So I’m standing on line at Subway, contemplating the very long wait between me and my turkey on wheat, when I happen to overhear part of the conversation going on among the people immediately in front of me. There were four people, an older woman and three teenagers. At this point I thought the woman was the mother of the three teens, but later I would learn they were not related.
The woman was talking animatedly to the kids. “Did you see those people with the Happy Atheist shirts?” she said. “They were handing out leaflets.”
I perked up. Sadly, I had noticed no such people. If I had I would have gone over to lend them some moral support.
The woman continued. “I wish one of them were here. I can’t imagine how they can respond to all the evidence for design.” I won’t swear those were her exact words, but it was something very close to that.
How could I resist?
“Well, I’m an atheist,” I said. “Why don’t you ask me?”
She was taken aback, but recovered quickly. The three teenagers seemed immediately interested. In the course of the conversation I discovered that one of the teens was a nineteen year old student at the University of Tennessee, the other two were high school students, one boy (sixteen years old) and one girl (I didn’t catch her age). The sixteen year old boy ended up monopolizing much of the conversation, The girl said very little.
Things started off cordially enough when the college student asked me how I responded to the arguments made in the morning talks. I replied that for the most part they weren’t providing the full story. I also pointed out that many of the things they said were simply false. I started to describe the many reasons why their probability calculations were nonsense.
This is where the sixteen year old started chiming in. I had mentioned that in the probability calculation from Jay Richards’ talk, the number 1/10 was simply made up from nothing (See Part Two for the details). Sixteen year old felt compelled to remind me that 1/10 was a conservative estimate. I replied that he had no basis for asserting that it was conservative, and that actually it was simply invented. When he seemed inclined to persist along these lines, I reminded him that since the video hadn’t bothered to tell us what the symbols in the equation stood for, he had a lot of nerve passing judgment on the reasonableness of the numbers being used. We also discussed the importance of having independent events when multiplying probabilities together. Here again the sixteen year old tried to challenge me on that point, but I don’t think he really understood what we were discussing. This, even after I whipped out some examples based on playing cards to illustrate the idea.
This was the last point in the conversation where I was allowed to utter several consecutive sentences without getting cut-off. From here pretty much every time I started to say something, either the woman, the college student or the sixteen year old cut me off to ask some new humdinger of a question. As is typical in conversations of this sort (I’ve been involved in quite a few of them), we didn’t stay on science for very long. Things turned very quickly to the historicity of the Bible and the basis for morality. I won’t try to recreate the whole conversation, but there are a few points that struck me.
First, the teenagers were far more engaged and intelligent than the woman was. The sixteen year old was confused on many points of science, but he was bright and articulate, and had clearly devoted some time to learning about this issue beyond what he heard in school. The college student also struck me as very bright, and was the least hostile to what I was saying. The other high school student didn’t say much, but when she did speak it was always to say something interesting. I rather enjoyed talking to them.
The woman was less impressive. I think she was still caught off guard by having her bluff about being interested in what atheists have to say called by my inconvenient presence. When she spoke up it was mostly to insert one strikingly dumb remark after another. At one point, while we were discussing the Bible, she asked me, snottily, whether I believed in history.
Since I consider myself fluent in fundamentalese I was rather surprised by this question. I couldn’t fathom what she was getting at. So I replied that I didn’t think we were created five minutes ago complete with memories intact and asked her to clarify her point.
“Well,” she said, “then you should believe in the resurrection of Jesus. That’s history.”
“Is that so?” I asked.
Then, like I were the crazy one in this conversation, she said, “More than five hundred people witnessed it! How can you deny it!”
Oh, wow. I think the business about the five hundred witnesses is based on Paul’s account in Corinthians, where he mentions that number. Keeping my cool, I replied that five hundred indpendent accounts of a resurrection would impress me, but one person telling me what five hundred other people saw is pretty thin gruel. Somewhere in here the college student whipped out the old liar, lunatic or Lord argument (the idea that someone saying the kinds of things Jesus is reported to have said could only be a liar, a lunatic or precisely what he claimed to be (that would be the Lord option.) We have C.S. Lewis to thank for this ridiculous chestnut.) As it happens, both liar and lunatic strike me as acceptable options in that trichotomy. But my answer to the college student was simply that there is a fourth option. Specifically, that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life may not be accurate depictions of what he actually said and did.
Somewhere around here there was some serious eye-rolling going on in my general direction. Clearly a man would have to have his head completely thrust up his own backside to deny something as self-evident as the idea that two thousand years ago one particular dead body behaved in ways that no dead body before or since has ever behaved. Now struggling a bit to stay cool I pointed out that it would be easy for me to get a few friends together and write down an account of how we saw a man get resurrected from the dead. I suspect, I said, that they simply would not believe my account.
They were unconvinced by this. Suprise!
So on and on it went. We spent some time on morality. The college student helpfully offered that the only reason he doesn’t kill people is because the Bible tells him not to. I told him I doubted that was true, but that if he needs the threat of punishment to keep him from doing evil he might consider what the state will do to him if he commits murder. He came back with how he was clever enough to avoid getting caught and I replied that he might be surprised how hard it is to get away with murder and we wasted a few minutes down this blind alley.
How could consciousness be explained without reference to the soul? Where did the universe come from? How could DNA just have created itself? It carries a message for heaven’s sake! What about all the evidence of fine-tuning? You think it’s all an accident?
Somewhere around here a new player entered the game. I was in the middle of one staggeringly eloquent point or another when the woman immediately behind me on line, I will call her Mary though that was not her name, decided she had heard enough. In an act of staggering rudeness she cut me off and started speaking directly to the three teenagers. Without making eye contact or even acknowledging me in any way she said something like, “I just want to say that I think you three are beautiful children and that it’s very important that you read the King James Bible and that you beware of people who have been educated beyond their intelligence.” The emphasis on being “beautiful children” and the importance of reading the “King James Bible&rdquo, were points she made repeatedly.
As for the part about people being educated beyond their intelligence, it’s possible that was directed at me.
I’ve attended quite a few of these creationist gatherings and at virtually every one of them I have found myself involved in a conversation of this sort. As long as there is only one atheist among a large number of creationists, they tend not to feel threatened and instead treat you like some sort of zoo animal, or perhaps someone from a different planet. I’m still uncertain as to the best way to handle the situation. My instinct upon being peppered with ignorant creationist talking points from people utterly convinced of their own erudition is to unload with both barrels. Generally, though, I think that’s counter-productive. However temporarily satisfying it may be to fire a real zinger, I think if there’s any hope of doing long-term good it comes from being scrupulously polite. I suspect that a lot of the fire-breathers, like Mary, live in very insulated communities and simply don’t often come into contact with people who think differently from her on these kinds of issues. So let them see an atheist who on the one hand is completely unafraid of any challenge they might throw his way, but who also has no desire to be insulting or aggressive.
And in a way I was flattered by Mary’s interruption. The somewhat desperate tone in her voice suggested to me that she feared I was having some impact on the beautiful children.
So when Mary finished I simply affected a hurt expression and asked meekly, “Are you suggesting that I am not beautiful?”
She laughed and told me that I too was beautiful and that she prayed that some day I come to know the Truth (I’m pretty sure she intended for it to be capitalized). College boy, after thanking her for her testimony, then interrogated her pretty severely about her emphasis on the King James version as opposed to other versions of the Bible. She eventually conceded that any version was acceptable so long as it had Jesus featured prominently.
The other woman seemed very happy to have someone else on her side and moved closer to Mary. For a few moments the two of them started talking about me in the third person. I took the opportunity to return my attention the the teenagers and we resumed where we had left off. The sixteen year old was terribly keen to see how I could possibly explain the origin of the universe, especially in light of that “Everything that began to exist had a cause,” argument. I asked him why he believed that cause had to be supernatural. Because otherwise you would just have an infinite string of natural causes that never ends. Indeed you would. So what? But that’s impossible! he declared. I asked him why that was impossible. He had no answer.
This was something else I noticed throughout our conversation. Sixteen year old seemed very fond of simply declaring that certain things were impossible, without feeling the need to back up such assertions in any way. It’s impossible for the physical processes of the brain to produce consciousness. It’s impossible for the universe to come into existence without a God to make it so. It’s impossible to have a firm basis for morality without God. When I confronted him on each of these points he seemed shocked, like I was denying the obvious.
At any rate, another interesting exchnage occurred when the original woman, apparently having absorbed some of Mary’s energy, asked me pointedly why I found it so hard to believe in God. She even used the old line about how it requires more faith to be an atheist. I asked her why she finds it so hard to believe in unicorns. (The college student thought that was funny). I said that just I like I see no evidence that unicorns exist, I also see no evidence that God exists. Utter flabbergastation from my interlocutor. I continued that you don’t really explain anything by invoking God. Nonsense, she replied. God explains all sorts of things. I said I did not agree. She was simply taking everything that was mysterious or hard to undrstand in the world and simply placing the label “God” on it. That’s not an explanation.
Then I asked her, “If you think God explains how the universe came into being, then tell me how he did it.” “He spoke the world into existence.” “Just like that?” “Just like that.” “He said let there be light and there was light.” “Yes.” “And you find that easy to believe?” “Yes.”
I guess she won that round.
Of course, it wasn’t all disagreement and hostility. We did manage to find rapprochement on one point. That was when we started discussing whether evolution contradicted the Bible. I agreed, of course, that evolution, and modern science generally, completely contradicted the Genesis account. I also pointed out though that there are a great many Christians who feel that accepting the Genesis account is hardly essential to Christian faith and that they consider themselves good Christians even though they reject it as history. The two women suddenly looked like they were sucking on lemons, and even the teenagers seemed incredulous. I added that I agree with them that casually discarding certain parts of the Old Testament leaves them without any sound basis for deciding which parts of the Bible are historical, and which can be ignored. They liked that, and started discoursing enthusiastically about the absurdity of such people calling themselves Christians. I recommended they read Ken Miller’s book for an eloquent presentation of that view. I doubt they will take me up on that suggestion.
We were on line for a very long time indeed. Somewhere around here Mary grabbed me by the hand and claimed my soul for Jesus. I resisted the temptation to tell her that my soul was not hers to claim. Instead I merely thanked her awkwardly and tried to get back to the teenagers. She seemed uninclined to release my hand however, and went on to explain that she knows that God will grant me an awakening and that I will come to Jesus and that we will meet again in heaven and that I will know her name when I see her there. I offered that anything is possible and redoubled my efforts to extricate my hand.
I have only recounted a small portion of the things we discussed. Several things were clear. First, that the two women did not have the slightest interest in anything I was saying. Second, that they had complete and total confidence in every word in the Bible, and regarded it as utter impertinence to challenge them on any such point. Third, that they had very little concept of what science is or how scientists approach their work. And fourth, that they tended to view me as an object of pity, and generally behaved very condescendingly toward me.
At some point, however, a genuine miracle occurred. It was my turn to order my turkey on wheat. But to fully understand this next part of the story, I have to reveal a personal detail that I have not mentioned here before.
I hate cheese. Despise it in fact. I don’t understand how anyone can stand to it. Eating it makes my physically ill, and I don’t much enjoy watching other people eat it either. I think it’s foul-tasting, foul-smelling, foul-looking, and has a foul texture. I often find it difficult to eat in Italian restaurants because of the strong cheese smell.. Oddly enough, I’m not allergic to it. I do eat pizza, at least when there is a relatively small amount of cheese on it. But the fact remains that I’d have to be starving to death before I’d eat a hunk of the stuff in any other context, and even then I’m not so sure.
I ordered a turkey on wheat. They were out of wheat. So I asked for it on their “Italian” bread. They were out of that as well. Visions of Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch started going through my mind. What sort of bread do you have? He rattled off a few options, all of them involving words like parmesan and asiago.
So after all that, I went hungry. I asked Mary if God was punishing me. She replied that He was not. My growling belly was not amused.
Coming Up: The exciting conclusion! Behe blathers. The speakers take the “tough” questions. I am challenged to explain how air can be conscious.