Readers’ encomiums

September 4, 2014 • 11:48 am
When I am weary of writing here because I have a gazillion other things to do, and I am facing a blank page with little to say, I get dispirited, and then the Black D*g comes and whispers to me that all of this is in vain. But then I get some encouraging emails from readers that lift my spirits and keeps me going.  And, coincidentally, I got two this morning.  Both of these have been slightly edited to provide anonymity, but I am posting both with permission of the writers. They both attest to the possibility that reason can dispel superstition.
The first was from reader D., who is reading The Voyage of the Beagle:
Thanks for your thoughts. I am about half way through Beagle, with the ship now through the Straight of Magellan and headed up the Chilean coast. You can see how Darwin’s thinking about natural selection and population checks was developing as he looked at the relatively recently extinct megafauna in Patagonia and the fauna present during his visit. I had also forgotten how much time he spent on horseback!
You can never know how much I have appreciated your thoughtful discussions on WEIT.  I finally came to terms with what I now understand is full-out atheism. My younger brother, an avowed atheist, guided me to your book (WEIT) and the names of other prominent thinkers (Hitchens, Harris, et al.).  As long I can remember, I never accepted the beliefs in any religion, much less the collection of tales assembled into the Christian bible. I have gone along for all these years not rocking the boat about what I did or didn’t believe. Growing up in Mississippi made it unlikely that I could own up to being a non-believer: it was clear to me that there could be serious repercussions. When really pressed, I would work in that I was pretty much an agnostic, which baffled most people as they may have never heard the word, much less understand what it means! I still go along quite softly while trying to disabuse my grandchildren of the strong prejudices already in place because of their churches and the wishes of my wife who might suffer more from potential ostracism than I would. But now, if asked, I answer it straight up without being concerned about how the questioner feels about it: Yes, I am an atheist.
I love that last line. And a second from reader John:
Hello Mr. Coyne,
My name is John [last name redacted] and I have just recently been introduced to your book Why Evolution is True.
My reason for writing you is to simply express my appreciation for such a well written and thoughtful book. My background is rooted deeply in fundamentalist Christianity. I went to a fundamentalist Christian high school and then to undergraduate work preparing to be a pastor, spending 5 years in training. During those years in college, I never gave much thought to evolution or really understood how it worked. I mainly knew that whatever evolution was, it was against the Genesis account of creation. I also have many friends who would write your book off as the work of Satan! After college, something changed in me and has since stuck with me. I began to doubt, question, and critique my own beliefs. There was always in the back of my mind the question, “Is what I believe really true?” I am still trying to hash out my worldview based on evidence and reason. Your book is helping me through that process. One of my biggest grievances with the church and its followers is that so many people simply do no due diligence or investigative work to try to understand if what they are being told in Sunday School or from behind pulpits is accurate. Most Christians that I know take the pastor at his/her word and leave it at that. I don’t know that I will ever fully come to a place to say that there is no God, but at the very least I am moving towards a more enlightened understanding of how we got here. Layman that I am, I appreciate the clear language of your book. I look forward to finishing your book. I trust this email finds you well and in good spirits.
 Aren’t those nice? Now I have the heart to publish the latest readers’ beefs, some of them quite nasty; but I’ll do that tomorrow.
And for those who say there is no connection between accepting evolution and giving up faith, I refer you to the two letters above. They are, of course, just two anecdotes, but there are many more on Richard Dawkins’s site.

68 thoughts on “Readers’ encomiums

  1. Some of us think of Jerry as Superman, but he has his Kryptonite. We can be glad that the antidote is reason via email.

  2. Any time you’re feeling down, Jerry, just skim any one of your posts here for us regulars. If we don’t explicitly state our appreciation for all you’ve done, it’s because it’s the water in which we swim. Simply, we wouldn’t be here at WEIT were it not for you….


    1. Oh dear, I didn’t mean to fish for compliments. I was a. trying to cheer myself up at a busy time and b. most important, to show that even for the faithful, there is hope to gain reason. One of the two correspondents told me, when I said I’d publish his letter, that he wished he’d have been able to read a letter like that when he was younger.

      1. …and we’re just trying to cheer you up at a busy time, too….

        Also, if The Albatross is what I think it is, now might be a good time to think about starting your own take on Richard’s Convert’s Corner, for I have an hunch that you’re about to get many more such letters — and, yes, it definitely helps those still in the closet to know that they need not fear the bright light around the edges of the door.


        1. I’d gladly put my essay I posted on a few months ago on there if such a forum were created. Jerry was the first person I found who consistently and directly addresses the claims of Catholicism as opposed to the focus on fundamentalism typical of the New Atheist movement.

      1. This is what it’s all about. Thank you, Diana, for your stirring gesture, setting aside what for some would be insurmountable differences, taking the hand that society would have you shun, all in the name of encouraging an effective spokesperson for our worthy cause.

        I promised myself I wasn’t going to…..*sniff*

      2. Ah, Diana, Diana. The whole world is against you 😉

        This from the delightful Lea Salonga (Kim in Miss Saigon, interviewed on Philippines TV) – the relevant bit starts 33 seconds in and I immediately thought of you:

        Never mind, just take refuge in Einstein’s comment when told of the article “100 authors against Einstein”: ‘If I were wrong, one would be enough’

        … scouring the Internet for ammunition in the never-ending toilet paper holy war…

          1. Yeah, the moment she mentioned guerilla-toilet-paper-changing I had instant deja vu.

            P.S. I change it, too.

  3. Now I have the heart to publish the latest readers’ beefs, some of them quite nasty; but I’ll do that tomorrow.

    Let me pre-emptively compliment you as a counterweight to some of the common beefs:

    Please don’t stick to science! Continue to discuss religion/politics/boots/free will/cats/food/books/all the other subjects the grumps and pedants wish you wouldn’t comment about. Because variety is the spice of life.

    Keep saying d*gs. And calling it a website. Its endearing.

    I am perfectly fine with you taking however much time it takes you to review any pictures, links, articles, etc.. I may sumbit before you post them. Because we all have lives, and yours does not revolve around my submissions or what I say on your page.

    I think that may cover 60-80% of the whines you probably get. Before you post the beefs, I just wanted to say thanks for making this an interesting and educational website.

    1. Also, what Eric said. 😀 (Not feeling very original today, but thankfully other WEIT-ians are filling in nicely.)

      1. Yup. I don’t post often, but I read every post (even if I don’t understand all the sciency bits) and comment (for the first few days). Educational and entertaining, greatly appreciated.

        1. I didn’t know what an encomium was but I learned a new trackpad gesture where I hover over the word and tap 3 fingers – instant definition!

          1. I also had to look up encomiun and add it to my list of useful words and phrases learned on WEIT.

            So far, the other items on the list are micturate on the carpet and osculate the rump of faith. When I use one of those in conversation, life will be complete.

              1. Yeah, there’s something about technical biological terminology that doesn’t lend itself to artistic expression. It doesn’t help that it’s about poop.

                Now try using the actual words, Ant. That would be most impressive. I’d say you’d deserve some meco…I mean an encomium.

                Anagrams are fun.

              2. Diana received some encomiums but mostly looks of disgust when she explained that eating a lot of black liquorice can make one’s feces appear like meconium.

              3. Indeed it is.

                I think Vogons could do haiku, and they’d certainly make use of such eminently agrocrustular words as “meconium”.

                But, let’s not stink the place up any longer.

  4. Keep up the good work Jerry! I love your site! I know I click it more than any other (well, maybe excepting Amazon! 🙂 )

    The web would seem dire to me without WEIT.

    I’m about to read your book for the third time.

  5. if only there were more university academics like you, ready, willing and able to go full bore against religious obscurantism. too many seem oblivious of the threat to our culture or else lack the sense of civic duty to engage.

    1. ….and who can blame them. If I had found my way up an ivory tower, I’d bar the doors and never leave!

        1. What’s funny is I actually envisioned myself throwing water balloons at people below – a completely different image from yours. 😀

  6. Not long ago you posted a piece about having regrets and encouraged readers to express any.
    I didn’t write any at the time, but I thought a good one would be: I regret not knowing about WEIT sooner. I wish I could have been on-board since ’09, but better late than never. You and your site are an inspiration to countless people around the globe, and I hope your readership grows and grows and grows.

  7. Kudos as well to both letter writers for sharing their journeys and Jerry’s important role therein. How human to express appreciation.

  8. But Jerry, if you weren’t so damn strident and militant there’d be hundreds of letters like this every day!!!
    (Sarcasm mode off)

  9. I’ll jump on the big pile o’ love. After a long struggle to break away from christianity I finally succeeded at the ripe old age of 37. I found myself with a strong desire to learn everything I could about the natural world. WEIT was the first book about evoloution I read. Four years and many books later I still consider it the best. It will always hold a special place for me because it helped me understand how I could be here without a god. Thank you, Professor Coyne. You really did change the way I see the world.

    1. I had been drifting away from christianity for a while, but it was when I read WEIT that I realized that there is no place for god, and no need for one. Reality is such a relief. I’m currently listening to the audio book yet again.

      I also wish I’d found this website years ago. It is simply a constant affirmation of all that is good.

      1. Jerry, you may not have been fishing for compliments. Tough beans. You’re just going to have to sit back and take it. 🙂

  10. Hello

    John’s comment in his letter struck a chord with me:

    “One of my biggest grievances with the church and its followers is that so many people simply do no due diligence or investigative work to try to understand if what they are being told in Sunday School or from behind pulpits is accurate. Most Christians that I know take the pastor at his/her word and leave it at that. I don’t know that I will ever fully come to a place to say that there is no God, but at the very least I am moving towards a more enlightened understanding of how we got here.”

    I became a Christian at the age of 10 and happily accepted for many years that God created the universe and everything in it, as set out in the Bible. I was happy to accept that God is amazing and all powerful and can do anything. I believed he is above human understanding so it didn’t bother me much that science contradicted the creation account in the Bible.

    But around the age of 25 I read the posthumous collection of Douglas Adams work in ‘The Salmon of Doubt’, and one of the sections mentioned evolution and it sounded sensible to me. So I read a couple of Richard Dawkins books and started to realise this really did make a lot of sense. I started thinking if you couldn’t take the first few pages of the Bible literally then what hope is there for the rest of it?

    Like John I don’t know if I will come to a place to say there is no God, I am now 33 and still couldn’t tell you if I’m a doubting Christian, agnostic or atheist (mostly because of my fear of going to hell if there really is a God) but I am glad to be on this journey of discovery about things like evolution and the creation of the universe. For me there is definietely a connection between accepting evolution and losing a lot of my faith. And like some other readers I wish I had discovered WEIT (book book and web-site) sooner.

    Sorry my comment is a bit long, I hope it makes some sense.

    1. « f I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest andrighteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul.

      I would also want a God who would not allow a Hell. Infinite torture can only be a punishment for infinite evil, and I don’t believe that infinite evil can be said to exist even in the case of Hitler. Besides, if most human governments are civilized enough to try to eliminate torture and outlaw cruel and unusual punishments, can we expect anything less of an all-merciful God? I feel that if there were an afterlife, punishment for evil would be reasonable and of a fixed term. And I feel that the longest and worst punishment should be reserved for those who slandered God by inventing Hell. »

      — Isaac Asimov, _I. Asimov : A Memoir_ (1994)


    2. Like John I don’t know if I will come to a place to say there is no God […] mostly because of my fear of going to hell if there really is a God

      In case you haven’t looked at it this way, this might help:
      If there is indeed a god who is willing to send you to hell (whatever that exactly means) for following your honest assessment of reality he is not good and certainly not worth of any worship.

      Another way to look at it is what god is willing to accept as an acceptable profession of belief. If he is willing to accept your profession of belief even if you do not truly believe it, he does not care about honesty.

    3. Food for thought. What tipped the scale for me was trying to reconcile a loving God with evolution. Almost every animal will die painfully, either from starvation or being eaten alive. Evolution is brutal. For me, it couldn’t be both god and evolution. YMMV. Enjoy your journey, wherever it leads.

    4. I’ll make this prediction… It won’t be long before you let go of the bugaboo fear of Hell. There’s nothing there to be afraid of.

      Congratulations on abandoning faith. You’ve lost nothing.

        1. If you need encouragement, think of it this way: Would you rather spend eternity with Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Woody Allen, George Carlin, et al., or the likes of Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron and Ken Ham? And Heaven doesn’t even have demon rum.

    5. Your comment makes total sense and thanks for sharing it. Keep thinking and and asking questions. I think that you will eventually release your last fears that were indoctrinated into you.

      Here’s my take on the fiction of hell (which owes most of its substance to an article by Richard Carrier):


      Love me or burn: One crucial dogma of Christianity is that you must love Jesus and accept him as God and then you will be “saved” and spend eternity in Heaven after you die. If you don’t do this, you will be tormented in hell for an eternal (endless, infinite) period of time. All non-Christians burn: if you are not a Christian (and many Christian sects extend this to any kind of Christian other than their brand), then you burn in hell forever, even people who have never seen a Bible burn forever, and there have been many millions (billions probably) of these in the history of the earth. Even insincere Christians burn: those who go through the motions but don’t truly believe. This God is asserted to be kind, loving, and forgiving. This is logically inconsistent. (And how does thinking about things differently inside your head change anything (other than your own attitudes)?)

      Eternal punishment in hell: Forever is a long time. Punishment is understood by humans to be just when it fits the offense committed. Eternal punishment even of a very mild sort (and hell is described in Christian doctrine as very nasty), is, by definition, infinite in scope (anything multiplied by infinity is infinite.) The only just offense for which it could be imposed is an infinitely bad one. Humans have finite powers and therefore are incapable of an infinitely bad offense. A person’s lack of knowledge of this special God, Jesus, cannot be justly judged to be an infinitely bad offense. The dogma of hell is simply logically inconsistent with the definition Christians provide of their God: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, loving, forgiving, kind. Imposing an infinite punishment for any finite offense is unjust and evil. Therefore, it can never be justly imposed on humans, who have finite abilities. The good judge others by their character, not their beliefs, and punish deeds, not thoughts, and punish only to teach, not to torture. (And hell is just a fiction anyway, so don’t worry.)

      An atheist (or some one who has never been exposed to Christian teaching, for example a Taoist or Confucian grandfather in Hunan in 439 BC) who lives an exemplary life, deeply moral, kind, generous, forgiving, public-spirited, devotes themselves and all their possessions to the care of the poor, but who does one lick of work on a Sunday (or was that Saturday?!), swears, tells a single lie, has a single thought of lust for his neighbor’s beautiful wife or daughter, steals one tiny bit of food when starving will be subjected to an INFINITE punishment. (Given the Christian doctrine of “original sin” no action of this sort is even necessary for the conclusion to follow. This hypothetical person could have behaved perfectly in life and will still burn in hell – for his thoughts (or rather lack of a thought)!) However, if a venally evil murderer, rapist, thief, pederast, whore-monger, child torturer reaches the end of his long life of debauchery, and simply decides to love Jesus then he gets eternal bliss in paradise. This is not a just or good doctrine.


      Also very much worth a listen is (the late great) George Carlin’s take on it.

    6. To echo what compuholio said, but a little stronger: it’s not so much that God is willing to send you to hell, but that church leaders tell you that you will go to hell if you don’t believe in their god. The god they describe really isn’t worth worshiping.

      We atheists sometime shortcut our conversations and talk about God, when we are really talking about belief in God; what we are told about God; or what the Bible says about God. That’s an important distinction.

      Cheers to you for being on this journey. WEIT was one of the first books I read when I got interested in the whole debate. I read it after Darwin’s Block Box, and the intellectual honesty of WEIT was quite refreshing.

      I’d like to recommend George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God. Very philosophical in the sense the author defines his terms well and parses through all the various options. But ample evidence too. If nothing else, it should help you figure out if you are atheist, agnostic, or still a theist. Enjoy!

      1. Here’s another vote for George H. Smith’s book, “Atheism: The Case Against God!” It should be read by everyone who questions religion and superstition. You can even skip the Ayn Rand stuff (yawn) and still get a heck of a lot out of this book. Very, very well written.

    7. Christine and John, your letters, and similar stories told by others here on WEIT, help me appreciate how tough it can be to crawl out from under such pervasive early indoctrination.

      Now that you’ve both read the best of the evolution books you might also find something helpful or supportive in the literature of former believers who’ve traveled the same journey you two are on. Of course, there’s a good chance you already have done so. If not, I can highly recommend Dan Barker’s Godless, and Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God. Like Jerry, they’re both superb communicators. (I’d written “writers,” but Julia’s work is a performance as well.)

    8. mostly because of my fear of going to hell if there really is a God

      But what if the god you think you believe in isn’t the right one? What if the real god is some other — and this one won’t send you to hell if you don’t believe in any god, but will if you believe in some other god?

      Pasca’s Wager only makes sense if you assume from the get-go that the Christian pantheon is the one and only possibility. But, as soon as you expand that even to include Islam, you’re up the proverbial creek. And then expand it further to encompass all the gods ever worshipped? And further still to include all possible gods?


    9. Thank you everyone for your comments, book recommendations and links to youtube. Some things for me to think about there. Compuholio’s comment “If there is indeed a god who is willing to send you to hell (whatever that exactly means) for following your honest assessment of reality he is not good and certainly not worth of any worship.” particularly struck me,it’s something I’ve considered before and has pushed me further towards atheism. And jblilie’s comment about those who’ve never seen a Bible being condemned….again wondering if people go to hell because they’ve never heard ‘the good news’, or live in a place where it’s so horribly dangerous to be a Christian makes me wonder what sort of God he is. I hope one day I’ll overcome this fear of hell (and fear of explaining my thoughts on all of this to my parents).

  11. This is a good time to thank you, Jerry, for talking about Walter Kaufmann and two of his books, “Critique of Religion and Philosophy” and “The Faith of a Heretic.” You said they meant a lot to you and, after reading them, it is easy to see why. What a remarkable thinker and writer he was. His “quest for honesty” says it all.

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