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.