Soul Fallacy,” which was one of the more academic presentations at the conference, Musolino connected prevailing notions of crime and punishment in the U.S. with Cartesian mind-body dualism, which he claimed led to a libertarian view of free will that lends credence to the the idea of the soul as an “uncaused cause.” All of this was meant to highlight the fallacy of a retributivist approach to criminal justice. Advances in neuroscience (especially the use of MRIs) can get us closer to discovering how people’s intentions are largely deterministic (i.e., determined by our brain chemistry and therefore contrary to free will [see Sam Harris (2012) for a similar position in popular atheist circles]). For Musolino, all the things that people thought that the soul was responsible for can be understood in terms of neurological brain patterns, which he sees an important step forward (i.e., rejecting the soul) if we are to have a more just society.

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actor, New York Times bestselling author, and former co-host of Dinner and a Movie on TBS. In her talk “Wherever You Go, There They Are,” which she retitled for the conference, “Slouching Toward Secular Humanism,” Gurwitch provided a testimonial on her movement toward (you guessed it) secular humanism. Gurwitch recounted her early atheist identity growing up as a secular Jew in Miami, which became complicated when her parents lost all of their money in the 1980s, creating a crisis that she styled as a ripe moment for religious conversion. After moving to NYC to do avant-garde theatre, she got into “new age spirituality,” especially Nichiren Buddhism. She later found a guru who told her that their (unnamed) group were a reincarnated family from the bloodline of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, and that they had been chosen to usher in the new age on earth. Gurwitch attributed her success in the acting word during this time to what she called the “magical thinking” of putting positive thoughts out into the universe in order to get a reward (here she drew an analogy to The Secret by Rhonda Byrne). A turning point came for her a number of years back during a new age retreat in California, where the general “over the top” nature of it all—“We go into a sweat lodge and call out ‘all my relations’ in Lakota” … “Mellow calls the rocks grandpas, coz rocks are our grandpas … I’m sitting a few feet away from the sacred fire …” This tipping point lead Gurwitch back into the humanist fold, where she now speaks professionally (e.g., see her commentary on NPR) and has written several books on her experiences (e.g., You Say Tomato, I Say Shut-Up: A Love Story). The take away from all her searching, and what she hoped to impart to her fellow humanists, is the importance of community and “collective effervescence” (which she attributed to Victor Turner). Citing such atheist communities as Sunday Assembly, and The Godless Revival, Gurwitch encouraged her fellow atheists to form humanist families and to use their platforms to help others, such as refugees, which will not only forge community but also help to change negative perceptions of atheists in the United States and around the world.

Kelly Carlin is the daughter of famed comedian George Carlin, writer, and host of the Sirus/XM radio program, The Kelly Carlin Show. She addressed her talk “Living the Human-Scaled Life” to her fellow atheists, secular humanists, and curious heathens, and began by noting how she never thought of herself as an atheist growing up as her father called himself agnostic and didn’t like to identify with any “strong group” (“one that prints t-shirts” as GC put it). While Carlin now calls herself an atheist, which she views as a political act, she also identifies as a Buddhist–“the meditation kind, not chanting”–after spending many years of her life struggling for a “place to land.” For this and other reasons, she viewed this event as “more than a conference [but] a chance to become part of a family.” Carlin also stressed that she sees her role not so much as providing humour (no doubt a high bar to meet in that family), but in helping people to embrace vulnerability through mindfulness meditation in order “to feel connected to others, nature, and the awe of being in the moment.”

She then asked for the audience’s trust to let her conduct a little experiment in walking meditation (see image right). While encouraging people to leave the room if they didn’t feel comfortable (Dawkins made a beeline for the door), Carlin instructed those who had chosen to stay to walk around the room in a zigzagging pattern, stop on her call, find a person next to them, and stare into their eyes while she led a guided meditation as a point for reflection. Everyone in the room did this with 5 separate people. On one of these encounters she asked participants to take the other person’s hand, stare into their eyes, and reflect on the billions of years that it took for this to become a hand in its present form; to reflect on the (and I’m paraphrasing) wonder of evolution that came together to produce this unique hand; and to reflect, finally, on the other person’s death as well as on one’s own. In the Q&A Carlin stressed that this was not magical thinking, but mindfulness, and a direct confrontation with human suffering: “If you can sit with it all and confront the enormity of it … something shifts and changes.” She also confessed that she couldn’t quite let go of the idea of “this soul thing,” though she prefers the terms “the glorious broken human” or “the space between us.”

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, whose books include Why Evolution is True, and Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. In his talk, “Ways of Knowing: Science versus Everything Else,” Coyne opened by telling his audience that he was going to practice “scientism” and make the claim that science is the only way of knowing the universe. Here he posed two common counterpoints to this claim: 1) “What about the humanities, art, music, math, philosophy, literature, personal feelings, and religion?” and 2) “Are there ‘Big Questions’ that science can’t answer but religion can?” Tied to these questions are three ways in which science and religion are incompatible. The first incompatibility is methodological, which Coyne summarized with the following maxim: “In science, faith is a vice. In religion, faith is a virtue.” The second incompatibility is that of “outcomes.”

Here he drew on a “Phylogeny of World Religions” (see slide) and argued that religions contradict each other on multiple fronts, which proves that religion cannot give us any truths about the universe. Science, by contrast, shows little deviation. The third incompatibility is that of philosophy or “truth.” Literary truth, for example, means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and is about feeling. It does not tell us anything we don’t already know about the cosmos. “Does Moby Dick really tell us anything about whaling? Moby Dick is fiction and it doesn’t engage in proof about the universe.” Citing his on-going debate with Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker about the role of literature, music, and art, Coyne wants to draw a strict boundary between ways of knowing vs. ways of feeling. He also stated that he rejects the claims of cultural anthropology (while admitting that this will rankle some people in the audience), calling it an “ideology,” and differentiating it from anthropology, archaeology, history, and economics.

Turning to the “Why” question, Coyne touched on the problems of morality and suffering where, in the case of the latter, he argued that suffering is a by-product of the laws of nature and that emotional pain helps us to solve problems and improve our lives. In conclusion, Coyne stressed that these ideas were provisional, and that he is still working them through.


Matt Dillahunty is a former Southern Baptist “Fundamentalist Christian” turned atheist, who was president of the Atheist Community of Austin from 2006-2013, and former host of the Internet radio show Non Prophets Radio. Dillahunty was a last minute add-on to the line up of speakers, and performed what he called a “Magic Show and Mind Reading,” calling on volunteers to demonstrate how intuition, probability, and sleight of hand works (though true to magician’s form, he did not reveal the trick) by guessing their choice of cards, objects, and celebrities in an “illusionist” type fashion. He noted that he was thinking of moving to Canada since the election of Trump, but ultimately won’t as he wants to stay and fix things in his own country.

Laurence Krauss is a physicist and popular atheist who, according to his own self-description, “joined the faculty at Arizona State University [in 2008] as Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and [is] Director of the University’s Origins Initiative.” His research focuses on “the beginning and end of the Universe” and he is the co-host of the documentary The Unbelievers (2013) with Richard Dawkins. Wearing his trademark Converse and Panama hat, the loudspeakers boomed with Sinatra’s “The Best is Yet to Come” prior to Krauss taking the stage. The theme of his talk was how science cuts through the illusion of reality, confronting humanity with the brute fact that the universe was not designed for us, that we are insignificant, and that we are here by accident. Drawing on Plato’s cave analogy, Krauss said that in the world of physics he deals with “the cave” every day, and that one of the purposes of science is to make us uncomfortable, which is how we keep learning—when two disparate things are seen to be different manifestations of the same thing, that’s when progress happens in science. Krauss traced a trajectory of thinkers, from Michael Faraday and James C. Maxwell, to Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Enrico Fermi, in order to demonstrate that science (and scientific revolutions) do not, unlike religion, do away with the ideas that came before them.

Krauss went on the discuss his own involvement working on the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, which he argued is an example of humanity at its best since it means we’re pushing forward on knowledge about the universe, despite the cost and the uncertainty of it all. Bringing contemporary politics into the mix, Krauss talked about the 20% budget cut under the Trump administration to the Department of Energy, along with the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. Concluding his talk, Krauss invoked Virgil’s The Aeneid, with the lines “release your fear,” arguing that it is science, literature, and art that make America great by allowing us to change ourselves for the better.

Stay tuned for part three!

Matt Sheedy holds a Ph.D in religious studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism and atheism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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