Into the Lion's Den

Tonight, I went to a three-hour meeting of Christian graduate students and professors who were discussing the "Sam Harris vs. Philip Ball" blog-debate that occurred over Ball's editorial in Nature. A full recap of the Harris-Ball interaction is available on The Reason Project's site: http://www.reasonproject.org/archive/item/what_should_science_dosam_harris_v_philip_ball/

I was the only atheist in attendance, and it was held at a Christian's house, hence the post title. I was invited to listen and provide an atheist perspective to what they were talking about. It was really interesting to listen to Christians talk about what they thought the "science vs. faith" debate between the two atheists meant.

The group was entirely academics (PHDs or soon to be) in various subjects: chemistry, neuro-linguistics, anthropology, philosophy of science, biology; and from various indications it looked their beliefs in things like the scientific method, human evolution, big bang cosmology, and those kinds of issues were not in conflict with current scientific consensus. They were disheartened that such a high percentage of US adults believed in divine human creation (over 40%) in favor of darwinian evolution.

A number of comments that they said amazed or amused me:

One biologist marveled at the internal struggle a serious archeologist must have in also being a Mormon. -- As though a biologist could accept the physical resurrection of Jesus without internal conflict.

In the context of subsaharan Africa, another was saddened that the Christians there had enough faith to believe that the power of prayer could actually heal people of AIDS, because these faithful people would then stop taking their medicines...

Another lamented that Christians are calling children witches in Africa, as well.

In short, it appeared to me that as far as what a hardcore rational atheist would hope for in people who persisted in being serious Christians: these were the best you could find. And don't get me wrong, they were all serious and committed Christians (and yet far from agreeing with Bishop Shelby Spong on almost anything).

It was also interesting to me to finally hear an example of "the difficulty of coming out as a Christian" especially in context of being a professionally tricky thing to do -- and for me to believe them.

The content of the discussion was useful. Many of the people in the room had read the entire Harris-Ball blog-debate and had printed, annotated copies on their laps as we discussed it (I mentioned they were academics, right?).

In the beginning, people were convinced that Harris was being stridently scientismy or arguing something akin to: "If you disagree with me, then you're being irrational. By the way, I decide."

I worked on that impression for a while, stating what I considered Harris' main contention is intellectual honesty -- it's ok not to know something, and to mention that you don't know. And that the best method that we have for making progress on any topic is intellectually honest human conversation (and thus, should be promoted). Also, the only reason Ball's writing was on Harris' radar was that Nature (prestigious science journal) had given press, again, to obsessive deference to religious superstition.

It was a long meeting (3 hours), food was served, lots of discussion, and I convinced everyone in attendance to become atheists. Just kidding on that last bit.

At the end of the night, I think people agreed with several of the goals of the Reason Project in several ways:
1. It's useful to question beliefs that you hold and the reasons for holding them -- and this kind of thinking should be promoted.
2. Religious beliefs should not be sheltered from criticism any more than any other belief.

Tempers never flared, everyone had a pleasant evening, and I think I got across how at least I think about these issues in ways I don't think they had considered.

A good night.

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