Devils in the City of Angels

I was planning to write up the first day of the Council for Secular Humanism conference, which I’m pleased to be attending in LA. But events (in the form of a late night, and Johnnie Walker) intervened. It was, however, a very good day. The afternoon session was particularly interesting, as Chris Mooney confirmed that he’s somewhat smug and superficial, Eugenie Scott showed how it’s possible to make accommodationist politics sound sensible (to audiences who aren’t paying attention), while PZ Myers and and Victor Stenger demonstrated saintly patience in the face of serious provocation. Those of you (South Africans) planning to be awake at 05h30 tomorrow can watch what’s sure to be one of the highlights live, when Sam Harris and Robert Wright debate where secular folk should stand on questions of religion and belief.

After the afternoon session we lurked in a courtyard for 90 minutes or so, before the “Gala Banquet”. The food was pretty good for a buffet, although no beverages were served (besides water and coffee). What was impressive, though, was the spectacle of Americans eating. I’ve seen it plenty of times, but it never ceases to impress. Food is there to be dominated, as if it might leap off the plate and escape if you don’t show it who’s boss. At my table of 8, three of the contestants wielded their cutlery as if engaged in mortal combat – forks and knives held in fists, and food hacked at in savage intent, before being deposited in mid-sentence mouths. All very strange, and slightly unsettling. Another thing (that two of them did) was to place their side-plates containing dessert onto their dinner plates, with food remnants in place, before re-commencing battle.

Once this refuelling was complete, Dawkins took the stage to accept an award (a $45 000 contribution to the Dawkins Foundation), and gave a wonderful speech. Funny, eloquent and insightful – will post a link when it hits the intertubes.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.