Russell here. I’m still in my hotel room on Sunday morning, chilling with the internet and waiting to go catch our plane at 3 today. We had a lot of fun. On both days there was a good crowd, about 40 or 50 showing up to the Friday lecture, and maybe a few less on the second day.
Friday we had prepared a topic that was essentially “Atheism 101,” in case we got a lot of Christians joining us. The fellow who organized the trip — whom I will continue referring to as “BU” since that is the only name he has used here — let us know that there are a lot of Christian activist groups on campus who might take an interest in attending and hitting us with hard questions. He also said it was parents’ weekend, so we might see a lot of parents coming to guard their kids. I think we didn’t. Also, a few people had driven from hours away.
We arrived a good 30 minutes before the start time on Friday, and there was already a pretty good early turnout of people waiting. Out of curiosity, I started my talk by asking for a show of hands to see how many people were atheists or Christians. Most were atheists; when I asked about Christians there were initially no hands. Then I said “Really? Come on.” Then a small number of hands went up, I think fewer than ten. I thanked them for coming.
I explained my history as a fourth generation atheist, and described a few of the straw man arguments that people use to explain atheism. (Some Christian psychology guy claims we all hate our fathers.) In fact, I said, we disbelieve because we think you should have good reasons, or evidence, before believing a claim.
I borrowed a page from my dad’s past talks when I said that people answer two kinds of questions with God: questions of fact, and questions of value. I said Matt would be discussing questions of value, so I spent my time discussing questions of fact. I explained that scientific investigation was the best way to learn things you don’t know, and historically, “God Did It” is a poor answer to questions because it doesn’t provide any new knowledge and stops you from learning the real answers. Since I wrote this all down ahead of time for practice, I will probably post it later. For Matt’s part, he addressed questions of value by adapting a talk he did at another college, called “The superiority of secular morality.”
We mostly got a very friendly reception, but we did have a few young women in the back of the room who wanted to challenge us. Well, actually only one did. She wanted to argue about the morality issue, with the usual question about where atheists can get their morality. Matt likens the variety of moral choices to a chess game: while some moves are clearly very good or very bad, in most situations there are several different moves that can be effective. The fact that there is not a single, certain choice does not negate the fact that some decisions are clearly more or less harmful to other people, and collectively, we try to agree on behavior that won’t be supported because we don’t want to live with that behavior. Of course many people in the audience wanted to chime in, bringing up things like the Euthyphro dilemma so we didn’t even have to.
I got some great questions about science from people who probably knew it better than I did. There was a medical professor there both days who wanted me to expand on how science is different from faith in investigating truth.
I’ve written this post in fits and starts, so now I’m due to catch the airport shuttle and I won’t have internet access until late tonight. Another post tomorrow, most likely.