Episode 61: Star Trek’s Humanism (and Lack Thereof), Part 1

Episode 61: Star Trek’s Humanism (and Lack Thereof), Part 1

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Greg Christensen, Richelle McCullough, Robert Shindler, and Gem Newman discuss Star Trek’s long history of humanism, and some of the places the franchise has stumbled along the way.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

News Items: An Open Letter to Exodus International’s Super-remorseful Alan Chambers | Vaccine Against HPV Has Cut Infections In Teenage Girls | ‘Racist’ Licence Plates Recalled in New Brunswick | Licence Plate Standards (Manitoba, Alberta, New Brunswick)

Episodes Discussed: The Original Series (Who Mourns for Adonais?) | Star Trek V: The Final Frontier | The Next Generation (The Child)

Other Links: Riker Sits Down | ‘Star Trek’ Franchise an Homage to Humanist Philosophy | Gene Roddenberry | Michael Piller | CBS/Paramount and Michael Piller’s “Fade In” | D.C. Fontana | The “Mind Rape” Trope

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Episode 56: The “Atheist Agenda”

Episode 56: The “Atheist Agenda”

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Donna Harris is joined by Richelle McCullough, Robert Shindler, Greg Christensen, and Jeffrey Olsson to discuss the so-called “Atheist Agenda” and how it relates to what atheists actually want.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: @SkepticAction on Twitter | HAAM Meeting on May 11th | Drinking Skeptically on May 14th | The Atheist Agenda on Conservapedia | What is the “atheist agenda”? | Atheist Door Knockers | Studying science doesn’t make you an atheist… but studying literature does!

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Episode 28: Hidden Meanings in Music, Part 2

Episode 28: Hidden Meanings in Music, Part 2

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Leslie Saunders presents the long awaited second part of her discussion with Paul Brown, Robert Shindler, and Greg Christensen about hidden meanings in music. Also on this episode, Jeff Olsson interviews David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association and author of Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Backmasking | PMRC Senate Hearing (Background, Transcript) | Nonbeliever Nation

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Correction: While the Internet was not invented in the nineties (as mentioned in this episode) but in fact had early nodes dating back to 1969, the World Wide Web was invented (more or less) in the early nineties. As the Web eclipsed Usenet and other early Internet services, the Internet rose rapidly in popularity during this time.

Episode 17: Leaving Faith Behind, Part 2

Episode 17: Leaving Faith Behind, Part 2

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, host Jeffrey Olsson continues his discussion with Ali Ashtari (a former Shia Muslim), Scott Carnegie (a former Mormon), and Greg Christensen (who dabbled in Christianity), talking about how leaving their faiths behind has changed their lives for the better.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Third Annual Cross Canada Skeptical Smackdown | Quebec Kids Cannot Opt Out of Religion Course (Redux) | Expelled Exposed | NOVA | Neil deGrasse Tyson | The Atheist Experience | Timetree | Shia Islam | Anglicanism | Mormonism | Leaving Faith Behind (Blog, Book)

Also on this episode, the second instalment of Where’s My Jetpack? This week Old Man Newman asks, “Where’s my pet dinosaur?”

Where’s My Jetpack? Links: Jack Horner: How to Hatch a Dinosaur (Wired, TED Talk, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe) | Woolly Mammoth to be Cloned (Discovery News, BBC, Discoblog) | Dinosaur Taxonomy

Programming Note: In the coming weeks we start releasing an episode every second Sunday. We are making the switch to a bi-weekly release model to allow our team more time to research topics and edit podcasts. This will ultimately serve to provide you, our listeners, with a higher quality listening experience!

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Episode 16: Leaving Faith Behind, Part 1

Episode 16: Leaving Faith Behind, Part 1

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, host Jeffrey Olsson sits down with Ali Ashtari (a former Shia Muslim), Scott Carnegie (a former Mormon), and Greg Christensen (a former Protestant Christian) to discuss their journeys away from faith.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Third Annual Cross Canada Skeptical Smackdown | Mormon Baptism Targets Anne Frank – Again | Afganistan Koran Protests Claim More Lives | All Dead Mormons Are Now Gay | Shia Islam | Anglicanism | Mormonism

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TEDxManitoba Favourites

All of the talks from TEDxManitoba have been uploaded and are now available for your viewing pleasure!

First, the obligatory self-promotion. As the Sirius Cybernetics Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser might put it: Share and enjoy!

Remember: The “Like” button is your friend! The full text (along with references and annotations) can be found here!

Now that that’s done with, here are a few of my favourite TEDxManitoba talks, in no particular order. The event itself was amazing, the speakers were awesome, and I got useful ideas out of every single talk, whether I agreed with the core premise or not. So watch them all!

But if you don’t have time to watch them all, at least watch these ones!

Robert J. Sawyer: To Live Forever – or Die Trying

TJ Dawe: An Experiment in Collective Intelligence

Kale Bonham: Bridging Cultures Through Community Provoked Art

Matt Henderson: Teaching Ourselves to Last Forever

Hazel Borys: Confessions of a Former Sprawl Addict

Brad Tyler-West: Opposites Distract

Episode 11: Alternative Marriage

Episode 11: Alternative Marriage

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, host Laura Targownik discusses some secular and skeptical perspectives on non-traditional marriage with Ashlyn Noble, Jeff Olsson, and Anlina Sheng.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Winnipeg Sun “Editorial: Rainbow conniption over ‘queer’ pledge” | Winnipeg Free Press “Three’s Company: Polyamory in Winnipeg” | Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha | The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Fundamentalism in Canada by Marci McDonald | Leaving Faith Behind by Jeffery Olsson

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Episode 5: Skepticism and Humanism

Episode 5: Skepticism and Humanism

In this episode of Life, the Universe, & Everything Else, Scott, Gem, Laura, and Jeff discuss what it means to be a skeptic and a humanist, and why organsations promoting critical thinking and science are necessary.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: The Humanist Association of Manitoba | The Winnipeg Skeptics | Cell Phones Still Not Linked to Brain Cancer (Study) | TEDxManitoba | Scam Everlasting | Top Ten Reasons Why Being a Humanist Is Fulfilling | Leaving Faith Behind

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Humanists, Skeptics “Attack” Youth for Christ

Jeff Olsson and I were interviewed yesterday by Michael Gryboski of the Christian Post (the most Christian of posts) for a piece he was writing on the subject of the Youth for Christ recreational centre that is preparing to open in downtown Winnipeg.

The article, entitled “Humanists, Skeptics Criticize New Youth For Christ Rec Center”, has now gone live. This is what Jeff and I had to say:

Youth For Christ will soon be opening up a rec center in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which has stirred attacks from residents via the Winnipeg Free Press. Complaints ranged from a preference for a secular facility directed towards helping disadvantaged youth to concerns over it being built via government assistance.

“I agree with the numerous criticisms being leveled at Mayor Sam Katz and Youth For Christ,” said Jeffrey Olsson of the Humanist Association of Manitoba to CP. “This Youth for Christ center is yet another example of government intrusion into private citizens religious lives because they have no other recreation center to use.”

Olsson compared the YFC facility to that of past efforts by Canadian Christian organizations to evangelize aboriginal children, which he said resulted in thousands of disaffected youth.

Meanwhile, Gem Newman of Winnipeg Skeptics said that while he did not oppose YFC establishing their center, he was concerned about the government involvement.

“Instead of providing the youth in the area with a place they can feel comfortable, whatever their religious or philosophical inclination, the mayor has instead effectively given Youth For Christ a megaphone for their religious message,” said Newman.

Notwithstanding the fact that the author decided to characterise legitimate criticism as an “attack”, I think that the article was fairly balanced; certainly more than I expected. Jeff and I were asked to respond to criticisms levelled against the centre in this Winnipeg Free Press article. Although we were only given a few sentences, I don’t think that our positions were misrepresented in any way. All the same, some of our more cogent criticisms were not included in the final article. For that reason, I’ll include the text of the interview here.

Do you agree with the concerns and criticisms published in the Winnipeg paper?

Jeff: I agree with the numerous criticisms being leveled at Mayor Sam Katz and Youth For Christ. I will explain below in detail.

Gem: I do. I’m always wary when a sectarian religious organisation is given government funds, because this results in undue entanglement between the religious goals of the organisation and the (presumably) secular goals of the government. It can result in the appearance of government endorsement of the religious or philosophical perspective of the organisation.

Do you know of any connections the rec center has to the state? That is to say, was it built with tax dollars, jointly operated by city council, etc.?

Jeff: The Youth for Christ center was built with federal and city money … and was partially backed by private donations directly to the religious organization. It is completely controlled by YFC, with no city or federal direction being given for day to day operations.

Gem: To my knowledge, YFC has received [much] of its roughly $13.5 million budget from the government.

During the interview Jeff and I ballparked the amount of government funds that YFC received, but as we were on a very tight schedule I didn’t have the opportunity to look it up until afterward. While it’s tough to get an exact number, it appears that the centre received $3.2 million in federal funds and between $3.2 and $4.2 million in municipal funds, for a total of $6.2–7.2 million. The total cost of the project has been variously quoted as $9.6 million, $11.7 million, and $13.2 million. (Source, source, source. If any readers have access to more precise information on this subject, feel free to leave links in the comments.)

Specific details aside, it seems that the project is majority funded by federal and municipal tax dollars.

Do you believe that groups like Youth for Christ have good intentions? Do you believe they do much good for the communities they serve in?

Jeff: Of course YFC has good intentions. The central premise of their mission is that by bringing christ into the lives of youth, they will help to mentor and apostle youth and help them, to become better members of society. There is simply no evidence that this is true. There is evidence that drawing children further away from their parents, and removing them for their traditional cultural beliefs does damage as it divides the house hold on religious lines. Canadians have plenty of experience with this after the tragic residential schools program that forced 150,000 aboriginal youth into christian residential schools. This resulted in thousands of disaffected citizens, thousands of broken homes and a federal class action law suit against the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and United churches, and the federal government costing taxpayers billions of dollars. The law suit was won and payments are currently being made to tens of thousands of former students. Point Douglas residents have politely raised this issue at public hearings for the YFC center, only to be dismissed. Government intrusion into the religious lives of Canadians is just not unacceptable. This Youth for Christ center is yet another example of government intrusion into private citizens religious lives because they have no other recreation center to use. They could have built and funded a small recreation center and everyone would have been ecstatic.

Gem: The youth in this area are at serious risk. While I find the idea of preaching to those who are vulnerable in this way to be distasteful, I recognise the rights of a religious institution to attempt to sway those to whom it gives aid toward its philosophical perspective. What I find most troubling, however, is that the government is effectively amplifying Youth for Christ’s message. If the government had spent its [money] to build its own recreational centre, youth in the area would have two places they could go: a small sectarian centre and a large secular one. Instead, they have only a large sectarian centre, funded mostly by the government. Instead of providing the youth in the area with a place they can feel comfortable, whatever their religious or philosophical inclination, the mayor has instead effectively given Youth for Christ a megaphone for their religious message.

Jeff: A bit of history: Until YFC arrived, there was no recreation complex in Point Douglas, the poorest area of Winnipeg and this YFC center was put forth as an alternative by our Mayor, Sam Katz and federal officials. Area residents had asked government for funding for a small a recreation/sports centre with paid staff and they instead got the YFC center. Community leaders had also asked for more money for youth programs to be directed to aboriginal youth and monies for those programs are being diverted for the YFC center. The youth drop in centers I refer to were not religious in nature, anyone would feel comfortable there.

A large number of the residents in this area are aboriginal and follow traditional aboriginal teachings rather than Christianity. Winnipeg has a population of 675,000 people of which 72,000 are aboriginal. Point Douglas has the highest percentage of aboriginal people in all of Winnipeg and is one of the largest urban gatherings of aboriginal people in North America. Aboriginal religious leaders for the areas are very concerned that this center will have an undue religious influence on their youth, leading them away from traditional beliefs. Parents are worried that YFC’s large multimedia stage will be used to send an overtly Christian message to any child who would attend a function at the center.

Meanwhile funding for aboriginal youth drop in centers has been dropped to at least two small organizations since the announcement for the new YFC center was made causing the, to close. Concerns have also been raised at other YFC locations in Winnipeg because the organization evangelizes aggressively, stopping sports events for a paid volunteer to lead “prayer time” and deliver a Christian message. Some youth who are not christian are pressured to participate in the ritual or be ostracized, where they have to leave while the message is being delivered. There is no simple way to opt out of the religious instruction. As president of the Humanist Association of Manitoba I have heard these complaints personally and I take such matters very seriously, especially when tax dollars are being used as a basis for funding.

Finally, there is the issue of tax dollars being used to Fund an evangelistic religious organization. This is a concern from a civil liberties perspective. Canada, is by definition multicultural we are not a “melting pot” as you are in the US.

Gem: I’m glad that the youth in the area have some place to go, but I think that government money is best spent on secular approaches to problems to avoid undue entanglement between religion and government. When I donate money to a charitable organisation, I want to know that it is going toward helping people in empirically demonstrable ways, rather than toward indoctrination. Canada already has a troubled history when it comes to religiously motivated mistreatment of aboriginal youth, and I’d hate to think that we haven’t learned from our mistakes.

So, what do you think? Were Jeff and I totally off base? We’re interested in hearing your thoughts about the article, what we had to say, and about the youth centre itself.


Edit: I amended the second paragraph above to include the title of the CP article, as several commenters had assumed (because of the title of this post) that the title of the CP article was “Humanists, Skeptics Attack New Youth For Christ Rec Center”. I used the word “attack” in scare quotes here because it had been used in the CP article to describe legitimate criticism of the youth centre. Sorry for the confusion!

Escape to Reality

The Humanist Association of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Skeptics were joint sponsors of an informational booth at the Red River Exhibition that ran 17–26 June 2011. Surrounded as we were by booths from the Gideons, the Winnipeg League for Life, the Church of Scientology, and folks hawking knock-off Power Balance wristbands, we called the booth “Escape to Reality”.

I spent a fair portion of my free time over the last week staffing the booth (along with the indefatigable and demonstrably more dedicated Donna Harris and others), and generally had a lot of fun. We even got a shout-out from PZ, which is always appreciated. We had many enjoyable conversations with believers and skeptics of all stripes.

Donna, Laura, and I chatted at length with a few creationists, who were apparently offended that one of our signs put “Young Earth Creationism” in the same evidential category as “The Easter Bunny”. When pressed, they could provide no positive evidence for their position, and seemed to forget several of their own talking points. Apparently there are no beneficial mutations, evolution cannot add information to the genome, and Darwinism predicts that species will just get stronger, smarter, and better over time, while we’re clearly just getting sicker and sicker.

When I tried to explain that evolution only predicts increasing adaptation to the species’ environment, I was smugly informed that I did not understand evolution. When I tried to explain precisely how mutations can add “information” in a genetic sequence, bringing up insertions, deletions, transpositions, and point mutations, I was met with blank stares. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote out some codons (ATG CTG TAG…), changing or crossing out letters to illustrate the replication or replacement of one or more nucleotides.

“I’m going to stop you there,” one of the creationists said. “What are all those letters supposed to mean?”

Sorry, I thought, my mistake. I assumed that because you so arrogantly asserted that mutations were incapable of adding new information to a genome, you were at least passingly familiar with what “information” means in the context of genetics. I decided to cut my losses and move on.

There were times that they stumbled over their own talking points, which I found amusing. For example, they brought up Mount St. Helens several times, but couldn’t seem to remember why it was so important for their case. I reminded them that Steven Austin had rock from a new lava flow at Mount St. Helens dated, and the potassium-argon dating showed the rock to be hundreds of thousands of years old—unfortunately, it is well established that Austin (either knowingly or in ignorance) used the incorrect radiometric dating methods. The various types of radiometric dating are accurate for varying (and overlapping) ranges of time. They are validated not only against each other, but also by other dating methods, such as dendrochronology, which uses tree rings.

Wait a second, it says here that God created humanity, not Darwin...

Of course, the creationists weren’t the only people we met whose beliefs took a sharp right turn when confronted with reality. A young woman who seemed very interested in our booth asked me, “Do you guys believe in energy?” “Sure!” I said. “Energy is the capacity of a system to perform work.” She seemed a little nonplussed by this. “No,” she said. “How we’re all connected by energy. It’s all about science. There’s this movie you should see…” “Ah!” I said. “You’re talking about What the Bleep Do We Know?.” And then I told her, as gently as I could, precisely what I thought of that particular quantum fantasy film.

We spent much of our time at the Ex promoting SkeptiCamp Winnipeg, which is coming up on September 17th at Aqua Books, and the MASH Film Festival, on August 14th at the Park Theatre. Both events garnered a lot of interest.

We also did a few demonstrations. I’m told that the fellow hawking “Energy Balance” bracelets ($30 rubber bands—with “ions”!) threatened to call security on Ashlyn as she calmly explained to his marks how all of his tricks could easily be faked. Hypothetically, of course. She wasn’t calling him a fraud. It’s all about the consumer protection, folks! (Richard Saunders explains the tricks here.)

On Thursday night, Scott and I went to get “stress tests” at the Dianetics booth run by the Church of Scientology. There, we were asked personal questions while we held tin cans connected to a volt meter. I found that if you squeezed the cans, the needle would jump, which led to some amusing shenanigans.

Pictured: Science.

There, we learned that L. Ron Hubbard had apparently been both a renowned physicist and a research psychologist. “Through his research,” I was told, “he discovered that humans are spiritual beings.” Fascinating! We were told that Scientologists were first responders in Haiti and Japan. “Oh,” I said, “that’s great! How did they help?” I was informed that these “first responders” were trained in Touch Assist, a form of energy healing.

The recruiters told Scott and I that one of the greatest boons that Dianetics has to offer is increased mental discipline and help to those who suffer from mental illness. “You know how Einstein said that you only use this much of your brain?” my recruiter said, holding her hands about an inch apart. “Well, with Dianetics…” She spread her arms wide, presumably indicating that Dianetics would allow me to meet my intellectual potential.

“So Dianetics is about mental health,” I said slowly. “That’s exactly right,” she told me.

“Oh,” I said. “Like psychiatry.”

She stared at me as though I’d slapped her. Recovering quickly, she launched into a conspiracy-mongering diatribe about drug dependency and the Big Psychiatry smear campaign against the Church of Scientology. Scientologist successfully trolled. I’m such a bastard.

My favourite quotation of the night: “Dianetics is a science. It’s like gravity. You can’t disprove it.” Fact.

A big thank-you to everyone who helped out with planning and staffing the booth, and to those who stopped by for a chat!