March 2014

Darwin Day 2014

I had a great time at our seventh Darwin Day celebration. As I often say, it is always enjoyable to meet with like-minded people to advocate for science or to promote other worthy causes. When you combine good food, like-minded people and an excellent presentation, you’re bound to have a good time.

Darwin Day Cake

But before I say much more about the presentation, I need to thank everyone who helped to make the evening a success. First, thanks to Martha Hayden for helping me coordinate our co-hosting and to all the Utah Friends of Paleontology for their help. And a big thanks to Utah State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland for the excellent presentation. Also, thanks to Bob and Julie Mayhew, John Barnes, Leona Blackbird for coming early and staying late to help with setup and cleanup. Additionally I would like to thank all the Humanists of Utah board members for their efforts and support for this event.

Skulls from UFOP
UFOP Display

We began our Darwin Day celebration with a reception with plenty of good finger foods and display to view. As we were running a little late, so I decided to forgo much of my opening remarks. Not a big deal. But in doing so I left out mentioning the evening’s theme, “deep Time.” It has been bugging me that I forgot. So I will mention it now in preface to what I have to say about Jim’s presentation.

I have noticed that sometimes when discussing the age of fossils or the age of the earth or the universe people will express in various ways that millions or billions of years are hard to imagine or fathom. But I like to say that deep time isn’t hard to imagine, it is essential. It is essential to an understanding of the evolution of the universe, our planet and the evolution of life. None of it makes any sense without lots of time.

James I Kirkland, PhD
Utah State Paleontologist

Jim’s presentation gave us a detailed overview of the Dinosaur discoveries in Utah and the history of those discoveries. The Mesozoic rocks of Utah contain some of the best and most numerous fossils in the world. Through the years these continuous discoveries have amassed a huge assemblage of dinosaur species fossils. This growing assemblage fills in a lot of what some religious individuals would call the “gaps.”

Jim Kirkland and Robert Lane

One of the aspects that is amazing to me about these animals Jim spoke about is there size, as some are as big as several elephants. To contemplate the environments and an expanse of time some 160 million years where these numerous species evolved, thrived and then became extinct is truly amazing.

As we put Darwin Day away until time to plan for next year we can keep in mind the theme for next year. I have suggested that we make astronomy the focus in some way. Perhaps evolution on the big scale, the universe itself.

Now that spring is around the corner, Humanists of Utah is preparing to have our kiosk present at festivals and street fairs as much as possible. We have registered for the Pride Festival in June which will be the largest event we will have our kiosk at this summer. Plus there are a couple of street festivals (9th and 9th and an avenues fair) we will be registering for this spring and summer.

Another sizeable event coming up is the American Atheist convention in April. This is also a good opportunity for Humanists of Utah to get out in the public. I am also working with American Humanists Association to co-sponsor tabling at the convention with HoU, Utah Coalition of Reason and other free thought groups.

Finally, remember that March 13th, our general meeting, will feature Humanist of Utah member and former board member Earl Wunderli. Earl will speak about his recently published book titled An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself. It promises to be quite interesting, especially to those of us who grew up in the LDS church.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU

Cosmos Reboot

(Excerpted from an article written by Kimberly Winston that was published on RNS, Religion News Service on March 5, 2104.)

Carl Sagan

Many people are hoping that “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” lives up to the original series created by astronomer Carl Sagan 35 years ago. But no one will watch the program, airing Sunday (March 9) on Fox, with greater anticipation than nonbelievers—humanists, atheists, agnostics, and other “nones.” Among this group, many credit Sagan and the original Cosmos with instilling in them skepticism of the supernatural and a sense of wonder about the universe. Both, they say, encouraged their rejection of institutional religion.

Humanists are especially eager. They claim Sagan as their own, and see in the “Cosmos” series—a multipart journey to the outer reaches of our universe — and in his dozen books a vibrant strain of their own philosophy. That philosophy favors reason over religion and holds human beings as both good and responsible for the Earth’s plight.

“In my eyes, Carl Sagan represents the ‘yes’ and possibility of humanism rather than just the ‘no’ and the disagreement,” said Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and a blogger for Religion News Service. “For that reason I think he occupies a special place among humanists and atheists.” In fact, Sagan—who died of a blood disorder in 1996 at age 62—is so important to Stedman, 26, he has the scientist’s words inked on his right arm. “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love,” it says.

Some groups have named awards for Sagan, while others celebrate “Carl Sagan Day” on his Nov. 9 birthday. Sunday Assembly, a growing movement of nonbelievers, has begun weekly meetings with his quotes. Some nonbelieving parents have named their children after him. “His idea of the immensity of the universe and how small we are just impressed me so much as a teenager,” said Amanda Knief, managing director for American Atheists and owner of a 3-year-old Yorkie named Sagan. “It really led me to look beyond the religion I was raised in and shaped my humanism.”

Sagan never publicly proclaimed himself a humanist or even an atheist—though he enthusiastically accepted the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year Award in 1981, the year after the original “Cosmos” broadcast. Instead, he called himself an agnostic because, he said, he could not disprove the existence of God. Astronomer Carl Sagan called himself an agnostic because, he said, he could not disprove the existence of God.

How did this man—a scientist by training, a teacher by profession and a poet at heart—bring so many people to nontheism, a position he never publicly professed? “Here’s where humanism comes in, because it’s not as though he was some hard-core atheist activist,” said Paul Fidalgo, communications director for the Center for Inquiry who first encountered Sagan through his parents. “He showed us that to marvel at life on our planet was to cherish it and work to preserve it. For that, we have to reject bad, old modes of thinking, look at the world as it really is rather than how we’d like to believe it is, and tackle the crises that face us.”

One reason Sagan was such a great science communicator—the Library of Congress named the print version of Cosmos among the most influential American books—is that unlike many of today’s prominent atheists, he never denigrated religion or its adherents, his fans say. That’s something Owen Gingerich, a Christian, Sagan friend and consultant on the original Cosmos, learned firsthand.

“He never criticized me for being a believer or disparaged my belief system,” Gingerich said. In private, “Carl could get off on a tangent about how much trouble religious beliefs had caused, but he was certainly no Richard Dawkins.” In fact, it was Sagan’s embrace of the language of religion in Cosmos that many nonbelievers think made it as moving and memorable as it was. In the first episode, Sagan calls the cosmos “the grandest of mysteries.” Later he intones: “The cosmos is all that ever is or ever was or ever will be.”

“Sagan took scientific facts and wove a kind of spiritual connection between us and the cosmos,” said Daniel Fincke, a philosopher and blogger who first encountered Sagan through the 1997 film version of his book “Contact.” “He has this notion that we are made of the stars, they are not separate from us, we come from them and we’ll return to them. It is a way to re-appropriate people’s feelings of religious wonder and connect them to our scientific origins.”

For Sagan, that connection was personal. “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality,” he wrote. “When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”

Not all nonbelievers are comfortable with that assessment, but James Croft, training to become a nontheistic Ethical Culture minister, agreed. He has given talks on Sagan’s science as a source of spirituality at Carl Sagan Day celebrations.

“Sagan juxtaposes the best of the religious and scientific world views,” Croft said. “It is his generosity of spirit and his willingness to understand what is appealing in religion while rejecting its claims that have most affected me.”