The Course of Reason

Darwin Week 2014: Science, Skepticism, and Embracing the Uncomfortable

March 31, 2014

Maybe it’s just me, but tabling for events in secularism has always been…a little tense. You stand there next to your poster-board, flyers in hand, and a (forced) smile as hordes of passersby try their darndest to avoid making eye contact as they race by. Sometimes I wonder if we ought to replace the usual props with lollipops and teddy-bears (“Despair Bears” have a nice ring to them) to ease the tension. Then I remind myself that promoting skepticism has always been an uneasy task, because skepticism is relentless and scrutinizing by nature. That’s what Darwin Week at UNI is all about. It’s a healthy concoction of science and inquiry with a pinch of discomfort that gives it a kick. In this regard, the 2014 lineup of speakers didn’t disappoint.

Take for instance a talk entitled “Science and Religion: Conflict or Compatibility?” given by Dr. Steve O’Kane and Dr. Jerry Soneson. Both speakers were in agreement that religious literalism and science were in sharp opposition, but disagreed on whether or not religion and science could ever be reconciled. O’Kane’s speech left the viewer thinking of the two philosophies as in two separate battle encampments, but Soneson suggested that a reformed approach to religion could offer certain benefits to science. Overall, it was a very cordial experience, but I would characterize the Q&A session afterward as significantly less so. The immediate barrage of questions and comments were very confrontational. So much so that I couldn’t help but look around to see if other people were as taken back as I was. 

Even the more impactful of speeches were still discomforting. Nate Phelps’s “Leaving Hate Behind” was no exception. Phelps is the son of the late Fred Phelps, former pastor to the Westboro Baptist Church, and in his talk he detailed life growing up in the WBC and life after he left the church behind. His story was truly inspiring, but what stuck with you afterward were the descriptions of the extreme punishments he and his family had to endure growing up in the Phelps’ household. 

Detailing just one of several harsh punishments, Nate says the following:

“But his so called discipline didn’t end with our mother. My father was a strong believer in “spare the rod, spoil the child”… Dissatisfied with the frayed barber strap that he used for years, he decided to upgrade to a mattock handle…When he used that he would swing it like a baseball bat and hit the kids from behind the knees to the lower back. Generally the beating would be 8 to hits and the skin would get swollen and hot. [After] screaming at the kids about what they did wrong, he would then go back to beating them and that stretched skin would split and bleed clear fluid.” 

More unsettling still was the lingering psychological damage imparted onto Nate from the hateful ideology and verbal abuse of his father. Years of hate speech and the fear of an eternity in hell had been ingrained in Nate’s mind which caused distress in a number of areas in his life. It wasn’t until years later when he began to heal, which was in part aided by his beginning to question church authority.

On a lighter note, the final speech of Darwin Week: “Darwinian Evolution and the Female Orgasm: Puzzles and Explanations” by Dr. Elizabeth Lloyd was superb. Dr. Lloyd gave an excellent argument for the byproduct account of female orgasm, all the while delivering sex jokes that made your inner tween squeal in delight. Despite it being a very enjoyable speech, her message was still discomforting in a subtle way: Lloyd demonstrated that scientists who were proponents of an adaptive function of female orgasm were inferring from bad evidence to promote their view. Prejudice in this way serves as an uncomfortable reminder that personal bias can be corrupting even in that methodology that skeptics so often champion. 

Now some of you are undoubtedly wondering why I chose to highlight the uncomfortable nature of Darwin Week. “What kind shameless plug is this?” you might say. Well, in my opinion, it is precisely the unsettling part of skeptic events that make them fun and worth attending. Skeptic events aren’t there to hold your hand and make you feel good. They’re there to challenge everything you think you know, and raise more questions. Therefore, I say, the more uncomfortable the better.



About the Author: Ryan Lode

Ryan Lode's photo
Ryan Lode is a biology major and active member of University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers & Inquirers, Tri-Beta Biological Honor Society, and Northern Iowa Democrats. After graduation, he plans on pursuing a graduate degree in virology.


#1 Jill C. (Guest) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 at 10:55pm

Good for you for not letting that discomfort get the best of you. "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do." -- Eleanor Roosevelt




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