Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Richard Dawkins at Indiana University

Last night I attended Richard Dawkin's talk about his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. It's about a two and a half hour drive from Purdue, but still a good number (~50) of our club members made the journey down. The drive was fairly uneventful until we got on campus. Mark gleefully directed my attention to a bus that was parked at a stoplight. "Look, the atheist bus ad! ...Wait a second..." We realized it was actually the reply to the atheist bus ad - the "You Can Be Good Without God but You Can't Be Saved Without Jesus" slogan I blogged about a while ago. I guess they really did get printed. Thankfully we soon saw the real ad - "You Can Be Good Without God" - and we felt much better.

We parked and walked to the auditorium, and there were already two huge lines wrapped both ways around the building...and we had arrived an hour and a half early. Granted, our club had vouchers for reserved seats, but I was hoping to maybe get there early for a seat that was up close. Unfortunately the whole front of the bottom floor was filled once we finally got in, so we were sort of near the back. Not a huge loss since Dawkins was just talking, but oh well.I then snuck out before the show started to buy his new book. I had brought the God Delusion for him to sign, but I didn't want him to get cranky since this is about his new book after all (and I was going to buy it anyway). I kept running into all these people I have random atheist-y connections with. Saw Joel from Campus Atheists and Agnostics of IPFW, a bunch of people from the Secular Alliance of IU, and August from the Secular Student Alliance. Rob (who I met at the SSA conference) tweeted about seeing me rush by in a crowd, but I missed him (sorry!).

The auditorium, which seats 3,200 people, was filled to capacity: they actually had to turn away 500-1,000 latecomers. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed about Dawkins's talk itself - all he did was read excerpts from his new book for about 40 minutes. I'm going to read the book myself - it's only a smidgen better hearing it from Dawkins, British accent and all. It was interesting, since he's an excellent writer, but you didn't miss much - just go read his book.

They then announced that he would be taking questions at two microphones up front, and I literally dashed out of my seat and raced to be near the front of the line (though don't believe what my members tell you, I didn't... seriously harm my competition on the way down). I was finally close enough to actually see his facial reactions, which was pretty awesome. Whenever someone would ask a stupid or confusing question (which was unfortunately the majority of them) he would contort his face in the way that can only be described as "Richard Dawkins is confused by your inane question." For example (quotes summarized, couldn't write things down, sorry):

History Professor: Why don't scientists spend more time proving certain things of the Bible? That would make more people believe in science.
Dawkins: (after much confusion about what this guy was asking) Because the Bible was written by ancient Middle Eastern goat herders in a desert who knew nothing about modern science.

Guy: (In horrible attempt of a British accent) Goodday, I seem to have evolved a British accent during your talk!
Dawkins: ...
Audience: *audible groaning*
Guy: (normal voice) Anyway, do you see anything at all as legitimate to intelligent design or creationism.
Dawkins: *walks back to microphone slowly, talks a long drink of water, pauses, then leans forward* No.

Finally I got my chance to speak, and to my best recollection I said, "I had the misfortune of visiting the Creation Museum this summer." I actually got some random whoops and cheers from the audience at this point, not from Purdue people, which I'm mildly confused about? Anyway, "While there were many scary things there, the scariest was how it was full of children. When you see kids like this or those who are home schooled or going to religious school, they're effectively being brainwashed. Is there anything we can do to teach them science, or are they a lost cause?"

Dawkins said he was glad I brought it up, because indoctrination of children is the "bee in his bonnet" that always gets him riled up...and riled up he got. He went on a rant you'll be familiar with if you've read the God Delusion, that there is no such thing as "Christian children" or "Muslim children"; just children of Christian or Muslim parents. He went on for quiet a while, and it was a very good point...but then he went on to the next person and never answered my question! Gaaahhh! I was so upset that I finally got to ask Richard Dawkins a question and I didn't get an answer, especially since many people (some random, not just my friends) said it was a very good one. Mark thinks he sidestepped it since he didn't have a good answer, but I'm prone to think he distracted himself with his rant and totally forgot what he was originally supposed to be talking about. Sigh.

Oh, as a side not, I was also the only female to ask a question. Represent. The place was a giant sausage fest, like most gatherings of atheists.

There were other good questions (one about being an atheist but not being able to shake the fear of hell after years of indoctrination, which got him ranting again about child abuse) but since I wasn't jotting stuff down, I don't remember all of them. If you were there, feel free to add information in the comments. Thankfully, one of my favorite questions (and the closing one of the night, I believe that's one of my Purdue people!) was caught on video (even though people weren't supposed to be videotaping, oh well):

After the lecture we went to join the line for the book signing, which was massive. I was sort of afraid we all wouldn't get through, but I was going to try. At this point some of my members showed me what lovely book they had received...Ray Comfort's special edition of the Origin of Species! I kid you not. Some guy was outside the auditorium passing them out before the event, along with business cards talking about how evolution = Nazism, yadda yadda yadda. Wow. Two of our members right in front of me in line asked Dawkins if he would sign it, and he looked shocked and amused that they were being handed out, and ended up talking to them for quite a bit about the book. Then it was my turn!That's me nervously stammering something about how honored I am to meet him because I'm the president of a student group for atheists at Purdue.His response? A very cheerful "Oh good, well done!" Yay! Look, he's smiling instead of his previous "Bloody hell, how many more books do I have to sign?" look!

After that bit of glee, we all traveled to the Irish Lion pub for food and drinks with other atheists (no Dawkins though, unfortunately). We had the whole top floor of the place reserved, and there were probably a hundred people there. That was honestly the most fun part of the night, since it was either philosophical discussions about atheism or perverted humor (mostly the latter). We also happened to be at IU during their Nearly Naked Mile, where people run around in their underwear. We were all convinced there was, indeed, a god, especially after some random hot girl mooned us. Tell me again why I went to Purdue?

Meeting Dawkins was fun, and the talk was pretty good, but honestly I was most impressed by the turnout. Bloomington is far more liberal than West Lafayette, but it's still in Indiana. But not only did they fill the place and have to turn people away, but the vast majority of the audience were supporters. Whenever Dawkins made a crack at religion, the entire auditorium was rumbling with laughter. When someone who obviously supported creationism asked a dumb question, the auditorium would groan and you could see people rolling their eyes and giggling.

I'm not saying all 3,200 of these people were atheists, but they were definitely freethinkers and skeptical of religion to some extent. To see that sort of reaction in Indiana gave me so much hope for the atheist movement. When someone famous like Dawkins comes to speak, people start coming out of the woodwork and show we have so much more support than we might think. I had originally cynically stated that if Dawkins came to Purdue, no one would show up - but now I have to wonder. Would we also have seen support that is usually silent? The optimist in me thinks so.


  1. An atheist sausage fest? Terrible. Well, Jen, I'm glad you had such a great time, and I'm glad you got a smile from the D-man himself. Congrats.

    PS, when you get around to reading The Greatest Show on Earth, let me know. I'm weighing whether or not to buy it.

  2. I'm so glad everything turned out well! I was a little disappointed by his just reading out of the book as well - but he is very eloquent so I guess that makes up for it.

    Ahh the old evolution = nazism trick...

    By the way, very good question. :)

  3. I enjoyed your post, but it's a bit unfair to lump home-schooling parents in with religious nuts. Some of us do it because our choices are limited to sub-par public schools or religious schools.

    I think there are a growing number of non-theist, academic types that are keeping their kids out of school (at least for part of their education).

  4. EvoDad, I guess my question was kind of out of context. Earlier he had talked about parents who specifically home school in order to religiously indoctrinate their children and hide them from science. I was referring to them in my question, not all home schooled kids. Hope you don't take too much offense!

  5. Did anyone ask him about Bill Maher?

  6. Hmmm - did he get a haircut after all?

    Sounds like he's getting old a presenile (like the rest of us). Or perhaps you did indeed stump him.

    You'd think that we all those sausages around, more atheists would realise that becoming gay would be a great choice.

    Of course he didn't show up at an Irish pub. The man's English after all.

  7. Some friends and I saw him in Seattle, although your version did seem more amusing. Highlights of ours included...

    - A brief imitation of Ray Comfort

    - Naturally, a heartily joyful reaction to the phrase "... small and fragile nut."

    - Dawkins' apologetic statement that he "doesn't do that sort of question; his mind just goes blank" when asked what his theme song would be

    We didn't even get any Ray Comfort books at all. There was one stand outside the lecture hall trying to promote communism by seeming to like evolution or something, but that was it, really.

  8. That's awesome that it was a good night overall. Sad that he didn't really answer your question, though, as well as with the speech just being the book bits.

    And, yeah, boo sausage fest.

  9. According to an article I just read yesterday, Dawkins' next book is aimed at kids (10-12 year olds, I believe). So that's something of an answer to your question of him.

  10. Philip,

    He actually talked about his children's book there, it was fairly interesting. Don't think it will exactly help kids in sheltered families though...would they buy them a book by Richard Dawkins?

  11. I never cared for the Irish Lion, but to each their own! Awesome sigs!

  12. I think the most probable reason he went off on a tangent is that it's very hard to keep a coherent train of thoughts when answering live questions in public and speaking off the cuff.

    Although from what I remember of the video, you seemed to manage it during your creozerg presentation...

  13. Stephen: The food at the Irish Lion kind of sucked and was overpriced. I was sad.

    Michael: I'm also 40 years younger than Dawkins, haha.

  14. Glad to see it went well, although I too would have liked to hear Dawkins' answer to your question.

    I'd really like to know about the upcoming children's book as well. He's been dropping hints about it for quite a while now and I've been looking forward to it (particularly because I have a few very young cousins now and I'd like to get them started on critical thinking early).

    That 30 second clip is tantalizing and I wish more of the talk were available; TGSOE is on my to-read list but I haven't gotten my copy yet.

  15. Ah, I thought I recognized the voice asking that question. Are you in any podcasts, cause I'm not sure where I would have heard your voice before...

  16. atheistyogi: I've posted a couple of videos of myself speaking before, maybe you watched one of them?

  17. It was not so much of a sausage fest in my view at least. I'm female myself, and I saw several other females in the general area where I was sitting. Just so you know :)

  18. So umm... do I qualify for being a fanboy seeing as how your linking to my blog made me kinda giddy?? Thanks for the mention :-D

  19. No offense taken! I just wanted to point that out to other readers

  20. Hey Jen, thanks for the mention! I would have said hi, but I didn't want to come off as a random stalkerish type. My wife encouraged me to, but I kept thinking of a certain pastor who is anything but stalker-like. (Tom, this is a joke) I was one of the whooping idiots at the mention of the "museum" trip, though.

    We got 5 books signed, making the night a rousing success. (Nerd squee!) I wish I had gotten Comfort's Origin of Nanners, but I didn't see that nut.

    Also, you should have had the mutton pie (stew in a bread bowl) at Irish Lion. Yum. Delish. In fact, you should make the drive to go back and order it. I'll wait. It was that good.

    Robert B

  21. My only fear is this post offers plenty of quote-mining opportunities for ill-intentioned theists.

    But then again, none of them follow your blog anyway....

  22. BTW, regarding the bus thing (I know, old subject, but that was a month ago). I wonder, what do the local Jews and Muslims (and Hindus and Buddhists etc) think about the christian bus signs? Yes, this is what the First Amendment is all about (I'd love to see the Muslims come out with signs of "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet")

    I realize it is still Indiana, but Bloomington is as diverse as it comes for this area.

  23. I am with EvoDad on this one. Still, I can see why many people might think most all home-schoolers are "religious nuts" and closed minded . . . as I am the only stay-at-home dad, atheist, home-schooler I know of here in Blowing Green, Ky.

  24. WOW Dawkins hasn't read the Bible NOT a shocker .How did I reach this conclusion so quickly?

    "History Professor: Why don't scientists spend more time proving certain things of the Bible? That would make more people believe in science.
    Dawkins: (after much confusion about what this guy was asking) Because the Bible was written by ancient Middle Eastern goat herders in a desert who knew nothing about modern science."

    To be EXACT , Matthew (aka Levi ) was a HATED Jewish Tax Collector .
    Mark A reporter.
    Luke was an M.D. and a Historian.
    John was a Fisherman and Evangelist
    Paul (aka Saul) was a Pharisee with what we would call a PH.D. He burned and ordered the deaths of Christians before his conversion . He was looking for The Truth ( Jesus said in John 14: 6 , "I am the way , the truth , the life: no man cometh unto the Father , but by me." ) At his conversion Paul became a Tent Maker and Evangelist. There is a lie I read that said , "Paul was an out of work Pharissee ." He WASN'T he left the Pharissees and didn't care to return (The Book of Acts KJV 1611 )
    Jesus called The Pharissess : anyone who believes in spirits , angels , devils, a resurrection (physical or spiritual) , A Day of Judgment .
    Saduccess :Atheists
    Scribes : Writers , journalists , authors .
    Lawyers(do I really need to give you a definition?)
    Jesus called all these and hey your Atheists . Look what He called you .
    He called all listed "Hypocrites" in Matthew 23 and other places.Then He went further and told all listed WHY He called them hypocrites.Jesus doesn't WANT a religious following He wants a relationship with you.Jesus called Pharissees hypocrites .Those are "religious nuts" in Christianity (Yes I am a Christian , but I will start with people like them "nuts " that don't The Jesus though Christian) , Islam , Hinduism , Judaism , Mormonism , Deism , Theism , etc. altogether that is related to Pharisseism . Jesus called all listed and those that are missing "hypocrites" . The most NOTICABLE hypocrites I see wear black and pray with the Sun Symbol in the hand during MASS. Wanna guess? Bill Maher used to be one.

    As far as sheepherders that were inspired to write Scriptures they are : Moses , David , and probably Solomon . Hey Solomon had to do something with that many wifes .That is ALSO forbidden in Genesis 2 to have that many wifes . YES Solomon followers that Atheist and belong to The Freemason Lodge (like the fictional Dr. Langley in The Da Vinci Code ) your following a fornicator .

    Let it be noted as a Christian I give this : Solomon was found worthy to be inspired of The Holy Spirit to write Scriptures that he didn't know were Scriptures but read in the latter part of The Old Testament and you will se God was dipleased with his lifestyle.

  25. If I may add to the discussion here...

    I happen to be an atheist but I am finding that there are a lot of liberal minded Christians with whom I get along with very well. Of course, these are the type who reject any idea that God intends to torture people, for any length of time, much less for eternity.

    I've actually written an entire book on this topic--"Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell," (for anyone interested, you can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website: www.ricklannoye.com), but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it.

    If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: "You don't know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!" Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

    True, there are a few statements that made their way into the gospels which place Hell on Jesus lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

  26. "Matthew (aka Levi ) was a HATED Jewish Tax Collector ."

    True, but he still didn't know anything about science. Dawkins' point still stands.

    "Mark A reporter."

    Reporters are more known for their ability to paraphrase things than they are for their understanding of key scientific principles, though science journalists today are rather more likely to have a scientific background than your run of the mill sports reporter. Dawkins' point still stands.

    "Luke was an M.D. and a Historian."

    That doesn't help much, considering that until a few hundred years ago most people thought that illnesses were caused by demons and other such nonsense. He might have had more skepticism thanks to his professions, but he wasn't the Doubting Thomas, now was he? Dawkins' point still stands.

    "John was a Fisherman and Evangelist"

    Fishermen know how to fish, and I'm extremely certain that fishermen around this time would have little knowledge beyond old wives' tales and the general farming know-how. Additionally, evangelism, seeing as it is merely the attempts to convert others, relies more on showmanship and speaking skills than a rock-hard knowledge of scientific principles. Dawkins' point still stands.

    "Paul (aka Saul) was a Pharisee with what we would call a PH.D."

    Great, he was a philosopher. He would be one of the more qualified to doubt things at face value, and spend a lot of time thinking over whether it was true or not. Instead he rages on and on about the Spirit and Holy things, intangible and only taken on faith without evidence, which leads me to believe he was not very skeptical at all.

    I will grant in the context of the story, he was supposedly given a wealth of physical proof of Jesus' divinity. Physical proof that we today are strangely denied.

    Still, Dawkins' point remains. The writers of the Bible had no real idea about science; in fact, modern science didn't enter the world until hundreds of years after the Bible was written, and the two have been at complete odds ever since.

    As to the rest of your post, maybe you should have taken a good sit and thought about it longer; you come off as rambling, and your sentence structure rapes the language something fierce.

  27. Joseph, Have you ever heard of sarcasm? Also, you should google the controversy among modern biblical scholars regarding the authorship of the gospels and epistles.

  28. Wait, the book of Mark was written by Mark? And the book of Luke by Luke? And the Pentateuch by Moses?

    Oh, ok, thanks for clearing that up :)

  29. "If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell."

    Is this the same Jesus who told the story of the man being tortured in the heat of hell, asking for Lazarus in heaven to only dip his finger in water and touch it to his tongue?

    Sounds a lot like being tortured by burning in hell to me...

  30. I downloaded the audio book as my job requires I drive 20+ hours a week. Its been a great listen and it is narrated by Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward. I have never had a strong understanding of the evolutionary process but this book has helped further that knowledge and left me wanting more.