Last night I was generously invited to a local Calvary Baptist church (did I say church? More like a campus) to speak one on one with an apologetics teacher in front of his class. I have generally refused such offers before because, as I’ve said on this blog and elsewhere, I just don’t care enough about the whole ‘does god exist’ question–its boring. But I agreed to this one in particular for a few reasons. First, it was an interesting way to reengage with critical issues in a relaxed atmosphere. I wasn’t going into a debate, it was just a discussion. Second, I wanted to build up some friendships across the isle. I have said it before, we too easily develop a cultural mythos about people who think differently than we do and thus it is quite easy to vilify or demonize people without ever once meeting them. This was a way for me to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. But more than that, I wanted to establish a friendship in a way where both secular and religious groups could work together in community outreach programs. I am hoping that in the future, the Calvary Baptist community and the secular humanists of our area could work together helping people, feeding the poor, working charity events, to give back. Third and finally, I was asked really nicely. People should never ignore the value of good manners, they go a long way.
I arrived at the mega-ultra-gym-na-church-na-kitchen-na-school-natorium around 6:30 or so and got my first impression of the place. As you have probably guessed, the building was rather monstrous. It loomed over me; at one point I was pretty sure the walls were going to bleed as I entered through the main door. There was an eerie hum in the background and I could almost hear ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ playing. No I kid, actually, it wasn’t that bad. The place was spotlessly clean, children were running amok as they always will, and I was warmly greeted by some of the class members. Apparently they had just had a little gathering in the dining hall (yes, they have one of those) and a lot of people were clearing out. My gracious host and the teacher of the class, Jim, led me up to the next floor (yes, they have floors) which was lined with classrooms. Each classroom had these large digital presentation whiteboards, which were just awesome.
As Jim set up his laptop, I greeted some of the class as they came into the room. Everyone was really nice and all had smiles on their faces (and none looked as though they were carrying stones to throw at me, so that was a plus). When the majority of the class had arrived, Jim started introductions and we got right into it. I would like to bring up that I was a little disappointed to find that Jim had shared our private correspondence with the class without telling me, which I thought was a slight breach of trust, but overall there had not been anything bad or damaging in the emails, so I let it go (the emails were about content for the discussion, so no harm done; though for future reference, I generally consider email private or closed correspondence and next time I should be asked first before the content of those messages are shared).
Overall I felt the conversation went pretty well. I let Jim and his audience know about my background as a Catholic and that I’m no expert and further inquiries about subjects outside my field of knowledge would have to be directed towards those with credentials (especially when it comes to biological or zoological matters, where I really must defer to scientists), but I offered my opinions on the matter (and that whiteboard came in real handy). I explained a little bit about the process of sexual selection and evolutionary psychology, subjects about which none in attendance seemed to have any knowledge. I also delved a little bit into string theory, the process of evolution (check this out, this tree represents the relationships of about 3,000 species, of which roughly less than 1% of known species), and transitional fossils.
Of course, Jim’s group was largely made up of Young Earth Creationists who, while eager to learn and explore new ideas, were greatly misinformed on even the most very basic functions of evolutionary theory. Jim used a lot of sound-bites and quotes which, as I explained to him, is just not how science works. Science isn’t about who can have the coolest quip, but about understanding the state of the available evidence through careful (often tedious) analysis.
Some claims were made during the course of the discussion that were simply not true, but I did not have a chance to engage. At several instances the conversation was turning around so quickly that it was difficult for either one of us to really keep a steady topic. Here are some of them, with some of my rebuttals.
The claim was made that there are only a certain number of galaxies in the universe (I believe the number stated was 100 billion) but that is actually a sleight of hand. It is only the number of galaxies we can see in the current observable universe since as it stands the light from those galaxies haven’t yet reached us. And the number of observable galaxies is more like 170 billion, not 100 billion.
Additionally, the claim was made that there are only a certain number of particles in the universe (10^82) which is another sleight of hand. First, what particles? Neutrinos? Neutrons? Quarks? Incidentally some particles can appear and disappear into and out of existence.
The argument was also made that evidence for human evolution was paltry, which is simply false. Along with this some odd claims were made about piltdown man which I was not fully equipped to handle. I suggested that the class take a trip to a natural history museum and have someone qualified give them a tour. I hope that they take me up on this and go. After seeing their church, I’m sure they could afford a bus and lunches for the community.
Also the argument of irreducible complexity came up, which was unfortunate. I really wanted to get into this because the watchmaker argument (Jim used the automobile) is so flawed and logically unsound I could have easily shown them. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to establish a beachhead in that discussion as it moved onto another topic far too quickly.
The concept of entropy also arose as a creationist argument. That is that life is impossible and incompatible based upon the laws of thermodynamics. Again, I was unable to really respond at the time, but this link exposes some of the flaws behind the claims (see also these excellent articles here, here, here).
There is one matter that I should probably clear up since I wasn’t satisfied with my answer. The question arose as to the methodology and reasoning behind evolutionary theory. I made the comment that evolution is deductive rather than inductive, but really that isn’t the whole truth of the matter (click the links). Evolution by definition is both a theory and a fact, and some of it is deductive and some of it is inductive. Scientists reflect, infer, and deduce from a plethora of evidence spanning several fields of life science when coming up with evolutionary models. I strongly recommend that those interested research evolution on their own, engaging actual research rather than just criticisms of it from creationists. A great place to start is the Talk.Origins archive and FAQ which handles a lot of these issues.
Finally, when the question is asked, ‘why is it that there are billions of other galaxies out there with potentially billions of planets if we’re the function of God’s creation?’ a reading of a Bible verse in response does not an answer make. Quoting from Psalms about the glory of God and his majesty does not answer the question, it simply ignores it.
At the end of the night, I was really happy to have been invited to the class. It was great to meet everyone–all of whom were just exceptionally great people–and I thank them all (and Jim especially!) for their time, attention, and patience. It was a risky and generous offer on their part and I am supportive of any group that opens their doors to new ways of thinking–especially contrary ways of thinking, regardless of whether they are convinced by my arguments. I hope they thought me a worthy adversary and found me cordial and entertaining, even if I wasn’t very accommodating to their beliefs on the origins of life and the universe. Overall I was impressed by the amount of questions I got from the class and the interest they expressed and hope that translates into further research on their own time.
I hope they invite me back again sometime in the future and really hope that they accept my offer to do community work with them at some point. Also, it would be great if we could organize or cosponsor a live discussion at the church with an expert in evolution (re: scientist) and a creationist champion. I think that would go a long way towards gaining better understandings.
Addendum: I have invited Jim and his class to comment on this post and welcome the furthering of this conversation. Please feel free to engage each other, but keep it cordial. Abusive or insulting comments will not be permitted.