Sunday, April 11, 2010

Peoria trip report, part 1

Russell here. I'm still in my hotel room on Sunday morning, chilling with the internet and waiting to go catch our plane at 3 today. We had a lot of fun. On both days there was a good crowd, about 40 or 50 showing up to the Friday lecture, and maybe a few less on the second day.

Friday we had prepared a topic that was essentially "Atheism 101," in case we got a lot of Christians joining us. The fellow who organized the trip -- whom I will continue referring to as "BU" since that is the only name he has used here -- let us know that there are a lot of Christian activist groups on campus who might take an interest in attending and hitting us with hard questions. He also said it was parents' weekend, so we might see a lot of parents coming to guard their kids. I think we didn't. Also, a few people had driven from hours away.

We arrived a good 30 minutes before the start time on Friday, and there was already a pretty good early turnout of people waiting. Out of curiosity, I started my talk by asking for a show of hands to see how many people were atheists or Christians. Most were atheists; when I asked about Christians there were initially no hands. Then I said "Really? Come on." Then a small number of hands went up, I think fewer than ten. I thanked them for coming.

I explained my history as a fourth generation atheist, and described a few of the straw man arguments that people use to explain atheism. (Some Christian psychology guy claims we all hate our fathers.) In fact, I said, we disbelieve because we think you should have good reasons, or evidence, before believing a claim.

I borrowed a page from my dad's past talks when I said that people answer two kinds of questions with God: questions of fact, and questions of value. I said Matt would be discussing questions of value, so I spent my time discussing questions of fact. I explained that scientific investigation was the best way to learn things you don't know, and historically, "God Did It" is a poor answer to questions because it doesn't provide any new knowledge and stops you from learning the real answers. Since I wrote this all down ahead of time for practice, I will probably post it later. For Matt's part, he addressed questions of value by adapting a talk he did at another college, called "The superiority of secular morality."

We mostly got a very friendly reception, but we did have a few young women in the back of the room who wanted to challenge us. Well, actually only one did. She wanted to argue about the morality issue, with the usual question about where atheists can get their morality. Matt likens the variety of moral choices to a chess game: while some moves are clearly very good or very bad, in most situations there are several different moves that can be effective. The fact that there is not a single, certain choice does not negate the fact that some decisions are clearly more or less harmful to other people, and collectively, we try to agree on behavior that won't be supported because we don't want to live with that behavior. Of course many people in the audience wanted to chime in, bringing up things like the Euthyphro dilemma so we didn't even have to.

I got some great questions about science from people who probably knew it better than I did. There was a medical professor there both days who wanted me to expand on how science is different from faith in investigating truth.

I've written this post in fits and starts, so now I'm due to catch the airport shuttle and I won't have internet access until late tonight. Another post tomorrow, most likely.


  1. It amazes me that the difference between science and faith is even a question.

    It's like asking, "What's the difference between a person who's demonstrably pulling in $100k/yr and some homeless guy who claims to be a multinonillionaire without being able to provide any evidence of it?"

  2. I really, really wanted to attend these two meetings. I was born in Peoria and lived there till I was 30. I live in Ann Arbor, MI now and would have made a trip home for this, but already had a trip to New York planned and got home late Friday night. Wish I could have been there to meet you two, I'm looking forward to the video.

  3. Thanks for coming up to the Midwest, guys. Tom, John, and I really enjoyed both of your talks. Matt's talk on secular morality was probably the best breakdown of secular morality I've heard; often secular moralizers tend to get bogged down in philosophy and/or evolutionary psychology, and Matt's was cut-and-dry, pragmatic, and adaptive.

    I wish more religious folks had shown up both days. I would like to have heard some more honest back-and-forth. Those guys Saturday, though I'm glad they were there, well...they make be embarrassed to have a philosophy degree (okay, more embarrassed).

    I did love how you guys seemed to play good cop, bad cop with them. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but it seemed to work pretty well.

  4. Good analogy with the chess game. I have been thinking that morality is like language itself. There is no authority to define words, but that does not mean that you can just make up your own definitions as it suits your purpose.

    Also, a word can be a good or bad choice, depending on how well it serves its purpose; to accurately and unambiguously communicate. No moral relativism. Just a question of "Does the system do what we want it to".

  5. It seems that you got a warm reception due to the fact that you were basically preaching to the choir, not because your speeches were especially lucid and friendly (although as a long time fan I have no doubt that they were). Speaking to other atheists is not in any way a bad thing: after all, you're giving people more tools for critical thinking and ways of expressing their thoughts and it's always affirming to feel like you're part of a larger, rationally thinking group, but I'd still hope to have more theists and especially fencesitters attend these kind of lectures. But if they don't feel like coming, there's little you can do about it.

    (I wasn't there, so I'm inferring all of this from your recap)


    I posted a full trip report there, rather than trampling over Russell's posts.

  7. great read matt... Thank you. I look forward to more from Russell as well :)

  8. This was an excellent meeting. Matt and Russell are exceptional in explaining beliefs. They illustrated some of the past beliefs in ancient Egypt, believing the sun was pulled over our world by Ra and his barge.


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