Kip Thorne at UT

Regrettably, I may have to miss this depending on what my schedule for that day looks like. But I wanted to post the information for the science-minded among you. This ought to be another good talk. It’s in the same lecture hall where Ken Miller spoke.

Date: Friday, May 2, 2008
Time: 3:00pm – 4:00pm
Location: WEL 2.224
Parking Info: http://www.utexas.edu/parking/maps/index.html
San Jacinto or Speedway Garages are probably best.

From the FaceBook page for the event:

Famous Physicist Kip Thorne to Speak About Big-Bang and Black Holes.

The Warped Side of the Universe: From the Big Bang to Black Holes

There is a Warped Side to our Universe: objects and phenomena that are made from warped space and warped time. Examples include black holes and the big-bang singularity from which the Universe was born. The ideal tool for probing this mysterious Warped Side is radiation that itself is made from warped space-time: “gravitational waves”. Thorne will describe the warped side of our universe and the quest to probe it with gravitational waves.

According to Discover magazine (where the tagline is from): Kip Thorne revolutionized physics, fixed up Contact, and straddled the Cold War divide.

Thorne’s research has focused on gravitation physics and astrophysics, with emphasis on relativistic stars, black holes and gravitational waves. A longtime friend and colleague of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, he is the current Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech and one of the world’s leading experts on the astrophysical implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. He is one of the three founders of the LIGO project.

Thorne was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1972, the National Academy of Sciences in 1973, the American Philosophical Society in 1999, and (as a foreign member) the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1999.

With John A. Wheeler and Charles W. Misner, Thorne coauthored in 1973 the textbook Gravitation, from which most of the present generation of scientists have learned general relativity. He is also a co-author of Gravitation Theory and Gravitational Collapse (1965) and Black Holes: The Membrane Paradigm (1986), and the sole author of the best-selling book Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy (1994).

In 1975, cosmologist Stephen Hawking bet fellow cosmologist Kip Thorne a subscription to Penthouse magazine for Thorne against four years of Private Eye for him that Cygnus X-1 would turn out not to be a black hole. It was, so Hawking lost.

See, who says physicists never have any fun? Anyway, I’d wager this guy is probably a bit more knowledgeable about the whole Big Bang thing than whoever the complete fool was our foolish buddy Dan cutpasted from the other day. Once again, see an actual scientist who’s spent an actual career doing actual research explain why the blatherings of uneducated fundamentalists about “no evidence for this!” and “science requires blind faith too!” are deeply, pitifully stupid and wrong.

Oh noes! Big Science iz in ur Skool Bored, bashin ur Yung Erf Creashunists

Why oh why do they hate the Ceiling Cat so much? In what will doubtless be trumpeted as more suppression of “free speech” by Dr. Evil and the Nazi Darwinist Stormtroopers of “Big Science,” the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board took a big fat sanity pill and unanimously denied the request of the Institute for Creation Research to be granted certification to offer a master’s degree program in science education in Texas.

The reason is, of course, obvious. Young Earth Creationism is in about as complete a state of opposition to actual science as the movies of Pauly Shore are to actual comedy. There is just a contingent of ideologues among the Christian faithful who simply cannot comprehend that it is not the purpose of science to validate preconceived religious beliefs, however precious those beliefs are to those who hold them. And in their bleating over the supposed denial of any “free exchange of ideas” in an academic setting, they are, of course, failing to make another meaningful distinction: free speech and free inquiry are not synonyms for “you get to teach whatever you want, even if it’s false, if enough people believe it.” Each person is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs; what you are not entitled to are your own facts.

But at least the creationists can take some cold comfort in the fact they aren’t the only ones being oppressed by the dogmatic, iron fist of “Big Science”!

Kenneth Miller’s lecture at UT

Kenneth Miller spoke at UT last night as part of an ongoing lecture series, Hot Science – Cool Talks, sponsored by the university’s Environmental Science Institute. I had no real idea of what to expect, and while it did not draw Dawkins-sized crowds, attendance was still huge, overflowing the lecture hall in Welch to SRO capacity. Prior to the lecture, several organizations like CFI-Austin and the Paleontological Society of Austin had display tables set up in the lobby, with cool fossils and that sort of thing. The crowd got so thick at one point that, while I was standing at the CFI table chatting with James Dee, the heat started making me feel a little woozy on my feet. Didn’t last long, though, but still another indicator that I need to get back in shape something awful.

I won’t go into as much detail about the lecture as I did Dawkins’, mainly because the webcast is archived and I strongly encourage you to listen to it yourself (you have to install something called Envivio first), as this was one of the best lectures about evolution and the ID debacle I’ve ever heard. Miller is a witty and engrossing public speaker, as only someone who’s been a professor at Brown for a quarter century can be. His Keynote presentation was excellent, far better in quality than Dawkins’ Powerpoint.

Miller spoke about the central scientific failing of ID, that its proponents just automatically want acceptance as a viable theory to be taught in schools without having to produce the actual science that would earn it acceptance, and he went on to document ID’s downfall at Dover. Some of Miller’s information here overlapped that of Barbara Forrest, who spoke here in November at a lecture that got Chris Comer (who was in attendance, as well as many folks from Texas Citizens for Science) fired. (One of Expelled‘s many lies is that it’s the courageous, forward thinking proponents of ID who are losing jobs for their views, but as reality makes clear, the opposite is actually true.)

However, the bulk of Miller’s talk was given over to impressively concise explanations as to how we know evolution is true, and where the claims of the ID camp collapse. Just to give a couple of quick examples: Miller first demolished Michael Behe’s claims about “irreducible complexity” in the bacterial flagellum. Behe’s claim in a nutshell is that, if you take apart the individual components of a complex system, and those individual components themselves have no function, than that proves irreducible complexity and refutes the notion that such a system evolved. However, Miller explained, if you take apart all of the little bits of the flagellum’s little rotary tail, you find those components do have functions. It’s just that, taken apart, those components did other things than what they ended up doing once they evolved into the flagellum’s motor. It was perhaps the most accessible and straightforward explanation for a lay audience about irreducible complexity and the flagellum I’ve ever heard, and one that left no doubt as to the failure of Behe’s concept.

Miller also explained how evolution does in fact have a wealth of transitional fossils, and indeed, the only problem science has with all its transitional fossils is determining just where transitions begin or end. He showed how the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People presents a graph featuring prehistoric fish and amphibians, which simply omits several known species in order to claim that “missing links” and “gaps” in the fossil record exist. And even in the cases where there were real gaps in that sequence, in recent years, those have been filled, for instance, by a little critter called Tiktaalik.

Miller also showed how evolutionary science managed to explain how human beings have one fewer pair of chromosomes than other primates. Scientists predicted that the only possible explanation is that one of these pairs must have fused together at some point in humanity’s evolutionary history…and sho nuff, that’s what we find in Chromosome 2: a fused chromosome with vestigial telomeres near the middle of the sequence (where they’d only be if a fusion had occurred), and two sets of vestigial centromeres, one no longer active. The evidence for evolution is simply everywhere — and even in your own body.

The Q&A was really good. One guy predictably asked Miller’s opinion of Expelled, which he wouldn’t give as he hasn’t yet seen it (“I understand it’s rather hard to get into,” he quipped to gales of laughter). He added that he was looking forward to seeing it, though. An adorable little girl who couldn’t have been more than five or six asked what all those flat-headed prehistoric fish ate. (Answer: probably exactly what fish today like to eat, algae, microbes, and very small fish.)

As I was on the front row, I actually got a question in. I asked, how can scientists counter propaganda efforts like Expelled, which are really anti-intellectual exercises in emotional button-mashing, which do not, in fact, present any kind of scientific case either way, and instead couch their anti-science views in terms of a “culture war,” where the teaching of evolution is simplistically condemned as evil and something that leads to things like Naziism.

Miller replied that we have the facts on our side, and simply putting those facts out there — that Hitler never once mentions Darwin in Mein Kampf but directly attributed his anti-Semitism to “the work of the Lord”; that the Third Reich in fact banned the teaching of Darwin’s theory; that Nazi soldiers wore belt buckles with the slogan “God [not Darwin] Is With Us” — ought to be sufficient to counter the lies of the anti-science fanatics. I wish I could agree with him. The fundamentalist mindset is not in any way a rational one. And if people have been taught to dismiss and in fact fear facts outright, then simply setting out the truth for them will usually just result in their closing their eyes and covering their ears and going “La la la la I can’t heeear you!” in a very loud voice. Hell, those stupid creationist “biology” textbooks that were presented in the recently-concluded California lawsuit actually printed statements like this: “If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.” That isn’t education, it’s indoctrination, and it’s such a hugely damaging act of abuse that it will take more than mere facts to counter it.

Miller is such a brilliant scientist that I must admit I’m flummoxed (as were many others in CFI that I talked to after the lecture) why he feels he needs to hold onto his Catholic beliefs. He never really addressed the dichotomy in his talk, though one question allowed him to touch on it in a brief way. Miller stated that he thinks it’s utterly absurd to think that being religious means you cannot be well versed in science too. He also said “Science transcends religion,” which I found interesting. In retrospect, if I had the chance to partake in the Q&A again, my question to him would be the following: “If your view is that science transcends religion, then what is your opinion of Dawkins’ statement to the effect that religions do in fact make scientific claims; specifically, that if the existence of the material universe is through the actions of some deity, then that is a question that can and should be examined by science? And if you disagree, why?” I guess I’ll just have to hold that until next time I get a chance to
see him. Miller did say that, if anyone in Texas would care to invite him back, he’d be happy to sit down with our SBOE and set them straight on a few things. That would be a great idea, as I do see Miller as being a guy who could successfully communicate the pro-evolution, pro-science message to a religious audience, who would be predisposed to dismiss atheist scientists like Dawkins and Myers who’ve been very public with their criticisms of religion.

(No, I’m not supporting the Nisbet “PZ and Dawkins should shut up” bogus “framing” position, only acknowledging that the pro-science side should have a wide variety of voices advocating for it. A Christian scientist will get his message through to Christians where a non-Christian scientist would hit a brick wall.)

In all, a great lecture which I’m very glad I attended. Yeah, this report turned into my usual long-winded epic post. But go listen to the webcast anyway. Finally, Miller has a new book — Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul — dropping on June 12, which can be pre-ordered through Amazon now.

Kenneth Miller tomorrow night at UT

Kenneth Miller is both a staunch defender of evolutionary science (he was a lead witness in the Dover trial), and a theist. This event on Friday night ought to be interesting coming on the heels of Dawkins’ appearance. Maybe I’ll see some of you locals there. Here’s the skinny direct from CFI-Austin. If you’re not local, or you are but cannot attend, note the webcast information in the following.

Hot Science – Cool Talks Outreach Lecture Series

“God, Darwin, and Design: Lessons from the Dover Monkey Trial”
by Dr. Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology, Brown University
Friday, April 4, 2008 at 7:00 pm (Central Time)
Reception and activities 5:45 pm, come early and see the exhibits!
Welch Hall (WEL) Rm. 2.224

DESCRIPTION: It has been 80 years since the Scopes Monkey Trial, but the debate between science and religion has never been as heated as it is now. Recent efforts to introduce “intelligent design” into science classes will likely lead to a major Supreme Court ruling on the issue. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, is a preeminent evolutionary scientist and the author of the most widely used high school biology textbook in America. He is perfectly suited to address this controversial topic on many fronts. More details can be found here.

SCHEDULE: Friday, April 4, 2008
5:45-6:45 pm: Interactive exhibits and refreshments, outside Welch 2.224
6:00-6:45 pm: Evolution Workshop, Welch 2.246
7:00-8:15 pm: “God, Darwin, and Design: Lessons from the Dover Monkey Trial”, Welch 2.224

PARKING: Due to construction projects on campus, parking has become limited. Two ways to find parking on the evening of the lecture are:
1. Look for spots close to Welch Hall along 24th St. Check signs posted at each spot to be sure the days/times listed for needing a permit are expired. Do not park in handicapped or loading zones.
2. Reserved spots in the San Jacinto Parking Garage on San Jacinto and 24th St are at a discounted rate. Lecture attendees will be charged $1 for parking, upon exiting the garage, but must have a parking coupon that can be picked up at the lecture. Do not park on the ground floor of the parking garage or you will be ticketed. Go up the ramp and pull a ticket to enter the garage.

For more parking info, please use the map at: http://www.utexas.edu/parking/maps/map.htm

WEBCAST: For those that cannot attend, the lecture will be broadcast live over the Internet at 7:00 pm. We recommend logging into the site 15 minutes before to get set up. For more information about the webcast, see: http://www.esi.utexas.edu/outreach/ols/webcasts.php?vol=53

The lecture series is presented by The University of Texas at Austin’s Environmental Science Institute. This event is sponsored by the Texas Natural Science Center.

I’m given to wonder if, given Miller’s theism, campus Christian groups and local creationists might make themselves a more visible presence than they did at Dawkins’ lecture. In any event, this will be a most interesting evening, and it’s early enough that it still leaves plenty of time for other Friday night plans afterward.

Time to hit the gym, Wagner!

Okay, Elze has finally posted her collection of photos from Dawkins’ appearance last week, and these include some nice shots from the pre-speech reception. I’ve been reluctant to post the link, though, because they also include a couple of depressing shots of me at the AE Blog Meetup, in which I look to weigh about 653 pounds. Given that I was something of a major gym rat ten years ago, these are…ahem…well, let’s just say I pre-emptively accept every morsel of ridicule with which I’m about to be heaped, and let it go at that. Meanwhile, I think it’s time to dig out the MetRX and the creatine and wheel on down to Gold’s — where I suspect I’ll be pelted with water bottles and dirty jockstraps the minute I walk in the door. O the ignominy.

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.

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.)