Matt has already posted an excellent summary of the rest of our trip, and I encourage everyone to read it. So rather than repeat everything he said, I’ll just fill in the few odds and ends I’m remembering that he may have missed.
One other thing I didn’t mention about the young woman in the back who wanted to know about secular morality. We approached this question from several different angles, but mindful of the Euthyphro dilemma, the last thing I asked her was: “I hope you don’t mind if I reflect the question back at you. Where do you think God gets his morals from?” She immediately said “I have no idea,” and went on to explain that she is not a theologian or a religious studies major.
That kind of sums it up, doesn’t it? People pretend to be concerned with where morality “really” comes from, but when you want to explore the source of religious morality, it turns out that they actually couldn’t care less. Most theists simply assume that somebody else who is a religious scholar must know the answer; but if not, they assume that God knows what he’s doing.
This dovetails nicely with a central theme of my initial presentation on science. Basically, “God Did It” appears to be an answer to all questions, but it is actually a copout. If we were satisfied with those answers, then we might still believe that Ra pulls the sun across the sky every day in his barge, and we wouldn’t be able to reach an understanding about the complex and interesting way that the earth and sun interact with one another through gravity and conservation of momentum.
Similarly, answering “God Knows It” is a copout on figuring out how to answer moral questions. I tried to provide an example of a question for which the Bible is no help at all, and I’m not sure how well I succeeded, but here it is. What does the Bible have to say about net neutrality? Not a thing. You can reason out what should be done, and you can pretend that you are basing this on Biblical principles, but it’s unlikely that you can conclude anything that would not be contradicted by any number of people from the other 38,000 sects of Christianity in the world. (Brief correction: During the talk, I said there were 38,000 sects in the United States alone. Now I see this was a mistake. I regret the error.)
Anyway, people do actually get morality by looking at their own core values and reasoning from there. The only difference is that theists are willing to pretend that the conclusions they reach are in agreement with an infinitely knowledgeable being who knows for a fact what is best. This approach is no more helpful for ethical matters than it is for determining why the sun goes around the earth. (Tip: it doesn’t.)
Regarding the other guy in the back whom Matt mentioned, the one who claimed that there would be no religious conflicts if everyone were the same religion, we don’t see a likelihood of those 38,000 sects collapsing into one soon. While it’s true that people might not conflict if they all thought the same way, that’s pretty unrealistic. The difference is not necessarily in the specific beliefs, but in approach. Neither Matt nor I would ever endorse a system that bans religions or prohibits their free exercise. What concerns us is when a particular set of religious beliefs is in some way codified and endorsed by law. There isn’t a symmetry there.
Now on to the Catholics who attended on Saturday.
Matt’s already described their smug attitude, which I’ll duplicate just by Quoting For Truth:
After a quick back and forth with one of them, he followed up with something that I didn’t quite catch (and I still have no idea what he was saying). I said something like, “I’m sorry, you lost me for a moment” as a lead-in to asking him to repeat himself. He adopted a particular smug tone and said, “I’m sure I did” and promptly handed the microphone to our host…as if he’d just ‘pwned’ me.
This sort of exchange actually happened more than once. When one of them asked their first question about science, it went something like this:
Catholic #1: “Are there true things that science doesn’t know about yet?”
Matt and Russell simultaneously: “Yes.” “Of course.”
Catholic #1: (smirk) “Thank you.” Sits down.
You know, I don’t claim to be the greatest debater in the world or anything, but I do know that acting as if you’ve scored a point is never enough to make your case. You have to actually make one. In this case, he clearly thought it was some kind of “gotcha” when he got us to “admit” something that, in fact, we’d been saying all along for the last two days.
The other thing people should be aware of is that asking a smarmy question and then sitting down is an attempt to play to the audience. And you can’t play to the audience effectively if you haven’t gauged their mood. Whenever they sat down, the effect was absolute stony silence. I expect that inside their heads, they heard cheers and laughter, as well as stunned gasping from me and Matt. Out there in the real world, it was… well, the effect would have been better with crickets, but you get the idea.
Now that I’ve had a couple of days to reflect, I realized — I know where this technique comes from! It happens in every Christian urban legend about a heroic student apologist facing down a wicked atheist professor. Tell an atheist professor that he can’t prove he has a brain, and the class erupts in pandemonium… and the students sit down. Poke holes in the theory of evolution, and the atheist professor slinks out dejectedly to resign from his university, while fellow students clamor around you to hear the good news about Jesus Christ.
This was a great illustration of what happens when you do this in reality. Crickets. Then the audience laughed when the response was given.
Matt mentioned a courtroom scenario that one of the Catholic Trio brought up to show how one can be both perfectly just and perfectly merciful. What was weird that the scenario boiled down to this: “You are on trial, and you are innocent of the crime you have been accused of, but the evidence implies that you’re guilty. The jury lets you go out of mercy.”
As a way of proving the point, it was a terrible failure. If you’re actually not guilty, then justice was done, whereas it would not be served by incarcerating you. If you were guilty, then letting you go would be merciful but unjust. Even the guy who brought it up had to fall back on saying “Well it’s not a perfect analogy.” It doesn’t even begin to be a good analogy, because the whole idea of divine justice is that God has perfect knowledge of people’s actions. I still don’t see where he was going with it.
Finally, quoting Matt’s post again:
Another of his friends made an appeal to justice. He argued that the Catholic view held that someone like Hitler would eventually see justice, even if they didn’t see it in this life and then asked which view, his or mine, was more beautiful. Russell immediately pointed out that the Catholic view doesn’t guarantee that justice is going to be served, and that it may be possible for Hitler to be in heaven while his Jewish victims are in hell…and that there wasn’t anything beautiful about that.
We did a nice little good cop/bad cop routine here, with me arguing that, no, there isn’t anything especially beautiful
about Christian doctrine; while Matt argued that, beautiful or not, it makes no difference to whether or not a thing is true.
I would like to add, though, that when I asked: “Are you sure that Hitler is not in heaven now?” he replied that he was couldn’t be sure, but it would be just as beautiful if Hitler reformed and went to heaven.
Can’t overemphasize the importance of this ad hoc mid stream change of subject. Apologists love to pull out this line that “There must be a hell, because it wouldn’t be fair if Hitler didn’t go there.” But they’re lying. Many of them would be just as happy if there was a hell and Hitler escaped it. Indeed, the doctrine of being saved through faith requires there to be a very real possibility that Hitler — if he said the right words before dying — received his “get out of hell free” card, and received eternal happiness, without having ever made amends for his earthly crimes. The idea the eternal reward and punishment is portioned out not based on any real actions, but on being divinely forgiven, is not beautiful at all. It’s demented. It’s a solace for war criminals to rationalize that, no matter how much evil I may do in this life, it won’t matter if I’m wrapped in the sinless shroud of Jesus.
Anyway, I echo Matt’s sentiment that I had a really fun time on the trip, and it was great getting to tag team with him. If anyone else wants to pay for us to come hang out, give a ring.