Saturday, September 13, 2008

And the mail keeps coming...

The TV show gets fan letters at a volume I certainly never experienced in the years before the internets became the distribution channel it is today. When I was host up until early March of 2004, we had set up the address (tv [at] atheist-community [dot] org) already. But with the only people watching the show being those with nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than tune in to Austin Access, a good week of letters might be one or two letters, tops. Now they flood in at dozens per day, it seems.

Here are a couple of emails that give a flavor for the kinds of questions people have who write in. It's great to hear from so many atheists, from all over, who never hesitate to express their gratitude for the work Matt and the whole team does. (And yes, we get letters from Christians, too, more of which is friendly and not of the "I'll pray for you!" stripe than you might think.)

A fellow named Alexander Altaras asks, in his subject line, a straightforward question: "We don't trust the Bible as an accurate source, why do we trust the news or any other historical document?" A good question indeed. I answered: Whatever the source of information you're referring to, you should only find it trustworthy to the degree its claims can be independently confirmed or corroborated. Historians are usually expected to cite their sources, and the good ones do. News reporting has gotten more difficult to trust, because so much of it today is tainted with one type of political bias or another. It's always a good thing to see if the information being given to you is well supported by facts. It's why science is trustworthy where religion is not. In science the process of peer review is set up so that scientists can independently check each other's findings without favoritism tainting the results. Religion has no such self-correcting tool in place. Another point is that religious claims are doubly hard to trust at face value because, unlike history, for example, the people promoting religious claims are doing so in order to defend or proselytize the belief, an agenda that isn't as often applied when dealing with purely secular matters. So in short, consider the source, consider their reputation, and consider their sources most of all.

A fellow identifying himself only as Bobby, and informing us he's a 38-year-old Marine and plainclothes narcotics officer (I'm assuming ex-Marine, if he's a cop now), wants to know "what is the root of [believers'] hatred for the theory of evolution?" Bobby writes, "Why do theists get so offended by the theory of evolution? It is a basic question. I do not understand. I am an Atheist. I do not get offended by religion until it is forced upon me. I do not actively attack religious concepts until I am provoked. Theists behave as if the very IDEA of evolution insults them. They act as if the theory was created to specifically offend them. Why?"

I think much of it has to do with the fact that evolution seems to deny religion's great promise to them: that they are special creations of a loving god, imbued with souls, which to go on to live in eternal paradise after their bodies die. By treating the development of life as a purely natural process, theists are afraid that evolution denies the divine and thus the chance they'll get to go to Heaven.

Thing is, I happen to think (and Ken Miller would disagree) evolution does deny this. But it's hardly the fault of nature, or of science's methods of learning about nature, if people choose to retreat from reality and embrace irrational beliefs out of fear and wishful thinking.

Now keep in mind that everyone on the TV crew gets these emails, and the above answers to these questions are only my own. The good questions usually spark a stimulating discussion, with some of the other cohosts, like Tracie, offering such beautifully written and thought out responses that I can't help gritting my teeth she doesn't get a chance to post here more often than she does. But however the discussion threads turn out, it must be said that we really do have a fine and engaged audience out there, and we're grateful to the lot of you. Keep watching, and keep the emails coming.


  1. Christians who adhere to a literal interpretation of Genesis dislike evolution because it disagrees with Biblical literalism. Since Genesis says that god created man, a Biblical literalist cannot accept the possibility that humans share a common ancestor with other primates and that we evolved over time through descent with modification. And since Biblical literalists believe that not believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible is a ticket to an eternity of suffering in hell in the afterlife, then it's no wonder they don't want it taught to their children in the schools.

  2. "We don't trust the Bible as an accurate source, why do we trust the news or any other historical document?"

    I like to think of it as a crossword puzzle: if you're staring at a blank puzzle, and someone tells you that the answer to 13 across is "recycling", you should be skeptical, because there are likely to be several words that fit that clue.

    But if you've filled in some clues already and 13 across reads "RE_Y____G" and someone tells you that the answer is "recycling", then that answer is more likely to be correct, since it fits in with your other guesses. You're not certain of any of the words, but the fact that they fit well with each other increases the likelihood that all of the guesses are correct.

    Likewise, if the Washington Times reports that Joe Politician accepted bribes, citing only one source, that information is dubious. But if the Washington Post and New York Times repeat the story, citing independent sources that corroborate each other, then the information is more likely to be true.

    Historical documents work the same way: if, let's say, the only evidence for the existence of Homer are the Iliad and Odyssey, then it's quite plausible that "Homer" is a pseudonym, or a group alias, or some other fictional author.

    But if, as for George Washington, there are letters allegedly written by him, books and newspaper articles written by both his supporters and enemies, paintings, and so on, then the idea that George Washington actually existed becomes much more plausible, even if each individual piece of evidence can be doubted.

  3. "...some of the other cohosts, like Tracie, offering such beautifully written and thought out responses that I can't help gritting my teeth she doesn't get a chance to post here more often than she does."

    word to that, yo. I'd like to encourage her to write more by back-pat-commenting her posts, but i don't enjoy reading those myself. And it seems the only thing that makes her write more of those detailed and revealing posts, is when she's debating someone who just doesn't seem to "get it".

    and that's my problem; I "get it". wah!

  4. Sorry to post something unrelated, but I didn't get a reply to email. I wrote a ditty about toothpicks (discussed several episodes ago), posted here:



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