The Astral Log

12 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 4, Pt. 2: Hector Avalos, Scott Carnegie, and Stephanie Zvan

Filed under: Canada, River City Reason Fest — Andrew T. @ 23:59

Hector Avalos was a former fundie preacher and faith healer who eventually became both an atheist and a Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University...quite a massive change! Religious violence was the focus of a book Avalos had authored, and it was the focus of his dialogue at the conference.

What exactly constitutes religious violence is the subject of debate: Seemingly everyone from Sam Harris to Barack Obama has made statements claiming that this or that atrocity isn't "truly" religious. Hector's take was somewhat different: Monotheism was inherently violent since it created "insiders" and "outsiders" intrinsically, and it created scarce resources. Water and food are scarce resources; so are political power, information, and gender equality; and so is access to divine communication. As disputes break out over that and the "insiders" and "outsiders" war, religious violence is the result.

Next to appear was Scott Carnegie, who provided an insightful and entertaining presentation on Mormonism and his conversion both to and away from that particular sect.

Nothing is all good or all bad, and Scott gave a fair overview of some of the characteristics that drew him from a Catholic upbringing to the LDS in a positive way: The church felt inclusive and supportive. There was no hell; just three heavens and "outer darkness." Baptism was at age 8 instead of birth, which seemed fairer and more consensual. Through proxy baptism, people could be moved from spiritual prison to paradise. And it was a modern-day revelation...something that seemed "real" and exciting!

Of course, this was followed by the flip side of the coin. Alcohol was banned in the Word of Wisdom. Non-members were banned from temple weddings. Black people were denied the priesthood until 1978. Joseph Smith was reprehensible at coercing people, and he sent men away so that he could marry their wives. The Pearl of Great Price contained the "Book of Abraham;" an Egyptian papyrus that Smith was able to divinely "translate" by himself in an era when hieroglyphs were an unknown language. The papyrus was lost in 1871; then found again in 1966...and if the translations matched, it would have been proof that the LDS Church was prophetic and correct! But needless to say, they didn't and it wasn't.

As a liberal Mormon, Scott didn't care for short hair, white shirts, and ties; he didn't believe the prophet was infallible, and his relationship with the church became increasingly strained. If Joseph Smith made up the Book of Abraham (and made up the "connection" between American Indians and Jerusalem that he espoused; easily disproved by DNA), it logically followed that he made up the Book of Mormon too...and he made up everything. Proposition 8...the Mormon-backed ploy that caused 52% of California voters to revoke their gay and lesbian neighbors of equal civil rights...was the straw that prompted him to burn bridges and officially resign from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Scott Carnegie is an atheist activist today.

The last highlight was Stephanie Zvan, a Minnesotan who blogs at Almost Diamonds. Her spiel was a rich and layered lesson on community-building.

Stephanie began by pointing out parallels between atheist communities and fandom communities: Different people get together because of shared interests in a common topic; whether it's dressing up as comic and movie characters or changing the world through changing minds. But, there are challenges. It's a tough balancing act to tear down barriers of language or tradition and welcome new members without also alienating old ones. Specialization is what gives groups reasons for existence, but over-specialization will kill a group.

What will help a group grow and thrive? Family matters, for one: Have split conferences and things for kids to do beyond being babysat. Give people more roles. Design events around marginalized groups: The more folks you have from an underrepresented group, the more you will get. Lower the cost of participating, through affiliations or subsidization. Have a vision for the community. And, keep others from tearing the community down through abuse and intimidation: Have a harassment policy. Keep records. When assholes undermine how communities function together by their repeated bad behavior, remove the assholes.

Altogether, it was a productive lesson with food for thought. Many of the tips would have been applicable to any group looking for improvements...including a certain license plate collecting club that I'm a part of.

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©2015-16 Andrew Turnbull