The recent ‘Celebration of Science and Reason’ with renowned intellectuals Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins proved why these events are a dire necessity in our polarised times.
Throngs of people clad in jackets and pop-culture t-shirts lined up outside the brightly lit Art Deco walls of the Eventim Apollo on Sunday night, to hear neuroscientist Sam Harris, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and presenter of The Atheist Experience Matt Dillahunty talk on the theme of ‘A Celebration of Science and Reason’. The hugely popular event was organised by Pangburn Philosophy, a Canadian company that advertises itself as a promoter of ‘art and science in the community’ and is headed by President and CEO Travis Pangburn. Throughout the night, Pangburn Philosophy staff were a friendly and helpful presence, and it was obvious that each one of them was passionate about providing inspiring experiences about science. The crowd of over 3000 people filled the Hammersmith theatre with an excitable atmosphere, truly worthy of a ‘celebration’ and many engaging conversations were had between strangers. The occasion had attracted several famous names: Hugh Laurie, Douglas Murray, and Maajid Nawaz were spotted in the crowds, as well as Matt Dillahunty himself. Having retrieved my tickets early, entering the hall was a smooth and easy experience, but a glance at Twitter indicated that this was not true for everyone. Nevertheless, social media was alive with enthusiasm about the night ahead.
Before the main event began, Tom Van Deursen, a Canadian singer accompanied by his guitar and a beautiful backdrop of landscape photos, emerged from the wings to perform what can only be described as an ‘ecological blues’ ballad about nature and non-renewable energy (as an ecologist, I approved). Shortly after, Dillahunty took the stage and opened with a few jokes before introducing Dawkins and Harris to loud applause. The event began in earnest, with Dillahunty leading the other two speakers through a variety of interesting topics: how do we identify real and reliable experts in the age of the internet opinion? How do we get out of our echo chambers and bubbles? How do we deal with de-platforming? There was discussion of Dawkins’ de-platforming at UC Berkeley in July, and Dawkins expressed his disappointment that people’s freedom to listen to different ideas was being suppressed in so many cases by censorship and intimidation. Harris mentioned that he had never experienced heckling during a talk, and was immediately rewarded by a chorus of sardonic boos, catcalls, and laughter from the audience. All three speakers acknowledged that intimidation was an effective tool in shutting down debate. There came an interesting discussion of what evidence would convince atheists of the existence of God (Dawkins: “If Jesus came down on a chariot from a cloud, I suppose that would do it for me”), and the talk finished on how evolutionary pressures might change over time, leading to a new meaning of ‘human being’ in the distant future. The different topics being discussed were excellent and riveting, however, due to the number of topics that were slated for exploration, discussions did not delve too deeply into the details. For those people familiar with the work of Harris, Dawkins, and Dillahunty, much of the discussion consisted of familiar ideas on old themes, laced enticingly with juicy titbits of new ideas.
The Q&A session that followed was full of interesting (if not always concise) questions: about Brexit, morality, the slippery slope of eating human roadkill, and the need for non-religious views of profundity. On this last question, Harris and Dawkins disagreed – Harris stating that atheism is not an answer to how to live a good life, Dawkins saying that the truth of a meaningless existence is bleak, but we should face it nobly. In answering one question, Harris mentioned Peter Singer’s ‘Drowning Child in the Pond’ thought experiment, placing himself in the shoes of the observing man who ignores the child. So, when someone inevitably tweets that Harris ignores dying children, readers can identify where that unfortunate soundbite came from.
After the event, VIP ticket-holders were directed upstairs into the green-lit bar area, forming a queue to have their books signed by Harris and Dawkins. As I moved upstairs, I overheard a group of (rightfully) angry people unable to access the book signing upstairs, apparently because they had not acquired the obligatory stamp on their wrist when they received their VIP tickets, which appears to have been an error with the Apollo’s staff and security. Because the signing at the Celebration was restricted to the hundred or so VIPs, it was a relaxed, chatty affair with eager fans clutching a mix of newly-bought works and tatty, dog-eared tomes. Harris and Dawkins signed books and shook hands, while Dillahunty and Travis Pangburn stood around talking to attendees. After all books were signed, Harris graciously took photos with a few hopeful stragglers (full disclosure: myself included). People disbanded; Sam Harris went downstairs to greet a few wheelchair-bound fans, Richard Dawkins departed, and Matt Dillahunty requested a photo of my science-themed skirt for his wife to view, and explained that she was a creative person, currently knitting hats for homeless people. The doors closed, and the night was over.
Overall, I loved this event, because I was there to meet people and hear interesting ideas, and I got exactly what I paid for. There were definitely hiccups that need to be dealt with better in future, and I’d advise anyone going to similar events to understand exactly what they’re paying for and arrive early. Pangburn Philosophy is a group with a core objective, to spread access to science and arts to communities around the world, and with their passion and team of hard workers, I believe they can do it. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Matt Dillahunty are all engaging, funny speakers who clearly care about their fans and are definitely worth meeting in person. So even with the slight problems of the night, I would definitely award the night with a 9/10, and would gladly empty my bank account to attend such a celebration of science, reason, rationality and civil discourse again.
The event was filmed and will be uploaded to youtube here.