Science

Skeptical book tours can be fun.

Last night I saw Victor Stenger talk about his book God — The Failed Hypothesis at the Harvard COOP. A couple dozen people showed up, ranging in age from “whippersnapper” to “fogie” and income level from “loaded” to “street person.” The talk itself was rather dry, and I found myself thinking that Dr. Stenger is a better writer than public speaker; that is, until the Q & A, when a few lovable kooks decided to make themselves known. One woman asked what Stenger thought of certain writers and scientists who argued that they had scientifically proven the existence of God. Stenger claimed not to recognize any of the names she listed, but later recalled one (Poling, I think?).

“Oh him,” he laughed. “He’s full of it. He even admitted he makes up the stories in his books.” The woman started to protest but backed down.

Another man was not quite so meek. Sitting in the front row, he waited until we were about 20 minutes into the Q & A before raising his hand. Upon being recognized, he stood up and moved toward the lectern like he was William Jennings Bryan about to take down the lead expert.

He launched into a question about the origins of the universe and quantum mechanics, demanding that Stenger explain how something can come from nothing yet insisting that prior to the Big Bang, there existed a very material “quantum field.” Stenger, whose background is in particle physics, attempted to clarify that a “quantum field” is a mathematical concept and not an actual object, an idea that appeared to agitate the questioner. As the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats, the man continued to demand a simple and logical explanation for the origin of the universe while rejecting all quantum theory. I was reminded of the oft-repeated quote, “If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t.” I’m certain the quote was written specifically for this man.

When the quantum theory bitchfight began to subside, the man stated his intent for the record: he agreed that the Christians were full of it (“and dumb,” he added), but he also thought that Stenger was equally idiotic for insisting life was “meaningless.” Stenger clarified that he never called Christians dumb or full of it, that he focused exclusively on the evidence provided for the existence of God; he then stressed that he found plenty of “meaning” in life, and in living for today and not for some future post-death utopia. As final punctuation, Stenger gestured at the hundreds of religious books spanning the wall to the side, saying, “Look at all these books saying there’s a god, and you are wasting this much time and energy on little old me?”

The man explained that Stenger’s book represented a dangerous threat to society, and that if everyone were to stop believing in God, the world would be doomed to anarchy and nihilism. Without God, this man believed, no one would care for anyone but himself and would commit any immoral act to improve his own happiness. Because, you know, right now atheists are traveling the country in packs, looting businesses and killing indiscriminately, flying planes into buildings and whatnot. Heeeey, wait a second…

Of course, we’ve all been over this before. Plenty of research has been done into the evolution of morals, and it has been shown that such a thing is very possible without the existence of a god. It gets frustrating to keep explaining that point over and over again. But hey, at least it livens up an otherwise dry lecture.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

Related Articles

10 Comments

  1. "…that if everyone were to stop believing in God, the world would be doomed to anarchy and nihilism. Without God, this man believed, no one would care for anyone but himself and would commit any immoral act to improve his own happiness."

    I hate it when people mix up what it means to be an atheist and what it means to be a pirate.

    -PopeTom

  2. As a person trained in physics, I like the idea that teaching people physics will destroy the moral fabric of society. All along, I thought I'd have to be a rock star to get that kind of attention. While the ideas of this insistent inquisitor are laughably far from the truth, I still get a mild frisson from being categorized alongside rappers and pornographers. . . .

  3. I have a BA in physics and I can assure you that when you start exploring all its concepts, it is enough to inspire you for life without the need for a god… It is sad to think that probably more than 90% of the people living on earth will never even have any idea of how the cosmos works…

  4. It never fails to frighten me when I hear these people say what they would be doing if they didn’t believe in a punishing god

    I like to think they're only trying to make a point and are not at all serious. Less scary this way.

  5. I learned about morality from reading Aesop's Fables. Imagine my disillusionment when I learned that animals couldn't really talk to each other and didn't really have human emotions and foibles. Ever since then I have been completely amoral, robbing, raping or murdering everyone I meet.

  6. So… he thought that religion was untrue, but that if people stopped believing in it the world would come apart at the seams? What a bleak world this man must live in… Or was he simply a non-Christian theist?

  7. I was thinking about the whole "no god, ergo no morals" thing today on my drive to work. The idea that we would all be pirates if there was no god assumes that there is a god. If there is no god, that means that we made up the rules all by ourselves; therefore we must be innately good.

    Fortunately not everybody gets with the social behavior program, so we get to celebrate Talk Like A Pirate Day every September 19th.

  8. “…The talk itself was rather dry, and I found myself thinking that Dr. Stenger is a better writer than public speaker…”

    Boy, Rebecca, some things don’t change. I took Quantum Mechanics from Dr. Stenger about three decades ago at the University of Hawaii. It’s hard to imagine lectures that dry in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! He is a much better writer than speaker.

Leave a Reply

You May Also Enjoy

Close
Close