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!