Dawkins at UT, Part 2

II (cont’d): The Lecture

To wrap this up: Another memorable part of the talk involved Dawkins’ response to Christians who take offense at the supposedly rude and aggressive tone he allegedly uses. While saying that he’d rather be known as a “friend of truth” more than an “enemy of religion,” he admitted to being unable to resist “humorous broadsides” against religion and its believers. He compared some of the passages in TGD that Christians have singled out as especially offensive to other examples of criticism, like restaurant reviews in British newspapers, some of which are so scathing and insulting they must be seen to be believed. And these kinds of verbal assaults can be harmful, Dawkins pointed out, as chefs “really exist, while blasphemy is a victimless crime.”

Again, we go back to the problem of religion’s unmerited privilege of being considered outside the purview of criticism. Everyone today, but especially believers, have gotten used to the idea that we shouldn’t be offended, ever, Dawkins noted. But there’s no rule that says we have some innate right to expect that, especially in a culture that promotes the free exchange of ideas. In fact, there are many things we should be offended by, like religious fatwas and female genital mutilation. Dawkins went through a list of human atrocities we have a moral duty to find offensive — many of them doled out with the tacit approval of someone’s religion — accompanied by a series of slides that elicited ever-increasing applause. It was a touchstone moment of the whole evening’s talk.

The idea of how offensive believers find challenges to belief struck a chord with me, as one thing I’ve noticed over the years is the way in which Christianity in America has managed to become, despite its overwhelming presence in the cultural mainstream, something of an isolated subculture at the same time. There are Christian bookstores, and Christian radio stations, and Christian colleges, and Christian rock bands, and Christian sports teams, and Christian versions of the Yellow Pages that help Christian consumers shop only at overtly Christian businesses. All this sort of thing contributes to an environment where believers can effectively shield themselves from any viewpoint that doesn’t embrace and reinforce Christian dogmas and beliefs. To many Christians, you don’t even have to be overtly offensive — Don Imus or Ann Coulter style — to offend them. Merely declaring your atheism openly, and not having the good taste to keep your distasteful disbelief to yourself, can be enough to set many believers off.

And it’s a fact as well that many Christians who whine about how offensive Dawkins is never think to see what’s coming out of their own camp. Even in the comments a few posts down, we get Rhology whining, “Come on, are you really trying to make Dawkins into a guy who never says anythg offensive about Christians?” Well, sure he does, but it’s usually in the form of jokes and jabs, as he did last night, in a crack comparing “Christian thinkers…and intelligent people. (Raises hands, chuckles) My apologies!”

Yeah, I guess compared to the recent hateful homophobic rant against gays spewed by Oklahoma representative Sally Kern (a rant enthusiastically supported by her fellow GOP Christian right colleagues and the Thomas More Law Center, who vowed to follow up their wonderful epic fail in Dover by defending Kern against the onslaught of whatever legal action teh gayz were sure to hit her with); compared to the sewage you hear spew from the likes of Coulter and Michael Savage; compared to the way pricks like Ben Stein and Dinesh D’Souza draw links between science and atheism and Hitler and Joe Stalin; compared to the way Judge John E. Jones had to have his whole family protected by U.S. Marshals following his ruling in the Dover trial due to all the death threats they received by loving anti-evolutionist Christians…

Yeah, compared to all that, I can see just how offensive Richard Dawkins is because he wrote a book and went on a promotional tour and cracks the odd joke.

Cry me a river.

Anyway, those are just a couple of highlights from what was, on the whole, an upbeat talk, entertaining, witty, informative, but also passionate and serious in its message and its aim of raising public consciousness to the free ride ancient superstitions have gotten in our culture, and our need to question just how long that free ride should continue. Dawkins ended on a moving and elegaic note, reading the opening paragraph to Unweaving the Rainbow, which he’s earmarked to be read at his own funeral and which I’ll let you read for yourself.

III. The Q&A

The Q&A only went for about seven or eight people, I think, mainly because he took a couple of questions at the beginning. But one or two of the questions were memorable.

One guy asked about Expelled, and Dawkins wasted no time in castigating the film and informing everyone of the way in which he and PZ Myers and Genie Scott were lied to by the producers in order to secure their participation. Based on the internet trailer that’s been up for a while, Dawkins felt confident the film would not “convince anyone who wasn’t already an ignorant fool.” Of course, as the whole planet now knows, Dawkins saw the movie Thursday night in Minneapolis, at a screening Myers was bizarrely ejected from. I’m sure we’ll now hear his informed opinion of what a loathsome pack of lies it is now he’s seen it, pretty quick. (Especially the way the filmmakers doubtless edited his interview to make him look a fool. As a filmmaker myself, I can attest: you can create any effect you wish on the editing suite.)

However, Dawkins did make a very good point regarding effective ways to mount rebuttals to Expelled that I hadn’t considered.

The questioner had also asked whether the scientific community needed to rush a pro-evolution documentary into production to counter Ben Stein’s bullshit conspiracy-theory agitprop. This was also a topic brought up in a thread on Pharyngula. After pointing out the obvious fact that making films professionally is a damned expensive hobby, Dawkins suggested that such venues as YouTube would work just fine for taking down Expelled‘s campaign of lies. In this age of ubiquitous self-documentation and pervasive video cameras, it’s a head-smackingly obvious solution.

For one thing, I don’t think Expelled is going to do much theatrical business beyond a possible “church bus bubble” in its first few days of release. (And it helps to remember that the producers are offering Christian schools cash payouts to take their classes on field trips to see it!) As an independent and a documentary (sorry, I’m now slipping into movie biz mode), it won’t open wide and it won’t do Narnia numbers. Whatever audience it has will almost certainly come through DVD sales campaigns to churches. So there’s no need to rush a cinematic rebuttal before the cameras, and in fact, to do so might have the ironic effect of legitimizing it.

But I can certainly see thousands of biology undergraduates simply dismantling Stein’s folly piece by piece and scene by scene with their webcams. Bring it on, gang.

Another questioner asked Dawkins what he thought about the transhumanist ideas of Ray Kurzweil, and the possible future in which biology and technology began to merge. Dawkins allowed as how, as a “product of the century I was born in,” the notion of such a merging kind of frightened him. Much of transhumanism sounds like science fiction, he noted, but went onto add that he liked science fiction, and who knows, it might be possible that the biotech future some people predict may in fact occur.

The talk finally ended with another rapturous ovation,
after which Dawkins signed books for a line that bled out onto the sidewalk. An enjoyable evening for one and all. Except, perhaps, for any religious fundamentalist cowering in the nosebleed seats.

IV: The Meetup

When I announced the AE Blog Meetup for the Spiderhouse following the talk, I expected maybe five or six people to turn up at most. I eventually took a head count of around 18 of us at the peak of it, and we ended up taking over the Spiderhouse’s entire front room (chasing off some poor woman who up until then had had it all to herself, sitting with her coffee, iPod, and reading her book — sorry, whoever you were). I saw some old friends I hadn’t talked to in ages, and met quite a few awesome new folks, including several students from Atheist Longhorns. (And boy, was their profile on campus ever raised by this event!) It was a great way to wind down at the end of a long and most gratifying day, and after a Shiner and one slice of rich chocolate espresso cake, it was time for me to turn into a pumpkin. Fade out.

It will be kind of difficult for CFI-Austin to top an event like this in scale and public enthusiasm. But still, this is a hell of a long way for the positive promotion of atheism to have come, just since the days nine years ago when I first joined ACA, and you could fit all of Austin’s outed atheists into one dinky bagel shop on 5th Street. An event like tonight really made me feel like I’m part of an exciting and vital community, hopefully one that will someday succeed in taking Richard Dawkins’ goal of consciousness-raising to an even larger scale.

Good night and good luck.

Report: Dawkins at UT, Part 1

Okay, I’ve had a good night’s sleep, gotten a few morning errands done, and now I’m ready to sit down and hammer out my report about yesterday. The short version: a phenomenal and surprising success. If you had told me a scant four years ago that atheism would have such a high public profile, let alone that a prominent atheist scientist wouldn’t just be a guy who wrote books only grad students bought but be traveling around the country treated like a rock star, I wouldn’t have believed you. Dawkins’ wrote in The God Delusion that his primary goal was “consciousness raising,” and in that he’s been a runaway success.

To see all the photos I took of yesterday’s events, check my Flickr set here.

I. Book People

For me the day began at his signing at Book People, which was attended by close to 200 people at my best estimate. As I mentioned in the previous post, Dawkins read the new preface to the paperback edition of TGD, followed by a friendly Q&A and a book signing.

Tangent: While at Book People I bumped into Dr. James H. Dee, a retired professor and friend of CFI, who has written a number of guest editorials espousing atheist and secularist views for the Austin-American Statesman as well as essays for Free Inquiry. Dr. Dee is brilliant and always has interesting insights into religious belief — he tells me he’s preparing a book specifically on the afterlife, which ought to be interesting — but one area where he and I (not to mention he and Dawkins) disagree is on the importance of being up to date on cutting-edge theology for those who wish to critique religion. Dr. Dee is very critical of “The Four Horsemen,” as they call themselves, because none of them have this advanced scholarly knowledge of the most abstruse theological arguments and Biblical research he believes is vital.

I think Dr. Dee has a point, but I don’t think such knowledge is as essential as he thinks. At best, it would be an interesting exercise for someone who had the free time to blow on it. Dawkins has been critiqued, quite inanely, I think, for supposedly ignoring more “advanced” views of God and debunking only the most simplistic and crude forms of Christian belief out there.

What these critics, including Dr. Dee, miss, that I tried to point out, is that the elaborately arcane and abstruse God of the theologians isn’t the God that Jack and Jill Churchgoer worship. The overwhelming majority of rank-and-file Christians are no more well versed in the most obscure Biblical scholarship or cutting edge theological legerdemain than Dawkins. To most Christians, God is a grown-up version of Santa Claus; he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake! If a lack of “sophisticated” theological expertise isn’t required for over 99.9% of the world’s Christians to feel they’re justified in believing in God, why should such knowledge be required for an atheist to declare he doesn’t believe in God? As Dawkins has said, why should you have to bone up on leprechaunology before deciding you don’t believe in leprechauns?

Dr. Dee thinks, with the increase in public awareness and acceptance of atheism in the post-God Delusion cultural climate, that atheists ought to throw the tent wider, so to speak. While guys like Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens can be, shall we say, popularizers of atheism and religious criticism, we ought to make room for those scholars who do keep up on more advanced theological thought, just to know what those arguments are and how to counter. While I still agree with Dawkins that most theology is little more than rhetorical smoke-and-mirrors, as most of it takes God’s existence as a given and goes from there as opposed to establishing God’s existence with hard evidence first, I think Dr. Dee’s got a good idea there. Maybe he can be that scholarly atheist writer, to produce the books that have the academic rigor critics of Dawkins think he lacks.

I know I’m running on about this conversation, but it was really interesting and, I think, relevant. One valid criticism Dr. Dee had of Dawkins, I think, is that when he interviewed Christian leaders like the disgraced Ted Haggard for his documentary The Root of All Evil? (a title chosen by the producers that Dawkins doesn’t like), he made the mistake of asking these guys questions pertaining to science. Dr. Dee thinks that if Dawkins were more versed in Biblical scholarship, to the extent of being able to read the earliest available versions of scriptures in their original languages (something Dr. Dee can do), then Dawkins could have called out these prominent Christians on the extent to which they were not only ignorant of things like science, but their own beliefs as well! It’s a compelling thought, I must admit.

II. The Lecture

I was advised to turn up on campus no later than 5:30, but traffic held me back until about 6:15. I was gobsmacked by the line. I knew it would be big, but damn!

If you know the UT campus, the following will have meaning for you. (If you don’t, just visualize a big-ass line of people.) The line wrapped itself around Hogg Auditorium, then flowed out and around the adjacent Undergraduate Library (UGL), spilled out onto the South Mall, and finally doubled back on itself, coming up alongside UGL once more. I’ve never seen anything like that on campus. I eventually found Matt D., got my reserve ticket, and ended up helping him and some of the Atheist Longhorns guys wrangle the line a little bit.

I must confess that I was a little disappointed that there weren’t any of the campus Christian groups putting in a visible appearance, clustering around Hogg handing out tracts and the like. Someone told me that a lot of them actually were there, but to attend the talk. To whatever degree there were Christian organizations and their members there, I wouldn’t know. If they came, they came to listen, not protest. That’s cool. (By contrast, when Dan Barker came to UT — to a much smaller reception, obviously — not long ago, Christian students turned up in force and bombarded him with as many challenging questions as they could think of.)

Once everyone finally filed in — with hundreds having to be turned away — Dawkins was introduced by one Dr. Buss (I think that was his name — I suck remembering names) to thunderous applause. But as there was some problem getting the Powerpoint projector to work properly, Dawkins actually began an impromptu Q&A to fill time while his assistants scrambled with cables behind the scenes. I liked the way that turned out, because it gave the whole lecture a more accessible feel. By interacting with the audience first, he established rapport with them right away, and never came across as the ivory-tower professor lecturing to the masses, as it were. (Maybe Dawkins is really only good at being “personable” before a large audience, but if it’s what works for him, fine.)

As expected, the lecture was a recap of most of the main points of TGD, primarily those parts of the book dealing with the harmful effects religion has on culture as a whole. But I was grateful the talk wasn’t just one big reading. Dawkins has truncated his book and created a real presentation out of it, accompanied by a slideshow both informative and humorous, and quite often sobering as well.

Just to touch on a couple of bits that stood out for me: One of the book’s efforts at consciousness raising is to question the privileged position religion has always held in culture. It’s been considered something that is above criticism. To express doubt about a person’s belief in this or that imaginary sky fairy is to be uncouth and ill-mannered in the extreme. You can tell a person their favorite band suck
s, and that their politics are full of shit, and even — in desperate situations — that their spouse is a gold-digging bitch or drunk abusive shitheel and they’d be better off alone. But don’t touch their religion! Why should this be? Why should religion deserve this privileged status among all of humanity’s ideas, especially as its ideas are usually the ones least supportable by rational argument and evidence?

If there’s one part in all of TGD that makes the steam erupt from Christians’ ears, it’s what Dawkins has to say about the religious indoctrination of children. The brutal fact is that the man is on point. Isn’t it interesting that most people almost always fall into the religion of their parents? And why should this be? Childhood indoctrination, pure and simple. But is this right? How can it be, any more than it could be right to indoctrinate a child too young to understand what they’re being taught into one or another political ideology?

And yet you’ll never see a Christian’s face turn redder than when Dawkins points out that’s there’s no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child, that all you can really say is that this is a child of Christian or Muslim (or whatever religion) parents. Dawkins presented a slide of three children taking part in a nativity play, that he clipped from some British newspaper. The children — each only 4 years old — are identified as Christian, Jewish and Muslim, and the original article, we were told, went on gushingly about how lovely it was that these little 4-year-olds from different faiths could come together in the same nativity play. Obviously it never occurred to the reporter to think that maybe those children weren’t aware — being 4 years old — that the fact they were from “different faiths” meant there was a presupposition they should reflexively hate each other. Or that what their “faiths” were even all about. After all, they’re 4 years old. Dawkins’ next slide showed the same caption, but he had replaced the names of the faiths with those of different political parties. Now the absurdity of the whole thing was clear as day.

If you wouldn’t identify a 4-year-old child as a Republican, or a Democrat, or a Socialist, or a Marxist, or an Objectivist, or a Libertarian, or even an atheist or agnostic, then how can it possibly make sense to identify them as Christian or Jewish or Muslim? How can a 4-year-old be expected to comprehend religion when they’re too young to comprehend politics or philosophy? You can’t. A 4-year-old is no more capable of being a “Christian child” than it is of being an “Objectivist child.” And here’s the part that makes Christians’ heads completely explode: to impose a belief on a child too young to understand that belief, Dawkins opines, is tantamount to child abuse.

That’s pretty heavy. But in principle, I agree. Now naturally, when people hear the word “abuse” in the first place, their immediate association is with physical abuse. And so you hear Christians time and again wail that Dawkins is comparing them to child beaters for taking their precious widdle babies to Sunday School. This is emphatically not what Dawkins means. He simply means that — intellectually, developmentally, psychologically — it is abusive to impose ideas and beliefs upon the mind of a person incapable of understanding what it is they are being told they must believe. A 4-year-old is not intellectually equipped to evaluate ideas critically, is not emotionally capable of standing up to parental authority, and not mature enough to make its own decisions. Given this fact, while parental guidance is necessary for the child in most things (basic care, really), when it comes to beliefs, imposing a religion upon them is as wrong as imposing a political ideology.

But is the use of the word “abuse” here too strong? I’ll grant, having been raised by Christian parents, that in most cases it may be, and that Dawkins’ use of the term may be overreaching. I think most parents just raise their children into their own religion because their religion is so woven into the very fabric of their lives it just doesn’t occur to them they shouldn’t. So in most cases, where I might differ from Dawkins is in preferring the word “negligence” to “abuse.” A parent who simply imposes their religion upon their very young children, but isn’t motivated by any sort of malice and are simply doing what they’re doing because they haven’t stopped to wonder even if it’s a thing they ought to be doing, is at most guilty of negligence. They may not be abusing their child by not letting them come to whatever religion they might choose (including, perhaps, none) in their own time. But they are being unfair to the child by forcing that decision on them when they’re too young to understand. Remember, I said in most cases.

In some cases, though, there is no denying that religious indoctrination of children is child abuse.

Behold.

This photo shows Catholic children — ahem, children of Catholic parents — being escorted to school in Belfast by police, in order to protect them from being attacked by Protestants.

And yes, Dawkins is dead on when he says it’s also child abuse to scare the shit out of a kid and tell them they’ll burn forever in hell if they don’t love Jesus, too.

Frank Zappa, when he was alive, actually espoused a view similar to Dawkins vis-a-vis kids and religion. I remember a few years before he died, Zappa was interviewed on either The Today Show or Good Morning America, and the subject got around to his family; the Zappa family was always a very closely-knit unit. Zappa, warning the interviewer that she wasn’t going to like what he was about to say, gave his formula for raising perfect children: “Keep them away from religion…Choosing a religion is a very important decision, and a child should not have that decision forced on them when they haven’t got enough data to make their own choice.”

Personally I can’t see what it is that people find so appalling and horrible about this idea. It’s simply one that supports freedom of conscience, even for our society’s youngest members, and Dawkins just has the guts to criticize those parents who don’t allow their own children to develop their own freedom of conscience where religious belief is concerned.

But that ties back into his point about the privileged position religion holds in our culture, as this subject that is granted immunity from criticism. Most parents would probably object to the notion of indoctrinating children in some radical political fringe. But tell them they shouldn’t shove Jesus down their kids’ throats either, and suddenly you’re the asshole.

End of Part 1. This is taking longer than I thought, in and among all the other things I have to do today. But you know me: thorough. Or is that “long-winded”? Anyway, I’ll wrap up my report of the talk either late tonight or early in the morning. Go ahead and start commenting and Digging if you like.

Rho, I have your answer

Okay, this will be a pretty quick post, because I’ve just gotten home from Richard Dawkins’ signing at Book People, which was attended by about 200, and have to head off soon back down to campus so I can get my reserved seat by the recommended time of 5:30. Photos of today’s festivities will have to wait until tomorrow.

Dawkins preceded his signing by a reading — the new preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion — followed by a brief Q&A, which was actually quite good. I tried to get Rhology’s question in at the Q&A but wasn’t called on, so I waited until after Dawkins had finished his full signing and was getting up. Rhology will probably be somewhat disappointed by the answer, which is very brief and to-the-point (brief enough for me to quote it verbatim from memory, and I regret I didn’t have the ability to record it), but it’s pretty much the answer I expected Dawkins would give.

To recap, Rhology’s submitted question (it was actually a series of questions, but hey) was:

Professor Dawkins,


On page 92 of “The God Delusion”, you present a 4th option to CS Lewis’ famous “Lord-Liar-Lunatic” trilemma with respect to the identity of Jesus Christ, namely that he was actually mistaken.

Why is it that you rarely if ever extend such an understanding to today’s theists? If you met a man who said there was a pink elephant in a 10×10 room, would you say that the man could be “honestly mistaken?” How much less would you say that a man who thought he was the pink elephant in the room was “honestly mistaken?”

If Jesus could be “honestly mistaken”, can not then all theists?

To which Dawkins replied:

But of course I believe they [theists] can be honestly mistaken. Why shouldn’t they be?

There you have it. Again, I’m sorry I didn’t get a tape of this exchange. But it was very brief, and I felt a little nervous doing it in the first place. But hey, I’m the kind of guy who, if I say I’ll do what it takes to do something, I’ll do it.

What was interesting was that, while Dawkins was perfectly at ease in speaking before a large crowd, he seemed very ill at ease being approached directly. (During his signing, as I expected, the store employees were perfect sheepdogs, moving the line along efficiently, with Dawkins merely giving autographs without personalizations.) When I first introduced myself and asked if I could speak to him for just a moment, his look was wary and guarded. It wasn’t until we had spoken for a few minutes that he began to recover his usual congenial, good humor.

His attitude was understandable. I was told by some of my CFI buddies who were there that security has been a real concern for Dawkins during this whole tour. Dawkins is understandably cautious about the possibility of being waylaid by some some truly offensive theist berating him, or even assaulting him. Hasn’t happened, happily, but when this tour was first announced in the media, at least one Christian minister, David Cox of the First Southern Methodist Church in Charleston, SC, was quoted as saying…

I would certainly like to protest. [Dawkins] is a tool of Satan, of the AntiChrist it sounds to me. All God-fearing people will be opposed to an atheist touring.

Considering how many fundamentalists take rhetoric like that as a call to action, it is understandable that Dawkins would be guarded about his personal space. And lest we forget, there have also been two instances in which creationists approached him for interviews under false pretenses, most recently the producers of Expelled. So the direct approach is an iffy one to take with him, and I felt nervous doing it in the first place for all those reasons.

So no, I didn’t have a chance to make a tape of this brief exchange, Rho, but I can assure you on my word I did ask him, and the quoted reply is his reply. Now, I know you were doubtless hoping for a much more detailed reply, and I have one myself that I will present tomorrow when I post my report about tonight’s talk. I know also that Kazim and Lui, and possibly some of our other regular atheist readers, want to answer you themselves. They’re free to do so at this time.

I’m going to grab a quick bite to eat and hit the road. See you all tomorrow.

Hey, Ben Stein! Here’s “Big Science” for you!

Diggers in the fossil-rich wilds of North Dakota have uncovered a whole mummified dinosaur. The ol’ fella is 65 million years old, give or take, and he’s got almost all of his skin, hinting at pretty quick fossilization under extreme conditions. This is a swell find, and it will simply add to the wealth of material available for scientists to study, to glean an understanding of the prehistoric world. We learn new things, sometimes we reject old ideas when they’re no longer valid or useful. But it’s an ongoing process of learning, and it has no time for intractible ideologies.

So while the ID crowd spends its time flogging press releases and quote mining peer reviewed articles or making insipid fakeumentaries about the sinister “Big Science” conspiracy to suppress all the hard research they aren’t actually doing…real scientists are out doing…teh science.

This is the difference between reality, and the warped vision of it that Ben Stein and Casey Luskin and John West and Bill Dembski and the DI seem to think we live in.

Which do you prefer?

Here’s one for the creationists!

Earlier today, our old pal Dan Marvin, eager for attention as usual, tried to threadjack the comments about the blog meetup following Dawkins’ talk on Wednesday. He implied he’d have a real stumper to ask Dawkins if he could be there, and then trotted out some more silly crap from AiG about the appendix, and how he seems to think the recent discovery that it actually seems to have a function presents some kind of problem for evolution. Typical know-nothing creationist idiocy, which I quickly spanked with some information from TO. Then, being an evil mean old atheist, I slapped him around with the usual batch of personal insults and sent him packing. Hey, I gotta keep my horns and my pointy tail sharp, don’t I?

But I haven’t been able to stop chuckling about the whole exchange this whole time. Because it’s ever so entertaining to know that there are these clowns out there who, in classic Dunning-Kruger Effect fashion, think they know more about subjects like biology than the leading experts in the field. Of whom Dawkins happens to be one.

So I thought I’d make an offer to creationists who won’t be in Austin on Wednesday, one they just can’t refuse. I will be your proxy. No, I’m serious. All you have to do is this:

Submit to the comments the question you would want to ask Dawkins during the Q&A. Make it as h-a-r-d as you can think of! A real toughie! Squeeze your brain like an old mop and come up with a real humdinger. No going easy on the man, now. If you’ve got a question you think would leave him slack-jawed in stupefaction in front of an audience of hundreds of people, entitling you to do a little Snoopy dance all around Hogg Auditorium singing “Pwned in the Name of Jeezus!” at the top of your lungs, then, by all means, ask it.

I will pick the best question of the batch and present it to Dawkins myself. That’s right. I’ll be your proxy.

In fact, considering that it may be difficult to get the question in at the Q&A, I will introduce myself and present the question to him at his book signing Wednesday afternoon. (Though I will still try to ask at the Q&A; I suspect those will be highly limited due to time, but you never know.) If he’s too busy at the book signing, or if store employees are just rushing people through the autograph line like a conveyer belt, which could happen if the place is as jam-packed as it’s likely to be, then I will ask him politely if I may have a moment of his time after the signing is over.

Now, there is just one simple rule. Please try to follow it, creationists. Because you know how we like to be mean and insulting, and so if you demonstrate that you can’t even follow one simple instruction, well, that will just give us godless amoral heathens an excuse to make jokes about you involving inbreeding and sex with indignant farm animals and what have you. So just do this: Post your question in the form of a simple, easily phrased question. Don’t cutpaste a ten-paragraph page from Answers in Genesis or the Discovery Institute and then go, “So what about that?” Obviously, there won’t be time for anything like that. Just present the one, on-point, direct question you’d get to ask if you were able to attend Wednesday night’s talk.

Feel free to ask silly shit like “How do you feel abot the fact yer gowing 2 HELL!!1!??” if you like. But that’s not a good question, you know. Really, I plan to pick the best, smartest question, and so take this as an opportunity to show us arrogant, know-it-all atheist assholes that you’re not as dumb as we think you are and are in fact quite a bit smarter, thank you very much.

So there you are. Let’s all play Stump Dawkins. Just submit your question, I’ll pick the toughest, best one (I’ll even ask Kazim and Tracie and the other regular posters here to weigh in with their opinion of the best question), and ask that question to Dawkins personally on Wednesday. I’ll even arrange to record myself doing it, so you can get your answer straight from God’s…ahem…Dawkins’ mouth.

Can’t get much fairer than that, right?

Bring it!


PS: To our regular godless readers: Think of this as one of those trivia board games, where another player has gotten an easy question they can’t answer to save their lives, and you’re sitting there clenching your jaw going, “Oh god, I know this one I know this one!” In other words, please resist the urge to answer the questions that come up yourself in the comment thread…at least until after Wednesday. At that point, all the non-picked questions can be answered freely by any of you. For the time being, remember these are creationists’ questions for Dawkins, and so let’s get his reply first. I’ll be leaving comment moderation on to ensure everybody plays nice. (Lui, put that cricket bat down. Down! Thank you.)

Why and How

Many years ago, a Krishna friend said to me, “People often ask ‘why?,’ when what they really mean is ‘how?’”

Initially, this statement confused me. But he explained it further. It made sense to me. And since that day, I have adopted his stance.

On Yesterday’s show, we had a Christian caller who told us that she believes in god because she has personally witnessed miracles. Matt asked her to give us an example of a miracle. She said there were so many to choose from it would take too much time to go into them. Matt asked her to just give us one example.

If you are an atheist who is ever engaged by Christians, you know that it’s important to get an example of a miracle, because Christians do not agree on what constitutes a “miracle.” Like most other religious terms, the word is meaningless, and pretty much self-defined, along the lines of something like, “love” or “freedom.”

The woman explained her “miracle” pretty thoroughly. But it didn’t take much time to see this woman defines miracle as “a natural/reasonable occurrence that I interpret as a sign from god.” Her definition is not unlike an autobiographical story I once read about a Christian woman who hated the color of carpet in her church. When it was changed out, she knew it was a sign she should marry her fiancé, because, prior to that, she had determined she must be married in that church, but couldn’t bear to be married on that hideous shade of aqua carpeting. Most atheists don’t think of these types of things as “miracles,” so it’s always good to check before assuming when a Christian uses a word that relates to the supernatural. Since none of it is available for examination/verification to anyone—we’re left with the reality that any such term has only the meaning that any individual Christian assigns.

The woman on the phone said her reason for believing in god was that she began asking questions such as “why is the sky blue?” And she prayed ardently to a god (that she didn’t believe in) to let her know if he was there. She also began to research different religions. And she found one that really spoke to her, and became a Christian. So, now, in her words, “I know that I know that I know [there is a god].”

There are some obvious issues with a claim of “not believing” a god exists while I’m repeatedly pleading to that god. But this is already going to be long, so let me jump to where it ties into another obvious problem: the problem of asking for signs from spirit beings to determine whether or not they exist.

In other words, any “sign” I receive as the result of prayer is only open to subjective interpretation, and not to any verification. Christians put forward that it’s wrong to ask for any sort of verifiable miracle or definitive sign. To do so would be “testing” god—a serious no-no. So a person making this sort of plea is open to accepting any sort of subtle influence or coincidence. They’re not asking for Earth-shattering, convincing evidence—just something “meaningful” to them, personally.

What’s the obvious problem? Well, ask them how this sounds to their ears: “If you wanted to know if Big Foot exists, and I told you that I know Big Foot exists because I prayed to god for a sign to let me know if they exist. And after a few days, weeks, and months, I got nothing. So, I started researching Big Foot online—reading all I could find. I also kept on praying and asking to feel assured and have a sign. I prayed and prayed and kept on praying, and reading about Big Foot, until I finally encounter a subtle coincidence—a better job offer, a feeling of euphoria/peace, (or even a video of Big Foot online)—that convinced me god was telling me that Big Foot do, in fact, exist. And so now, I know that I know that I know Big Foot is out there in the woods.”

Would they think I had justification for belief in Big Foot? Or would they think I wanted so badly to believe that I just drilled myself until I finally accepted anything as proof of Big Foot’s existence?

If I want to know if a god exists, why not check into it like I would check into the existence of anything else—of Big Foot? Clearly define what it means to “exist,” exactly what it is I’m seeking, and where it should be found manifesting, then check to see if it’s actually manifesting there in the way I expect. If it’s not, then what I am seeking doesn’t exist. That’s, honestly, the best anyone could do to make a determination of the existence of any item-X. Praying to item-X for assurance it exists makes no sense unless, on some level, I’ve already accepted all sorts of claims about the existence of this item and how it operates—even while I attempt to assure others I haven’t presupposed these claims to be valid. I’m certainly throwing out everything I have learned in life about how to determine whether or not something exists and how to determine truth value, and it appears I’ve also, to some significant degree, accepted all the terms laid down by superstition in my search. And if I was truly skeptical—is this really how I’d go about it? Would I see proof of the validity of a god on supernatural terms? Or would I go with what I know to be tried and true in existent reality?

But that’s a huge digression. Back to “why” and “how.” Definitions can change, I understand. And I will be the first to admit that people I know use “why” and “how,” often, interchangeably. I’m not writing to say “you’re wrong.” I’m writing to call out a subtle difference that may/may not speak to a difference in perspective that an atheist should be aware of when he or she is engaged by a Christian. When the Christian says, “I was asking myself, ‘why is the sky blue?’” I should already be wary, because the Christian is potentially starting off asking the wrong (and potentially very loaded) question. With my prior disqualifier regarding definitions firmly in place, I’m going to appeal now to Webster for a standard, accepted definition.

“Why” is listed as basically meaning: “For what reason, cause, purpose or motive.” “How” is listed as “in what manner, in what way, by what means.”

Can they be used interchangeably? I think so. However, consider this: In a discussion about whether or not the universe is the result of natural causes or intelligent purpose, doesn’t the term “why” carry with it the potential to muddy the waters with presupposition, whereas “how” is more unpresuming and more to the point? If a god did it, “how” will get to that. If a god didn’t do it, “how” will also get to that. But if a god didn’t do it, “why” may or may not get to that—depending on how we’re using it.

Depending on what the Christian means by “why,” the word comes preloaded to presume purpose and motive in creation. When I hear a Christian ask “Why X?,” where X is a natural function, I will say, “I think you mean ‘how’ X.” The less biased and more accurate question is “How is the sky blue?”

We use “why” rather than “how” so often that that last question may sound awkward to some. But I recommend getting used to it. And I recommend pointing out the bias that comes with a preloaded word like “why” when a Christian uses it. “Do you recognize that a more appropriate word would be ‘how’—since ‘why’ presupposes motive in natural functions and causes? You’re potentially already starting off with a bias that the universe has purpose. And since that is the very point of our debate, I have to declare that I don’t know if there is any reason ‘why’ the sky is blue—but I believe we can discuss something of how the sky is blue; and if it leads to a purpose, so be it.”

Am I being over-analytical here? I don’t think so. Consider that the Christian on the phone was responding to Matt’s question about what made her believe a god exi
sts. She answered that she was putting questions to herself, such as “Why is the sky blue?” What does that have to do with god unless you perceive a motive behind the reality that the sky is blue? If Matt had asked her a question about determining truth values or finding the cause of natural realities, then there probably would be no reason to consider the word “why” to have any ulterior meaning beyond it’s interchangeable use with “how.” But in the context of “Why do I believe an intelligent being is behind the natural universe?,” the idea that someone pondered “Why is the sky blue?,” takes on a whole new (pardon the pun) shade of meaning.

Make of it what you will. Draw your own conclusions. If you think I’m being too detailed in analyzing the language people use, then disregard my point entirely. But I find that definitions often are key source of misunderstandings in any discussion with a Christian. And, so, I see no reason to allow for more than will certainly already occur. “Why” has, over the years, become a red flag to me in discussions with Christians. I don’t know there are any “why”s for the things they want to know. But we can talk about “how”s, if they’re ready to investigate nature in an unbiased fashion.

Strictly for Austinites

Okay, so everyone’s looking forward to Dawkins’ appearance at UT this coming Wednesday. That will be at 7:00 PM. I suspect it will go about two hours, including Q&A. So I thought that following the talk, unless you’re all going to be a bunch of pathetic gotta-go-to-work-tomorrow candy-asses, we’d have an Atheist Experience Blog meetup somewhere in the vicinity. I’m announcing this early so that people will have a couple of days to think about it and add it to their schedules accordingly. There are any number of kewl coffeehouses or bars or late night restaurants to repair to in the UT area, up and down the Drag and elsewhere. Hell, even Amy’s Ice Creams is an option. So, all you locals chime in, and if you’re interested, offer your suggestions.