Sunday, December 6, 2009

Discussion on atheism ironically demonstrates why we need discussions on atheism

On Tuesday there was an event held at Purdue University titled "A Day in the Life of: students who identify as secular or non-theist." It was organized by various diversity offices on campus, not the Society of Non-theists, though our members were asked to sit on the panel. As stated by the event information, the purpose of the panel was "to provide an opportunity to students who identify as secular, agnostic, atheist, or non-theist to discuss campus life and experiences. The audience will be primarily composed of student services staff members with an interest in developing their understanding of all types of diversity, including (non-)religious identity."

I can't express how happy I am that Purdue is recognizing the needs of non-theists and including us in discussions of diversity. The more people realize that we exist, we are good people, and we face discrimination because of our lack of belief, the more we'll be able to fight that discrimination. I unfortunately wasn't at the panel for a certain reason, but everyone said that it was great and that they thoroughly enjoyed it.

Well, maybe not one person.

I'll leave it to two of the panelists to describe what went down (very minor editing/splicing on my part).
We were probably just at the beginning of our hour and a half discussion when one audience member asked if the Non-Theists at Purdue get any hate mail. Since Jen wasn’t there, and we weren’t really sure about the hate mail specifics we answered yes, and bunny-trailed into discussing some of the letters to the editor in the exponent. A woman raised her hand to ask if the “hate mail” specifically said “I hate you”, then added that if the word “hate” wasn’t in it we shouldn’t be calling it “hate mail”. Erm…ok. At this point I had a feeling this woman was going to be belligerent and was just hoping that would be the last thing she would say…but unfortunately it wasn’t.

We kindly told her that it was certainly possible to express the feeling of hatred without using the word 'hate.' This also brought up the topic of the Society fliers being torn down or having Jesus-messages written on them. The Christian lady proceeded to tell us a random story about a church bake sale she did (she went into excruciating detail about this damn bake sale), where someone apparently approached her and really liked the brownies so he said he'd bring back some pals. He asked what it was for, and when she said it was for church, he said "Oh" very shortly and walked away, never to return. Shawn explained that every group has its radicals, including atheists, and we couldn't really speak for this person because we didn't know who he was or what his issues were. Kind of funny that she just assumed he was someone we could answer for.

More questions were asked and the discussion got moving forward again, but the woman began to monopolize the discussion, talking when other audience members clearly had questions to ask.

The Christian lady piped up again eventually with something along the lines of: "I think everyone in here is wondering"---(I'm pretty sure no one else in the room was wondering this)---"where you believe life comes from? Do you believe we evolved from monkeys?"

I pounced on this immediately. I am a biologist and a strong believer in evolution, and the whole "humans came from monkeys" thing is a personal pet peeve of mine. I immediately explained that no where in evolution does it state that man evolved from apes or monkeys, and this was a common and very unfortunate misunderstanding. However, I certainly believe that life evolved on Earth and that's where humans come from. Then Tom added further explanation to that by explaining the difference between evolution, abiogenesis, and cosmology.

The other panelists, biologists and sciencey people in general, looked like they were holding back scoffs and I knew the question was going to take the discussion into the wrong direction; we were there to discuss the secular student experience at Purdue, not to debate evolution with someone who obviously didn’t get it at all. So, I tried to diffuse the situation by giving an answer that had nothing to do with monkeys. I said although I think evolution is the answer that makes the most sense, I feel like the specifics of how life on Earth happened don’t really matter to me. Even if someday, we knew the answer 100% for sure, it wouldn’t change my life so I don’t really care about where we came from.

This had exactly the opposite effect that I was hoping for. The woman started to look visibly upset and teary eyed when she again started talking and said "You said you don’t care about where you came from, but how can you say that? If you don’t care about where you came from, then you don’t care about yourself, and you can’t care about others. I feel sorry for you." This was basically when shit hit the fan, and some of the other panelists and I started to get really fed up with the lady.

Well, Tom leapt on that immediately, and said, "That's the kind of patronizing crap that really gets on our tits"---or something like that. I got really defensive as well, and I started to try and ask her why we need to believe in God to care about people, and she quickly claimed that she never brought God into the equation. Well, no, she didn't say anything about God, but it was very obviously implied. I took Amanda's statement to mean she didn't care to understand science or evolution---not all people are interested in science, big deal. She took it to mean something way more spiritual, obviously, and was bringing God into it whether she intended to or not.

This fiasco was cut short by the moderator who said, "Not caring about the origin of life does not mean she can't care about other people. Now, next question..."

Then we got to talking about the Porn and Popcorn event and I said I found the speakers at the event particularly offensive when they starting making unnecessary comments (insults) about nonbelievers. At this point we were near the very end of the discussion, and the woman just totally lost it. She started to cry again, this time she was blubbering, and said something like (it was difficult to understand, she was having trouble talking at this point)…"You said you were offended, well you offended me when you said you didn’t believe god exists." Then she broke into more sobbing and sniffling and the other audience members started to snicker at her, or at least she thought they were snickering at her, and she yelled at them about how it wasn’t funny. At this point the moderators stepped in and ended the event early. The woman basically ran out crying, and that was the end of the discussion.

The last thing the woman said, about us offending her because we don’t believe god exists is what really got me. First of all, she voluntarily came to the discussion knowing it was called “A Day in the Life of: students who identify as secular or non-theist”. What did she expect? It seemed like with all her baiting, she just came there for an argument, and got upset when she realized the other audience members weren’t agreeing with her awesome words of wisdom. Secondly, what I supposed to do if the fact that I don’t “believe” in god, my very existence offends her? Am I supposed to crawl in a cave and let the people who believe evolution means “we came from monkeys” run the planet? I’m just disappointed that someone had to come piss in my cereal during an event that’s purpose was to promote diversity and a better understanding of atheists.

We stuck around for a little while afterward and spoke with the coordinators and apologized for what happened. They said we handled it well, and that they had been expecting something much worse than what they got. They also asked us if there was any way they could have handled it better, and we told them that moving the subject along was the best option. We don't mind the questions about our beliefs or lack of religion, but letting things escalate is probably not a good idea.
Though this summary focuses on the major incident that occurred, the event as a whole went well. There were many great questions asked, such as What were your expectations as atheists when you came to Purdue?, What experiences have you had in classrooms or anywhere on campus in regards to your beliefs?, What has it been like coming out to your families?, What can Purdue do to make non-theists feel more welcome?, and Does being a female have any affect on your interactions amongst atheists? This one lady was the only audience member who reacted negatively to the panel.

I think this really demonstrates why we need to keep having discussions and panels like this and bringing our atheism out into the open. This individual, probably like many others, is so offended at the mere existence of atheists that she broke down into tears in a room full of her coworkers. As Tom mentioned to me after the event, would any of us now feel comfortable approaching her for the services of her position at Purdue? I know I'd have my reservations. But keep in mind that all the other people in the room, probably many (if not all) theists, reacted positively to the event and learned something that day. Maybe this lady did too, even though she didn't handle it well at first. If just a fraction of the room now looks at non-theists in a new light, that's a victory.

Thanks to all of the panelists for representing the Society, and to Amanda and Alicia for writing up their summaries.


  1. Sounds like it was an 'interesting' time. I genuinely have a difficult time understanding the thought processes that would lead someone to raise such questions at a discussion of secular/non-theist life at the university. It would be comparable to one of us non-theists attending a discussion of some interdenominational Christian group on campus about how to accommodate everyone's different views and needs and then bringing up the census of Quirinius and the problems we think it creates with the gospel accounts of Jesus' birth.

    wtf? How is that relevant to the topic at hand?

    You're right that her reactions definitely displays a need for more discussions, visibility, informing, etc (and better evolution/biology classes? :P)


  2. Sounds like it was a productive event - consciousness raising is always a good thing.

    I find myself somewhat perplexed by people such as the woman discussed here, although I don't think they're very uncommon.

    The point that needs to be made is, among other things: if our very existence offends somebody, they need to grow thicker skin and learn to live with it. We're not going away. We're people too; we're human and we (should) have precisely the same rights as any other human being.

    I could say that the blinkered religious people I meet on a regular basis offend me by their very existence, but what on earth would that accomplish? I won't deny that I find them infuriating and think they're an affront to critical thinking, but they're still people; "I respect [them] too much to respect [their] ridiculous beliefs", as it's been said.

  3. Don't worry about this woman; she's completely insane, obviously. The vast, vast majority of people in this world at least make an attempt to be rational; don't let the few nutjobs get to you.

  4. Hi.
    "I immediately explained that no where in evolution does it state that man evolved from apes or monkeys"

    Gould disagrees. (at 02:55)

    And he's right.

  5. This is why ther Out Campaign is extremely important.

  6. Sounds like all but one of the audience members got a perfect example of a day in the life of students who identify as secular or non-theist. I don't think it could have been illustrated any better than having that woman there.

  7. I imagine such an experience might do quite a good job for people in the audience getting a good understanding of what it is like. If you're really lucky you might even have some people start questioning their religious beliefs simply in reaction to such unmitigated idiocy.

  8. Seems like it was a decent time, save for the one instance of crazy. Which is good, at least.

  9. Ahhh, the persecuted Christian. How dare we atheists persecute her by disagreeing with her!

  10. This poor woman sounds genuinely deranged. I hope that she seeks help.

  11. "Do you believe we evolved from monkeys?"
    - I would be tempted to reply, "Not all of us, madam; creationists have devolved from monkeys".

    Why was she there? To "witness", of course. That's what they do. And her pastor will tell her that despite the fiasco she reports to him (if she's honest), she may have "planted some seeds of faith" that god can use if he feels so inclined.

    Her being offended: what a massive narcissism.

  12. It sounds like the woman just took a page out of Glenn Beck's play book. Either that, or she was off of her meds.

  13. Beautiful blog you've got going here.
    Keep up the good work and keep busting the pearl clutchers. There comes a time to pity the mentally ill, just not yet. ;-)
    Cheers, sister!

  14. It sounds like she proved your point.

  15. Thanks for putting this up Jen, and thanks for editing it. It's a good summary of what happened. It was a really great event and I was happy to be a part of it.


    I don't disagree with Gould. He says that humans and apes share a common ancestor, which branched off into humans and apes. What this lady was implying was that evolution states there were modern-day apes running around that how turned into humans. This is what he refers to as people seeing evolution as a "ladder" which he says is not true.

    I don't know if I would agree with Gould's choice in calling this common ancestor an "ape," but maybe that's something for the evolution experts can answer.

  16. "I don't know if I would agree with Gould's choice in calling this common ancestor an "ape," but maybe that's something for the evolution experts can answer."

    Ultimately, we're talking taxonomy here, which is important for some purposes, but not something to get overly wrapped up in. Presumably the common ancestor of chimps and humans looked at least somewhat ape-like, though by the most currently accepted taxonomy, it would not technically be an ape.

    I watched a YouTube video one time that argued for a taxonomy that would label the common ancestor -- and humans as well! -- as a "monkey". IANABiologist, so I have no idea how reasonable or unreasonable the argument was. But again, the point is that it was a purely taxonomic argument, and probably not that interesting to most laypeople.

    The key thing, though, is to point out that nobody is saying that humans evolved from modern apes. It is the most convenient way of disarming the canard, "If monkeys evolved into humans, why are there still monkeys?" (I would argue that the persistence of an ancestor species would not necessarily undermine evolution -- but we don't even need to make this argument, because nobody is even saying that about humans)

  17. Thank you very much for posting this to the blog Jen. An additional thank you again to the panelists for sharing your experiences with us! This is a wonderfully factual account of the events. We could not have done it without you!

    - Natasha - One of the Panel Moderators

  18. Regarding what humans evolved from: I'm not a biologist but as I understand it, there are related issues that can make things very complicatred. For example, one method of classifying is to classify everything within the categories that they evolved from. Thus, birds are dinosaurs. The question then becomes what would we see the human ape common ancestor as? And that would be very ape-like so if we called it an ape then we'd have to label people apes also.

    Regarding dealing with people who ask why there are still monkeys/apes my general response is "If there are Irish-Americans why are there still people in Ireland?" That seems to actually get the point across at a minimal level. However, the question generally seems to be associated with the belief that evolution has some sort of ladder, so if we moved up the ladder why didn't the rest of the apes? So it may just be helpful to explain that evolution is not progressive. However, for all such comments one generally needs someone willing to listen. I doubt that would have been very much the case here.

  19. Alicia,
    thanks! I appreciate you actually took the time to read my comment.

    "I don't disagree with Gould. He says that humans and apes share a common ancestor, which branched off into humans and apes."

    No he doesn't. He says "yeah, we evolved from apes, that's right". I think he's right because the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees was an ape. The common ancestor that both chimpanzees and us share with gorillas was an ape, too. What else could it've been?

    Yes, we share a common ancestor with apes-- but We share a common ancestor with poplars too. And with mushrooms. That's not what we mean when we say "we evolved from apes". We mean "our ancestors were apes".

    We don't mean modern apes either. Americans came from Europeans, but we don't mean modern Europeans do we. Those Europeans aren't supposed to be alive today and everyone see that.

    I don't know why people are so hesitant to speak that fact out and loudly. We evolved from apes, people. There's nothing wrong or ugly about it. Well, of course they might throw shit at us if they saw us now but oh well.

  20. Agreed, Alicia, our summaries went together so well! I loved this event, and definitely think there should be more.

  21. Amanda,
    I concur. I'd love to do this again, baiters included. As my first public experience as an atheist, it was awesome.

    Well, I think the disagreement here is in the naming of the animals. I understand what you're saying, and we're not disagreeing on any part of the theory itself, just how we refer to our ancestor.

    If you want to call our ancestor an ape then I will just have to politely disagree with that choice. I understand what you/Gould mean by our ancestor being an ape, and it's probably true (I'm not an evolution expert, nor a taxonomy expert), but I think it's misleading to refer to it as an ape to people who don't know anything about evolution.

    I understand why our ancestor would be called an ape, though. In entomology (my area of biology) we still refer to prehistoric insects as insects, even though none of them are identical to what we know to be modern-day insects.

    But in my experiences, claiming we evolved from "apes" is the same as telling an uninformed person that modern-day gorillas/monkeys/chimps ran around a billion years ago and became humans. When you might say "ape" you're referring to the common ancestor long ago that was a species of ape, and I'm cool with that, but my problem is that it's misleading to those uneducated in evolution.

    I've never encountered a devout Christian (like the lady at the panel) who brings up the humans-evolved-from-monkeys line while referring to our ancient ape ancestor. They're talking about modern-day chimps and gorillas. That's not to say all creationists believe this---it's just been my experience. I prefer to avoid it all together, personally, rather than try to explain that the ape I'm referring to is not a gorilla in Africa.

  22. I have to admit, I'm not all that surprised at the divergences of the discussion. It almost had to, I would think. I mean, what is the discussion of "a day in the life of a non-believer" really going to get into? The answer is, "It is pretty much the same as the life of a believer, except without any praying. Then again, since most believers don't spend any of their day praying, either, that difference is pretty small."

    "What is your day like, as a non-believer?"
    "Well, I get up, shower, eat breakfast (or not), go to class, eat lunch (or not), go to class, work on my school work, eat dinner, work on school work, and maybe, if things go well, I might go out to Harry's for a beer before bed. I don't say 'grace' before meals, and I don't say my prayers before bedtime."

    That's a "Day in the Life"

  23. OK Alicia, thanks for taking the time to write such a sensible comment :-)

  24. I was amazed at the question about "coming out to your families". Equating doubting the existence of, or not believing in, 'God' with being gay?! How weird is that? It seems to me that a 'normal' rational state of mind would be to require evidence that something exists before you believe so. As there is no evidence for a 'God', it seems to me that the 'believers' should be the ones living in the closet, unsure whether their beliefs really justify their coming out!

    It reminds me of the way smokers believe that they are totally justified in what they do and, that if other people don't like it, they should go somewhere else. For goodness sake, they are the ones polluting the air that non-smokers are breathing, but they can't see it that way at all. They claim they are being persecuted by the non-smokers - just like the 'Christian' lady who appeared to feel threatened by a roomful of people who don't share her - to us - unjustified beliefs.

    It seems to be a mindset that our 'evolved' brains are easily capable of causing. However, I think we evolved to be story-tellers, who have imaginations that can come up with 'explanations' for the natural events that, at any point in our history, we can't understand or explain. We love stories - so much that we perhaps should be classifed as homo storytellerus. And I'd be quite happy with that.

    I don't think anything more is needed in order to live a full, happy, loving life. There is so much to wonder at, and discover, in our world that I can't understand why anyone would 'need' anything else - and certainly not an 'after-life'. Goodness me, we're mammals like the rest of them - how silly to want to be more than that.

  25. "Then again, since most believers don't spend any of their day praying, either, that difference is pretty small."

    I once had a friend's asshole brother-in-law plump himself down on the sofa next to me and say -- as the very first thing he said to me, a total stranger -- "I pray six hours a day". "Oh", I asked, "Are you a monk? If not, perhaps you should be spending the time with your wife and children instead". The rest of the family, who were religious but not assholes, chuckled over this response for years.

  26. We all evolved from our parents. So why are there still parents?

  27. Don Jordan
    "I was amazed at the question about "coming out to your families". Equating doubting the existence of, or not believing in, 'God' with being gay?! How weird is that?"

    It may seem weird, Don, but it is absolutely a real phenomenon. A very large number of atheists are for the most part "closeted," with their atheism known to few close friends, if that.

    I think this is why in the past couple of years, I have come to have a lot more sympathy for the LBGT community, as I can relate to what it is like to be among the most hated groups of people in America (actually, I think nowadays being gay is even more acceptable to the majority than being atheist). I've even joined LGBT organizations (in the "friend" category) to provide my support for their activities.

    I think being atheist in America is not all that different from being gay, at least in terms of the cultural perception.

  28. "no where in evolution does it state that man evolved from apes"

    Um, yes it does.

    "I don't know if I would agree with Gould's choice in calling this common ancestor an "ape""

    That makes about as much sense as saying you aren't sure if this common ancestor should be called a "mammal". The common ancestor would be part of the 'ape' family.

    Perhaps you should take a look at this video, so you can see that humans have evolved from all sorts of animals, some of which are apes. Certainly we could not have evolved from modern-day animals since that would require a time machine, but some of the later stages of our evolution most definitely involved apes. (Even if it tells you nothing you didn't know, it's still an awesome vid nonetheless. The important part is 5 minutes in:)

  29. I think being atheist is different from being gay.

    One is a choice with protection in the constitution. The other is still legally discriminated against and not a choice.

    Openness may vary a lot between families but how often have you heard of children choosing to have different beliefs than their parents. I've heard of it fairly often and except for the most uptight parents I haven't heard of that much of a struggle.

    If your parents are uptight you have my sympathies.


  30. Atheism isn't a choice. You don't wake up one day and say "Ok, from now on I don't believe in Mithra". Usually "atheisation" is a proccess that you might not even notice at first.

    And once you've become an atheist, you can't choose to believe again at will. It's not like putting on a hat with the word ATHEIST across it.

  31. Sorry, Pablo. That was an insensitive thing of me to say. I have little direct experience of living in America, and I find it difficult to appreciate the depth of religious 'belief' there and the attitudes to difference that it apparently produces. In Australia, it's not so bad - most people don't really care what you believe, as long as it doesn't stop them from having a beer!!

    The idea of 'belief' on the basis of 'having faith' in something without any evidence to justify the position is beyond my comprehension. I was brought up in a family that went to church on Sundays (first Methodist, then Presbyterian, then Anglican!) and I continued that practise into my early '30s, but then I gradually realised that it didn't make any sense, really. I could comprehend the story, and that lots of people found 'comfort' in it, but there was nothing in it that gave me any support in daily living. I'm happy with the understanding of how I evolved (together with the rest of the natural world), and that is enough for me. I've propagated and passed on my genes, so I've done what I'm here for. Anything more is icing on the cake - and what a cake our world is!

  32. ''...And that would be very ape-like so if we called it an ape then we'd have to label people apes also.''

    I'm reading Carl Sagan's The Dragons of Eden, and have just encountered the following powerful quote by Carl Linnaeus, nonetheless, the founder of taxonomy:

    ''I demand of you, and of the whole world, that you show me a generic character ... by which to distinguish between Man and Ape. I myself most assuredly know of none. I wish somebody would indicate one to me. But, if I had called Man and Ape or vice-versa, I would have fallen under the ban of all the ecclesiastics. It may be that as a naturalist I ought to have done so."

    And just to underline the arbitrariness of human taxonomies and the continuity of biological variety, I'd like to remark that the whole monkeys-are-not-apes thing looks quite silly from the point of view of a speaker of Italian (or French, or German, or...), since we only have one word for both monkeys and apes. (Somehow, this defect did nothing to spoil my childhood adoration of Tarzan delle scimmie ;-)

    (having a hard time with TypePad)