I wrote this yesterday—Sunday afternoon, and decided to polish and post it today.
Today I fly back to Chicago to begin teaching evolution to undergraduates, and I’ll also begin writing the book that has immersed me so deeply in theology over the last year. This almost certainly means that I’ll have to reduce the volume of my posts here, but, as Maru says, “I do my best.”
During the trip I gave five talks and participated in one debate, and I’ll briefly recount what happened at each. The BBQ, fudz, architecture, and other important items, about which I have many photos, must await my return to Chicago, for I forgot to bring the cord that allows me to upload pictures from my camera.
First let me thank Matthew Cobb and Greg Mayer for filling in during my absence. They put up some great posts and, of course, they will be posting in the future even when I’m in attendance.
1. Saturday, Feb. 2, Peachtree City, Georgia (near Atlanta): I gave a talk on WEIT and other stuff sponsored by the Fayette Freethought Society, Peachtree City Humanists and the Spalding Freethought Society. The lecture was in Peachtree City, right outside Atlanta. It went well, I thought, as judged by the standing ovation (my first, though of course I was speaking to a friendly crowd). They sold books and I autographed them; many knew the secret word (“Henri”) and thereby procured a hand-drawn cat. One lovely little girl, probably about eight, also brought a book, and was very shy. Prompted by her mom, who told her, “say the word” after I autographed her book, the girl shyly whispered “On-ree.” I drew her a full cat instead of just a head, as usually I am constrained to draw just the cranium under the time pressure of signing autographs and chatting. I was gratified to see several children in attendance.
There was only one creationist there, who, as I recall, asked the usual question about the origin of life (the implication was that since biology can’t explain that yet, Jesus exists). As I mentioned before, he came up to me at the end of the book signing and asked me if I had heard of Pascal’s Wager. I answered in the affirmative, but for obvious reasons did not engage him. It’s impossible for me to force myself to believe in a god on the off chance that one exists. How can anyone force themselves to believe something when they do not—just on the promise of an improbable reward?
Thanks to Denise, Beverly, and others for their hospitality and support.
2. Monday, Feb. 4, Augusta, Georgia: I spoke in Augusta, Georgia on the topic “Science and religion are incompatible,” sponsored by the Central Savannah River Atheists and Agnostics. Thanks to the kindly head of the organization, Pradeep Satyaprakash, who went to a lot of trouble (including organizing security) for the event. (The security guy told me that he or someone like him was always in attendance when there was a lecture on evolution in Augusta.)
Since the audience was mostly skeptics, the questions were mostly friendly. There was one young-earth creationist who stood up and was upset that I had not shown his views the proper “respect” during my talk. I responded that while I afforded him respect as a human being (I should have added that I also respected his right to criticize me), I could not afford any respect to the ignorance he evinced by arguing that the Earth was 6,000 years old. He then raised the usual thermodynamic arguments against evolution, which I answered briefly.
There was also one critic who, because he was wearing a tallis (prayer shawl) under his coat, I took to be Jewish. Curiously, he wanted to follow up on an offhand remark I made about Jesus: that I wasn’t sure that there was a real Jesus around whom the myths accreted. He started rambling on about Josephus’s “historical” references to Jesus. Fortunately, I had just read Richard Carrier’s paper on Josephus in the Journal of Early Christian Studies, and said those interpolations were likely forged. My security guard later told me that the man was clearly drunk, as he was unsteady on his feet and swaying back and forth as he talked to me (he had walked down right in front of the stage).
After the talk, Pradeep got this email which he sent to me. (The reference to my “hearing” probably refers to the fact that I’ve had substandard hearing all my life, and always ask questioners to speak loudly):
Good evening,I found this evening’s lecture by Dr. Coyne enlightening. I was greatly saddened by his statement that he had received death threats as a result of his teaching. I assume those threats were expressed by those who come from a background of religious thought. I find those hateful attitudes despicable and destructive. As a follower of Jesus, and as one who believes that God still does miracles today (He changed my life), I am praying that Dr. Coyne’s hearing will be restored in a way that does not follow any previously understood medical pattern so that Dr. Coyne may know that there is a God: the One He has read about in the Bible, but does not yet understand.
3. Tuesday, Feb. 5, Clemson, South Carolina: I gave a book talk at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. Before the talk I chatted to the Honors Students (a program for bright kids) for 1.5 hours, and found it extremely stimulating: one of the highlights of my trip. The students were very thoughtful and inquisitive, and we covered many topics, including evolution, religion, and free will. They were most interested in free will, and several appeared to be dualists, supporting my contention that this is the default way that many people, including smart ones, think of free will. We talked a lot about the consequences of determinism for one’s behavior and legal sanctions, and it was a stimulating exchange. Those kids are good!
In the evening I gave my standard lecture on the evidence for evolution, followed by an indictment of religion as the cause of creationism. (One would not think that diagnosis to be controversial, but for many it’s anathema to criticize religion in any way.)
As I mentioned before, one female student questioned my view of hell as a place of fiery torment, as “her researches” had shown her unequivocally that hell was not a place of fire, but a series of concentric circles of varying torments, à la Dante. Another critic, an engineer, was clearly an exponent of ID, and raised the perpetual question of abiogenesis—of the origin of life. The question is always the same: if science can’t explain how life originated, then how can evolution be right?
My answer, too, never varies: yes, we are not yet at a full understanding of how life began, but we are making progress (RNA world, etc.), and I predict that within 50 years we’ll have created life in the lab under realistic prebiotic conditions. That won’t prove it happened that way, but will at least dispel creationist and ID assertions that it could not have happened at all. The engineer’s argument is the standard god-of-the-gaps one, and I added that even if science never could explain the origin of life, he would have to show how the putative God who really did it was his own Abrahamic god rather than, say, a space alien, Zeus, or Wotan. As Hitch used to say, he “still has all his work before him.”
Many thanks to Margaret Ptacek and Kelly Smith for helping organize my visit at Clemson. I had a great time, and a wonderful dinner (double filets with a mushroom reduction).
4. Wednesday, Feb. 6, Columbia, South Carolina. The next morning I drove to the University of South Carolina at Columbia, getting there just in time to meet with the graduate students for a catered BBQ lunch (mustard-based sauce, of course—a local specialty). For once the questions were all about biology, and I did my best to oblige, though some of the inquiries (e.g., about cancer biology) were above my pay grade. I then met with two secular students (the organization is small there), and we talked largely about free will, a topic that seems to engage nearly everyone.
After a brief rest, I gave the annual A.C. Moore Lecture on Evolutionary Biology and Society to an audience that appeared to consist largely of biologists. As others had told me, I had less religious pushback at Columbia than at more conservative Clemson, and there were no hostile questions. (Don’t get me wrong—I love hostile questions. In fact, the Q&A is my favorite part of lecturing, for it is then that one can truly engage one’s friends, opponents, and interlocutors, and it requires you to think on your feet, a skill I want to develop.)
Afterwards we had an scrumptuous dinner with several friendly people (including my host Jerry Hilbish and the anonymous donor who funds this lecture series), and I had lobster bisque (the entire soup bowl encased in a pastry crust), duck breast cooked rare, and we shared three bottles of terrific pinot noir. (I mention this because this is one of the two meals, along with the filets, that I didn’t photograph).
5. Thursday, February 7, Charleston, South Carolina. This was the last and toughest day of the gig, for I had to drive from Columbia to Charleston and that evening had to give not only a lecture, but (two hours later) debate a theologian, Dr. Leah Schweitz from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. The public lecture on the evidence for evolution was well attended, though my host, Dr. Rob Dillon, asked me to cut out the religion part at the end in the interest of time (there may have been other reasons as well; see below). Dillon gave me a glowing introduction that I didn’t deserve, and the talk, in honor of Darwin Week and partially sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation, was also well attended.
That evening I debated Dr. Schweitz at the Circular Congregational Church in Charleston on the topic of “Are science and religion compatible?” (Dr. Dillon, who is religious, is a member of this church, but has also been very active in keeping the South Carolina state legislature from passing pro-creationism legislation). Schweitz and I each had a 25-minute presentation followed by 20 minutes of conversation between Schweitz and me, and then 20 minutes of audience questions. I met Dr. Schweitz before the talk, and she attended my evolution lecture that afternoon. I found her an amiable and delightful person, by far the most likable theologian I’ve met.
I laid out my case for the incompatibility of science and faith, arguing that they were both in some ways based on epistemic propositions about how the world is, but that their methodology and philosophy for finding “truth” were incompatible.
Readers of this website will be familiar with my arguments, which included the claim that there is only one form of science, independent of the religion and ethnicity of its adherents, and that this results in a general consensus on truths about the universe. Since religion, in contrast, has no way of finding truth, there are many different sects—74 sects of Lutheranism alone!—that make incompatible epistemic claims, and there’s no way to resolve them. Lutherans, for example, believe that you go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus; Muslims say that you go to hell if you do! Jews don’t believe in hell at all. Lutherans believe that during communion the wine and wafers are a mixture of food and Jesus’s substance (“consubstantiation”), while Catholics believe that they are completely transformed into Jesus’s substance (“transubstantiation”). Again, there is no way to resolve this discrepancy.
Dr. Schweitz’s talk was somewhat orthogonal to mine: she emphasized the contributions that science and religion could make to each other. As I recall, the contributions science could make to religion were an understanding of the universe, which must be incorporated into an enlightened theology, and the habit of doubt, which characterizes science but, she noted, needs to be inculcated more into theology. (In our later exchange, I said that if a people were to approach religion with the same degree of doubt scientists use in their own work, there would be no religion.)
The contributions of religion to science suggested by Dr. Schweitz were that religion contributed the habit of using metaphor (her example, I recall, was that Leibnitz saw “infinities within finitudes”), and that religion could help scientists take the “long view” of their practice (I didn’t really comprehend the latter, because I couldn’t hear her argument on this point). My own response to the metaphor argument was that scientists get them from everywhere, and my example was the “selfish gene” metaphor, which of course doesn’t come from religion.
In our one-on-one discussion, Dr. Schweitz addressed my criticisms and I hers, and we could easily have talked for an hour or more. I enjoyed our give and take and have plans to continue our discussions when I return to Chicago. I did ask her if she thought that I, as an ex-Jewish atheist, was doomed to hell, and she responded that one could read the church doctrine on that issue in various ways. (I still don’t understand this, since Lutheran doctrine on going to hell if you don’t accept Jesus and aren’t baptized is crystal clear.)
The audience asked some good questions, too: they were a mixture of the church congregation, students, and heathens, most notably Herb Silverman, a famous local atheist who founded the Secular Coalition for America and once ran for governor of South Carolina. He lost of course, but wrote about the experience in his book Candidate Without a Prayer (he gave me an autographed copy.)
Silverman asked the first question of Dr. Schweitz, and it was a good one. If some people have the “gift of faith” bestowed by God (something she maintained), why did he, and others like him, lack it? Did God withhold that gift from some people, and if so, why? She answered, as I recall, that God had mysterious ways, something she thought was also the appropriate response to the problem of evil. My question is that if God is that mysterious, and one has the habit of doubt, then shouldn’t one doubt God’s existence in the first place? The questions were respectful and civil, and Dr. Schweitz and I passed the microphone back and forth when tendering our responses.
All in all, it was a good exchange, I had fun, and I hope we gave the audience some things to think about. I hope to continue my discussions with Dr. Schweitz when I get home (her seminary is only two blocks from my office).
I wish I could say that what happened after the presentation was also fun, but it was actually upsetting and a bit infuriating. One of the church members came up to me and informed me, using a rather aggressive tone, that one didn’t need evidence for God if God’s existence was simply a presupposition, and that, I, as an atheist, also had a presupposition that God didn’t exist. (This “presuppositionalism” is of course a famous argument of theologian Alvin Plantinga, who thinks that the existence of God is a “basic belief” that is self evident.)
I responded that atheism was not a presupposition but a conclusion, and that I would gladly become religious if there were evidence for a God. I then asked him whether there was any evidence that would make him abandon his “presupposition” of God, and he said “no.” I thereupon claimed that I had the more open mind. I inquired whether the Holocaust might cause him to question his presupposition, for it points to either an impotent God, a malicious God, an uncaring God, or no God at all. He said that I was neglecting one kind of God, and I asked which one. He responded that it was the kind of God “who suffered along with the Jews.” My answer was that I didn’t see the point of God suffering along with the Jews when He could have prevented all that suffering and six million deaths in the first place, and that kind of God seemed monstrous to me. It was not a pleasant exchange because of the interlocutor’s tone. I think that many religious people have never had their beliefs challenged in the confrontational way that some of us use, and they get upset, as did John Haught in Kentucky, when they first encounter strong pushback.
But what was most upsetting was that my host, Dr. Rob Dillon, who had invited me not only to give a lecture on evolution but to debate Dr. Schweitz by arguing for the incompatibility of science and faith, chose to lecture me after my talk about where I went wrong. Using an anecdote from the new movie on Lincoln (see it!), he recounted this incident (taken from WND Diversons):
The protagonist, Lincoln, preaches and models the notion that if your cause is just, just about anything can be done to see it through. Even the film’s most idealistic man of virtue, Thaddeus Stevens, is eventually convinced by Lincoln that if lying and two-facing is what it takes to accomplish your goals, then you do it. Lincoln actually presents Stevens with a convincing argument that a man’s moral compass must be set aside to accomplish his moral goals. And by the film’s end, the audience celebrates Lincoln and Stevens compromising their integrity, because, hey – they got the 13th Amendment passed.
Dillon argued that I needed to set aside my own moral compass (my antipathy to religion) to accomplish my moral goals (the teaching of evolution instead of creationism in schools). He became very animated—indeed, angry—that I had shown slides of Ken Miller and Francis Collins as examples of religious scientists who supposedly show the compatibility of science and faith; and his voice rose as he told me “I’ve even read on your blog that you’ve criticized Genie Scott. Genie Scott, of all people!” (By the way, I did not criticize Miller or Collins, but merely used them as examples of a form of accommodationism.)
Dr. Dillon then informed me that by criticizing religion I was alienating religious allies in the fight against creationism, and that I should simply shut up about religion (I can’t remember his exact words, but they were not gentle, and he may well have said “you should shut up”). Remember, this is from the same man who invited me to criticize religion in my debate with Leah Schweitz.
At that point I told Dr. Dillon that I found his advice offensive in that respect, and that I was not going to shut up about religion, because creationism is merely one of the lesser evils of faith. Compare teaching creationism in the classroom to making millions of women second-class citizens under Islam and other faiths, killing thousands of people via the Catholic Church’s proscription of condoms in AIDS-ridden Africa, teaching millions of children lies and instilling them with terror at the thought of hell, and rendering many Islamic societies dysfunctional through sharia law and other faith-based proscriptions.
As I left the venue, one audience member, who had introduced himself to me as a Christian, came up to me and whispered, “Don’t ever shut up.”
And I won’t.
And so I leave the South with mixed feelings. I love the beauty of the land and the civility of its people, but I deplore the fact that so many of them—even smart ones—base their lives on unwarranted belief and superstition. The land is largely benighted. And I do not understand how scientists can rely on reason and evidence from Monday to Friday, and change over to pure wish-thinking on Sunday. How can reason and evidence be presuppositions six days of the week, and an unevidenced transcendent being on the remaining day?
Yet I am heartened by the many secularists and nonbelievers whom I’ve met as well, especially in the universities. The young folk in particular seemed open to questioning their beliefs (well, the Hell Girl was an exception), and it is in the minds of the young that the victory of secularism will occur.
I head home a bit sadder but also a bit wiser, and determined more than ever not to shut up.