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Posted by on Dec 8, 2013 in Atheism, Secularism, Skepticism | 0 comments

Thinking Things Through (conference report)

FSI_confThe Free Society Institute (FSI) hopes to avoid the pitfalls of restrictive labels such as “atheist”, “freethinker”, “skeptic” and the like. Not only can those labels be politically problematic, in that they might cause otherwise sympathetic people to ignore what you might say, even before hearing it, but they are also ideologically loaded – people already have a sense of what they mean, and we don’t necessarily mean the same things by them.

Instead, the value proposition of the FSI is captured in the phrase “Thinking Things Through”, where the commitment to doing so will be expressed in thinking not only about religion (as with many atheist and agnostic organisations), but also about science, and social justice, and any other aspect of our lives that might benefit from discarding lazy stereotypes and instead, taking the time to think things (including our own beliefs) through.

This theme is what we intended to emphasise at the FSI’s third national conference (the previous two were held in 2009 and 2010, in Cape Town), held with the support of the International Ethical and Humanist Union (IHEU). This conference also served in part as a re-launch of the FSI, with the value proposition described above.

Our members are of course free to describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or some related term, but the FSI hopes to be an umbrella body for a broad coalition of people who care mostly for minimising the damage we can do to ourselves and society at large through believing things on the basis of poor evidence, whatever the content of those beliefs happens to be.

In short, the FSI is a South African non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting free speech, free thought and scientific reasoning. We are advocates for the values of secular humanism. The FSI hopes to help create a community, both virtual and physical, that collaborates in developing and distributing the knowledge and skills required to foster a free society.

A free society involves not only freedom from false beliefs, but also an environment in which it is easier to recognise and discard false beliefs, thanks to education, the free flow of information, the promotion of scientific literacy, and where possible, eliminating barriers to human flourishing (from the mundane examples such as misleading advertising, to the severe, such as oppressive laws).

2013 Conference: Thinking Things Through
The conference hoped to highlight the value that can be found in careful consideration of issues, and to highlight the costs associated with ignorance, for example in basic reasoning skills. In pursuit of this goal, we made sure to include presentations that spoke more broadly about these and related issues, rather than focusing on hackneyed debates regarding religion and its proper place in society. In fact, the only talk that dealt explicitly with religion was perhaps far more sympathetic to religion than many attendees would have preferred.

The speakers, in order of appearance

Conrad Koch (and occasionally, Chester Missing) was our MC for the day. Koch is a comedian and an anthropologist, while Missing is the star of the Emmy-nominated show, Late Night News, and the world’s most revolutionary puppet. The combination of these speakers and talents provided not only for raucous laughter, but also inspired some serious self-reflection among those present.

It was Koch (or Missing, I can’t recall) who asked some of the more pertinent questions of the day, including why so many of us in the audience were white, male, or both – and why secular humanism seemed to have such a demographically unrepresentative face in a country such as South Africa. International readers will know that this is a problem for all such organisations in just about every part of the world, but unless we’re made to think about it, our chances of remedying it are non-existent.

You can find Missing on Twitter at

Cecilia Haak was the opening speaker, and offered a presentation titled “The Square Kilometre Array Telescope: Looking back in time”. Haak is eminently qualified to speak on this topic, given that she is currently an infrastructure engineer on the SKA project, working with the team that is building MeerKAT, precursor to the SKA, and the SKA radio telescope — which will be the world’s biggest. Haak was one of the contributors to the submission that secured South Africa the bulk of the hosting rights for the SKA.

Haak explained the significance and scope of the SKA project to a fascinated audience, describing what it is we hope the project will reveal to us in time. The implications for scientific research in South Africa were discussed in a very engaged question and answer session, where it became clear that the audience – even though arguably more informed on these matters than most – might have agreed with the sentiment that we could do with more (and, better) scientific journalism in South Africa. Later in the day, we would hear a presentation from Sarah Wild on exactly this issue.

You can find Haak on Twitter at

David Spurrett, Professor of Philosophy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, then presented a talk titled “Showing your working: Science, and the collaborative nature of good reasoning”. Spurrett is an active researcher in cognitive science (especially addiction and decision making), philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of science.

Spurrett described the method and value of scientific reasoning, emphasising that “it’s like common sense, but better”. In a highly engaging presentation, he used notable figures from the philosophy of science to make it clear how good scientific reasoning was within the average person’s ambit, and to illustrate various principles and strategies for improving our reasoning.

You can find Spurrett on Twitter at

Eusebius McKaiser, author, TV show host, and currently the host of Power Talk on PowerFM 98.7 was our next speaker. McKaiser is a widely published social commentator and political analyst, who previously studied law and philosophy at both Rhodes and Oxford. McKaiser’s talk was titled “The power of sloppy thinking: turns out Dawkins isn’t an atheist!”

The talk focused on the distinction between the labels “atheist” and “agnostic”, using Dawkins and “The God Delusion” as a springboard into that topic, rather than explicitly focusing on Dawkins himself. McKaiser’s ambition was to inspire the assembled atheists, in particular, to reflect on whether they were guilty of a similar sort of thoughtlessness as they sometimes accuse theists of, in claiming certainty in respect of things they could not be certain of.

You can find McKaiser on Twitter at

Sarah Wild, Science Editor at the Mail & Guardian, spoke next on “Spreading bad science”. The Mail & Guardian appointed Wild as Science Editor in 2013, making her one of only two dedicated science editors in the country (and lamentably, one of only 6 dedicated science journalists). Wild is the 2013 overall winner for the Pan-African Siemens Profile Awards for excellence in science journalism, and also the author of a book titled “Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa’s Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars.”

Given her position at the Mail & Guardian, Wild was perfectly situated to inform this very receptive audience of the difficulties inherent in balancing what the public seem interested in (rather than “the public interest”) with comprehensive and informative communication about scientific research. As she pointed out, any political development always stands a good chance of bumping a science story out of that week’s newspaper, even though the political story might have far more fleeting significance.

You can find Wild on Twitter at

Gareth Cliff, morning host on 5FM, judge on IdolsSA, City Press columnist, and the author of “Gareth Cliff on Everything” spoke to us next on “Sacred or profane: religion and the politics of offence”. Cliff is one of a small group of South Africans who reliably gets people talking, whether or not they agree with what he’s saying, and his presentation at Thinking Things Through was no exception.

Cliff’s presentation was very personal and honest, discussing his relationship with his radio listeners, the regulatory authorities, and generally, the sensitivities of audiences and how much they should be respected. Cliff did make it clear while the truth should never be the handmaiden of political correctness, there was nevertheless a strategic and emotional dimension to communication that could not be ignored.

You can find Cliff on Twitter at

Jacques Rousseau, founder and chairperson of the Free Society Institute, gave the last presentation of the day, titled “Towards a Free Society: What do we do next?”. Rousseau lectures critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. In 2009, he founded the FSI to promote secular humanism and scientific reasoning in South Africa.

Rousseau’s presentation sought to make the audience think about the large overlap in motivations and desires between religious and non-religious folk, and to ask them to consider whether we spend enough time thinking about similarities, rather than differences. Rousseau argued that the caricatured view many atheists seem to hold regarding religious folk was getting in the way of our recognising that it’s not usually religion that’s the problem, but rather poverty, in both an economic and an educational sense.

You can find Rousseau on Twitter at

The day’s proceedings concluded with a panel discussion involving all the speakers except for Sarah Wild, who unfortunately had to leave before then. Barry Bateman, Pretoria correspondent for Eyewitness News, hosted the panel discussion, and the conversations he elicited from the speakers offered a very suitable end to an intellectually stimulating day.

You can find Bateman on Twitter at

All the presentations were recorded, and will be uploaded to YouTube once editing has been completed and permissions obtained from the speakers. To be informed as to when the videos are released, keep an eye on the FSI homepage and/or the Twitter feed of the FSI Chairperson, @JacquesR

Many thanks all the speakers, and to Anneleigh Jacobsen, Greg Andrews, @Dr_Rousseau and @Jonathan_Witt for some invaluable help behind the scenes. Thanks also to the @IHEU, for their financial support. If you attended, thanks for your support too!