Archive for May, 2013

June is for conferences

Posted: May 31, 2020 in Uncategorized

I’m currently planning on going to two conferences in June. I’ll make a point of writing about both of them.

The first is FreeOK on June 22. FreeOK, a freethought conference, is going into its third year. Previously, it has been held in Tulsa, but it is moving to the Cox Convention Center in downtown OKC. Damion and Chas over at Oklahoma Atheists have been interviewing some of the conference speakers on their podcast in preparation. If the interviews are any indication, it should be both interesting and educational.

Some of the speakers include theoretical physicist and author Lawrence Krauss, Washington Post blogger and radio personality Jamila Bey, and author of Atheism for Dummies Dale McGowan.

The next weekend is SoonerCon in its 22nd iteration. SoonerCon is a I’ve never made it to SoonerCon before, despite having planned on it over the last several years. I’m going to make a point of it this time, if only so I can see Dr. Pants again.

So environmentalists have, for better or worse, chosen the TransCanada pipeline as a line in the tar sands over global climate change. It isn’t unusual to hear about someone camping out in a tree near Berkeley or some GMO crop being demolished in the UK, but you rarely hear about environmentalist activism in Oklahoma. You’re a lot more likely to hear from a Tea Partier parroting Inhofe.

That’s why I was so surprised to find out about a group of local environmentalists that are staging efforts to stop the construction of the pipeline here in Oklahoma.

TransCanada has actually filed a restraining order against the protestors after they shut down a work site.

I’m in the weird position of being a proponent of policies to address climate change, but thinking this particular issue is a bad one for the environmentalist community to hang its hat on, for both political and scientific reasons. Give me a cap and trade policy on CO2 emissions any day, but these protests remind me of the NIMBY rhetoric that kept us from fully embracing nuclear power in this country. I realize that dirty tar sand oil is pretty bad, but I just can’t get too upset about oil exploration. I live in a state that was built on it and is still relatively clean and safe.

My beef with environmentalist organizations is that they pick the wrong battles. Deal with climate change. Protect endangered species. But don’t act like a pipeline in Oklahoma is going to be a major environmental catastrophe here when it isn’t. The banner on the top of the Great Plains Tar Resistance website features images of prairie chickens, bison and prairie dogs, none of which are reasonably threatened by the construction of this pipeline. Prairie chickens are going extinct on their own, with or without the help of the oil and gas industry, thank you very much. Prairie dogs are not in danger in Oklahoma. The little shits do just fine here. Bison are basically non-existent. You can find a few roaming around the Wichita Mountains and on specialty ranches, but I don’t think the pipeline is going anywhere near Lawton.

It frustrates me, as someone who cares about the environment and believes the government should play a larger role in protecting it from corporations that would exploit it, when environmentalist groups use misleading or emotional appeals that borderline on lying.

That being said, Keith Kloor over at Discover sums up my feelings pretty well.

You’d think the conspiracy theory loons would know to leave something as tragic as a tornado ripping apart a suburb of a state capital alone. Alas.

There are two conspiracy theories going around regarding Moore right now.

The first, and most outrageous is that Obama caused it to happen. I’m not kidding. That’s something that the Alex Jones crowd has been pushing over the last week.

On May 21, Alex Jones talked on his radio show about how the government has ‘weather weapons’ and ‘can create and steer groups of tornadoes.’

Apparently, most popular version of the conspiracy theory is that the government has been using the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) to control the weather for decades. I actually remember this being referenced in an episode of the X-files back in the early 90s. HAARP is a physics research laboratory in Alaska. All of the weather control craziness was debunked long ago. Hell, it has an open house every summer.

Jones seemed to reference cloud seeding in his radio show, which is a form or crude weather control that is not considered particularly effective. If you really think, as Jones and others apparently do, that Obama or anyone else in government ordered the seeding of clouds over Oklahoma to cause tornadoes for the purpose of distracting from scandal, you’re an asshole.

The second conspiracy theory put forward is by another bastion of conservative rationality, Glenn Beck. In response to Rebecca Vitsum’s ‘I’m an atheist’ moment on CNN, Beck accused the network of seeking out and then planting her to push a secular agenda.


Things have been pretty hectic, but it is time to get back to discussing the separation of church and state panel. The second speaker was me. As I said before, I was pretty nervous.

The idea behind my talk was to take a philosophical and empirical look at separation of church and state in the United States, framed around the writings on economics of religion by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations. That may seem a little heady, but it really wasn’t.

I began by explaining that Smith predicted that participation in religious institutions would likely act like a market, with more government involvement driving down both pluralism and adherence. Examining the veracity of that prediction was the second half of my talk.

The first half began by explaining that Adam Smith was an Enlightenment thinker, out of the Scottish tradition. Smith and David Hume are the names everyone remembers today. Anyway, the United States is right out of Enlightenment thought. Our Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in our constitution are foundational documents that come right out of Enlightenment philosophical thinking.

It is important that Americans consider arguments that come out of Enlightenment principles when looking at an argument for or against something like separation of church and state. It is the philosophical underpinning for our entire political system. You are welcome to reject Enlightenment philosophy, but it takes away a lot of the ground justifying American institutions like the rule of law, separation of powers, and political rights. You might be able to find independent justifications for many parts of the American system of government, but it will be a more circuitous route.

I presented a contemporary approach to Enlightenment political thinking by John Rawls and his Theory of Justice. Rawls died in 2002, but in philosophy that is last week. Anyway, Rawls argued for a role of government as one that provides justice as fairness. Rawls argued that the only government that is valid is one that treats its citizens fairly. The best way to do that, he argued, is through a thought game he called the original position.

To understand this thought game, let’s run it with the question of how a government should approach religion. Picture yourself about to be pushed into a society, but you are going to pass through a veil of ignorance. You don’t know in advance what your religious views will be. You could be a Southern Baptist or a Mormon. An atheist or a Catholic. You could be a man or a woman, a child or an elderly person, rich or poor. You don’t know if you are going to have a religion that is the minority in your community or the majority.

Now, what kind of approach would you want the government of society to take toward religion? I posit that you’d want a society that didn’t play favorites, or pick winners and losers. You’d want a society that lets you practice your faith, without the fear of the government endorsing and promoting another.

The only society that can be ethical with regard to how it treats religion is one that doesn’t pick sides. The best way to do that is to have a strict separation of church and state, much like we have here in the United States. The United States is highly diverse religiously, both within and among sects. The only way it can be fair to everyone is to play favorites with no one.

The second part of my speech looked at the predictions made by Adam Smith. I looked at a variety of published studies on how government involvement in religion affects pluralism and religiosity in modern democratic societies. Smith predicted the more government involvement there was, the less religion a society would have. It turns out this is only half true.

The data does seem to show that religious pluralism is, at least in part, affected by government establishment of religion. This only makes sense. When the government puts forward a state religion, you do get less variety and amount of sects. If, like me, you are someone who believes that having a diverse religious community in a society is a good thing, then you oppose establishment. The second half of the prediction, that religiosity would be affected by government involvement in religion, doesn’t seem to show up in the data. The levels of religious belief seem to be fairly stable.

You get a lot of people talking about the rise of the ‘nones’ or non-affiliated in the United States over the last 15-20 years, but even there you are getting a lot of spiritual-but-not-religious respondents. Those people largely believe in the supernatural. They just don’t associate with a particular church or sect. Non-belief has been on the rise, but it is still only somewhere between about two to six percent, depending on how you ask the question.

There is something in the data that better accounts for religiosity, and that is personal insecurity. Multiple studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between how religious a community is, and how secure people feel, specifically economically secure. Off the top of my head, I can think of two (non-exhaustive) possible explanations for this data. It might be the case that people turn to religious institutions when they feel insecure. In doing so, they bolster their religious beliefs and respond better to surveys about religiosity. Another possible explanation is that appeals to the afterlife offer a balm to allay the psychological distress of dealing with personal insecurity. Religious belief acts as a coping mechanism, and as a modern democratic society becomes more economically equal, there is less need to cope.

I can’t say that I said all of this as clearly in my speech, but I think I managed to get the basic ideas across.

I accompanied a group to Shawnee on Saturday to help out with the recovery.

The tornado that hit Shawnee and Little Axe was not anywhere near the size of the one that hit Moore the next day, but that isn’t any consolation for the people whose homes it did destroy.

If you do end up going out and helping clean up, I encourage you to learn from the mistakes of myself and those around me.

1. Wear long sleeves. I wore jeans and work boots, but made the mistake of wearing short sleeves. I did a lot of heavy lifting, and all of the fiberglass and dust coated my arms. I was in quite a bit of pain, even after showering.

2. Drink lots of water. The last thing you want to do is get overheated in a place with no electricity.

3. Watch out for the kids. They tend to hang out below your line of sight, and they aren’t always very good at situational awareness.

4. Don’t work on a site without the permission of the landowner. It is really important that you not start tearing apart trees and making big piles of debris without clearing it with the owners. Everyone we talked to had already had an insurance adjuster out there, but it is better to be safe than make things more difficult for someone who is already dealing with so much.

Here are some of the pictures from Saturday.

Workers posing with land owner (in pink).

That is a mixture including the land owner, some of her friends, our group and members of a couple or church organizations.

Perfect Storm

You have to appreciate the irony of pulling a copy of Perfect Storm out of the rubble of a completely leveled home.


This shelter saved lives.

The roof was ripped off, and every window was broken out of the mobile home on this property.

That’s a trailer wrapped around a tree.

According to the neighbor, an elderly man was inside that mobile home when the tornado hit. He escaped with minor injuries.

Looking for pictures.

A good part of the day involved chainsaws and heavy lifting, but delicate work sifting through the rubble looking for pictures and important documents was just as important. That’s my wife, Amanda, with the rake.

A tote in a tree.

That night, Amanda and I went out on a date to dinner and a benefit concert at the 51st Speakeasy. The Lost Ogle presented a great show. I ran into some friends, met Sherree Chamberlain and her sweet family, and won a tattoo session in a raffle. It was a lot of fun, and the proceeds went to the Red Cross.

I also got to meet, if only for a second, one of my heroes Lauren Zuniga. She’s my favorite living poet.

That’s Josh Sallee’s blurry arm

I think I made a bit of an ass of myself when I asked Sherree Chamberlain if she is a Rilo Kiley fan, but she was gracious about it. I meant it as a compliment, but I don’t think it came across that way. She’s doing a benefit show on Wednesday with damn near every great artist or band in Oklahoma right now, including JD McPherson, Wanda Jackson, Skating Polly, Black Canyon, Parker Milsap and a ton of others. I’m seriously considering destroying my week by going, knowing full well that I’ll be completely miserable and useless at work the next day. It seems worth it, especially if there is the off chance of running into Sherree’s nice parents and husband again.

Most of you will have heard by now about the IRS scandal plaguing the Obama Administration. It turns out that, among the conservative groups targeted for extra scrutiny was Oklahoma City Patriots in Action, an organization that is either now defunct or has no discernible web presence.

Currently, there is no website with the name, but according to the Internet Wayback Machine, there was in the fall of 2011. I also found a listing for the group on a Tea Party Patriots site.

According to the Daily Mail, OKC-PIA’s application for 501-c4 status prompted a response that included 59 questions.

You can see the letter, here. They were asked to provide an massive amount of detailed information, and given on 30 days to comply. If they failed to comply, it would be seen as a desire to no longer apply.

I dislike the Tea Party crowd as much as the next liberal, but it wasn’t okay when the IRS under the Bush administration was targeting the NAACP and Greenpeace. It isn’t okay now.

I’ve written before about the students in UCO professor Caleb Lack’s class on critical thinking and pseudoscience. Another semester has ended, and there is another set of videos up by his students.