More details on the Thursday debate

As promised, here are the details on my debate this week.

Debate: Are Science and Religion Compatible?
An Evening of Stimulating Intellectual Discourse
Loyal Rue and PZ Myers
Sponsored by
Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists
Thursday, February 7, 2008
7:00pm – 10:00pm
West Bank Auditorium- Willey Hall
225 19th Avenue S
Minneapolis, MN 55455

I must say I like the tagline — “An Evening of Stimulating Intellectual Discourse” — since I don’t think this will be the kind of ferocious bloody battle some of you might be hoping for. Rue is a religious moderate, so I don’t anticipate any opportunities to go on a rampage by either of us. Come prepared with thought provoking questions; I told Dr Rue that if we can’t initiate any gunfire between the two of us, we could always turn on the audience and get some spectacle that way.

There’s also the suggestion from Rick Schauer that this might be an excuse for Free Beer. Come to the Campus Club, on the fourth floor of the Coffman Union, around six and even if the beer isn’t free we can fortify ourselves. I think I’ll also invite Rue to join us. He’ll be drinking the hard stuff, keep his glass filled.

By the way, my answer to the question will be a solid “no,” if you were wondering.


  1. #1 Mooser
    February 4, 2008

    Sure they’re compatible, as long as religion know its place, somewhere below theatre, maybe just above a sleazy strip club.

  2. #2 Pierce R. Butler
    February 4, 2008

    …they’re trying to assimilate us into the cybernetic Supermind of the Neo-Atheists!

    Nah – nothing useful comes from plugging defective chips into a functioning board.

  3. #3 t-guy
    February 4, 2008

    Mind control! Child abduction! Clone armies!

    Cue spooky music.

    I stopped watching The Cross-Files when whatsisname left the show.

  4. #4 CanadaGoose
    February 4, 2008

    “An Evening of Stimulating Intellectual Discourse”

    I first read this as “An Evening of Simulated Intellectual Discourse”

    Not that I dount PZ’s credentials.

  5. #5 Marcus Ranum
    February 4, 2008

    Sure, science and religion are compatible. The same way a bullet and an egg are compatible. One does a hell of a job obliterating the other, while the other makes a frightful mess all over the place.

  6. #6 efrique
    February 4, 2008

    John T (#18) has seemingly not looked at any of the mathematics at, and is just relying on his (failing) intuition to tell him how much sense the big bang should make.

    Presumably he also uses his intuition to judge the suitability of quantum mechanics as well.

    That there was a big bang isn’t hard to comprehend, since what we observe is, by and large plainly flying apart. That it could indeed have “just happened” isn’t even all that surprising, even though it doesn’t accord with his common sense gained from a time and place with entirely different experiences.

    In its place, we’re supposed to accept not just a mythical supernatural being*, but his particular choice of mythical supernatural being. Why your particular delusion over someone else’s MSB, pray tell? Where is teh evidence that yours is a better explanation for what we observe than any other made up explanation? (let alone the actual explanation from physics, which has the merit of at least accounting for a good bit of what we actually see)

    *(which is in fact a *much* wilder story, since no actual explanation for said MSB’s origins is given, and no actual evidence for whichever claimed origin story he pulls out of his ass is offered)

  7. #7 John T.
    February 4, 2008


    Oh by the way my intuition is part of the quantum field. I thought you would know that.

  8. #8 Will E.
    February 4, 2008

    “I also believe that I have a creator. I cant prove it, but that doesnt necessarily mean there isnt one.”

    Oh, man, really? Wait ’til you hear about the teapot orbiting the sun!

  9. #9 Gregory Kusnick
    February 4, 2008

    You dont think that the “big bang” is silly?

    Actually, I do think the Big Bang is kind of silly, and so do a number of reputable cosmologists (e.g. Paul Steinhart). That’s why scientists keep looking for alternative ideas that explain the data equally well.

    The “equally well” part is the key. For all its silliness, Big Bang cosmology has enormous explanatory and predictive power. “God did it” explains nothing (where did God come from?) and predicts nothing (if God can do anything, then nothing is ruled out). That’s why scientists continue to accept the Big Bang, despite its weirdness, until something better comes along.

  10. #10 inkadu
    February 4, 2008

    You dont think that the “big bang” is silly?

    Well, I guess we agree on that point, John. The Big Bang is silly.

    I actually believe that the Flying Spaghetti Monster enjoys stretching light waves as much as we enjoy stretching dough to make pizza — which is much better explanation for red shift than that silly big bang. Unlike the big bang, the FSM theory for red shift makes intuitive sense. We can all easily imagine a mass of hyper-intelligent pasta with an infinite number of noodly-appendages teasing out the light waves to be a little longer. Whereas the big bang requires us to believe that all the matter in the universe was condensed to a ridiculously small point. That’s not very believable.

    There’s also this crazy theory that time travels faster when you’re farther away from massive objects, like when you’re further away from the Earth. I mean, it sure seems that way, because we have to update our GPS satellite clocks constantly, because they all run fast. But I think that time moves at the same speed no matter where you are — that just makes intuitive sense — but that satellites orbitting earth are closer to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and as such, get excited, and that makes their clocks run faster. I mean, we all get excited, and things seem to happen quickly. If that happens for us, why can’t it happen for satellites? It just makes intuitive sense, unlike that crazy idea of time being a factor on one side of some crazy unintuitive equation involving mass.

    And mass? I mean, come on. What the hell is that? Do people really weigh less on the moon? That doesn’t make any sense! I mean, they didn’t get any less fat, why should they weigh less?

    I think you’re on to something. Don’t waste your time blogging here, John. You should be researching some important stuff. Apply for a grant. The world needs clear-thinking people like you.

  11. #11 Eric
    February 4, 2008

    Thanks for the update. I’m going to try to make this event.

    I’m not a student, but I’ve attended a bunch of great events at the various colleges around the Twin Cities.

    I saw Philip Kitcher give a lecture at Augsburg College (I think that was the one?) last Spring and really enjoyed it.

  12. #12 Shirakawasuna
    February 5, 2008

    PZ: If there’s one thing you need to bring to this debate that you might not already have prepared, it’s a whole bunch of statistics (the best you can get) of what people in the U.S. and elsewhere believe concerning religion, how people vote, etc. It’s true that moderates often get away with defining religion into vague metaphorical nonsense that applies to what seems to be a small minority of believers. Which isn’t to say that Fundamentalists are a majority, but I would bet that large numbers of people believe Jesus really existed and really had powers, for instance. It would also be interesting to see what they would call Fundamentalism instead of religion, even if they think it’s misguided. The less room you can give your ‘opponent’ to redefine religion into nothingness, the better!

    In the debates I’ve seen between atheists and moderates/theologians, there is also another tactic: after redefining religion into another domain, it is then proclaimed to be a superior domain that then overlaps with science/scientists concerning all sorts of subjects. For instance, after defining religion simply as the search for the transcendental (or something else vague), they will go on to say that science cannot say anything about transcendental experiences, spirituality, the mind, etc, effectively fencing off a chunk all for themselves which is indeed explorable scientifically.

    Hopefully I didn’t ramble on too much, and good luck!

  13. #13 alchemist
    February 5, 2008

    As a PhD chemist, and agnostic who generally agrees with you, I think I would largely disagree with you on this subject.

    There will always be a place where our understanding of the universe fails us. I had a physics grad student for a roommate who was certain that some day we will have a (very long) equation that explains everything. I’m not so certain.

    Wherever there is a gap in our understanding, some sort of belief takes over. We can’t help it, our brain is programmed to connect the dots with lines that don’t exist. And so we see echoes of our mind in the vast emptiness. Wether those echoes are god, or superstrings, even scientists sometimes cling to their beliefs without substantiated facts (or continue to argue them well after their disproven).

    Two books: Carl Sagan’s Contact, loosely describes aliens who have a theory for the universe, and yet cannot discount the idea of god. The second, a slighly campy short story in Dan Simmons ‘Hyperion’ details a priest, who travels the stars, searching for other life forms who also believe in the Christian god. Faith doesn’t end just because our current beliefs fail the test of science.

    I agree that religion sometimes (or often) imposes itself on others. Shouldn’t atheism, which is ‘based’ on science, take the higher path and not impose itself on those who wish to find faith in emptiness?

    This website does a good job of illustrating faith trying to remove science, why not just leave their ignorance for display, while simply following your own beliefs.

  14. #14 Zib
    February 5, 2008

    Maxi @ 43:

    If you know of a test for superstring theory, Peter Woit would like to hear from you.

    Obviously I agree with you in principle though!

  15. #15 John T.
    February 5, 2008


    I had a hunch you were married by your writing style. By the way my wife thinks you have great insight too.

  16. #16 Bjorn Watland
    February 5, 2008

    The debate will be recorded and posted by CASH on their website:

  17. #17 Mooser
    February 5, 2008

    I used to believe in Science and Rationality, but then I got married. There is no Scientific, Rational explanation for my wife. She defies all physical laws, all logic, and cares not a whit for any deities, or diets.
    Where the hell can I get an answer? I’m not going to some filthy ashram, so forget that!
    Did I mention that she shot her first husband?

  18. #18 alchemist
    February 5, 2008

    Marley; yes, of course biologists focus on biology. What I’m saying is that we can know alot about how things work, why things work, (say the brain, for example) and it still may not help us deal with, for example, a specific depression. Knowing that a lack of dopamine is causing the problem isn’t necessarily soothing. Fixing the biological problem with drugs doesn’t always fix the problem at the root of the option. Therapy is the best option, but for some people religion works as well.

    Other people don’t have any problems, but see religion as an essential, stabilizing force in their life. I don’t, but I’m not going to condemn anyone for figuring out what works for them.

    Now, if they start telling me how to live, then I’ll raise hell.

  19. #19 flynn
    February 5, 2008

    >>Knowing that a lack of dopamine is causing the problem isn’t necessarily soothing.

    Not necessarily, but i will testify that it can be. A chemical, internal problem can be far easier to deal with than, “my life is falling apart.” Once I figured out that the chemistry preceeded explanations for it, things got much much better.

    Alchemist, I’m still wondering what you mean by faith. If it’s just trusting your past experiences and your reactions–love feels like this, etc.–then it’s not what I usually call faith but I agree that it is useful whatever we call it. If it is the idea that someone has sent me a lover to love, we’re not in agreement.

    I had to smile at your basketball analogy. Years ago I decided that chemistry was hard and I wanted to give it up. Would you say to one of your students expressing this same view that they were clearly not meant to study science? Many of us never find that we have any “calling,” after all.

  20. #20 maxi
    February 5, 2008

    I’m talking complicated emotional issues that are not always easily answered by reason. “Is it better to lie or to be honest but hurt someone with honesty?”, “Is it more important to finish my career, or be there for a family member?” Sometimes, how you feel is more important than the ‘best’ answer.

    There are whole branches of ethics/philosphy that deal with these questions, with or without religion.

    No one is telling you what to believe. But when a thread opens up asking whether religion and science are compatable, I am going to say ‘no’ and argue my point. Engaging your own brain and freeing yourself from the need of invisable guidance is the most liberating feeling. I have complete control over my decisions, and if I will ask for guidance, I won’t be asking my invisible best friend for their opinion.

    I agree with flynn, knowing the science behind something does not unweave the rainbow, but rather gives us better knowledge with which to make decisions.

    Who wants a calling in this life with all its wonderous variety?

  21. #21 Michael X
    February 5, 2008

    No one claims that science can tell us everything right now. But simply because there is a gap in human knowledge doesn’t give anyone the go ahead to fill it with whatever answers make them feel better. Wishful thinking is not a respectable answer when the ballots are still out. Now, a hypothesis based upon our current knowledge and where it may or may not lead, that would be a more intellectually honest way of coming to ones beliefs.

  22. #22 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 5, 2008

    Oh by the way my intuition is part of the quantum field. I thought you would know that.



    alchemist, you should really read Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow. (Yes, that Dawkins.)

  23. #23 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 5, 2008

    Oh by the way my intuition is part of the quantum field. I thought you would know that.



    alchemist, you should really read Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow. (Yes, that Dawkins.)

  24. #24 Michael X
    February 5, 2008

    As for you Alchemist,
    You have put forward a very unconvincing case of romanticized ignorance. Every single last question you put forward is being investigated by science and has been for quite some time. You fail when you assume that it is ok to allow sloppy, wishful thinking in principle, as long as you’ve decided that no harm will come, or that religion handles the situation equally as well.

    Neither of those assumptions are true.

    Religion works off of little more than human intuition muddled by iron age superstition. It is no match for evidence based psychology and the study of ethics in our human search for happiness. As for stating “what’s the harm?”, Sam Harris wrote an entire book, just for you!

  25. #25 alchemist
    February 6, 2008

    Michael X,

    I’m not going to convince you. All I can hope for is that you turn down your rhetoric. Sorry for the length (those who are still reading), I’m definitely skating on thin ice at times, but I’m enjoying the thought process.

    I think you have basically argued that religion is irrational, and therefore ‘stupid’. I have basically responded ‘so what?’. Let me further explain why I’m unpeturbed.

    Humanity, in my opinion, is more complicated that the sum of it’s rational, scientific parts. The most complicated part of humanity is our ability to make decisions. Sure enough, scientists have noted that the decision center our brain (especially with morality decisions) is directly linked to the emotional centers. We make tough decisions with our ‘heart’ and not with our deductive reasoning centers. Now if you want to argue that emotions are just physiologically controlled, and therefore our poor emotional decisions are nothing more than responses to over-stimulated neurons interfering with our rational centers: ok, I can accept that answer on a rational level.

    Sometimes, however, emotion (whether chemical or spiritual) is extremely important, more important than the rational answer would be (For example: letting an elderly family member die, or stay comatose on a ventilator). Sure, science can explain how we make these loaded decisions, why we’re obsessed with things that are unhealthy and how to make better choices. But sometimes, you have to make a decision that you know is wrong, but emotionally important.

    One place where we use emotion to define ourselves is in fulfillment: has our life been worth it?. What does that even mean? I have no idea, but we’re all working really hard to get there. And we all have different ideas of what the word means.

    While science can explain what fulfillment is, and what the idea implies, it can’t tell you what each individual needs to be fulfilled (Though counseling certainly helps). For some people, they feel that they reach fulfillment through religion. Now, you have implied that religion (& prayer) don’t accomplish anything. I would tend to agree with you in the direct sense of the word: God (if he exists) generally doesn’t grant wishes, or solve your problems for you.

    However, if people feel lower stress, or gain a sense of community by connecting to mediation, or a ‘greater being’, or a supportive religious group, that definitely is a secondary benefit. Most studies suggest religious people are healthier (physically), and while this probably results from a more pious lifestyle (in general), maybe religion also calms and relaxes them. Maybe religion, after all, is nothing more than an opiate.

    But I say this in the nicest possible sense. I LOVE my opiates. Without beer, pets and weekend sports, I never would have made it through a week of work. And that’s fine, as long as keep these to myself. If I start walking around the streets drunk, then I become a nuisance to the public around me. But I don’t think a lone pint of guinness is hurting anybody, even though it adds unhealthy calories to my waistline. And I don’t think attending church is a ‘burden on society’, even though it may make someone ‘ignorant’.

    Other points
    1) Can you get let askew by Dogma? Sure, but you can get led askew by anything. Even brilliant atheists make mistakes without a dogma.

    2) I would agree with the notion that ignorance is romantic, (or rather Ignorance is bliss). Life was more fun when we were kids and didn’t know anything. And the process of becoming non-ignorant is scary, sad and emotionally taxing. I’m glad I’m not ignorant anymore, but life was still more ‘romantic’ as a kid.

    3)Am I hinting that aethists might restrict religious freedoms? It’s certainly happened before, although it’s unlikely to happen here. You certainly have freedom to insult religion, (as ‘ignorant’) and they certainly have the freedom to insult us (Godless Pagainsts). And I certainly have the power to call both sides ‘a bunch of jerks’. But wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we didn’t have to call everybody else names?

  26. #26 Michael X
    February 7, 2008

    John T, I always attempt at the beginning of debates to steer away from character assassination, but yours seems intent upon suicide.

    Here is some recommended reading in case you attempt to speak publicly on this topic again.
    Bertrand Russell’s “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish” (Also, “Why I Am Not a Christian.”)
    Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura” (On the Nature of Things”)
    David Hume’s “The Natural History of Religion and Miracles”
    And Lastly, Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World, and The Varieties of Scientific Experience.”

    You may benefit from them. Or atleast the people who you encourage will, as you are not only misinformed yourself, you inspire it in others.