A nifty bit of engineering on the ISS

Destin from SmarterEveryDay analyzes a cool bit of engineering on the International Space Station: the system whereby the cupola windows, through which everything is photographed and filmed, are opened and closed. It turns out that the shutters are actually activated through two holes in the shuttle skin itself, sealed only with two small rubber-O rings! What would happen if one of them failed? The question is answered in the following video. Note that 6 minutes in, our Official Website Astronaut™, Samantha Cristoforetti, demonstrates the windows on the Station, and gives Destin’s site a plug.

I’m sure we’ll all miss AstroSam when she returns to Earth in early June (she was supposed to be back May 13, but a transport vehicle crash delayed her return).

h/t: David

Youngstown State University joins the no-free-speech Hall of Shame

Once again an American university (Youngstown State University in Pennsylvania Ohio) appears to have suppressed free speech on its campus because the speech constituted unpopular “hate speech”. And this time it’s the college administration, not the students, who are responsible, though the students participated in the “banning,” which involved removing posters deemed offensive.

What happened is that a group of students (apparently not a homophobic organization; read the fine print), put up these posters around the campus:


This is, of course, a no-no: a violation of p.c. values. While I’m a supporter of LGBT causes (see previous post), there is no justification for banning, much less removing, posters like this. However, the university enlisted the help of students to take them down. Here, as published in the Washington Post, are two letters from University administrators vouching for this:

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 1.09.41 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 1.10.23 PM

A student government representative said this, quoted in another Post piece:

It has been brought to the attention of several SGA Executive Board members that “Straight Pride” posters have been hung across campus, seemingly in response to LGBTQIA efforts to promote diversity and foster a culture of acceptance on campus. Though SGA respects the free speech of all YSU students, these postings were not authorized, contained vulgar language, and, unfortunately, miss the point of minority activism.

Now if these posters were posted in places where such speech isn’t permitted, or were “unauthorized” (and all posters must be), then it would be kosher to remove them. See constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh’s analysis here, which includes this:

Where the posters were placed, then, turns out to be a pretty important question. If they were just taken down from places that weren’t open for general posting, then that would be constitutionally permissible; again, the government doesn’t have to open up its building walls for public speech.

But if the posters were taken down even from generally open bulletin boards, without any viewpoint-neutral policy justifying the removal, then that would violate the First Amendment. And if students are disciplined because of the message on the sign (as opposed to because of some posting policy violation, where the policy is enforced in a viewpoint-neutral way), that too would violate the First Amendment.

But the two emails from administrators don’t say anything about authorization or illegal placement, and do you really think that if “unauthorized” posters promoting gay rights were put up, the university would order them taken down? I doubt it. Behind the removal are the sentiments given by the administators, and also espoused by the student government statement:

When individuals belong to dominant societal cohorts (Caucasian, male, heterosexual, etc.) it is very easy to state “We have nothing against your sexual orientation” and to claim that efforts to raise awareness are “annoying.” For minorities who every day face discrimination and marginalization, such efforts are necessary – without zeal and persistence, sociology teaches that minority concerns very easily go by the wayside. Thus, dismissing the efforts of LGBTQIA students to push for equitable treatment as unnecessary is dangerous because it catalyzes discrimination, whether meant to do so or not.

In other words, this kind of speech is dangerous. It cannot stand, for it abrogates Youngstown State’s policy of providing a “caring, inclusive, supportive community.”  That puts that University on a road that leads to the banning of any statement perceived to be “non-inclusive”.

So, unless those posters were treated differently from how pro-gay-rights posters would be handled in the same situation, their removal is simply censorship. I wouldn’t put my money on the “equal treatment” option.

h/t: Ken

One of those days

Today we have a report from On the Spot by our Official Ireland Correspondent, writing about the gay marriage referendum, which just won approval in that Catholic country.

by Grania Spingies

Every once in a while you have a day that you will remember for the rest of your life. Sometimes it’s because of something personal and private, sometimes it’s because you were there when history was made. Either way, if you are lucky it will be a good memory, a day you remember with smiles and happiness. Ireland has had one of those days today. Today Ireland has voted for same-sex marriage with a resounding YES!

Actually, I stand corrected.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is an Irish Labour Party politician, and Minister of State for New Communities, Culture and Equality.

Ireland has a relatively unique situation in which anything requiring a change to Irish law must be ratified by the electorate in a referendum. Although polls have shown for some time that the majority were in favor of same-sex marriage, there were concerns that the younger generations might not turn up to vote.

As it turns out, those worries were misplaced. Around 50,000 Irish citizens returned to Ireland just to cast their vote yesterday. (There is no absentee voting on referenda.) This is no small number in a country whose total population, including non-citizens, is only 6.4 million. Their stories can be seen on the Twitter hashtag #HomeToVote


And then there was this one, a little note found in a Dublin ballot box.

Although the results are not completely finalised yet, even the No side (whose rhetoric was littered with dishonest diatribes about child safety) has conceded defeat.

God has shown his approval by creating a double rainbow in the sky over the capital.

Those of you who used to be Catholic will have a good old giggle at this.

For those of you who were never Catholic, those are magic tokens that grant invisibility, full restoration and invulnerability on the bearer. Okay, maybe the bit about invisibility isn’t true.

Today was history in the making, and anyone who did participate will look back on this as a day when things got better and the world became a better place, at least in a small corner of it. That it happened in a country where homosexuality was illegal until 1993 and the population is 87% Catholic is no small thing. Sometimes change can happen, and it can happen fast. Today, everybody wins. #MarRef

Caturday felid trifecta: Cats wanting in, a cat realizing that it’s a cat, and a kitten climbs owner to drink milk from bottle

We have three items today, coming from readers in Brazil, Europe, and Japan!

Reader Ronaldo, who obviously speaks Portuguese, sent me this video, translating the title (which, in English, is the title given above), and adding this:

People are speaking in (Brazilian) Portuguese; female voices say, in a loose translation, “how cute”, “I didn’t know cats did that”,and “no one would believe it”, among other things. Male staff comments at some point that the kitten has already emptied the bottle, and that he is a fast drinker…


Reader Aneris sent this video of the precise moment at which a cat realizes it’s a cat. It’s truly an instant of existential angst:


And finally, from Japan, the land of kawaii nekos, we hear from reader Andrea, who first found this site in Japanese, and then in English, where it’s called “Let me in right meow!” There are 25 pictures of pathetic moggies (and a few d*gs and chickens) begging to be let inside, but I’ll show just a few of my favorites.


This is my favorite:animals-asking-to-go-inside-23__605

let-me-in-right-meow-25 animals-asking-to-go-inside-8__605





Would you let this cat in?


“No true Christian. . . “: I get email

Here is just one of the several emails I’ve received in the last few days from people who claim that I’m misunderstanding religion. (Surprise!) What the writers invariably mean is that “you’re misunderstanding my religion.” And that is compounded, in the case below, by the person misunderstanding my book, for he seems not to have read it. I’ve eliminated the name and location of the writer.

Dear Jerry,

I just spent a couple hours looking over your latest book “Faith vs. Fact”.  Your position has a couple enormous flaws.

The main flaw is that you set up a false dichotomy between science and what could be called “biblical inerrantism”.  You spend a lot of time showing why the Adam and Eve story cannot be true, and put forward other arguments supporting evolution (as you did more thoroughly in your well-argued “Why Evolution is True”).

The problem with this approach is that not every Christian buys into the argument that the Bible is inerrant with every word literally true.  Granted, significant numbers of Christians do, but significant numbers (myself included) do not.  Even C.S. Lewis was not in the inerrant camp and did not take the Genesis creation account literally; he referred to it as “mythopoetic”, to the book of Job as an example of “wisdom literature”, and in general took the Bible for what it really is; a collection of books containing some history, some mythopoetic elements, some wisdom literature, etc.

This shows that the person really hasn’t read my book, for I deal in depth with how theologians try to turn the Genesis story into allegory to comport with the scientific fact that humanity never went through a bottleneck of only two people (or, in the case of Noah’s Ark, eight). Further, I am not trying to address the views of every Christian, but simply of many Christians who do take the Genesis story literally, or try to interpret it metaphorically. (After all, the historicity of Adam and Eve as the sole ancestors of all of us is the official position of the Catholic Church, one laid out by Pius XII in Humani Generis. Remember too that 42% of all Americans, not just Christians, are young-earth creationists. Further, as a recent poll of Americans shows (and I quote from the summary):

“The next most popular statement was that ‘Adam and Eve, the first humans according to the Bible, were real, historical people.’ Fifty-six percent of respondents affirmed this statement. But when they were pressed, only 44 percent said they were absolutely or very certain about it. A majority became a minority.” 

A 44% minority is not that small! At any rate, my book goes into detail about the degree to which Americans are literalistic, and by no means claims that all of us are Biblical literalists. As I say, “Some believers are literalists about everything, but every believer is a literalist about something.”

The problem comes when believers have to choose which parts of scripture are to be taken literally, and which aren’t, for there are no guidelines for this form of cherry-picking. Also, when trying to derive a metaphorical meaning from scripture whose literalism has been rejected, theologians often run into trouble, for there are no guidelines there, either. (Really, what does the story of Job mean?) But you can read more about that in FvF; here’s I’m just showing that the writer (who, according to Google, has actually criticized Sophisticated Theology™ in other places), hasn’t grasped my message.

The letter continues:

So when you have succeeded in debunking a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation account you have accurately critiqued the mistaken intellectual position of some believers but not disproven Christianity.

I’m not setting out to disprove every construal of Christianity. My goal was to show that the way many religious believers perceive and adjudicate truth about the cosmos is inimical to the way that scientists do it, even though both endeavors make claims about what’s real.

The letter continues, laying out what the writers says are the “true” doctrines of Christianity:

I would say the key doctrines Christianity rests upon are:
– The existence of the one God
– The divinity of Jesus Christ
– His resurrection from the dead
– The reality of a life after this one, in either heaven or hell
– The problem of sin and the possibility of forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ

If your reason for not believing Christianity is based on a false dichotomy between science and biblical inerrancy it is time to rethink it.

There is, of course, no evidence that any of those key doctrines are true; the writer must believe them because he was taught to believe them, or because he had a revelation that they are true.  And there’s no more evidence for those key doctrines than there is for the “key doctrines” of Islam or Hinduism. Really, how can people be so certain without evidence? How would this Christian show that Christianity is right and Islam wrong?

The letter continues, but I grow weary of “unpacking” it.

A couple further comments:

1) Original Sin – personally I don’t believe in original sin (or in a literal Adam), though obviously Paul did and many Christians do.  Our problem is not Adam’s sin, it is our own sins.

You quote former Pastor Mike Aus as saying without original sin the whole of Christianity falls apart but that is just one man’s opinion, and not a sound one.  Most Christians, whether they believe in original sin, realize that the problem is not Adam’s sin but our own.  A crucial doctrine without which Christianity falls apart would be the resurrection of Christ.

2)  I was raised in a Jewish household and did not come to belief in Christianity until I was around 40 years of age.  A Christian friend suggested I study the matter out and I spent several months reading Christian apologetics, listening to Christian radio, etc.  I figured the outcome would be that Christianity would be something that really could not be proven so I would just continue to go along my merry (or not-so-merry) way and not bother my head about Christianity any more, but, lo and behold, after a few months I concluded it was, in fact, true.

And here’s the kicker, one with which we’re familiar: you can’t really criticize Christianity unless you’ve “immersed yourself in the faith”, the best way being to become a Christian! But of course I have “read books” by people who are Christians, so I probably know a lot more about the tenets of Christianity, and how theologians defend them, than many garden-variety Christians. But look at the evidence that convinces our reader: books about people having gone to heaven! He says that “he doesn’t know what to make of these experiences,” but then why does he even mention those books?

I think that in order to test accurately whether Christianity is true you are going to have to spend some time immersing yourself in the faith; at least reading books by people who are Christians (and I do not mean people who are trying to prove creationism or biblical inerrancy).  As you are no doubt aware, there has been a spate of books recently by people who claim to have gone to heaven, and while I am suspicious of some of these (and one was recently retracted), some are pretty good accounts.  Christianity rests partly on a belief that miracles happen from time to time and, while I don’t really know what to make of these peoples’ heaven experiences, all of them received (after considerable suffering) some remarkable healing miracles by doctors identified by name and medical center in the books. I would recommend:

“To Heaven and Back” – Mary C. Neal
“Falling Into Heaven” – Mickey Robinson
“Flight to Heaven” – Dale Black
“Rush of Heaven” – Ema McKinley

In the last book, the author is healed miraculously in almost the last chapter after having falling out of her wheelchair and laying on the floor crying out to Jesus for 8 1/2 hours; prior to the healing she had to sit leaning over almost parallel to the floor for several years, doped up on huge doses of morphine.  Before and after pictures, names of doctors, etc. are included.

In these books, I skip all the intro biographical material and just start where the medical crisis begins.

On the subject of miracles, I recommend the recent book “Miracles” by Eric Metaxas.  Start in chapter 10 where case histories of miracles begin.

There were a lot of other statements made in your book with which I disagreed (and many I agreed with; I think the biblical inerrantist position is completely wrong), but space does not permit and you are a busy man.   I hope you get a chance to look at some of the books I recommended.


Oy, gewalt! Once again I’ve read the RONG BOOKS.  Has the writer immersed himself in the writings of Plantinga or Karen Armstrong? And has he read the Sophisticated Atheist books like Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason. I could just turn the writer’s arguments back on him by saying, “I think that in order to test accurately whether Christianity is true you are going to have to spend some time immersing yourself in atheism and religious criticism; at least reading books by people who are nonbelievers.”

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Today we have . . . . a passel of hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius, and remember that name). I’ve never seen so many! These photos are from reader Bob Lundgren:

The first four photos are of the Retima hippo pool in Serengeti National Park. It’s well populated as you can see in the first photo and typical of the several pools we saw. These pools are easily found since you can tell they are there long before you see them, particularly if you are down wind. I consider my life complete now that I’ve seen a hippo deposit a mass of semi liquid green poop on the head of his neighbor in the pool. The neighbor just yawned.


The second photo is a closeup of some hippos relaxing.


The third photo shows some impressive incisors. Wouldn’t want to cross paths with this guy. According to our guide you never want to find yourself in the bush between a hippo and his pool.


The fourth photo shows two hippos engaging in a mouthing behavior that was prevalent throughout the pool. I assume it’s some sort of ritualized dominance thing, but perhaps a reader knows. [JAC: the males slash each other with their teeth when dueling, and I have a pair of hippo boots—from legal culls to control overpopulation—in which the hide is deeply scarred from this kind of sparring.]


The fifth photo is a sunrise photo looking out across the Serengeti with a hippo heading back to a pool after a night of grazing.



And, of course, we can find a video of a hippo pooping on another hippo’s face in a pool. EVERYTHING is on YouTube. The defecatory event occurs about 1:25, and was filmed in Ngorongoro, Tanzania:

Hippos are famous for spraying their poop widely, and wagging their tails when they do so. I’m not sure why they do this; perhaps it’s a territory-marking behavior.  Perhaps some reader can enlighten us, but here’s another video of the behavior:

Saturday: Hili dialogue

It’s Memorial Weekend in America, with all U.S.ers getting a three-day weekend (that doesn’t apply, of course, to Professor Ceiling Cat, who has important Cat Stuff to do).  There is food to buy, talks to write (Vancouver, Toronto, and D.C., all different), wine to pick up, and H is for Hawk to read.  I am also receiving emails telling me that I have got religion all wrong in my new book, but those will go into the e-circular bin. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is blocking the entrance to the kitchen, probably so nobody can get noms without her knowing!

A: Hili, you are inconveniencing everybody.
Hili: Sorry for any inconvenience.


In Polish:
Ja: Hili, przeszkadzasz tu wszystkim.
Hili: Przepraszam za niedogodność.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on science/religion accommodationism

Apropos today’s discussion on reddit and my post about the conflict between science and religion, I came across this 11-minute discussion between Bill Moyers and Neil DeGrasse Tyson about that conflict. Tyson is far harder on religion, and far more insistent on the incompatibility between scientific and religious claims, than I’ve seen before. (Moyers clearly has a weakness for faith.) At 3:08, Tyson says he doesn’t think faith and science are reconcilable—that every effort to reconcile them has failed. He adds that he has “zero confidence” that anything fruitful will emerge from efforts to effect such a reconciliation.

My only disagreement with Tyson here is that he characterizes all creationists as “fundamentalists”, and not “enlightened religious people.” He’s talking about a minimum of 42% of Americans, and a maximum of 73%. I doubt that even 40% of Americans would characterize themselves as fundamentalists! Also, Tyson seems overly concerned with creationism as the predominant danger of faith, while I see many other dangers—some far more harmful than simply teaching creationism in the science class. In general, though, Tyson presents strong opinions in an eloquent way. His discussion of god-of-the-gaps arguments starting at 8:30 is very good.

Maybe if I get a vest with stars on it I’ll be seen as less strident!

Lessons from a talk

Yesterday I gave a 45-minute talk on Faith versus Fact at the University Club of Chicago, a ritzy venue akin to a British club. (There is a library, places to eat, and hotel-like rooms for members and their guests.) To its credit, the Club sponsors occasional talks on books. The talk I gave was a modified version of my “science versus theology” lecture, and although I didn’t get through everything I wanted to say, I think the talk itself went fine, and the audience seemed absorbed.

But during  the long Q&A afterwards, I realized that I will face considerable pushback from believers about this book. I realized that already on some level, but this is the first time I’ve discussed the book in front of a general audience instead of an overtly secular one. The audience (about 50, I think—the small room was full) was older, with most of people looking prosperous (joining the club is costly, though there were a few nonmembers who bought tickets), with most dressed better than I! (I was wearing a jacket, but not a suit.)

What surprised me was the large number of religious believers in the audience, how vociferous they were, and how eager they were to challenge science by raising God-of-the gaps arguments. Let’s take the last issue first.

Here are the challenges I got from some in the audience, all of which involve the interstices of our scientific understanding as evidence for God.

I was told that scientists are unable to explain the origin of living creatures, and even if we could explain the origin of replicating molecules, we still can’t explain how they evolved into creatures that “eat and poop.”  In response, I briefly drew out a scenario in which chemical evolution of molecules could lead to primitive replicating molecules, and then to cells and multicellular organisms, and noted that thinking that early “organisms” were just like modern ones was a fallacy. My argument was that organisms and life are a more or less arbitrary point in the transition from chemical evolution to biological evolution. The gentleman who made this argument did not listen to this response, but kept repeating his argument with a triumphant tone. The argument “you can’t explain this to my satisfaction, ergo God,” is of course fallacious, but it disturbs me to see it so often.

The “fine tuning” of the universe can be explained only by God, one man told me. I explained several alternatives, including the multiverse theory, but that explanation was discarded because, my interlocutor said, that’s simply the tactic of atheistic physicists determined to keep God out of the picture. My response–that the multiverse idea grew out of already-existing views of physics, for which there is some evidence, was also ignored.  The questioner was apparently unacquainted with the various scientific explanations for fine-tuning, and I recommended that he read the posts and books of Sean Carroll.

I was told by another person that the Big Bang could not be explained by the laws of physics, and that God’s creation was a more reasonable explanation. My response was that we can understand how, at least in a quantum vacuum, a universe could originate, and whether a quantum vacuum was “nothing” is a judgement call. I was then accused of giving a fanciful explanation for which there were no data. My response—that we do see particles pop into and out of existence, something required for “a universe from nothing”—was ignored. (I also responded that the origin of God also needs an explanation.) There was a pattern developing: people had heard “scientific” evidence for God, and were determined to ignore more naturalistic explanations.

Finally, someone said that we have no evidence that humans descended from apes. I said that we have plenty of evidence for that from both the fossil record and genetics, and recommended that the questioner read the “human evolution” section of WEIT. Remember that these people are certainly not Biblical literalists.

I was surprised, then, to find well-off and educated folks not only ignoring my responses, but determined to believe that God can be found in the phenomena science can’t explain.  In other words, at least among those at my talk, god-of-the-gaps arguments were pervasive—and convincing. I had explained in my talk the number of Biblical claims that science had already disproved, and how evolution replaced creationism as the best explanation for plant and animal “design”, so people should have been aware of the dangers of using god-of-the-gaps arguments. My further attempt to explain how science has, one by one, closed these gaps, was simply ignored. I would liked to have used this lovely quote from Robert G. Ingersoll’s On the Gods and Other Essays:

“No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.”

At any rate, I learned—and you can learn this only by speaking to people who oppose your views—the tenacity with which believers cling to weak arguments, and their willingness to ignore scientific counterarguments. I also learned some people’s heavy reliance on empirical “evidence” for god as “that which lies beyond the present ken of science.” In other words, some believers do want empirical evidence for God. Of course I already knew all of this on some level already, but, as I say below, it’s another thing altogether to be accosted by a florid believer on the verge of yelling at me!

But I also learned more. Several people, including one gentleman who tried to completely monopolize the discussion, were clearly deeply offended by what I said, although I don’t think my talk was especially strident. This one fellow, who averred that he was a Christian, asked me if I had read the Bible. I think he was taken aback when I said “yes,” but he went on to say say that the story of Jesus in the Bible must have been true, because it reads as if it were true; and, after all, it must be true because five women reported seeing Jesus’s empty tomb, and that couldn’t be fiction because nobody would have believed women in that era. (You’ve probably heard this argument before, which I’ll call The Argument for God from Sexism). In addition, the gentleman said that thousands of people were reported to have seen Jesus after he was resurrected.

My response was that every scripture, including the Qur’an, seems real to its believers, and at any rate the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection and its sequelae are, as we know, conflicting among the Gospels. I mentioned that there is no extra-Biblical and independent evidence for the New Testament story, and yet there is for the Book of Mormon: an eyewitness statement at the beginning by eleven men who claimed they saw Joseph Smith’s golden plates. Why, I asked, was he not a Mormon or a Muslim? His response was simply, “I am a Christian.” That was a non-response and I’m afraid I got a little miffed at it, though I tried to be polite.

It was even worse because the man didn’t really have questions, but wanted simply to rant at me (the moderator didn’t stop it), and I didn’t have the presence of mind (I was trying to be polite) to simply cut him off. He continued to interrupt, not with questions but with statements, when I was trying to answer other people, and at that point I had to tell him to let those others have a chance to talk.

Needless to say, none of the vociferous Christians bought a book. (I have been accused of “preaching to the choir”, but I see that claim as unfair, for all books about nonbelief could be characterized the same way, and at any rate we know they are bought by people on the fence. Also, who buys books on religious studies except REAL members of the choir? I doubt that many nonbelievers buy books by Alvin Plantinga! If anybody’s books preach to the choir, it is those written by believers.)

But from all this I learned a lesson, which came to me when I was discussing this with a friend who has considerable experience dealing with petulant people. (That friend would be Dr. Alex Lickerman, the head of student health here at the University, a fantastic doctor, but also someone who has written, in his book The Undefeated Mind, about the psychological lessons to be drawn from dealing with distressed and troubled individuals–one every 20 minutes or so!)  Alex let me know that I simply must expect this kind of reaction when I make statements that pull the rug out from under people’s cherished beliefs. A talk like mine, which basically shows the intellectual vacuity of both regular belief and Sophisticated Theology™, is an attack not merely on irrationality, but on emotions that run deep, and on worldviews that have been held for a lifetime. The gentleman who responded with such ardor (and a few others who responded with clear but not as strong emotion), were, I think, motivated not by anger, but by fear—unconscious fear that they might be wrong.

My conclusion (which is really that of my confidante), is that I should not by any means dilute the strength of what I say, but that I should feel more empathy for people who oppose me, and perhaps start off any answer by saying that I understand where they’re coming from. I do feel that I am right in what I say, but I need to realize that, for many people, religion isn’t just a Sunday avocation, but something they’ve absorbed and made the core of their being. To a large part, it is their identity.

As I said, it’s one thing to absorb that lesson by reading about it, but it’s another to encounter that kind of fear and anger in person, and the latter lesson is much stronger. One thing I realize is that as I talk about the book, particularly in non-secular places, other people’s anger and fear will be activated, and I need to find ways to defuse it. I realize that I can’t dispel people’s belief in a one-hour lecture (though I can perhaps make fence-sitters question the validity of faith), but at least I can show them that I understand where they’re coming from. I have never been religious to that extent, so I will need to empathize with feelings that I’ve never felt, much less understood. That will be a good learning experience. And I will need to find ways to disarm people’s anger so that they can listen to what I have to say without their retreating to an obdurate defensiveness.

Further, I have to learn when a Q in the Q&A is nonproductive and overly long, and simply tell the person that we must move along because others have questions as well (as many did).

Most of all, I have to learn not to take this kind of opposition personally. Hitchens, of course, did quite well with strong opposition, because he simply didn’t care what others thought of him. Most people, including me, aren’t like Hitch. Although I will not allow ad hominem attacks on me, I need to absorb the idea that aggressive and sometimes offensive lines of questioning, and the refusal to listen to my answers, simply reflect on the background and religiosity of the questioner, and on the fact that I am undercutting a lifetime’s worth of unquestioned belief. As I’m a determinist, that lesson should be obvious.

This will not be easy for someone who’s never been a strong believer (I was mildly religious when younger), and who believes that the tenacity with which one holds one’s views should be proportional to the evidence supporting them. But it’s never bad to learn how to be more empathic toward one’s conspecifics!

My Five Books interview: recommendations for books dealing with the incompatibility of science and religion

When WEIT came out, I was interviewed by Sophie Roell of the “Five Books” section of The Browser.  Then was asked to choose five “popular” books about evolution that people could read if they wanted to learn about my branch of science. That interview (a transcription of a phone conversation, so the language is informal) is here.  It proved quite popular on the site, and I was pleased because Sophie is a terrific interviewer and asked good questions. (Unlike many interviewers, she actually read the books—all five of them—plus WEIT).

Now, six years on, Sophie interviewed me again on the occasion of the publication of FvF. This time I was asked to choose and discuss five books about the incompatibility of science and religion—books that could be useful to the average educated reader. I didn’t choose accommodationist books, for that wasn’t my brief.

This morning, our discussion, “Jerry Coyne on the incompatibility of religion and science” was published on Five Books. I won’t list the books here, or reprise what I said about them, for you can read that at the site.

Although this is a done deal, if you think I omitted relevant books (remember, I was limited to five), do place a comment below. And remember, this is the transcription of a phone call, so it’s a conversation and not perfectly publishable prose. (Were I Steve Pinker, they’d be equivalent!)



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