Going home: talks and a debate on the road

February 11, 2013 • 7:01 am

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.

airport (3)

89 thoughts on “Going home: talks and a debate on the road

    1. Living in the South as I do Jerry, I’m surprised you didn’t get far more negative feedback.

      I pretty much keep to myself down here.

      There’s just no talking to these people without the conversation getting silly with religious superstition.

      I’m happier with them out of my hair

      1. Regarding atheist speakers making appearances in “the South” for talks & book signings. I do know that Hitchens & Dawkins got their most appreciative audiences in those U.S. states with the highest religiosity. There’s a lot of truth-thirsty people out there flying below the radar.

  1. Of all the people in the world who should be up-shutting, you ain’t one of them.

    Besides, Dillon’s just upset that you’re pointing out that the emperor isn’t just naked, but he’s not even there — all we have is just a very imaginative portrait of him. People like him get very, very discomfited when you draw attention to that sort of embarrassment.


  2. Yes, please don’t ever shut up. Many of us are grateful to you for your willingness to speak up and for your articulateness on these issues AND for your open-mindedness, a quality that seems lacking in many of your critics.

  3. Seems very odd to invite you to discuss the incompatibility of science and religion and then complain when you do exactly that.

    “We want you to give a lecture about Hitler’s downfall, but don’t mention the war!”

  4. “How can anyone force themselves to believe something when they do not—just on the promise of an improbable reward?”

    I suppose it’s related to the same mechanism that gives many, many people the faith to bet on the mega-millions lottery.

    1. Never belittle a person’s hope; it is very possibly humanity’s most important ‘possession.’ And since somebody wins, it cannot be demonstrated to be ’empirically ‘ untrue or incompatible with science since winning is not without president. Highly improbable but not impossible. After all, since somebody wins. just maybe…

  5. 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).

    But the real goal is not the teaching of evolution: it’s the teaching of science. And science is a series of methods designed to minimize human biases based on principles of honesty and truth-seeking. “The ends justifies the means” doesn’t work when the ends is to justify an honorable means.

    1. Indeed, that’s exactly the point that accommodationists miss.

      The goal isn’t to rally as many bodies as possible around the Darwin flag.

      The goal is to promote the rational analysis of our surroundings based upon empirical observations, for the simple reason that, experientially, that’s the most reliable way to advance humanity’s common goals.

      It is true that such an analysis of the observations of archaeologists and biologists leads to the overwhelming conclusion that Darwin was right (with minor caveats). And it is also true that the other popular hypothesis, of Genesis being correct in some form or another, is laughably, absurdly incompatible with any such analysis of observations. And that’s why we support the teaching of evolutionary biology and oppose the teaching of Creationism.

      But a similar analysis of other observations leads to similar dichotomies between religion and science, and on every point one cares to consider.

      So, you’re welcome to salute any flags you like, but that’s entirely a sideshow. The real action is over there, where we’ve got a cozy home built and the flagpole is just an inconsequential decoration. So do please stop waving your arms at pieces of cloth, come in out of the rain, and sit down and join us with a nice cup of tea.



      1. Can I have hot chocolate?

        I tried making this very point on a science board a few weeks ago, conversing with someone well educated in the sciences. The discussion wasn’t about religion per se, it was about the concept of reality and how capable, or not, we are of usefully modeling it. I was amazed at how many other regular commentors, on a board dedicated to science, made comments along the lines of “science can’t generate trustworthy information about reality, where reality is “that which we model”.

        1. Chocolate is good! (But not too often…too much sugar isn’t healthy.)

          But, yes. The number of people who really should know better who’re willing to respect all types of bullshit simply because somebody slapped the “religion” label on it…well, it’s astounding.


      2. Yes, I’ll jump on this bandwagon. I sincerely hope that Dr. Dillon is reading this post, and especially these comments. I’m glad he invited Jerry for this talk, disappointed that he then scolded Jerry, but perhaps most perplexed/displeased to hear that he’s a practicing scientist who still (I would have to assume) believes that the son of god came down to earth in human form 2,000 years ago to die for the sins that “we” all committed because god made it possible for us to commit those sins. But none of the other religions, or other sects of christianity, are correct. When you devote yourself professionally to the cause of reason and knowledge and yet continue to publicly support such absurd claims, I have to wonder why.

        This is, as Jerry and others have pointed out, the same issue that occurs with Biologos–the processes that leads to accepting the realities of evolution are the same processes that lead to realizing the falsehoods and improbabilities of religion. It’s the same bunch of things, acknowledging and accepting empirical evidence, adhering to reason and logic. Dr. Dillon, it’s the same thing! Such dissonance that must exist in one person’s life. I can understand it from the perspective of simply living your life, but when you sit down and think about it, or when you’re asked to explain how you can reconcile two conflicting worldviews, it’s the end. It’s this type of clear thinking that helped me realize my position on these matters; I can’t see how an honest rational thinker could come to other conclusions. Does he simply try not to think about it/to avoid it? I really do wonder.

        In the end, it’s really exactly what Jerry said above: “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.” I think this is true, and when I begin to think about it, I really wonder what happens when people like Dr. Dillon begin to try to answer this question of how to reconcile conflicting ways of knowing and understanding existence. If you are reading this Dr. Dillon, I hope I/we are not being too rude putting you on the spot, but I am sincerely interested in your perspective. As Jerry said above: “How can reason and evidence be presuppositions six days of the week, and an unevidenced transcendent being on the other?” Do you not see these as conflicting? Do you just ignore any potential conflicts and put up your own wall separating the two?

  6. As long as you speak the truth, don’t ever shut up. Truth is always a blasphemy, until it is accepted. It was good hearing you and having you in town, Jerry.

  7. When you get them to say that “you need to shut up” you are making them doubt and forcing them to face their own congnitive dissonance and they can only react wth anger when faced with the reality of thier magical skydaddy being non-existant. Just rememeber no one ever made a change to the world by shutting up and sitting down, NO ONE!!

    1. No, the frustrating thing in this case was that the person telling Jerry to ‘shut up’ wasn’t a theist whose belief was being threatened: it was another atheist or freethinker complaining about tactics. Honesty is not practical in the situation, it will only hurt the Cause.

      It boils down to a Little People argument. “Look, you know and I know that there’s no God and sure we can handle this fine … but you need to think about the Little People. They need God. They’re not like us. You’re trying to persuade them to accept evolution and when you bring in any whiff of atheism you spook them. They’ll run. So we have to promote the idea that we’re all happy if they just draw a line around religion and keep their religious thinking away from science. God could have used evolution and there’s nothing inconsistent with science if you think that. Be reasonable and compromise. That’s the best you’re ever going to do with Little People.”

      I think it’s bizarre that this line of reasoning not only claims to be pragmatic, but it passes as ‘respecting religious belief.’

      1. Let me correct this, which I’ll do above. Dr. Dillon is religious and a member of that church, but he’s also been a hard-working advocate for keeping creationism out of the schools.

        1. Ah, ok.

          So one of the Little People is making a Little People argument — because he was arguing tactics and what will, or won’t, go over well.

      2. As Seneca probably din’t actually say, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

        Accommodationists are utilitarians, but not the good kind of utilitarians.



        1. In the spirit of congenial inquiry, if I may; could you give a thumbnail sketch/definition of the “good kind” of untilitarians, vis-a-vis the “accommodationist” kind?

          For example, suppose you are participating in a meeting of several allegedly “professional” people, and another succumbs to the impulse to interrupt the meeting by vocalizing a fatuous, gratuitous (and totally irrelevant to the goal of the meeting) personal dig at you.

          Do you refrain from responding in kind at the moment (but later after rational reflection) so as to “accommodate” The Bigger Picture and To Keep The Peace and keep from totally nuking the meeting? Or, in the spirit of free speech, do you promptly return the salvo and let the chips fall where they may?

          1. Eh, I don’t think that’s at all a good analogy.

            If I were at a professional meeting and somebody started lobbing gratuitous personal insults, I’d expect that person to be immediately chastised by the organizer and promptly ejected should he persist.

            What’s happening here is that we’re at a professional meeting devoted to public outreach and education, and one of the members is insisting that the public can’t handle the truth so we mustn’t upset them with it, so we should instead officially endorse a series of false statements. That’s not at all healthy.



      3. It’s still bizarre. Who invites someone to speak without reading up on them to know what sorts of things they might say? And who could be easier to read up on than JC with this long standing blog? And there are previous talks on Youtube to see what his talks are like.

  8. 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.

    Did she, like Dante, also discover that Hell is filled with Dante’s political enemies?

    1. Did she, like Dante, also discover that Hell is filled with Dante’s political enemies?

      ??? What a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that!!! So obvious.

      Hell is filled with fundie xians, Tea Partiers, creationists, misogynists, forced birthers, and cat haters.

      Or it would be if it existed and this was a just world.

  9. “I’ve even read on your blog that you’ve criticized Genie Scott. Genie Scott, of all people!”

    I have heard Eugenie Scott’s arguments for the compatibility of science with religion, and they are deserving of criticism.

    1. To her credit, Genie Scott is not arguing in favor of dishonesty for the Greater Good. She really does think that science and religion deal with different areas, methods, and concerns and therefore don’t conflict. She feels that the more we can minimize the importance of religious disagreement the better. It’s a humanist argument which emphasizes the insignificance of the supernatural in human affairs in hopes that the religious will pick up on that and consider their religion a personal and private choice.

      I don’t agree, but she is at least sincere.

      Also to her credit is the fact that she is gracious when criticized for this and does not throw outspoken atheists under the bus. Genie Scott “of all people” would not tell Jerry to shut up.

      1. Her intent is certainly not mendacious, but she’s still, even if unwittingly and well-intentioned, being very insulting and counter-productive by encouraging people to hold to beliefs she considers fatally flawed.

        I would respect her a great deal more on this if, rather than encourage the religious to pursue their other ways of knowing, she left it at, “I do not agree with your conclusions, but I respect and will vigorously defend your right to come to your own conclusions for yourselves.”

        People have the right to be worng. And, except for when being worng infringes upon the rights of others, that right is sacrosanct. But it is highly insulting to lie to people that you think they are right when you actually believe they are worng. And, aside from the insult, you’re depriving them of the chance to benefit from your perspective and abandon their worngness.



  10. Thanks for the comprehensive write-up–it’s much appreciated.

    The atheist butters like Dillon are way more irritating than many religious believers. For whatever reason, those atheists are unable to think as clearly as you can, and they scramble to keep you in your place so they can keep their place of being the ‘good guys’/the peacemakers, a role that soothes their learned helplessness, that is, to continue greasing the status-quo machine.

    If their slathering on ‘honey’ instead of your dousing with ‘vinegar’–we are talking high grade stuff here! Like Balsamic from Modena–works you would evaluate your own approach. If anything, there is evidence the insincere, accommodating approach does not work. But do Dillon types learn? No, because they have learned helplessness from the societal emphasis on respecting religious beliefs at all costs. And they want you to get with the program. Happily, during the experiment of life, some of us missed that lesson.

    Dr. Dillon should be ashamed of his behaviour–it was bordering on bullying and crazy-making.

  11. Never stop. Believe me, if it was not for people like you I might still be fumbling in the dark. And think of it this way, any theist who bothers to attend a debate of that kind has a curiosity, even if it is buried deep. People might act in a confrontational manner, but part of this is probably defense by offense because the truth of what you say pricks a nerve. I remember the days of defending the Bible and creationism. Part of me knew my argument was weak, which is why invoking faith is so handy. Some of your challengers will think it over, and one day–just like me–something will make them stop, think, and generally face the truth of things.

    1. “I remember the days of defending the Bible and creationism. Part of me knew my argument was weak, which is why invoking faith is so handy.”

      Bleh… And now you see it in all the people defending the Bible and you’re just like… “Was I really like that?”

  12. This Southerner, for one, appreciates people like yourself taking the time to come down here and give talks (and enjoy the food), rather than dismissing the region as a lost cause.

  13. Presuppositionalism is exasperating. What do you do when your opponent tells you that no conversation is possible until you admit he’s right and you’re wrong before you even begin? I was supposed to debate Eric Hovind about the age of the earth and he switched to presuppositional apologetics and refused to talk about anything else. It was so pointless we went to audience questions because I refused to follow the script he wanted me to follow. I’m thoroughly disgusted by an intellect so shallow and disingenuous they could be fooled by such pablum. Add me to the many, many people who are grateful you’re not willing to “shut up.” Very much looking forward to seeing you at Purdue in April.

  14. Dr. Coyne,
    I am a physician (neonatologist) who was sitting right behind you in the circular congregational church. I was thrilled at the opportunity to hear you speak and debate and I was one of the numerous members there from Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. I also wanted to speak to you after however you were otherwise involved in that most unfortunate exchange. I am so sorry that you not only had a rainy day in our city, but a host that whose welcome was so obviously conditional. I too despair at times regarding the backwatery mindset of the South, with a capital S, having recently relocated here from Baltimore for family-related reasons. But I take some comfort in living in the coastal blue part of this flaming red state.
    My absolute favorite aspect of your talk is the Fate of the Falsified Hypothesis comparison–in science..relegation to the trash heap…in religion…..Metaphor. It is eminently logical…and probably infuriating to susceptible hosts. NEVER SHUT UP…and a big thank you from this citizen of

    1. Step away from the South…We do not like it when people lump us all together under one ignorant, superstitious red-neck umbrella. We tend to get cranky. It is apparent that you have not lived here for long; you should get out of the house more and mingle a bit. You might find out we’re not all alike. ( and here I get to use my favorite oxymoron. Yaay!) Never generalize.

      1. And say what you will about the South, I ain’t shoveling snow. I fact I don’t think I have shoveled snow in my whole life. Right now I am encased in a warm,long, thick nightgown covered in my warm robe and wrapped in to wool throws, and I am still freezing. The outside temperature is about 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

  15. Thanks for the great work. It could have been worse, wait till the Evolution, Atheism, and Kabob tour of the Middle East. You might literally lose heart.

  16. I, too, second everybody’s sentiment expressed above, please never shut up.

    And since you mention posting pictures from your trip when you’re back in Chicago, may I remind you that you promised us many more pictures from your previous travels, including to Mexico? For example, IIRC you visited the Guadalupe shrine, and I am not sure I have seen pictures of that visit. I enjoy the pics of food and places on this site almost as much as the biology posts!

  17. Never shut up, never give up. Never say die! Never stop moving. Memento mori!

    Dr. C.: Please keep up your good work.

    Any chance of getting a clue about how to make that mustard-based sauce? I am very partial to mustard-based pulled-pork but haven’t yet found a satisfactory recipe. Any help from you or any reader(s) would be much appreciated.

    (My favorite flavors are sour, salty, and bitter: Capers! I can eat them right out of the jar.)

    1. I love me some BBQ, but I’m UK so don’t know SC Mustard Sauce as such.

      However it’s apparent from a quick search that there’s many variations from just cold-mixing the three or four base ingredients to far more complex & subtle concoctions that require more work. Just based on ingredients I thought the below might have enough complex flavours to be really worth the effort.

      I think I would change the recipe from Dijon to hotdog-style yellow mustard & make a proper stock rather than use granules.

      Grownup Mustard Sauce Ingredients:-
      [from amazingribs dot com]

      sweet red pepper
      ground celery seed
      ground black pepper
      hot pepper flakes
      dried thyme
      dried rosemary
      Dijon-style mustard
      lemon juice
      cider vinegar
      dark brown sugar
      tomato paste
      powdered mustard
      Worcestershire sauce [pronounced “wuster” 🙂 ]
      chicken bouillon granules

      I also saw a recipe online using apple/cinnamon moonshine along with the cider vinegar, which seems like a great idea…

      1. Yeah, as I read through the ingredients, I agree with your suggestion of yellow “hot dog” mustard instead of Dijon (or maybe a mix of both).

  18. How I wish you could have taken your thoughts to Bob Jones “University”, SC. But I don’t expect you would get an invite. Strange how unfriendly to free speech such places are.

  19. I live in the Southeastern U.S. and work closely with religious scientists. The most fascinating, and occasionally frustrating, aspect is having my work critiqued by them. They’re very insistent that we gather solidly reasoned and evidenced data, and rightly so let me hasten to add, but clearly do not demand the same kind of evidence in their personal philosophy.

  20. My lack of free will compels me to ask: has your hearing improved yet? I’m betting it happens around the time that Jesus returns; given that his sheeple have been waiting about 2000 years, I’m not so optimistic.

  21. Rob Dillon is an evolutionary biologist who has done excellent work lobbying our legislature to maintain solid science standards in our South Carolina public school curriculum. Remarkably, Rob also believes in predestination. Jerry did a terrific job in his debate at the College of Charleston, and I’m sorry Rob was so rude and insulting to him after the debate. I’ve had a few heated theological exchanges with Rob Dillon. The difference is that I am a colleague of his at the College, not an invited guest.

    Two years ago, I had a similar debate for Darwin week with a Christian scientist from the BioLogos Forum, which I wrote about in my blog for the Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/on-feb-12-should-darwin-get-his-day/2013/02/05/b61c9334-6fe4-11e2-ac36-3d8d9dcaa2e2_blog.html I was happy to give Jerry a copy of my book, which I hope he enjoys. http://www.amazon.com/Candidate-Without-Prayer-Autobiography-Atheist/dp/098449328X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1355939090&sr=8-1&keywords=herb+silverman

  22. Two comments on your debate and the discussions that came after it.
    Lincoln actually presents Stevens with a convincing argument that a man’s moral compass must be set aside to accomplish his moral goals.
    (The ends justify the means? Hmm. Where have i heard that argument before?)
    – and –
    How can reason and evidence be pre-suppositions six days of the week, and an unevidenced transcendent being on the other? (Answer – Compartmentalization. It is done because of the social advantages and the subtle and not so subtle coerciveness of religious communities. If you are going to lose your family and friends because of your atheistic beliefs then you sure as hell (even if there is none) better “shut up”.)

  23. I was saddened to hear about the exchange with Dr. Dillon. I have read several of his papers, his blog on occassion, most of one of his books, and exchanged a handful of emails with him on the subject of North America’s aquatic mollusc fauna (his area of expertise – indeed he is a world expert on all aspects of these animals). I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Dillon.

    His fieldwork, which he carries out on a regular basis, takes him into the very rural parts of the southeastern USA, where surely the people he meets – landowners, hikers, hunters, fishermen (and women), park Rangers, etc. – are overwhelmingly religious and creationism is overrepresented compared to the general population of the entire country. Adopting a non-confrontational stance during such encounters is a survival strategy – Dr. Coyne described the security personnel in Augusta, who are unlikely to accompany Dr. Dillon in his trecks upstream in the narrow mountain valleys of the Appalachians.

    I aim not to defend Dr. Dillon’s argument, or unfortunate tactical deployment of it, but to provide some food for thought regarding the social environment where he works.

    I agree with the posters above me who are so puzzled by the accommodationist position of relying on data, evidence, reason, and logic for 6 out of 7 days.

  24. Sorry, I’m trying not to be “that person” who walks into the movie halfway through and starts loud-whispering questions about everything (“Why is she sleeping with Joe’s wife while dressed up as Bobo the clown? I know, I know, sorry, just give me the fast summary. Ok, wait, what, first they stole the will but why did they…”) but I read this website regularly and I don’t recall any background – what new book? Can someone fill me in? I must have missed a key post.

  25. Sorry to hear about your experience on the last day. As for the church-goer who was angry with you – try not to take it personally. Without getting into details, in my job, I sometimes have to give people bad news and tell them things they don’t want to hear. It’s hard, and most of the time (not always) I’ve learned to be sympathetic instead of defensive if they get angry. It’s not about you, it’s about them trying to process the upsetting emotions and inner turmoil. To some people, the thought that religion is false feels like very bad news indeed. That doesn’t mean they should get a pass on the beliefs, but human to human, remember that he was probably just upset. I don’t know what Dr. Dillon’s deal was.

    As for Dr. Schweitz, can you talk with her on this site? It would be so cool, and if you had her do some posts, it would take some posting pressure off of you while you write!

  26. Great post. Thanks, Dr. C.

    And of course some people will get upset at your position. It’s tough for them to own up to the truth and to admit that they’ve been dumb-asses all these years.

    Keep on keepin’ on.

  27. Not unlike my own sadness in finding one of my most brilliant professors in grad school to be deeply bound to his traditional religion. I for one found it necessary to apply logic not just to math, but to also question everything I had ever been taught.

  28. Long ago (40’s, 50’s) there were, I think, a lot of quasi-religious church-goers in the south (me, my parents, and relatives among them). They knew little of “church doctrines” and if they did they didn’t much care about them. Church was mainly a place for social support, pleasant suppers and other gatherings, building friendships, etc. Then along came Billy Graham crusades and their progeny, and slowly church-goers got more serious about heaven, hell, witnessing for Jesus, converting the “unsaved,” etc. – a resurgence of early 20th century fundamentalism that is still going strong.
    I view the churchiness (Southern Baptist) I grew up in as a sort of harmless religious hypocrisy: welcome the social benefits and respect of being active in church life, but don’t get serious about doctrines, confessions of faith, et al!
    Now I find that a fair number of my university colleagues here in Kentucky seem to be religious hypocrites like I used to be; they are fairly active in church (various protestant denominations) as a means of “building social capital” (as one of my friends put it) but they just don’t take their church’s official beliefs at all seriously.
    May their tribe increase!

  29. I wish I could have been there… It would have been so cool… At least Peachtree where my sis lives!

    And… Maybe I’m missing something, but doesn’t creationism and religion, like, go hand in hand? Especially in America? Am I getting it wrong, but don’t most Americans who support creationism do it so as to justify the belief in their religion? I must be missing a philosopher or scientist who believes the universe was created, and not follow any particular religion…Right?

    Main point, to me, efforts to push creationism, in schools and elsewhere, are usually founded on a belief or faith in some religion. So, really, you can’t ‘shut up’ about religion since religion is the root of the problem. Without religion, why go through all the hullabaloo to prove the universe is created?

      1. I think that is wrong. Nearly all of them are creationists, but perhaps not young earth creationists. As long as their beliefs include some deity intervening in the history of our universe they are creationists to one degree or another.

        1. I concede your point. I tend to think of ‘Creationists’ more as the fundamentalist fire and brimstone types that insist that the bible is to be taken literally, word for word. I have always wondered which creation scenario in Genesis is the literal truth and which translation is perfect enough to be the literal Word of God. Most of the people I know(or at least most who willing discuss religious matters) believe a creator had something to do with it. How and how much depends on when you ask.

      2. Don’t forget there are data. 46% young-earthers is indeed a minority of the total population, but a majority of self-claimed churchgoers (practicing religious). Further, many of us regard ‘theistic evolutionists’ as almost equally deserving the creationist label, adding another 32% of the population by Gallup’s latest figures.

  30. Never Shut Up! I live down here (NC) and pretty much used to just keep my head down, but now as I get older, I am getting more vocal! Damn the stupidity!

  31. I’m interested in your mention of the widespread interest in the free will issue. It’s a sign, I think, of an anxiety, perhaps especially among young people, about how they can manage their lives in a society where freedom is touted on the one hand and deftly curtailed on the other. Clearly the popular understanding of the complexities of the brain’s workings has a long way to go. But the deeper issue may be the shrinking place of the individual in a tightening sociopolitical world.

    1. I don’t know… IMO you may be over-thinking it. It seems much simpler to me. We humans are naturally dualistic in how we look at things and “feel” that we make choices “on our own” about what our bodies do. It takes a bit of rigorous reasoning and subtle brain study to recognize that this is not the case. Since it doesn’t “feel” right, many/most people are resistant to the notion that they don’t really have free will.

      1. True, but I think it’s a matter of degree. Some abstract issues seem to catch on especially strongly as they fit the era, such as 18th century transcendentalism. In any event, I’d like to see science at the humanistic point where we can explain to many people that their sense of volition may be a product of their brains but they will be better off if they prefer the illusion they are making good decisions and choosing kind actions.

  32. 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.

    This is not what Lincoln said in this scene! Rather, he chided Stevens for knowing which way to go (True North) but remaining ignorant of how to get there(through political compromise and patient firmness about the right). Neither the historical nor filmic Lincoln, as I understand them, believed that the end justifies the means. The business about setting aside one’s ‘moral compass’ is disingenuous: the man who said ‘if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong’ always knew where True North was. But if he was not always politically true to the North, it was because he had a country to save.

  33. I think the comment “The security guy told me that he or someone like him was always in attendance when there was a lecture on evolution in Augusta” along with the recent meme “Burned the God Delusion…No Riots” says rather more than the religionists might wish about who is secure in their beliefs. Too bad they don’t wonder why we don’t feel the need to harass and threaten them when they speak in public.

  34. Afterwards we had an scrumptuous dinner with several friendly people (including my host Jerry Hilbish and the anonymous donor who funds this lecture series)…

    Reading this, I had a vision of a person wearing a paper bag over their head while eating to maintain their anonymity.

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