Last night I attended Richard Dawkin’s talk about his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. It’s about a two and a half hour drive from Purdue, but still a good number (~50) of our club members made the journey down. The drive was fairly uneventful until we got on campus. Mark gleefully directed my attention to a bus that was parked at a stoplight. “Look, the atheist bus ad! …Wait a second…” We realized it was actually the reply to the atheist bus ad – the “You Can Be Good Without God but You Can’t Be Saved Without Jesus” slogan I blogged about a while ago. I guess they really did get printed. Thankfully we soon saw the real ad – “You Can Be Good Without God” – and we felt much better.
We parked and walked to the auditorium, and there were already two huge lines wrapped both ways around the building…and we had arrived an hour and a half early. Granted, our club had vouchers for reserved seats, but I was hoping to maybe get there early for a seat that was up close. Unfortunately the whole front of the bottom floor was filled once we finally got in, so we were sort of near the back. Not a huge loss since Dawkins was just talking, but oh well.I then snuck out before the show started to buy his new book. I had brought the God Delusion for him to sign, but I didn’t want him to get cranky since this is about his new book after all (and I was going to buy it anyway). I kept running into all these people I have random atheist-y connections with. Saw Joel from Campus Atheists and Agnostics of IPFW, a bunch of people from the Secular Alliance of IU, and August from the Secular Student Alliance. Rob (who I met at the SSA conference) tweeted about seeing me rush by in a crowd, but I missed him (sorry!).
The auditorium, which seats 3,200 people, was filled to capacity: they actually had to turn away 500-1,000 latecomers. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed about Dawkins’s talk itself – all he did was read excerpts from his new book for about 40 minutes. I’m going to read the book myself – it’s only a smidgen better hearing it from Dawkins, British accent and all. It was interesting, since he’s an excellent writer, but you didn’t miss much – just go read his book.
They then announced that he would be taking questions at two microphones up front, and I literally dashed out of my seat and raced to be near the front of the line (though don’t believe what my members tell you, I didn’t… seriously harm my competition on the way down). I was finally close enough to actually see his facial reactions, which was pretty awesome. Whenever someone would ask a stupid or confusing question (which was unfortunately the majority of them) he would contort his face in the way that can only be described as “Richard Dawkins is confused by your inane question.” For example (quotes summarized, couldn’t write things down, sorry):
History Professor: Why don’t scientists spend more time proving certain things of the Bible? That would make more people believe in science.
Dawkins: (after much confusion about what this guy was asking) Because the Bible was written by ancient Middle Eastern goat herders in a desert who knew nothing about modern science.
Guy: (In horrible attempt of a British accent) Goodday, I seem to have evolved a British accent during your talk!
Audience: *audible groaning*
Guy: (normal voice) Anyway, do you see anything at all as legitimate to intelligent design or creationism.
Dawkins: *walks back to microphone slowly, talks a long drink of water, pauses, then leans forward* No.
Finally I got my chance to speak, and to my best recollection I said, “I had the misfortune of visiting the Creation Museum this summer.” I actually got some random whoops and cheers from the audience at this point, not from Purdue people, which I’m mildly confused about? Anyway, “While there were many scary things there, the scariest was how it was full of children. When you see kids like this or those who are home schooled or going to religious school, they’re effectively being brainwashed. Is there anything we can do to teach them science, or are they a lost cause?”
Dawkins said he was glad I brought it up, because indoctrination of children is the “bee in his bonnet” that always gets him riled up…and riled up he got. He went on a rant you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read the God Delusion, that there is no such thing as “Christian children” or “Muslim children”; just children of Christian or Muslim parents. He went on for quiet a while, and it was a very good point…but then he went on to the next person and never answered my question! Gaaahhh! I was so upset that I finally got to ask Richard Dawkins a question and I didn’t get an answer, especially since many people (some random, not just my friends) said it was a very good one. Mark thinks he sidestepped it since he didn’t have a good answer, but I’m prone to think he distracted himself with his rant and totally forgot what he was originally supposed to be talking about. Sigh.
Oh, as a side not, I was also the only female to ask a question. Represent. The place was a giant sausage fest, like most gatherings of atheists.
There were other good questions (one about being an atheist but not being able to shake the fear of hell after years of indoctrination, which got him ranting again about child abuse) but since I wasn’t jotting stuff down, I don’t remember all of them. If you were there, feel free to add information in the comments. Thankfully, one of my favorite questions (and the closing one of the night, I believe that’s one of my Purdue people!) was caught on video (even though people weren’t supposed to be videotaping, oh well):
After the lecture we went to join the line for the book signing, which was massive. I was sort of afraid we all wouldn’t get through, but I was going to try. At this point some of my members showed me what lovely book they had received…Ray Comfort’s special edition of the Origin of Species! I kid you not. Some guy was outside the auditorium passing them out before the event, along with business cards talking about how evolution = Nazism, yadda yadda yadda. Wow. Two of our members right in front of me in line asked Dawkins if he would sign it, and he looked shocked and amused that they were being handed out, and ended up talking to them for quite a bit about the book. Then it was my turn!That’s me nervously stammering something about how honored I am to meet him because I’m the president of a student group for atheists at Purdue.His response? A very cheerful “Oh good, well done!” Yay! Look, he’s smiling instead of his previous “Bloody hell, how many more books do I have to sign?” look!
After that bit of glee, we all traveled to the Irish Lion pub for food and drinks with other atheists (no Dawkins though, unfortunately). We had the whole top floor of the place reserved, and there were probably a hundred people there. That was honestly the most fun part of the night, since it was either philosophical discussions about atheism or perverted humor (mostly the latter). We also happened to be at IU during their Nearly Naked Mile, where people run around in their underwear. We were all convinced there was, indeed, a god, especially after some random hot girl mooned us. Tell me again why I went to Purdue?
Meeting Dawkins was fun, and the talk was pretty good, but honestly I was most impressed by the turnout. Bloomington is far more liberal than West Lafayette, but it’s still in Indiana. But not only did they fill the place and have to turn people away, but the vast majority of the audience were supporters. Whenever Dawkins made a crack at religion, the entire auditorium was rumbling with laughter. When someone who obviously supported creationism asked a dumb question, the auditorium would groan and you could see people rolling their eyes and giggling.
I’m not saying all 3,200 of these people were atheists, but they were definitely freethinkers and skeptical of religion to some extent. To see that sort of reaction in Indiana gave me so much hope for the atheist movement. When someone famous like Dawkins comes to speak, people start coming out of the woodwork and show we have so much more support than we might think. I had originally cynically stated that if Dawkins came to Purdue, no one would show up – but now I have to wonder. Would we also have seen support that is usually silent? The optimist in me thinks so.