Peoria trip report, wrap up

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.

Peoria trip report, part 1

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.

Last weekend and this weekend

I was saddened that I had to miss hosting the show this weekend due to another Mormon invasion. I always hate to miss a chance to be on with Jeff Dee. Also, my fiancee and I actually went to church on Easter Sunday for fun, and we got a lot of interesting discussion material out of it.

In point of fact, we went to Great Hills Baptist Church, home base for Kyle Miller, who was on the show with us several months ago. I made my presence known to him, and he graciously asked to treat us to lunch the next day. (I just started a new job in Austin, and I wasn’t working yet on Monday.)

In some respects we managed to get more argumentative than we were on the actual show together, but it was all kept on a friendly basis and I believe that a good time was had by all. As I said previously, Kyle is a fun guy, and there are a lot of non-God topics we agree on, but I also really enjoy it when we get down to discussing the evidence (or lack of it) for God. I probably won’t detail our private conversation, though, but just the church experience.

Matt and I will be en route to Peoria early tomorrow morning, where we will be speaking at Bradley University at around 5:30 PM. Again, get there early in case it fills up. I’ll have my laptop on the plane, so I might take the time to turn my church notes into a blog post that I can put up after we land.

I’ve got, I think, about twenty minutes of material and I need to put the finishing touches on my slides when I get home tonight. Matt will present a similar length of material, and then we’ll take questions. There are other events afterward which you can check out at the Bradley Skeptics page, and we’ll take more questions on Saturday.

The TV show will be in excellent hands with Jeff Dee and Don Baker, and I know I’m looking forward to catching the replay when I get back.

Transportation needed in Peoria

Because of scheduling concerns, Matt and I have decided to take a bus from the airport to Bradley University when we speak this weekend. We could rent a car afterwards, but knowing that a lot of Atheist Experience fans will probably be attending, it would be great if we could get someone to help transport us around.

If you think you’d be available to supply rides between university and hotel on Friday or Saturday, or back to the airport on Sunday, please send your contact information to so we can get in touch when you’re around.

Matt and Russell speaking at Bradley University

Edited March 23 with more accurate information. Check BU’s posts in the comment section for more details on the schedule, including dinners and a magic show.

I think the details have been finalized for this, so I’m going to go ahead and post it here.

As we mentioned on the last Non-Prophets, Matt and I have been booked to speak at Bradley University in Peoria, IL on Friday, April 9 and Saturday, April 10. We will be in room 126 the Caterpillar Global Communications Center (GCC) at 5:00 PM, and Saturday at 2:00 PM.

We expect a mostly theist crowd. On Friday we’ll be doing a sort of Atheism 101 discussion. Saturday we’ll go over common apologetic fallacies. On both days we will leave ample time for questions. I’m guessing it should be pretty similar to watching a taping of TAE, except that the “callers” will be live in the lecture hall.

The sponsor is the Bradley Skeptic Society, so keep an eye on their web page in case of updates email for more information, and watch this blog for updates. Tickets are not required, but it is first come, first seated in a 200 seat lecture hall. I certainly don’t imagine we’d draw a Dawkins-sized crowd, but come early if you want to be certain of getting in.