Lessons from a talk

May 22, 2015 • 10:15 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

327 thoughts on “Lessons from a talk

  1. Keep fighting the good fight Prof CC. I am reminded of the ‘playing chess with a pigeon’ meme.

    Whilst the pigeons will never change, you may reach the bystanders….

    1. I am reminded of the ‘playing chess with a pigeon’ meme.

      and I, in turn, am reminded that a long-time fighter in the Creationist-Containment Trenches on Compuserve, one Troy Britain, has dropped into this site from time to time in between running his own not-a-website-but-a-BL*G called “Playing Chess With Pigeons“.

  2. If it’s any comfort, in my past as a believer, I would have been vigorously making those same arguments and clinging blindly to my faith. The good arguments got through though. They simmered on a slow boil until the pot couldn’t hold them anymore. I’ve no doubt that many of your audience, both the one you just spoke to, and the others engaged by your book and future events will be left with similar food for thought.

    1. This is interesting and good to know. I have had many long discussions with believers about evolution and cosmology, where I would run up against a wall. I had wondered (and hoped) that maybe I at least planted a few seeds.

    2. That was my experience too. Belief in God was too integral to my entire world to be destroyed easily but the valid points got through and I would think about them and research them further. Start from a “seeking the truth” position rather than a “I have the truth and you’re wrong” position, and you should bring a lot of people with you – or at least get them thinking in the right direction. Belligerent believers actually do more damage to their position, as it is obvious to everyone with an open mind that they are not listening.

      For me, losing my religion followed the (supposed) five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. (Plus a sixth stage: Release!) If they’re getting angry, they’re already getting past the denial stage. Deep down, they suspect there’s something wrong with their faith, they’re just not yet ready to accept it. (If they were secure, they would listen!) Next they’ll be talking about the value of spirituality versus religion (bargaining) before realising that their whole worldview was actually constructed on smoke and mirrors (depression). Then, the realisation that the world really does make so much more sense without God (acceptance) and the freedom that comes from not having to worry about it anymore (release).

      1. Excellent points. Yes, anyone attending a ‘talk” on evolution is somewhere on this spectrum. There are millions who live happily in denial or even “pre-denial”, not even realizing that there is a alternae worldview.

  3. ‘…is that I should not by any means dilute the strength of what I say, but that I should feel more empathy for people who oppose me, …

    Exactly, this flows from a lack of belief in free will. I can’t help what I believe (or not) and neither can any other person. I am not some sky crane that somehow is separate from the environment.

  4. I don’t know what the usual etiquette is, but I think it should be the host/moderator’s responsibility to keep questions from veering into statements. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Keep up the good work Professor!

    1. Yes, it sounds like the moderator was remiss in his/her duties. A member of the audience should not be allowed to debate at length with the guest, as if on an equal footing. That’s rude.

    2. Perhaps there was no one acting in that role during the Q & A. Some venues have questioners just queue behind a standing mic, for instance.

      At any rate, while I agree that that’s the way a Q & A should go, it’s probably important that Jerry prepare for the times when there won’t be a moderator as well.

  5. Interesting to see what it feels like to be actually up there. Sam Harris occasionally talks about the experience of debating faithists, but not to the extent that he reveals his emotional reaction, like you do Jerry. I think this is a first, and instructive for that.

    It’s quite shocking that in big city Chicago, in an event billed as yours, there should be so much Christian Goddism. x

    1. I dunno; I think that’s the most likely cohort to be attracted to a presentation about faith vs. fact. Simply because they feel the strongest about it.

  6. Once again, Saint Mel to the rescue:


    Sastra, if she makes it here, will have some good things to write. When somebody at a seminar rips apart your methodology or analysis, it hurts, but you appreciate that it’s part of the effort to improve the science for everybody. But when you do the same to somebody’s religion, you’re attacking that person’s sense of identity.

    Short of accommodationism, there’s really no way around it. You can express sympathy and that might soften the blow…but making plain that faith is an horrible vice and not at all virtuous is still a lead pipe to the head, even if you’ve wrapped it in a towel.


      1. Oh, sure. Ideas are meant to be shared, not hoarded. Why else would I write anything in public if not to disseminate the ideas as far and wide as possible?


            1. I am!

              …though, on reflection, the “lead pipe wrapped in a towel” would likely be better replaced by DNA’s “slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick”….


      1. Also: ‘You know, ….

        I think that may summarize much of this particular audience.

    1. Well, I’ve made it this far, and can only repeat that religion wants to be both a fact claim AND an identity. They’ve drawn the conclusion they’ve drawn because they have the right attitude. The objective must be found through the subjective.

      One of the biggest complaints against the gnu atheists has been that we just don’t understand that religion is who people are. Instead, we try to treat it like a set of facts to be debated. But no, we do understand that appeal to identity — the passion, the need, the deep significance embedded into a person’s total life. We get it.

      And we want them to knock it off. Get over yourself and pay attention to that important thing you believe.

      That’s the part where we give them a hell of a lot more credit than the accomodationists do.

      1. These people are passionate about being passionate. (That’s surely better than being passionate about inventory control or asset management or whatever else the recruitmentdroids are pimping for this week).

      2. “We get it.

        And we want them to knock it off.”
        Yes, this!

        Or, at the very least, to realise that their identity doesn’t fix the facts, and if it really was that their identity is not to be shattered then arguments over the facts wouldn’t matter. Instead, it seems like the facts are fixed by the identity – as can be witnessed by denying the facts in their presence.

        If theists actually acknowledged atheists may have a point in their atheism, then the whole thing about facts not mattering might ring true. But the moment they say “the facts don’t matter” at the same time as declaring the atheist who rejects their belief on the basis of fact as being in error, they’ve backed the facts.

    2. You nailed it.
      In the end of the day, it’s not the tone or style that angers them, but the content. I am all for civility and politeness, but from my experience, all it does is extending the time before the debate heats and people just try to voice their own opinion without listening to the other side.

  7. It might be a good idea to ask these people what they mean by “god”. Most people give a deer-in-the-headlights look, but when you really get down to it, it is revealed that they are stuck in a state of infancy. They mean “god” is a father figure up there somewhere who is in charge and will protect & take take of things. It is the same view that a child has towards their earthly father, and this simply carries through into adulthood.

    I believe Freud nailed it when he said:

    “The idea of god was not a lie but a device of the unconscious which needed to be decoded by psychology. A personal god was nothing more than an exalted father-figure. Desire for such a deity sprang from infantile yearnings for a powerful, protective father; for justice and fairness and for life to go on forever. God is simply a projection of these desires, feared and worshipped by human beings out of an abiding sense of helplessness. Religion belonged to the infancy of the human race; it had been a necessary stage in the transition from childhood to maturity. It had promoted ethical values which were essential to society. Now that humanity had come of age, however, it should be left behind.”

    So, when one attempts to take away said father figure, you get the same or similar response that one would get from taking away a child’s rattle or security blanket……rage. (Or at least a tantrum).

    Sadly, the human race doesn’t seem willing or ready or able to grow up nor to let go of the parental figure of god. We won’t evolve further as a species until we can go beyond this state.

    1. How can you tell the difference between something you want to exist and something that actually exists? Faith doesn’t let you consider the matter, science does.

      I see a lot of websites seeking ‘spirituality’ with or without gods. I suspect that the desire for ‘feelings of spirituality’ could be the result of biological processes, but that doesn’t mean
      that what you desire exists.

  8. I suspect you have to consider the event for what it was and maybe take this away. This was expected to be a bit ritzy as you say but when the questions come out it’s cloves off and pretty low end. Probably would have been even worst if it were done at the WMCA or anytown, Alabama.

    I would try to stay away from the Q&A type event whenever possible because it is not generally helpful. By event, I should say, General Public event. I think of it like this. If I have a lake and some land around it and I enjoy the place and all it has to offer — Would I want to open it up to the general public and see what happens or would I be very careful who I let in and try to preserve the place.

    1. I would try to stay away from the Q&A type event whenever possible because it is not generally helpful.

      Quite the contrary. You’ll not find a better stone on which to hone your theses. Here’s somebody who’s just come up to the microphone and asked why there are still monkeys for the umpteenth time. Maybe try asking why people still draw in the sand when we have digital cameras? Hmm…didn’t go over quite perfectly. Next day, somebody else asks the same question…why do people still spend millions of dollars on oil paintings of flowers when your iPhone has an “artistic” filter? Nope; still not quite perfect….



        1. I suspect you have to consider the event for what it was and maybe take this away. This was expected to be a bit ritzy as you say but when the questions come out it’s cloves off and pretty low end.

          I was curious and looked up the “income leaders” by job type. You have: lawyers, marketing/ad managers, accountants/auditors, financial managers/specialists, sale supervisors, chief executives, physicians, and executive managers. So other than physicians (who are probably the most religious of the “science types”) everyone else is obviously educated in business. I think many religious people pick these fields to make money and not have to question anything deeper than man-made constructs (religion being one of these constructs). These are fields without any requisites for the sciences, introspection (psychology/philosophy), learned reading (literature/philosophy), history or anything else that could be labeled “humanities”. So it is no surprise that many wealthy people are religious. Just a generalization, I know, but perhaps it is a trend.

          1. Might the newly wealthy also feel a sort of “survivor’s guilt” — to be assuaged by “knowing” that their god favors them, so they must be more deserving, because they are more wealthy?

            1. Whereas old money just keeps producing the inbred idiot rich — which is why the rich are, as F.S. Fitzgerald observed, different from you and me.

          2. Mitt Romney’s undergraduate major was English. Then he got an MBA/JD.

            It also comes to mind that Ronald Reagan said that intellectual curiosity should not be subsidized. He for one would certainly have to have his subsidized for it to become a reality.

            1. and Bobby Jindal goy a degree in biology, but apparently not Evolutionary biology or climatology, because ya know, he’s
              ‘not a scientist”.

      1. Hone your thesis…That’s good. If live proof of incompatibility is the objective then this was achieved. What did the professor say — Accosted by a florid believer on the verge of yelling at me. The man didn’t have a question but wanted to rant at me. Moderator did nothing. sold no books as well.

        Not my idea of honing but maybe I missed something?

        1. I think you missed the whole point where Jerry has already done a quite thorough analysis of how the event went, come up with some ideas for how it can go better the next time, and gotten even more feedback from the lot of us.

          He wasn’t born knowing how to convince people to embrace rationalism, you know. He, like everybody else, is learning it as he goes along.


            1. As I’ve said here before, it’s one of the reasons I watch a lot of Fox News – I’m ready for any argument that comes at me from that direction because I’ve heard them all before.

              1. Oh really? Can you explain tides? Tide goes in, tide goes out. You can’t explain that!

        2. No books sold at the event. Who knows what might happen after a period of reflection? (If my club-mate was an angry ranter for religion, I might keep my purchase on the down-low until I’d had time to think about it some more.)

          I think Q&As are important even if individually they are sometimes fruitless. If nothing else, they show that you have nothing to hide. Any idea can seem convincing if the argument is well-crafted. Anyone who avoids questions is instantly suspicious in my book. You don’t even need to have all the answers – you just need to show that you welcome (and indeed started from) a position of asking the right questions. In other words, Q&A reinforces that your opinion is an honest conclusion, not an assumption.

          1. in all fairness, I’ve never purchased a book by a believer either. I did hit the library to check out Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, as a counterpoint to reading Blind Watchmaker, but didn’t make it very far. I did manage to make it through Ken Miller’s book, but I can’t say he changed my mind about accomodationism.

            I am impressed by those who will buy books from the opposite pov, but I can’t stand the idea of handing money over to anyone like Behe, Plantinga, or Comfort. I imagine the audience may have felt the same way. That may be a bit infantile, but at least I’ll own up to it.

            1. Not infantile at all. Every $1 you throw to the ‘enemy’ is another $1 they can use to push their point of view.

              (A lesson that was painfully obvious in another Holy War of a few years ago, when we dissidents knew well that every bit of Microsoft software we bought just added to M$’s ability to buy the world…)

              1. I know I can always use a library, but then I’m embarrassed about the possibility of being seen holding their books. “uh, could you put that in a brown paper bag please”
                it’s the Austin Powers Swedish penis englarger all over again, except more embarrassing.

            2. I’d been thinking that myself, and of course one wants to answer, “but we know they’re wrong (so why waste our time & money); while they still seem to have a lot to learn about science.” While of course they’d be thinking the same thing the opposite way themselves.

              But I think we do have more to our side of the argument, having used critical thinking to realize that science is the best and the only verifiable tool for learning about the world.

              In some ways, our feeling that to be fair, we should be buying their books, too, is a lot like the equal time arguments that journalism often irrationally demands. Some crackpots simply don’t deserve equal time when the preponderance of evidence is on the other side.

              Finally there’s the fact that we really do know a lot about what their scriptures and apologists say, while they constantly demonstrate that they don’t have the faintest clue about evolution, physics, etc.

              1. I bought “Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins” because it had been touted to me as a masterful destruction of one of my favourite books (The God Delusion) and it was crap. From what I remember, the arguments were weak and vacuous and all built on an unproven assumption about consciousness that I thought was just plain wrong.

                Since then, I have been more careful. I browsed “The Dawkins Delusion” in a bookshop and it just made me wonder whether the author had actually read the book he was meant to be debunking. Now, I just use the sample chapter function of the kindle. It saves a lot of wasted time and money! (Well, that and letting Jerry do the hard work and reading it for us.)

                There is also part of me (dating back to my Christian days) that objects to believers selling their message for profit. They should be sharing the “Good News” for free, not fleecing the faithful.

              2. I have purchased books by people I disagree with, I have two books by De Waal, but then I don’t disagree with every damn thing he says and does, just his opinions on atheism. I even bought a bible, used, of course, but haven’t yet purchased a koran or a book of mormon. I do one day hope to get some L. Ron Hubbard, just for sh!ts and giggles, may even watch Battlefield Earth (with copious amounts of alcohol to dull the senses.)

              3. Well, I too have a Bible; it’s an important reference given all the attention it gets. We used to have a Koran around but I haven’t been able to find it…I think the core scripture of any religion would be handy and occasionally interesting to have around.

                I can’t imagine spending any valuable life minutes with sophisticated theology, though!

  9. “One thing I realize is that as I talk about the book, particularly in non-secular places, other people’s anger and fear will be activated, and I need to find ways to defuse it.”

    Perhaps you need to include a trigger warning in your talks… 😉

  10. The “fine tuning” of the universe can be explained only by God, one man told me. I explained several alternatives, including the multiverse theory,

    I always thought the multiverse was unnecessary; the fine tuning argument is just crappy any way you look at it.

    1. We lack the knowledge to even say this is improbable. Do we know the range of values c could attain? Do we know whether all possible values equiprobable? No and no. So it is baseless to say our value of c or any other fundamental physical constant is improbable.

    2. If you take “fine tuned for X” to mean “creates a highly suitable environment for X,” then no, the universe is not fine tuned for us. Its fine tuned for some critter that like the temperature at 3K, hard vacuum, and lots of cosmic rays and photons banging around.

    3. If you take it to mean “X requires highly improbable and specified conditions,” then I can think of lots of organisms that require more finely-tuned conditions than humans.* So under the “improbable requirements” angle, shouldn’t the conclusion be that the universe was fine-tuned for them? [*An example would be any human parasite or disease. Since human parasites require humans, they require all the fine-tuning of physical constants that humans do, plus they also require a universe event history that results in humans. That’s much more improbable than a universe were humans can live! So according to this version of the fine-tuning argument, the universe must be fine-tuned for our parasites.]

    1. “So according to this version of the fine-tuning argument, the universe must be fine-tuned for our parasites.”

      Angry birds, it’s fine tuned for angry birds.

      1. Clearly, it’s fine-tuned for cats, as evidenced by the fact that humans have, of necessity, evolved fingers capable of rubbing their bellies.


    2. It boggles the mind that even some sophisticated theologians bring up the fine-tuned universe.

      Evolution proves that life is fine-tuned to the universe, not the other way around. People who say that the universe (or earth, or the solar system or any other kind of environment) is fine-tuned for us have absolutely no clue how life develops. To argue for a fine-tuned universe is to argue against evolution by natural selection.

      The argument from fine-tuning is just another attempt to smuggle creationism into the debate under a different name.

          1. And Dawkins anecdote about his Sunday School teacher from ‘The God Delusion’.

            They’re all arguments like the ones that assume evolution has a goal.

      1. Life is not fine tuned for the universe; it (the universe) is mostly hard vacuum at 3K with sleets of radiation going through it. We are fine tuned for the Earth’s surface conditions. Moreover we aren’t even fine tuned to live on the Earth’s surface as it was when it reached equilibrium after formation. Rather life today is fine-tuned to live comfortably in the toxic miasma of pollutants created by earlier life forms (who have largely gone extinct due to their polluting of their own environment to such an extent that it became unlivable). The primary one of which is free oxygen.

        1. Life is not fine tuned for the universe; it (the universe) is mostly hard vacuum at 3K with sleets of radiation going through it.

          It’s not even tuned for that much. The temperature of the vacuum, low as it is, is steadily decreasing, as is the rate of radiation production. The universe will spend many more trillion of years without even that much than it’s already spent billions of years doing what it has. The current state, as hostile as it is, is but a pleasant and invisibly insignificant blip on the radar.


        2. Well clearly the universe is fine-tuned by gawd, that’s why milky way galaxy is to collide with the andromeda galaxy in four billion years or so. and that’s also why the sun will one day, say, in about 5 billion years, become a red giant, engulfing the nearest planets, finally killing off cockroaches, bed bugs, and Keith Richards, as a kind of fail-safe or redundancy. It’ll probably happen on a Tuesday. At least that’s what I think Bishop Ussher said.

            1. Keith Richards might just be Old Nick. After all, ‘the devil has all the best tunes’.

      2. Yes, exactly right. Life as we know it is fine tuned to our little corner of the universe.
        But a very high percentage of believers will still cling to fine tuning as they (incorrectly) understand it, just like they cling to their incorrect version of thermodynamics and any other creationist trope they encounter.

    3. I’ve wondered, how can anyone know if our universe is fine tuned? Perhaps the current physical laws we have are the only possible way they could have turned out.

      We have no other universes to compare. The only one we have turned out this way.

      1. Don’t start pulling that thread. If you ask religious people how they know what they claim to know, you will experience something very similar to professor Coyne’s experience!

    4. Claiming the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life is like claiming that the purpose of all the sand on the earth’s surface is so that some infinitesimal percentage of grains can be trapped inside mollusks to serve as irritants promoting the production of pearls.

      It’s more ridiculous than claiming that the purpose of a doubleheader at Yankee stadium is to allow a particular scrap of hotdog wrapper to blow through the bleachers during the seventh-inning stretch of the second game.

      And that’s if the universe is “rife” with intelligent life — if, that is, intelligent life exists in all of the temporally and spatially remote niches that might support it.

    5. Sorry to disagree with you all, but I don’t think you are fairly describing the more scientific versions of the fine-tuning argument, and thus you are undervaluing the multiverse hypothesis. Granted, the universe is mostly not fine-tuned for life as we know it. Also granted, life is unquestionably fine-tuned to the universe. But most values of the (seemingly) fundamental constants would lead to a universe in which, as far as we can judge, no evolutionary process would even get started, or would not continue for a long enough time to produce intelligent life. I grant that we don’t really know much about how non-standard universes behave, and maybe there are some routes to evolution of intelligence that we haven’t thought of.

      1. The sort of fine tuning you describe for all the world to me resembles first the fine-tuning needed to get epicycles “just right” and later to add enough invisible planets to account for Mercury’s orbit.

        I’ll bet you a cup of coffee that all notions of “fine tuning” will go away if and when we ever have a good theory of cosmogenesis.


        1. I’ll take that bet. It would be nice of the laws of physics and the values of the constants could be uniquely derived from some simple, obvious principle. But it sure doesn’t look like that will happen.

          I don’t find the multiverse hypothesis to be farfetched, as some do. Many other branches of physics have made good use of ensembles and probabilities. Why not cosmology?

          1. I’m not necessarily arguing against multiverses. Rather…well, you know how the weights of the elements mostly seem so close to integers, but aren’t quite, and how they almost seem “fine-tuned” but with a fudge factor? And how that fudge factor mostly goes away once you understand a bit more of atomic theory and realize that there’re different isotopes and the “fudge factor” is actually just an average of the common proportions of the two? …but how even that’s not the whole story, and you also need to understand the Einsteinian mass equivalent of the binding energy, and so on?

            I strongly suspect that any cosmological “fine tuning” is going to, at worst, fade into nothingness the more we learn, in a similar fashion.


      2. Whilst I can see the argument that changing the fundamental constants messes things up, is there any reason why we need to have that set of fundamental constants in the first place? Surely there are an indefinite number of laws of physics in which additional forces etc. could nullify issues introduced by having a “bad” value for one of the constants in our Universe? Indeed, could there not be extra forces added to our Universe that would make it more hospitable to life?

    6. One of the biggest issues with fine-tuning, I think, is that it’s not easy to answer “finely-tuned for what?” without anthropocentrism. If fine-tuning is correct, then the answer to why all the universe and all phenomena in the universe is the way it is is that this is what the physics for humans required it to be. Everything in the universe becomes either necessary for the process of human development, or as a by-product of processes of human development. Seems quite a stretch…

      Though I would think that fine-tuning argument is an argument against an omnipotent omniscient deity given how wasteful the entire universe is if it was finely-tuned for our existence. A being of infinite power and infinite knowledge would be able to design a far more efficient universe if it was just to produce finite beings like us. Most of the cosmos appears pointless and indifferent or hostile to human life, and that would not be the case if the universe was finely-tuned for our existence and the fine-tuner was in any way competent.

      1. On the other hand, if the rest of the cosmos was friendly to human life, we would have wrecked it already. Maybe by the time we manage to colonise the rest of the universe we will have figured out how to not ruin it.

        So maybe Teh Creator knew a thing or two after all 😉

    7. Your points are all well-taken. Still, there is a shorter answer: It is not that the universe is fine-tuned for us; it is that we are fine-tuned for the universe.

      1. You are missing the point of the physicists’ (as opposed to the creationists’) fine-tuning problem. Most variations of the fundamental constants and initial conditions would not have permitted any kind of evolution for a long enough time to produce intelligent life.

        1. Hi Lou:

          I know you know lots more about physics than I do; I also understand the point you make (which is obviously true).

          However, didn’t Victor Stenger show that, although varying one constant gets you a lifeless universe, that if you vary two (or more?) constants in tandem, you get something like 40%(?) of all possible universes having initial conditions that would permit evolution of life? I haven’t actually read him on this topic, but remember reading this précis somewhere.

          Of course, that probably ties in the with the idea of the multiverse, which you mention below.

    8. What eric, Ant, and others who echoed them said here. Even if/though the multiverse is not as unlikely as it sounds to some people, I don’t see why we need to go to that extent to refute the so-called fine-tuning argument. That’s just buying into someone’s flawed world view and trying to come up with an answer within that given and wrong frame of reference.

      I would think a general audience would be much more likely to grasp the points in eric’s first post and the Douglas Adams puddle metaphor than they would the multi-universe hypothesis.

      1. Diane, see my comment under Mark Joseph’s comment above. Many of these comments are misrepresenting the fine-tuning problem.

        It looks like it takes very special initial conditions and values of the fundamental constants in order to permit any kind of evolution at all to happen, for a long enough time to produce intelligent life. The multiverse hypothesis or something like it helps resolve this problem.

  11. I’ve always liked Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response to God-of-the Gaps arguments: “If that’s how you want to invoke your evidence for God, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance…”

    1. Even better, quote a believer!

      How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed farther and farther back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.

      — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1997, p. 311)


      1. And both excellent responses, yours and Dr. I. Needtob Athe’s just above, recall the Ingersoll quote used by PCC in the OP.

  12. Such fights can be wearisome and need much tenacity to endure. I have faced similar intransigence from relatives and family members, some times having to argue on a daily basis. In my limited experience, people tend to persist more when they are arguing for religion, compared to political and other issues. Higher education can have the effect of turning people into ‘sophisticated theologians’ and make them double down on nonsensical beliefs. Good luck on your book tours!

  13. I do own a book by Plantinga. It’s really good for the first few chapters on modal logic, then he just dumps god into it near the end. Deus ex glutea, you might say.

    1. Plantinga as far as I can tell has gotten more and more extreme and “out there” and as far as I can tell as well hasn’t paid attention to the last 20 years or more of development in various matters.

      1. I think the one I have was from the seventies. I prefer his earlier stuff (now I’m a Plantinga hipster. FML)

    2. I doubt that many nonbelievers buy books by Alvin Plantinga!

      I don’t have anything by Plantinga, but I have plenty of books by other creationists*. I always buy them at used book sales so that none of my money goes to the authors or publishers.

      *Plantinga took a ride on the Intelligent Design bandwagon, so he can suck up and wear the label.

    1. I attended the one in Raleigh. Dr. Adam English, Campbell University theology professor, was Hitch’s opponent. IICR, Hitch asked him to the effect whether he subscribed to Calvinism, and Dr. English was quite reluctant to subscribe to the idea.

  14. I suspect that these God-is-in-the-gaps arguments are why Hitchens was so successful with his granting, for the sake of argument, the possibility of some kind of vague deism and then going to “but you till have all of your work before you” phrase.

    You could stand with an entire battery of physicists, biologists, archaeologists, and physical anthropologists to answer those questions, and the result would likely be the same – your interlocutors either not listening to your answers or listening for every “we don’t know” and thinking “that’s where I’ll insert Jesus”. But of course, Jesus has exactly nothing to do with whether the big bang starting with fluctuations in the vacuum.

    1. I suspect that these God-is-in-the-gaps arguments are why Hitchens was so successful with his granting, for the sake of argument, the possibility of some kind of vague deism and then going to “but you till have all of your work before you” phrase.

      Excellent point.

      Jerry, I believe, is at a bit of a disadvantage on this one. His entire life has been devoted to helping students spot the flaws in their thinking. It is an essential part of who Jerry is to want to correct the mistraken premises before tackling the conclusion — and it’s a job that’s gotta be done, with few who can do it as well as Jerry.

      But there’s also the job not of the teacher but of the orator, and that’s the one that often needs to cut to the chase. Hitch did that brilliantly, and his “all your work ahead of you” is a perfect example.

      Jerry, if you can figure out how to play both roles, or at least flip between the one and the other on a dime…well, if you can do that, you’ll have more success in persuading people than anybody else to date.


      1. I vaguely remember Hitchens saying that he did think of some one-liners in advance before a debate. Not only is it useful in a debate, but it also trains the mind. Like Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” If you can make it witty and memorable, even better. I should do it more often before exams.

        1. This fits in with my strategy of “planned spontaneity.” Practice those off-the-cuff replies in advance. If/when the opportunity ever comes up to use them, you will appear to be a genius.

  15. I would say that the thing that most depressed me about your Q&A lessons learned was not that some religious defense occurred, but that the people seemed to not want to discuss the book. OOL and hominid evolution are fine subjects, and I haven’t read FvF yet, but I suspect those two things don’t feature prominently in it. So why bring it up?

    My conclusion (which is really that of my confidante), is that I should not by any means dilute the strength of what I say, but that I should feel more empathy for people who oppose me…

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

    Both great ideas. That last one is always a killer for a conscientious speaker; you don’t want to blow anyone off, but you also want everyone to have a chance to ask their questions. Its a balancing act. One method of dealing with this may be to ask the venue sponsor to serve as a timekeep, and signal you when you’ve spent X amount of time on one question (X = 1 minute? 2? 5? Your choice). That way, you’re giving everyone a fair and equal shot, and nobody can complain that you were biased against the pro-faith audience members.

    1. If I may suggest Jerry, that you start of the Q&A with a brief statement of da-roolz. Or at least rules for the Q&A, that way they can’t say they have not been warned. Make sure you say “so it’s fair for everyone and nobody monopolies their time, after all, Q&A is about questions, not statements. If you want to give statement, spend six months (?) writing your own book and get it published and give your own talks.” or some such, in a jocular tone, so they know it’s all in good fun but your serious and you know what your talking about, your not just some guy on the internet.

      Just a suggestion.

  16. It sounds like you are discovering a perspective that Jason Rosenhouse discovered long ago from his experiences interacting with participants at creationist conferences. (He even wrote a book about it!)

  17. “And I will need to find ways to disarm people’s anger so that they can listen to what I have to say without their retreating to an obdurate defensiveness.”

    A difficult problem there Jerry. I think Sean Carroll, the physicist, does a pretty good job of avoiding offense without resorting to accommodation. Perhaps reviewing some of his debates and discussions on religious issues may be of help. And others as well.

    I used to think Anthony Grayling was fairly non-strident, a nice guy, but then I realized it is just his voice and manner of speaking. If you consider only his words he is rather strident! In any case good luck with your project.

    1. The difference is that Jerry has mounted a frontal attack on religion in this book, whereas Carroll’s challenge is more of a flanking maneuver, arguing in favor of science and materialism and rejecting inconsistent religious dogma, but avoiding discussion of the problems of religion per se.

            1. Would you believe? I regularly work with a financial database that stores all monetary amounts as floats. All our code is liberally sprinkled with rounding functions or casts to decimal types or similar such kludges. And it stores dates as an integer number of days since some random date in WWII or thereabouts…you can imagine the chaos and confusion that causes, too….


      1. Yes, and it’s not as if his interlocutor wasn’t being a bit strident or at least sanctimonious himself!

    1. As Dawkins has discovered, presenting an anti-religious message without being perceived as strident is a tough nut to crack, even when delivered in Received Pronunciation with (at least in person) the refined good manners of an Oxbridge don.

  18. Christians have a problem that you don’t. These days (unlike way back when they excommunicated Spinoza) you can enjoy your Jewish identity whether you believe or not (as long as you don’t believe in the *wrong kind* of God). So when you challenge Christians’ faith, you are not only questioning their beliefs, but undermining their identity.

    On a more restricted issue of evolution, which is as far as my own ambition runs, the “doesn’t explain the origins of life” is a remarkably durable argument, to which I retort that Lavoisier couldn’t explain the origin of the elements; so what? On God of the gaps arguments in general, I refer to Henry Drummond, Free Church of Scotland theologian, who coined the concept in order, as we do, to ridicule it, but I don’t think that’s of much use for what you’re doing now.

    One small thing to brag about: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/05/20/creationism-in-scottish-schools-we-won/

    1. Just about your first paragraph, I am not sure how it is in the US, but in Israel, being secular, “religious” or ultra-orthodox (and then to what particular ultra-orthodox group they belong) is for many people an important part of their identity. Also, while it’s universally accepted that being Jewish does not depend on actual belief, for many religious Jews, a secular Jew is a “broken” Jew.

      1. My experience of being an Orthodox Jew was in in 1840s-1950s England, not the US. At that time, and among my own group, biblical literalism was regarded as childish, and evolution denial as lunatic fringe, and we’d quote Maimonides if necessary. Since then things have got worse in the UK, and from what I hear in Israel (making up new rules about not sitting next to women in airplanes …)

        As the mainstream secularises, the fringes become more extreme. Something of the same kind is happening in post)Christian Scotand.

        1. I am not sure why this is a response to what I said.
          I completely agree with you. Non-literalism has been the mainstream in Judaism for at least 2,000 years.

  19. Last thought for the moment:

    Needless to say, none of the vociferous Christians bought a book.

    Sounds like you need more ‘teaser’ type answers. 🙂 Not just ‘buy my book’, but like what you did about the human evolution question: first briefly explain your position, but then say you go into further detail on the subject in Chapter X, and that the person should read it if they want a more comprehensive answer. Not only does this ‘tease’ the audience, but it keeps the Q&A moving along too.

  20. Just remember what you said recently, Dr. C… “Bring it on! They got nothing!”

    Just gird your loins and move on to the next talk. You’re doing great, just by pissing off these uppities!

    (So are all these attendees at the University Club graduates? Did anyone save you some lunch, although after all that outright ambush, I’d have lost my appetite.)

  21. That’s too bad, I can relate a little bit, but I’ve never experienced at that level. To be honest I thought with WEIT you would be used to this sort of stuff.

    It also seems that you go for the scientific arguments (naturally) but all their arguments boil down to the same thing. They say the multiverse is just a substitute for god, but why not? If two theories have the exact same amount of evidence and one is contradicted in other fields of science, why not pick the one that isn’t contradicted?

  22. “The argument ‘you can’t explain this to my satisfaction, ergo God,’ is of course fallacious, but it disturbs me to see it so often.” – J. Coyne

    What is especially disturbing is that theists are satisfied by GMM (Ghost-Magic-Miracle) “explanations”: “There is a ghost who did some magic, and then a miracle happened. That’s how the universe, life, and consciousness came to be.” It eludes me how
    an intelligent adult person can be contented with that?!

    1. Many people don’t seem to be content with Feynman’s attitude:

      “I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, I think it’s much more interesting that way.”

      I don’t think people are necessarily frightened, but “emotionally negative” in general I think works.

    2. Perhaps a humorous anecdote is the way to answer such questions. Jerry feel free to use, though you may want to fact check for your own before you do:

      “In 1687, Newton published his famous Principia, which accurately predicted the motion of all the planets…save Mercury. It would take 228 more years for Einstein to explain that planet’s motion. During that 228 years, we could’ve put God in that gap. We could’ve posited that Mercury’s motion was caused by angels pushing it. But we didn’t, and in hindsight that sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? Just so, I don’t think we want to resort to angels pushing carbon atoms around to explain the formation of life [or whatever it is the questioner brought up]. We don’t know how it happened yet, true. But the Angelic Pushing hypothesis hasn’t worked out very well in the past.”

    3. I’ve always thought so too. To me this demonstrates a certain fatalism and a certain lack of faith in human beings that is distasteful to me. At first blush that may seem contradictory to the typical belief in human specialness, but I think that it fits very well.

  23. Kudos to you for writing this. As someone who has been involved in communicating ideas that others find unpleasant to confront, perhaps I can give some advice.

    Your university should have a science communication group — mine does — who, through workshops, will help you develop the skills you need to effectively communicate these ideas. The course my university offers is based on one developed by the actor and science nerd Alan Alda at Stonybrook and was very good. However, it requires an open mind to get the most from the course — some of the activities may seem at first blush to be ridiculous nonsense until you realize that they’re designed to “feel more empathy” for those you are arguing with and to use that to effectively get your point across with minimal threat to their emotions.

  24. If the moderator doesn’t do it, I think you need to set some ground rules for having a civilized discussion and get agreement from the audience to abide by them. I’m often dealing with angry people and in contentious workshops this was a must. When someone violates the rules, you may find audience members take them to task.

    In return you could promise to abide by your own rules and that may be to listen to their question but only if they are civilized and polite enough to hear your response and to genuinely consider it.

    You may also want to state that you do empathesize with them and understand that they believe strongly in their faith and that your opposition to their beliefs aren’t meant as an attack on them but you understand how it may feel that way anyway.

    Honestly, the moderator should set these ground rules and enforce them.

    I also love these logical fallacies:

    I was then accused of giving a fanciful explanation for which there were no data. My response—that we do see particles pop into and out of existence, something required for “a universe from nothing”—was ignored

    But God of the gaps isn’t fanciful and lacking in data at all! Either you play within the rules of science, logic or data or you don’t. You don’t get to apply the rules when you think it is convenient and ignore them when it doesn’t suit you.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson had a Jesuit priest on StarTalk and a recorded interview with Richard Dawkins. The priest did this whole God if the gaps (a feeling of wonder is God reaching out to you) twisted Tyson’s words (being comfortable about not knowing is the same as faith) and claimed that multiverse was an infinite regress but God as a prime mover wasn’t. I was disappointed Tyson let him get away with much of that.

  25. I received your new book yesterday and have started reading it. Your arguments are lucidly stated and well explained.
    The reaction to your talk yesterday in Chicago reminds me of the anecdote you have in the Preface in which you were speaking to a group of businessmen in one of the Chicago suburbs and the person who came up afterwards who told that you had made convincing arguments but that he didn’t believe it.

  26. A good bit of medical school is hardening the future physician to human suffering. You do not need to learn to be uncaring, but you must learn not to suffer vicariously, because that dilutes your effectiveness.

    I suspect with time your emotional response will subside.

  27. I was there and I can confirm that it was quite a Q and A (I was a nonsuit wearing non-member who bought a ticket). I don’t think most of the audience realized what they were in for when they sat down for lunch. A 45 minute lecture where they are told that everything they believe in is wrong (and that they’re irrational) is a bit hard to take if you’re not prepared. Seems they felt compelled to fight for their beliefs. I do have to say it was a bit depressing to see such a reaction from such a wealthy and educated group (presumably).

    Also, just to mention, the fellow who wouldn’t stop talking also had the worst logic…the bible is true because so many people witnessed the resurrection. How do we know there were so many witnesses? It’s in the bible.

    1. The only thing that provenly keeps resurrecting is the bloody stupid witnesses argument. Faithful (hah!) readers will remember our encounter with Don McLeroy.

      Honestly, I’ve seen zombie slashers with zombies that are easier to kill than those Witnesses of the Resurrection (part I, II, III…).

    2. I recently came across a traffic court case which contained this remarkable sentence:

      “Driver 1 says the light was red when she turned, driver 2 says the light was green, while an independent witness says the light was amber.”

      So there you go – 3 eyewitnesses with different memories of the event. So maybe eyewitness accounts are, er, not always reliable.

    3. I wish I had been there to see it. I don’t suppose it was recorded?

      The first time I was told the argument “The Bible says there were witnesses” I was just so flabbergasted at the absurdity I couldn’t say anything. I just could not believe a grown adult could believe such.

      1. At least once when I’ve recovered my incredulity, I’ve asked something that works with the dumbfoundedness in the other direction: so where are the writings of the 500 others? Or a summary of their testimony by a reputable authority we can at least investigate?

        I had one fellow tell me that the writings had been destroyed by non-Christians.

  28. Your confidante is right on the money. Your evidence is experienced by those with deeply held beliefs as an attack on the self. The self, in one of its aspects, is intrinsically relational. In order to accomplish its relational task, the self relies upon its structure—a network of relational expectations and guidelines anchored in the nodal or core ideas and beliefs that comprise its reference patterns. This structure functions as a relational gyroscope by which the self orients to the other. The self recognizes itself in, and is itself recognized by, this structure and is its vigorous defender, frequently holding it more dear than life itself.

    This willingness to die to uphold a cherished value or belief accounts for some of the most celebrated moments in our history—Martin Luther’s declaration, for example: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” or the 1989 Tianamen-Square confrontation between an armored tank and a young dissident in a face-off between the individual and the collective might of the Chinese army. But the self’s protectiveness of its structure is also our Achilles heel, for the self will kill as well as die to protect its stabilizing values and ideas—as the endless nationalisitic, ethnic, and religous wars around the globe will testify: think ISIS. Thus, the jury is still out as to whether the emergence of the self in human history will ultimately prove to be the glory of our species or the catalyst of its demise. The more powerful your arguments and evidence, and yours are very powerful indeed, the more of a threat you are, and the more intense the counter-attack. It is a defence against the traumatizing experience of falling apart or coming unglued, disoriented to the point of being unable to function. One usually needs to detox from religious fantasies slowly.

    I’m really glad, Jerry, that you will be visiting with some of your friends from this site over the summer. You’re going to be in need of a good feed and a hug!

  29. My experience with my professed Christian friends is that it’s more of a social identity than a religious one. Most of my Christian friends know little about their own denomination, at least based on the people I’ve asked.

    “Hey, how does a Methodist differ from an Episcopalian?” No clue.

    As for the Bible, few have actually read the whole thing; mostly they’re familiar with the “popular” parts. Literalism varies and it’s a real cherry orchard out there!

    Personally, I prefer red-faced bluster to the knowing, smug smile. I get the latter a lot. That’s when they have no argument so they just smile at you as if you were a uncomprehending child.

    Finally, people believe weird things. I once gave a dinner talk to a skeptics society meeting (let that sink in: skeptics. society. meeting) and I read from a list of paranormal phenomena (abracadbra to zombie) and asked for a show of hands if anybody believed in any of these things. I expected NO hands to go up, but, boy, was I wrong!

    Healing crystals, auras, witches, demonic possession, ghosts, ESP, healing prayer and a host of other things got raised hands. I thought I deftly potted each of the phenomenon but, still, I got irrational pushback.

    1. Definitely within my mostly Catholic family, it’s more about social identity (or “tradition”, which strikes me as rooted in fear of change) than it is about beliefs.

    2. “Personally, I prefer red-faced bluster to the knowing, smug smile. I get the latter a lot. That’s when they have no argument so they just smile at you as if you were a uncomprehending child.”

      Oh, god, they’re the worst! When some local teachers smuggled creationism into a middle school biology class, I attended a few school board meetings where both sides testified. Well-intentioned scientists from MSU* (and philosopher Robert Pennock, who also testified at Dover) came down from East Lansing to patiently explain why evolution was true. The opposition just sat there with smug, knowing (ha!) smiles, taking in nothing, and when it was their chance to speak they’d get up and smugly, grinningly, smugly-grinningly, deliver their own little sanctimonious lectures. There was really no getting through to them because they weren’t paying a lick of attention to what the scientists were saying. Those grinning faces still haunt me.

      1. Yes, I went to school with a JW girl who would make those smug grinning faces whenever we had a science class. Then she’d put up her hand to challenge every single thing the teacher said. I can’t stand it. I think if I were to encounter it today, I’d call them out on their smug, grinning faces so they’d at least feel self-conscious about it.

        1. So tempting. The parents of a boy in my daughter’s elementary school grade were perpetually smug-smiling Mormons. I had to restrain myself.

              1. The smiles would get broader and turn into fixed grins then into snarls then into teeth at each others throats… 😉

          1. “…perpetually smug-smiling Mormons…”

            Oh, lordy, I know what you mean. It is a remarkable thing to see and it must be a horrible way to live. Like being perpetually locked in an old Laurence Welk show.

            1. A former JW I know told me that she had a great childhood because she always felt superior to everyone else since she and her siblings were brought up to think that they had the answers that no one else did. This shielded her from feeling bad if kids excluded her as really she didn’t want to associate with those kids anyway. I think it damaged her though as even after she and most of her family left the church, she seemed to have a hard time empathizing with the plights of others – choosing instead to judge them harshly for any missteps she perceived they may have taken.

            2. “Like being perpetually locked in an old Laurence Welk show.”

              Yep, that would be quite disconcerting. How would it compare to finding oneself at a Kanye West concert, and not being allowed to leave?

  30. Is it possible that these affluent folks have spent so much time rationalizing their great wealth and the cruel economic order that provides it to them that they have had to turn to the Providence of God to account for it? They realize that a rational and humane world would not bestow such great wealth on a few and dump large scale misery on so many. To conceive of such a cruel world and live in it, requires a supernatural being who gives Grace to some and withholds it from others. Religion upholds the economic order and those who question it, also question the economic order. I think we have to tell the truth about the world, but do not expect to be loved by those who benefit from the world of false belief.


    John J. Fitzgerald

      1. Yes, I agree with this point too (and docatheist’s earlier rendition). I imagine religious people who become wealthy would rationalize the wealth by thinking they are “chosen” or “special” by the Grace of God (what a corny phrase). I can also imagine children born into wealth by religious parents are taught they are special and God loves them a little extra; and this sentiment is passed on down the generations.

        1. Thank you for your comments. Calvin’s theology was and is the hand maiden of capitalism. Doctrines of Grace and Predestination go with a defense of striving for and attaining great wealth. Cf. Max Weber and R.H. Tawney. Religion does protect the mystique of capitalism and the wisdom of the market place – the so-called “unseen hand.” I think these factors also explain the popularity of the likes of Billy Graham. Graham was not a social justice preacher like Martin Luther King. But Graham got his money and rewards from the wealthy. Good luck to Jerry! Keep up the fire!

          John J. Fitzgerald

  31. Dear Jerry,

    This was a tough experience — and a toughening one, too. Your description sounded like day to day, Deep South, Bible Belt stuff, the very reason we in the nether regions of the US tend to hide our atheism, even if we call it something else, like keeping it low key or avoiding any discussion on religion in social or work environments.

    Empathy without experience seems impossible: How can you feel what you’ve never felt? Sympathy sounds reasonable: “I understand how this concept strikes you.” Using the word “strike” might even strum a subconscious chord in audience members.

    Consider a body guard. A suit can cover even a nut case, and so can money, without nullifying the belief that he or she, by virtue of being “uh Christian”, can get away with anything on behalf of defending their Jesus/God.

    And, finally, know that all of us are thinking of you, “with you in spirit”, you might even say. Your courage encourages us.


  32. Well Jerry that is a frustrating state of affairs you describe. However your response towards this experience seems to be fruitful one – not just mere complaint, but “what does this teach me, what do can I learn from it?”

    It sure is an admirable attitude!

      1. Be careful using the word “mensch” in Texas! I did that, one day, referring to both men who were helping me, and they both made clear it was an insult! Indeed, both were taught early on that the word meant the exact opposite of its true meaning! I emailed both, afterward, with reputable links to prove the compliment, but one never made contact, again, and the other acts as though I am a leper.

        From this, I learned that “unmensch” is also a word (found when looking up “mensch” for these two Christians), and that modern tactic for expanding antisemitism is to turn words around, so “goyim” — who also have been taught that the word “goy”/”goyim” is an insult — think everything a Jew says is meant to insult them.

            1. You imply a meaning for “chosen” which is part of the antisemitic screed carried through well over a millenium of Christian anti-semitism. Please, don’t do that.

              Have you ever asked a Jew what it means to be “chosen”?

              Here is what I was taught, and I’m no spring chicken:

              It means like being the older sibling, responsible for setting and keeping high standards so younger siblings will have an example to follow, especially regarding fairness, education, community responsibility, etc. And, it means being held to that higher standard, so if a Jew does something wrong, the punishment would be worse than if a non-Jew did it, because the older sibling is always held to a stricter standard.

              As an atheist and a Jew, I still find the concept valuable: Police, for example, should be punished worse if found guilty of crime than ordinary citizens, because the police are responsible for upholding the law, therefore must be knowledgeable of the law, and should set the standard for the rest of us, to show us how it’s done.

              The difference? Police have to apply to be chosen. Jews are born into it, no choice of their own.

            2. Please read Constantine’s Sword or, at least, watch the documentary by that same name. If you can understand where this antisemitism comes from, and how far back, you can appreciate its connections to blood libels, pogroms, evictions, the Holocaust, and modern day antisemitism in both the Christian and Muslim “worlds” of today. Please, read it, know where it comes from, and consider whether you really, truly wish to continue it and continue spreading it.

              1. There’s a grey area here. I don’t know ‘goyim’ but in any language words for ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ may well be considered derogatory – or not – depending on the circumstances and who’s talking.

                For example the New Zealand Maori word ‘pakeha’ (meaning ‘white’ people i.e. non-Maori) is not, I think, derogatory as such, but some people consider it highly derogatory.

              2. By that token, any word meaning “other”, as in “not me, nor my family, nor my extended family” is derogatory. So, then, why should “goyim” be singled out? Just because it’s associated with Jews?

                I personally think it was the KKK, through inspiration from Nazi propaganda, who started the “goyim” and “mensch” meme, making it so that they are received as personal insults, particularly when said with a smile.

                I smiled, quite broadly, when I called those two men “mensches.” I had been so impressed with them! And one, in particular, was retired USAF — he’d been around the world and was not the isolated villager, so to speak.

              3. Of course it can be used in a derogatory manner, like many other words. I heard it used that way more than once.
                But what makes it derogatory is not the word itself but the context, the tone etc.
                I am ready to agree that words referring to “the other” are more easily charged with negative meaning, but again, it’s not necessary and there is no (at least not commonly known) other Hebrew word for gentile.
                Since Judaism, in contrast to some other religions, has no issue with gentiles, the word “goyim” is neutral.
                Trust me, the word “goyim” isn’t derogatory.

              4. What I’m saying is, it isn’t alone in being considered suspect. Many words for ‘outsider’ throughout the world are in the same category. ‘Goyim’ just happens to be the Jewish one. Here (‘here’ being NZ, i.e. not the American South), it has no loaded meaning.

                But I don’t have local knowledge, maybe ‘goyim’ and ‘mensch’ were given more emphasis than usual by the KKK. Probably they had cause, I believe their encounters with the ACLU and its Jewish lawyers (trigger warning: stereotype!) weren’t always amicable.

              5. Okay, now I’m curious: What makes you provide the conjecture that the “Jewish lawyers weren’t always amicable”, rather than the KKK? Were the KKK otherwise considered amicable — to anyone other (emphasis on “other”) than its own members?

              6. The encounters weren’t always amicable (that may be understating it). That is to say, the ACLU and the KKK often clashed. And it’s my impression that the ACLU (and other civil-rights organisations) often employed east-coast liberal Jewish lawyers.

                That’s the impression I get purely from what I’ve read and seen on TV.

                Hence the KKK may have had additional reasons not to like Jews.

              7. I am quite confident that the KKK didn’t need to meet East coast liberal Jewish lawyers to be hostile to Jews 😉
                Also, the form of the word being used in this context, “goyim” already suggests that it’s not of Jewish origin, for it’s the plural form (the singular being “goy”). I have never heard any Hebrew speaker use it this way in reference to a single gentile, in either a derogatory way or otherwise.

              8. Perhaps it would help to get your impression from a large branch of the KKK: kkkk.net/. After you click on that link, search for the word “Zionist”. It will link you to a specifically antisemitic KKK-backed site, a conspiracy site blaming Jews for everything. Jews are 0.2% of the world population, 2% of the American population, and yet supposedly on the verge of taking over the world. Ford, of famous automobile fame, spent his own money to spread copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion around the USA, and that book was a forgery deliberately created to fire up as much lethal antisemitism as possible, on the very grounds that Jews are taking over the world! Antisemitism has been on the rise for a couple decades, but it’s growing faster and more violent, now, world wide. It’s why, along with challenging faith, I suggested PCC consider a body guard for his book tour.

              9. Do I need to add, I regard being disliked by the KKK as a virtue?

              10. @Golan

                I was just picking up on docatheist’s conjecture re the KKK.

              11. No worries. I agree the KKK would probably be antisemitic anyway, probably the civil rights movement reinforced that.

              12. @docatheist at 1.49
                (WHY doesn’t wordpress show comments in the order they’re made??)

                “P.S. Wikipedia’s page on KKK says KKK targets Jews because Jews are immigrants — i.e., “others.” ”

                So, do the KKK also target Irish, Poles, Mexicans and Muslims? Along, of course, with coloured people.

                (Quite possibly, come to think of it. They may well be equal-opportunity bigots)

              13. When I glanced through the Wikipedia KKK article, last night, it paired Jews and Catholics repeatedly. KKK is white and Protestant. KKK considers Mexicans and Muslims “brown” and refers to them as “mud bloods” or something like that. Poles and Irish who are not Catholic and are proud of white purity would, it appears, be acceptable to them. I suggest you google KKK, visit some of their own websites, and click past the initial home pages. They have softened their tone, recently, to attract more members, but scratch the surface and there is still plenty to see for yourself.

          1. And the King James Bible says Jews were petulant with God for making them eat mannah. I read the translation, went to the Hebrew, and saw the word “matzah”, not “mannah.” The different is dramatic.

            As for “goy”, its literal translation is “nation”, as in “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation…” The word “goy” is used, there, for nation.

            In spoken Yiddish, it merely refers to someone of a different “nation” or people. Someone of the same people is called a “landsman.”

            The same linguistics would expect a Spaniard, for example, to recognize another Spaniard as his/her “landsman” and to recognize a Jew (always the outsider) and the “goy.”

            The American South still subtly recognizes its Jews and its Christian descendants of Jews as “other” — as “goyim” to the Bible Belt Christians — and not as full fledged members of their cultural societies.

        1. Not surprised. That ‘sch’ ending just sounds vaguely derogatory to an English speaker, probably by some unconscious analogy with ‘schmaltz’, ‘kitsch’, ‘schmuck’, ‘schlock’ etc. (I believe those to be uncomplimentary?)

          1. … along with schlemiel and schlemazel, yes, but usually in a humorous way. Mensch is said with great respect, though. It refers to a person of integrity, honor, a sense of humanity, etc.

            1. My only point is that, to someone who knows no Jewish (Yiddish?), it doesn’t sound respectful like that. Maybe the Texans were being too suspicious of a word they didn’t know. With respect, I rather doubt your impression that they’d been systematically taught the (wrong) meaning of Jewish words – who would bother?

              But then, I guess this is Texas we’re talking about… (he says, happily slandering the Lone Star State)

              1. Should probably have said ‘Hebrew’ there. Sorry. Unfamiliarity.

              2. “a mentch” is Yiddish, meaning literally “a man” (cannot think of a better translation, but I think it’s very close).
                When used in the context discussed here, it means a person who behave like a man should (remember it’s a Jewish word, so throw macho out the window 😉 ) – with dignity, considerately, respectfully, responsibly etc.

              3. The fact is, I asked them. So, that is now I know they’d been taught what they believed and it wasn’t just a general misunderstanding. Neither had previously met the other, they came from completely different walks of life, I’d only just introduced them, and their responses were identical. That was, to me, downright chilling.

              4. Oh, then I agree. Uncomfortable to be misrepresented like that, and quite disconcerting.

                I’ve had it happen to me once, when I casually referred to some acquaintance in Rarotonga as a ‘silly bugger’. ‘Bugger’ in NZ is just a casual word for ‘bloke’ or a mild swearword, as in “Bugger! Some bugger left the gate open”. How was I to know that in Rarotonga people were unfamiliar with that and only knew its Biblical meaning?

              5. Nice! I wonder whether it’s a reflection on recent news that the KKK is opening its ranks to minorities in order to fill its membership? When googling, I saw sites debunking that news but didn’t click to read more. There’s a similar political party in Germany which is softening its tone for, of course, political reasons — i.e., to get more votes. I could see KKK whitewashing (oy! forgive the pun!) its stance to attract more followers with more money and political clout, just for awhile.

            2. My understanding is that mensch (clearly taken directly from the German for “man”) is always used in (in Yiddish) as a complement, as you have explained. It means an excellent person (AFAIK). Someone you want as a friend.

  33. It’s interesting that the bible’s version of things can be so discredited, and this understood by such believers, who nonetheless argue that the christian god is still real and can be found in the gaps – which are only there because our scientific understanding is not complete.

    I want to say to them: Aren’t you troubled that your story is in tatters? How can you still believe in it and actually argue that the intact threads are the proof? You have to see that your position is ridiculously weak, and that you yourself find the similar claims of all the other religions to be bunk.

  34. I find it amusing that many Xians when they feel put in a corner ask: “Well have you read the bible?” When you said ‘yes’ the guy gave the typical taken aback stance, and then just kept on ranting. But it’s amazing how often they ask this question. They think the real problem with atheists or nones is that they simply haven’t read the bible. So their underlining premise is, of course, that the word of God, the Truth, if read, is surely going to thwart any doubt and convert the heathens. It’s a magical holy-book dontcha know.

      1. In a way, that fits with one of my favourite aphorisms:

        “A man with one watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches isn’t so sure”.

    1. Jerry might have given the longer answer: “Yes, I read it from cover to cover over three months a year ago. Tedious, isn’t it?”

      Or, more provocatively: “… When did you last do that?”


    2. When I was at university an acquaintance of mine tried to persuade me to read the Bible. I (politely) demurred, I had better things to do with my time. He persisted and I just avoided him after that. I regarded it as somewhat rude and mildly offensive behaviour on his part. And besides, having been forced to read bits of it a decade earlier at sunday school, I doubted (with a very high degree of confidence) that any of it was going to change my opinions. Nor, to be honest, did I want to.

      1. Fundamental(ist) Christians get around answering that question by saying they read it “all the time.” What they really mean (and it comes out when questioned) is that they read cherry picked bits and pieces everyday, but never the entire book cover to cover. When pushed, it seems they’re afraid to do the latter. (Gee, I wonder why?)

  35. “I realize that I can’t dispel people’s belief in a one-hour lecture”

    No, but you may sow seeds of doubt that will eventually blossom. Religious faith is given such respect in our society that this may have been the first time these people had their beliefs challenged so directly.

    1. +1

      I’ve encountered many people who simply never give these things ANY thought, so when competing ideas enter the equation they are completely at a loss for how to deal with confronting challenges to their own beliefs.

      It amazes me that people can exist without being inquisitive or analytical, but nevertheless they are everywhere. The best we can hope for sometimes, at a minimum, is to simply plant seeds or get gears turning.

  36. Tough crowd, eh?

    Two comments:
    1. I used to believe in 99% of the Xian story. I strongly doubt that anyone is 100% believer. (Check the stories of the many “saints” and religious folk. All are plagued by doubts.) They will go off and mull over what you said. You will NEVER see a de-conversion event occur in public.

    2. I like Ingersoll’s statement “…our ignorance is God, what we know is science.”

    Thinking out loud…
    If A = C, and B = C, then A = B.
    Perhaps, when certain questions can be answered either of two ways, the two answers are equivalent.

    The following questions each have two answers, the preferable one depending on your world-view (or paradigm).

    What started the universe?
    What was there before the universe began?
    Why is there something rather than nothing?
    How did life emerge from non-life?
    Why do certain life-forms disappear?
    Why do we have so many species – why not more or less?
    What is the meaning of life?
    Why are we both selfish and selfless?
    Do we have a “soul”?
    If we have a “soul,” is it immortal?
    Is there an absolute right and wrong?
    Why do bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people?
    Etc., etc. ad nauseam.

    The two answers are “We don’t know, for certain” and “God” (God’s will, etc.).

    So, as Ingersoll succinctly said, “…Ignorance is God…”

    1. “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

      Why do people insist that there ever was or should have been nothing? (And I mean a philosophically absolute nothing, not Krauss’s nothing, which is still something, albeit lacking any structire.)

      Our only experience is that there is something.


      1. The philosophical conception of “nothing” is pure incoherence — and, not at all, I think, by coincidence. One of the best examples to give of what “nothing” is, and why it doesn’t exist, is, “That which is north of the North Pole.” Pondering why there should be something rather than nothing is akin to asking why we should all live south of the North Pole rather than north of it. Phrased like that, it’s obvious that the question itself is meaningless.

        Now, one might justly ponder why the reality that does exist should have humans asking these questions…but Lawrence’s bits about the quantum vacuum are then an appropriate answer.

        You could then wonder why the quantum vacuum should have the properties that it does that should result in humans who ponder this stuff…but, first, you’re now firmly in the territory of a young child whose response to every answer is, “Why?”…and, second, we can be quite certain that there will always be horizons past which we will not be able to see, and every entity, no matter how knowledgeable, will have such horizons. We know this from all the diagonalization-related works of mathematics, from the uncountability of the reals to Gödel’s famous theorem. Worse, or better, depending on your perspective…we’ll never even be able to tell if those horizons are ones that we might someday reach (only, of course, to discover even more horizons farther on) or if they’re the type of horizons that will forever remain infinitely distant. The unimaginably-but-finitely distant and the infinitely distant are indistinguishable until you get sufficiently close to the former, but it may well take more lifetimes than there are left to the human species to get even that close….


        1. You could then wonder why the quantum vacuum should have the properties that it does that should result in humans who ponder this stuff…but, first, you’re now firmly in the territory of a young child whose response to every answer is, “Why?”…

          Another way to put this is to say: Delta(x)*delta(p)=hbar/2 is a pretty good prime mover or causa causans candidate. Why should we reject it in favor of some other candidate with less empirical support?

        2. As I like to say: nobody believes in nothing. Not one person ever in the history of the world has truly believed in “nothing”.
          Atheist believe the the universe, or meta-universe, which is decidedly not philosophical “nothing”. Theists might believe in “God + nothing”, but that is not nothing either, is it?

          So “nothing” is a contrivance that no one believes exists, but which some people think is a killing argument anyway.

          1. What the argument boils down to is, “Jesus spoke the world into existence. You say Jesus didn’t do that, which would mean that Jesus never spoke the world into existence. But here we are in the world, so it must have been spoken into existence by Jesus; ergo Jesus.”

            That is, they can’t (or won’t) imagine that worlds can come about by any means other than through Jesus speaking them into existence; no Jesus, no existence. Any attempt on your part to point out all the other ways that things can come into existence fall on deaf ears, because they can’t get past the point that you need a Jesus to start it all.

            That sort of thing was somewhat defensible when Aristotelian metaphysics was the state of the art, but we’ve made it just a wee bit past that in the past couple millennia….


            1. What about this gambit? Ask a Christian this. Would you agree with me if the Bible said this?

              And Jesus said, “For I have not revealed all of my creation to you. Those who shall come shall look unto the plants, the beasts and the heavens and find that it is right. And I say this: follow them, that is the new covenant.

              Or some such nonsense. The implications of a ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I don’t accept the premise’ response are obvious for the rest of the audience. x

      2. Well said. I’ve noted this many times before.

        There is something. Why has/had there to be nothing (somewhere, some time)?

        * * *

        What caused your God?

        My God has always been (is outside of the universe (nyah-nyah-boo-boo!, obviously my God doesn’t need an explanation, He’s the ground of all being, nothing exists without Him, blah, blah, blah)

        Well, I declare that the universe has always been. We have no evidence to the contrary.

        1. If by, “universe,” we mean the same as Carl meant by, “Cosmos” — “all that is or ever was or will be; all that exists” — then the notion of something creating it is incoherent. To create something, you have to bring into existence that which did not already exist. So, if the Cosmos didn’t exist before Jesus created it, then Jesus can’t be part of the Cosmos. But that means that Jesus himself is not an entity that is or ever was or will be, that Jesus himself doesn’t exist. On the other horn, if we start instead with the assumption that Jesus is real and exists…well, then, he’s already part of the Cosmos, so how is he supposed to create that which already exists?

          Theists have a damned hard time with set theory….



          1. Hate to give them ideas, but there is something called non-well founded set theory, where sets can be members of themselves.

            I cannot remember off hand why this was invented, other than “neat! we can do this!”, but …

  37. This reminds me of a similar pattern I noticed in my intro to philosophy class. Student participation was just about OK for topics that I find truly fascinating (well, maybe that says more about my skills as a newbie instructor), but when we got to the problem of evil (the only God-related topic on my syllabus), all of a sudden there were hands up every corner of the classroom. And I was treated to some of the most stupid and outrageous claims I’ve ever heard — and these from young people who seem otherwise intelligent and morally sensitive — that infant death is a “test for parents’ faith”, that earthquakes are God’s way to punish sinners, or to “make us realize we have sinned”, and so on. Some students (religious, of course) were visibly emotional. One of them, who insisted that dying in an earthquake is an “experience” that God planned for the victim, as if that would exonerate Him, got so worked up that she would not answer my question whether the “experience” is good, bad, or perhaps neutral. “It’s an experience,” is all she would say.

    Of course I have read about all those terrible “solutions” to the problem of evil before, but like Jerry said, it’s quite a different thing to hear them in person. I felt I was a bit annoyed, though of course I tried to maintain an appropriate tone (I think I did well) and do my best to make the students realize the absurdity of their position themselves. How successful I was, I don’t know (probably not very: I’m grading papers now, and am seeing the same fallacies repeated, and objections discussed in class ignored). I can only take comfort in the thought that, unlike Jerry’s audience at the club, these are young people who are hopefully more open-minded, so there may still be a possibility that someday they will outlive their faith.

  38. Wow. That was a fantastic piece. Thanks so much for taking the time and efforts to articulate your experience so well.

    Your confidant is a very wise person. You’re very lucky to have such a person at your side.

    I know this experience very well. I experience it nearly daily, oftentimes multiple times during the day. Just pointing out, for example, that my daily newspaper egregiously pollutes the entire paper with references to the Bible, Bible psalms and proverbs, three full pages every Saturday of fundamentalist religious nonsense and an endless supply of front page coverage of church socials brings rolled eyes and a chorus of “Oh, Christ, There he goes again!” There is simply nothing I could every say that about religious incursion in our lives that doesn’t have them rolling their eyes and expressing their irritation with me.

    I’ve basically lost connections with all of my family because of this, even my own sister, a hard-core, Bible-thumping southern fundie who, at the tender age of 54, stood in front of me with her husband and asked me to “accept Jesus before it’s too late.” That was the day I really gave up. Anyone who could do something like that to a brother of 54 years and who clearly has every bit of evidence for my atheism staring her in the face, I viewed as a pathetically hopeless cause.

    But, I’ve found that it’s really all a matter of degree. My sister may be at one extreme in this respect, but every person who invests themselves in religious dogma basically fits the same bill. They’re all driven by a combination of fear of having to think that they may have invested a substantial portion of their lives to a delusion, fear of a vengeful deity for even thinking that this may be a possibility, primordial-level guilt, a heaping portion of willful ignorance and stupidity and last but not least, a troubling level of paranoia that even Freud would have a difficulty.

    This combination drives an anger that is buried beneath only a few of their epidermis cells. It’s at the ready to pop out at any second.

    Get used to it. The more one ventures away from the presence of those who love learning and actively seek the wisdom of our species greatest thinkers, the more this ugly green head will rear itself.

    And it will constantly do so in the most unlikely places.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience. I helped me to recall some of my experiences as well.

    1. “Wow. That was a fantastic piece.”

      I agree. Strangely enough I found I enjoyed this article more than Jerry’s usual.

  39. my interlocutor said, that’s simply the tactic of physicists determined to keep God out of the picture…

    I think this, more than the fusillade of other non sequiturs you covered, highlights the main point of your book. Physicists are not determined to keep God out of the picture. Like other scientists, they are determined to figure out what does fit into the picture. You may critique the multiverse (and of course there are physicists who have done so), but you may not then insert whatever “most reasonable” explanation you think makes sense based on nothing but your subjective opinion. Here is where the incompatibility of science and religion shows itself beautifully.

    As for the god of the gaps claims, you could respond that you’re willing to accept that so long as they acknowledge that God’s love shrinks every day (or as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance”). Of course, this may not be taking the route of being empathetic to their views! :p

  40. Jerry, you received good advice. I also think Hitch was absolutely the best with rude confrontation and could gently disarm them (e.g. to the question ‘why publicly inflame Christians? Why not just stay home?’) but also hammer wooly thinking.

    I would not advocate Dawkins’ terse and compassion-free retort ‘then you are suffering a delusion’.

    I might recommend taking off your scientific hat for a moment and engaging your interlocuter on a philosophical front such as “…but ask yourself how you came to be a Christian. The truth is, your faith is a by-product of geography because if you grew up in Saudi Arabia or Japan, you would be a Muslim or Buddhist/Shintoist.”

  41. I must expect this kind of reaction when I make statements that pull the rug out from under people’s cherished beliefs. A talk like mine, which basically shows the intellectual vacuity of both regular belief and Sophisticated Theology™, is an attack not merely on irrationality, but on emotions that run deep, and on worldviews that have been held for a lifetime. The gentleman who responded with such ardor (and a few others who responded with clear but not as strong emotion), were, I think, motivated not by anger, but by fear—unconscious fear that they might be wrong.

    Right on! I think this is it and why they react so strongly (and irrationally) and get so angry. I’ve seen it many times.

    1. It’s worse than that. No one likes to be wrong, of course, but most people have experienced it without too much trauma. What they are afraid of is that they are wrong about the reality of God but right about the implications… that without God there is no hope, no beauty, no goodness, no morality, no love, kindness, etc. They have be indoctrinated to think that those things intrinsically flow from belief in God. So when someone says, “There is no God”, what they hear is that “There is no goodness, morality, beauty, love, hope, etc.” And who wouldn’t be afraid of that message?

  42. for many people, religion isn’t just a Sunday avocation, but something they’ve absorbed and made the core of their being. To a large part, it is their identity.

    I think this a very big big part of:
    1) the Islamophobia card
    2) the unwarranted respect for religion in many societies
    3) why we are called racist for criticizing the ideas of Islam or Xianity.

  43. I need to absorb the idea that aggressive and sometimes offensive lines of questioning, and the refusal to listen to my answers, simply reflect on the background and religiosity of the questioner, and on the fact that I am undercutting a lifetime’s worth of unquestioned belief. As I’m a determinist, that lesson should be obvious.

    I have been involved in many incidents of workplace arguments, some of them quite heated, ending up with shouting and table-pounding.

    When I was younger, this really upset me (that was the intent of the behavior after all).

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to (mostly) shut that off, realize that it’s about the other person, and, in all likelihood, it’s just a conscious show they are putting on — as indeed it is often. An hour (or a day) later, we can get about our work without thinking further about the argument.

    What I tell young engineers is: Put forward your position clearly and strongly. but be prepared for management to decide against you. You then (figuratively) salute smartly and march in the direction your boss has chosen.

    These follow from my rules of work:

    1) Show up
    2) Support your boss
    3) Never let your boss be surprised
    4) Never lose your temper
    5) Ask for what you want
    6) Work real hard (do your best)

  44. On the issue of how to open people’s minds to our arguments (e.g. like Jerry’s), I’ve come to some tentative conclusions based on
    decades of debating with theists.

    On the subject, for instance, of science being incompatible with religious faith it’s a cruel irony that the very term “Science” can in a way an impediment to making the point.

    The term “science” brings to the mind of most people sets of assumptions: science is a conscribed activity, with certain rules you follow “when I’m doing science.” It’s “what you do when you don the white lab coat.” Science is “for investigating the NATURAL world” etc. Even most scientists think of and speak of science in this way.

    But the very fact science is taken to be an already conscribed, delineated activity that “you do when doing science and not elsewhere” puts a border around science. And this presumed border is what allows people to place other things they want to believe in – e.g. fringe/new age/emotional/religious claims – OUTSIDE the border, where science doesn’t touch it. That way they can see science as “over there, on that side of the divide, and the thing I want to believe outside it’s purview.”

    This is why, I believe, that when the atheist argues in a way that appeals to broad terms – “In science we take these scrupulous measures…but in your religious beliefs you do not…” it’s already lost 1/2 the battle, insofar as it’s a way of talking that still allows the believer’s mind to see two separate spheres being compared. They will keep imagining and placing what they want to believe OUTSIDE the sphere of science
    if this visualization is allowed to persist (see the attempts by the faithful to do so in the Q&A referenced by Jerry).

    It therefore strikes me as better to concentrate not on “how science is done” but on the WHY science is done as it is. And since it turns out that science ultimately arose from absolutely fundamental problems in understanding reality – practically “any” reality – you can appeal to these problems without even raising the term “science” to start off.

    One can appeal to very basic scenarios which clearly reveal epistemic problems that *anyone* can recognize would have to be solved.

    1. In some cases the borders are real and rational. The scientific method works best when you have the time and resources to collect appropriate data, analyze it, and then act on it. It also works best in situations where “I don’t know” or “needs more data before I can act” are acceptable outcomes. If you’re short on time or resources, or if you can’t punt until you get more data, it is often not that good.

      The problem here isn’t that there can be stuff outside of science or that there can be nonscientific methods for decision-making. The problem is that revelation is so very bad as a method for pretty much anything but the most trivial decisions – and even for those, it doesn’t outperform simply going with your preference. Maybe there are ‘other ways of knowing.’ There are definitely ‘other ways of deciding.’ But that particular way of deciding sucks.

  45. “…who buys books on religious studies except REAL members of the choir.”

    I take your point, and these days with the Internet and Wiki, who needs to buy that stuff. But was a time when I did buy (or acquire) a few things, finding a book on Inerrancy I picked up in a Christian book store quite useful to try to understand those folks. And Walter Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults is fun reading. Got Dianetcis and Science and Health, too, but didn’t pay for them.

  46. “but he went on to say say that the story of Jesus in the Bible must have been true, because it reads as if it were true; and, after all, it must be true because five women reported seeing Jesus’s empty tomb, and that couldn’t be fiction because nobody would have believed women in that era. (You’ve probably heard this argument before, which I’ll call The Argument for God from Sexism).”

    The number of women involved depends on which of the gospels you read.

    “In addition, the gentleman said that thousands of people were reported to have seen Jesus after he was resurrected.”

    Wowza. This gentleman cannot distinguish between thousands of eyewitness reports, and a report of thousands of eyewitnesses.

  47. “I was told that scientists are unable to explain the origin of living creatures…”

    Interesting how “science hasn’t” gets shifted to “science can’t” and then to “science will never be able to.”

  48. On the bright side: The questions you got will keep coming up over and over, because they’ve got nothing else. So now that you have had a fair sampling, you can put a little thought into responses that are effective while not being unnecessarily offensive, and you will be set for the rest of your book tour.

  49. Telling people that they are going to die, for real, is a tough sell. It’s probably easier to market fridges to the Inuit. I guess it went fine, given the circumstances, and you are a bit too worried. With that said, here are some general tricks for those interested (I often failed to heed them as well) …

    (1) Pick people up where they are. If you expect such an audience, try to take this almost literal. You are the Christian in the front row, what’s on his mind when you start talking? Maybe address them like this “You probably believe in Jesus all your life, and now this professor is coming and tries to pull the rug from under you…”, this eases out the confrontation and if you find some angle, you can take the audience with you on your journey. Of course, don’t compromise your message, just don’t throw ice-cold water from the Inuit fridge into their faces (or the fridge itself. Provocation is another strategy, it just doesn’t work with every audience and subjects).

    (2) Let them do the math. Like the first, it’s easier said than done, but if you can make it so that they add 2+2 together, before you say it, they feel more in control and it’s easier to convince them. You can do that, say, with rhetorical questions that are easily answerable given the information you presented just before. “What will the Inuit say when you try to sell them fridges? No thanks”.

    (3) Wrap it in a story. Introduce characters or recurring motifs and hang your questions and examples onto them. Maybe there is Sophisticated Theologian™ who is featured in the rhetorical questions. What would he do when confronted with such questions? It’s also a stylistic choice, but instead of talking about the matters directly, you can also make this about how you – the atheist professor – struggles to convince believers, and the talking points are embedded. Imagine you tell the story of a merchant who wanted to sell fridges to the Inuit and how he’s laughed out of the igloo. Even if the audience were Inuit, they’re now with the hapless merchant and maybe want him succeed. The talk is still mostly about the technical features of the fridge, but it’s now more relatable and even if people can’t agree, they still take something away.

  50. “In other words, at least among those at my talk, god-of-the-gaps arguments were pervasive—and convincing.”

    In other words, it was like arguing in a comment section on the internet, save a little more courteous?

  51. Well, I just read your Reddit AMA, and I thought your answers were great. I’ve been reading this website for a year or so, and I’m used to the more forthright style you use in your own house, as Prof CC. In the AMA I thought the control with which your were composing your arguments was very effective–you were clear, you were controlled, friendly, and empathetic. Because Reddit is often such an obnoxious place, I was worried that you would be harassed (although the science subreddits aren’t as bad as some the other idiot subs). I felt very proud of you! “Hey, that’s Jerry, I know him!”

  52. The lovely Ingersoll quote reminds me of this now well known cartoon, but it may not be known to the audience that you faced.

  53. Prof CC:

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

    I think I can comment on this because I’ve had some training in critical thinking (yes, it can be taught), as well as having taught it for a year. Intellectual empathy is basically the skill of being able to dissect someone else’s logic and paraphrase it to their satisfaction. Along those lines, a good opener would be “If I understand you, you are saying that . . .” And if they agree, then you have points to argue or questions to ask. I prefer to ask questions (a la Socrates) than to make it obviously a right/wrong kind of thing. That takes time, of course, and probably wouldn’t work in a Q&A after a talk.

    You are exactly right that deeply religious persons identify with their beliefs. Of course this is an obstacle to becoming a critical thinker. If people identify with anything, it should be with how they came to their beliefs rather than the beliefs themselves. But persons like the gentleman with whom you had that exchange don’t understand what that means. They need to be part of a belief system. Perhaps “addicted” is too strong a word, but I see a few parallels there.

  54. One thing I realize is that as I talk about the book, particularly in non-secular places, other people’s anger and fear will be activated, and I need to find ways to defuse it.

    One strategy might be to address their unstated anxieties about what a world without Christianity might be like. Christians aren’t merely afraid of being wrong. They are afraid of a bleak and nihilistic world view.

    Being a Christian is, for many, core to their identity, what they regard to be the most important fact about them, the fact that they believe tells you all you need to know about their character. So it’s hard to attack Christianity without seeming to attack their person. But more than that, many Christians have absorbed the idea that ALL good things flow from God in general, and Christianity in particular. That Christianity actually gave the world love, hope, kindness, awe, wonder, morality, and so on. Of the various things Christians might believe (that there is a Heaven they might go to, etc.), my personal experience is that there is nothing they believe more blindly, more strongly, than this: “Christianity is the source of all morality and goodness”.

    As a result, when you say “science conflicts with Christianity”, it comes across to many as saying “science conflicts with all good things”. It comes across as a bleak and hopeless vision of the world, a world without love, kindness, hope, awe, wonder, morality, etc. They are terrified, and so they react accordingly.

    I don’t know, but it might be a useful defusing strategy to address this anxiety head on before addressing the general conflict between science and religion. If you can get them to visualize how life might proceed uncataclysmically without religion, then they might be able to face the news that science and religion have deep conflicts with a little more equanimity.


    The gentleman who responded with such ardor (and a few others who responded with clear but not as strong emotion), were, I think, motivated not by anger, but by fear—unconscious fear that they might be wrong.

    Most public anger is motivated by fear, I think. Yoda had it right:

    “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

    It might be more productive to sooth the fear than to fight with the anger that comes from it.

  55. Q&A for scientists ia Q&A except for that one person and we all know who they are. Public meetings they treat it as an excuse to just go on and on and never ever ask a question

  56. As someone else mentioned, I’ve found humor to be the best way by far to disarm other people’s anger during any contentious discussions. My cousin is a devout Christian and over the last year or so, we’ve been having discussions/debates on various issues and we’ve both found our sense of humor to be a great way to make such heavy topics easier to discuss. So, my suggestion is to work on your comedic timing. 🙂

    Here’s one of my favorite bits on where religions came from. I give you Sky Cake…

    1. Thumbs up on a Patton Oswalt video, he’s great. (Though I don’t think you’re supposed to embed them.)

  57. I applaud your candor and courage. Yes, Hitchens seemed to relish his exchanges with the close-minded and it was thrilling to watch and listen. But he was a seasoned debater of an exceptionally quick mind–a verbal pugilist. I admire your willingness to try to empathize with those who cling to weak arguments. The.anger is a mask I think for.the.fear.of.having to let go of simple.unsupported beliefs Which they have never heard challenged in a.public forum. Bravo to you. Thanks for making atheism respectable.

  58. Let this experience with the thoughtless arguments made by well-to-do downtown sophistos stand in contradiction of the criticism you’re sure to hear that your book presents a simplistic characterization of faith rather than the nuanced faith actually lived and practiced here in the U.S.

    1. Oooh…excellent point!

      Just as Jerry no more needs to put up with, “But you haven’t read all the truly sophisticated theology!” he also is past, “Nobody actually believes that!” Never mind that the polls have been saying exactly that for forever; the people who come to hear him talk are saying it as well.

      Jerry, it was obviously uncomfortable for many in the room, including you…but that audience is exactly the one who most needs to hear what you have to say, and it’s also probably typical of the audiences you’re going to get. The more you hone your skills at directly speaking to them, the better the world as an whole becomes.


  59. When people start with the God of the gaps arguments, I think a good response is to simply ask them, Is this why you believe in God? Were you a non believer and were convinced of God’s existence when you learned of the fine tuning argument, for example. In most cases, the answer is of course no, they were either raised in a particular religious tradition or had some sort of emotional or social experience that convinced them. Get these people to acknowledge that the arguments they are making are not the reasons they are believers. Once they realize that, it may make for a more fruitful discussion about what they believe, and more importantly, why.

  60. I tend to work on my laptop in coffee-shops and get accosted by religious folk every so often. It is odd, but it is as if they can’t hear you; rather than respond to one’s rebuttal of their opening shot, they assign a ‘this approach failed’ to your response and either start again on a different tack or flounce off. I eventually resorted to simply asking them where their sword was, given that Luke 22:36 says they should sell their garment and buy one. FvF will be useful in these little conversations.

    If Professor Coyne’s book tour were happening in the UK, the response would likely be violent, due to the comment at the end of the book that ‘if Muslims knew that Muhammad, like Joseph Smith, was making up the words that became dogma…’.

  61. Heh. Check out the latest Amazon reviews for FvF:

    Wayne Robinson on May 21, 2015:
    “… And Jerry Coyne is too much of an ‘accommodationist’ for me…”

    1. Blimey. Is Wayne Robinson part of some atheist jihad I hadn’t heard of? I’d call PCC many things (all of them complementary, of course), but ‘accomodationist’ isn’t one of them.

      1. I used to be an accommodationalist, but my patience has been brought to snapping point this week by a creationist. I was inspired by Jerry Coyne’s argument that you should only use the evidence to lead you to the conclusions. I’d previously defended and supported Bart Ehrman’s view that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher with a lot of myth added. Richard Carrier has convinced me otherwise, that Jesus was myth from the start.

        I promise to mellow when I forget about the current creationist. I did mellow when Michael Egnor stopped writing on his blog ‘Egnorance’ last year.

  62. A contrary view.

    In this Q&A chess game strategy, rather than developing “more empathy” for the angry irrational evidence-avoiding belligerent … cultivate instead more empathy for that person three rows over who’s listening, annoyed by the rudeness of the red-faced buffoon, and a tiny bit curious about the factual claims of the confident professor.

    Make the buffoon angrier and more irrational – but in a very polite, quiet tone. (One that “turneth away wrath.”) Something like “clearly you haven’t read my book. You’d see in Chapter 7 I dealt with your question …” Get him to sputter more.

    You are never never never going to get him to buy the book, or escape the pre-scientific world. But you just might create enough theatrical contrast to get that other listener thinking. She or he is your real target.

    1. Your specific suggestion “clearly you haven’t read my book” isn’t going to impress many people, given that the book has only just been released! But the general approach of giving a belligerent Christian enough rope to hang himself could well be a good one in an audience with a lot of fence-sitters. In an audience consisting overwhelmingly of Christians the empathic approach seems to be a better bet.

  63. Professor, first up, nice one mate! taking them on in their territory where they feel comfortable. I also think you are correct in regards to the fear factor, the title of the new book would have set that up just nicely.
    For me, you were not there to change their way of life, their minds, their belief in any god, that would be desirable but not the aim, it was to show how science has impacted on faith… as per the book.
    Is there some way to defuse any pre conceived ideas of you and them tribal shit, find the personal level at this sort of talk. Those that are up for it (confrontation) will still come at you but others may be settled enough to listen and I feel that is enough. After all it was a talk with Q&A not a full fledged debate.

  64. Thanks for sharing Jerry Coyne 🙂

    Your comment about “interstices of our scientific understanding” was quite telling.

    It seems to me that science itself is responsible for the increasing discovery of ‘gaps’ in its own understanding.

    …bigger and bigger gaps.
    …more and more gaps.

    The distant ‘horizon’ (of eventual, complete understanding) keeps moving further and further away each time we look through a new telescope or microscope or Hadron Colider.

    Multiverse theory? Wormholes? LOL

    I was reading The Magicians Nephew (CS Lewis) when I was 7 years old.

  65. “he “fine tuning” of the universe can be explained only by God”
    After reading Steven Weinberg’s new book on the history of science, I really wonder why people think fine-tuning is such a good argument. Even if a life-permitting universe could only exist under an incredibly small range of possible universes, they are just that: life-permitting. As Weinberg points out, no laws are going to be able to explain the contingencies of how our universe is the way it is (such as answering “why are there 8 planets?”), so one still has to account for plenty of contingent facts that cannot be part of a theory of fine-tuning in order to get persons out of the universe. So even the strongest claim about fine-tuning runs into the problem of the predominance of stochastic processes that determines the actual world.

    “Remember that these people are certainly not Biblical literalists.”
    When I debate with believers, they always contrast themselves with the literalists who have misunderstood and misrepresented religion. In other words, a literalist is someone who is not them; including the critics of religion who haven’t addressed their exact view specifically. This is also what I find in critics of the new atheists, who dismiss the works as attacking a “literalist” conception even though they do nothing of the sort.

    1. “The gentleman who responded with such ardor (and a few others who responded with clear but not as strong emotion), were, I think, motivated not by anger, but by fear—unconscious fear that they might be wrong.”
      This reminds me of another exchange I had. A theist asked me to present the 5 best arguments against the existence of God, and he would in turn show me how they were all “hopelessly flawed” (his words). When I did this, the guy had a sort of breakdown. He got incredibly dismissive and aggressive, which eventually led to him blocking people who responded to him negatively.

      I was also accused of arguing a straw man; that my arguments simply didn’t address the God he believed in. When I pointed out that he was making the claims my arguments addressed, his reply was that I left off a crucial aspect (that God can be known by our emotional reaction to reading The Bible), so any of the other criticisms don’t apply. So much effort was put into saying “missed me” that no consideration was given as to how denying what I was arguing against would mean for his own concept.

      It was all a sad reminder that even when I put the effort into indulging theists about their beliefs, they will still find something that’s an affront and dismiss you on those grounds.

  66. Science moves forward, one funeral at a time. – Max Planck

    And paraphrasing Kenny Rogers: The best that you can hope for is they’ll die in their sleep.

  67. Would it be useful to have a wingman in attendance, when you give talks in potentially hostile venues, Dr. C? Just a thought. S/he could be a source of moral support and might even supply one or two reasonable queries.

  68. Jerry, if it helps any, Robert Reich sets a very good example of how to give such none-accomodationist talks to even the most hostile audiences and appear completely at ease and in control. Although he appears very talented at public speaking, I’m sure that talent came from hard work. Just plug his name into YouTube. I tried to find one in which he was badly heckled, but he manages the crowd so well…

  69. This story about older listeners who like their dogma and like the sound of their (oft-posed) questions more than the answers reminds me of a story about Niels Bohr being interviewed (story from a credible – to me – source and even if untrue, I like to think it could have been true) and asked the question, “Is your atomic theory being accepted by the scientific community?” responded, “Yes, one funeral at a time.”

  70. “Personal Relationship” Professor, this is a moving post. THANK YOU!

    You may not be capable of empathy without feeling the personal relationship life long believers have cultured with this authority figure. The gaps are really what they filled to cement their love to what they feel to be true. Your arguments are tearing at their personal love like destroying the existence of a loved one. What you saw was the only reaction possible as you stated

    I am an X believer and can remember the sadness I felt for losing a personal confidante, father, brother or whatever he was to me. I was ready to let go and liberated by unbelief that took nearly a decade to unravel. I despise the lie but feel sorry for the believers.

    Please keep up the good fight for those that can be reached.

  71. “One thing I realize is that as I talk about the book, particularly in non-secular places, other people’s anger and fear will be activated, and I need to find ways to defuse it.”

    From my experience as a Christian, these are people who are used to being preached to and having their doubts explained away; they are not encouraged to just ask questions and see where they go. I think you should make it clear at the start that you are not preaching at them nor telling them what to think: you are presenting them with thoughts and evidence and just asking them to think about it and go on the journey of discovery with you. Perhaps they will draw different conclusions, as is their right. You are not delivering ultimate truths from on high: you are delivering a well-researched and well-reasoned opinion. Questions, skepticism and doubts are to be encouraged, for they are what yield robust conclusions in the first place.

  72. I empathize with you, Jerry. Since everybody else has commented, I guess I’ll throw in my two cents worth as well. I once had a fundamentalist (Protestant) acquaintance. For several months we had been arguing back and forth about religion. One day I threw in the conundrum: “Can God make a rock he cannot move? If yes, then God is not all-powerful because there’s one thing he can’t do. If no, then God is not all-powerful because there’s still one thing he can’t do.” His reply was: I don’t care what you say, God is still all-powerful. I just laughed and let the discussion go. What can you do?

  73. I agree with everyone else here–fascinating post!

    Random thoughts:

    1. What a good sample of what the rest of the book tour is likely to be like.

    2….because those most likely to show up for such book talks are going to be those most incensed by it.

    3. Now that you know exactly what questions you’re going to hear again and again, you have a perfect opportunity to hone your responses. (Though I thought the answers you did give were quite impressive.)

    4. Perhaps even, knowing which questions are inevitable, you could have slides ready bulleting the obvious responses to certain questions.

    5. Controversy might be a very positive thing for a book tour! I hope your publicists know how to play this up!

    6. As others have said above, remember that while you’re answering the intractably doctrinaire, you are probably actually reaching the quiet but thinking members of the audience who are persuadable.

    7. Given that you’re bound to get this sort of pushback at most stops, it’s rather important that those of us supporters who can show up at each book talk, do so! Even just enthusiastic applause is going to affect the impressions of the fence-sitters in the audience.

    8. While I agree that compassion and an attempt at understanding will go a long ways, you’re also going to run into a lot of smug smilers, as docbill mentions above. These people are not going to react positively no matter what you do, but they’re programmed to respond to authoritarianism, not compassion, so you might as well be confident and blunt with them.

  74. A wise person once told me that people like to change their mind in private. So you may have had more effect than it seemed in the moment.

    1. That is indeed true.

      And people rarely like to admit, even to themselves, that they were dead wrong, so instead of a sharp U-turn it’s more like a gradual change of direction, over time they will concede some unimportant points, then a few more, until after a while they’re heading in the opposite direction to where they started.

  75. Christopher Hitchens gave a speech to a crowd of atheists in 2003, and several people in the Q&A portion blathered endlessly into the microphone while failing to ask cogent questions. When the moderator finally asked one of these people to get on with it, Hitchens exclaimed with gratitude; he’d felt constrained by politeness not to do it himself, and had by been driven half-mad by the moderator’s failure to rein the babblers in.

    Jerry, I strongly suggest you give your moderators a little talk beforehand, asking them to clearly instruct people to keep their comments and questions to under a minute (and to enforce this rule).

  76. Pro tip for the next time someone brings up the fine-tuned-universe “argument” (and you can bet they will): don’t take it seriously. Don’t take the bait and engage by bringing up the multi-verse hypothesis.

    Notice that they aren’t just claiming the universe is fine-tuned (as it appears to be), but rather that the universe is fine-tuned so that we could be here. Notice that this is the same conceited folly at the core of all religious belief: “The universe was made to have me in it. I’m part of THE PLAN. How wonderful!”

    Point out that this is rather like the sentient puddle, described by Douglas Adams, marveling at how well its pot-hole fits it. Do this, and much silly divination will be short circuited.

    Good luck, and happy hunting!

  77. Thanks for this timely post, Professor. I had an argument of a religious nature last night with my mother and it wasn’t pretty. While I technically “won” it was disturbing how far gone she is and that her religious beliefs may irreparably damage our relationship in the future if we’re not careful. Today I’m not angry or resentful at all, but only empathic and a little bit sad. Sad that these ridiculous beliefs prevent me from adequately expressing myself as a family member and my own mother is delusional beyond all help. I know I’m far from being the only one to have these run ins with religious relatives, but it’s good to read your experience with your audience. It was very edifying. Thanks again.

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