Humorous, but sometimes coarse.
“In your face” rah-rah session for atheists.
Public scorn and ridicule of virtually all (and especially Christian) religious folks.
Overall profoundly sad.
Sally and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening out together. The campus was beautiful and the warm still Virginia evening was spectacular. As we made the 30-minute drive over to the other side of Lynchburg, the Blue Ridge Mountains rose up to our left with the sparkling orange-red rays of the setting sun radiating from their oscillating peaks. Awesome. Illinois and Michigan views just don’t compare. We met Kathy, a biology faculty member from Randolph college with whom I have become acquainted at her office. She kindly helped us find the lecture hall – a high-vaulted ceiling with an overhead balcony. We arrived early, and chose seats in the balcony right over the lectern – a great vantage point of the event.
The lecture venue and college setting reminded us of another time we had attended a lecture at the University of Kansas in the fall of 1976 – a creation/evolution debate.
Following a short series of songs by a university choral group, there was a ten-minute pre-lecture by Sean Faircloth. Sean is a colleague of Dawkins at the Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason. He has written a book entitled, “Attack of the Theocrats.” His short presentation promoting his book made it very obvious that he has no use for religion and, in fact, views religion as an evil influence on American culture. He inserted his not-so-subtle “digs” at the local Liberty University fundamentalists several times.
Dawkins was much less antagonistic and used the time to talk about several chapters in his new book (just released this week), “The Magic of Reality.” This book is geared toward younger readers and addresses questions such as: What is reality? What is Magic? Who was the first person? Why do we have winter and summer? How did everything begin? Are we alone in the universe? What is a miracle?
The first question he addressed was, “Who was the first person?” He argued that there was no “first” person (No Adam and Eve), but rather that each person arises from a previous set of parents virtually the same as them. Then using a time- machine analogy, he described how the fossil record shows evolution and speciation events, and that if we followed the trail backward we would, 4000 generations (24 years per generation) in the past, observe a great-grandfather very similar to ourselves. At 50,000 generations ago, the great-grandfather would be homo-erectus. 250,000 generations ago reveal chimpanzee-like ape grandfathers, and so on all the way back through the evolutionary history of life on Earth. Dawkins is very confident of this data – as is the general scientific community.
In contrast, in addressing the second question, “Are we alone in the universe?” Dawkins is humble and openly admits that he does not know the answer. He did provide some very interesting facts regarding the number of solar systems that might have planets similar to Earth in the universe. The numbers are mind-numbing – billions and billions. So his tentative thought is that, given the enormous number of possible ‘Earth-like’ planets possible, he thinks it likely that we are not alone. That is interesting to consider, but it is depressing as well, since if Albert Einstein was right that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, even traveling at these rates, the “intelligent life planets” are so far removed from one another, they would never be able to contact one another.
The sold-out audience was an enthusiastic and engaged crowd, with frequent applause accompanying any derogatory reference to God, religion, Christians or Liberty University. During the question and answer period, one individual identified himself as a former Liberty University student who has now become a committed atheist. The crowd burst into applause at this personal confession, and Dawkins was quick to congratulate him in his ‘deliverance’ from the evils of Christian fundamentalism. Afterwards, while Sally and I waited in line to purchase books, I listened to the conversations of college students and locals who had attended. Mockery and derision toward religion and Jesus and Christianity were core elements of some of these conversations. Given the antagonism I had sensed during the evening, when I finally talked to Professor Dawkins one-on-one I asked him, “Do you believe all religion is harmful, or is it that you personally just have no use for it?” I told him the reason I asked this was because, as a lifelong Christian, I had seen so much good done in name of the faith it did not seem justified to say, in a blanket statement sort of way, that religion was primarily harmful. His response was, “You don’t have to be religious to be good.”
Sally and I were among the last to leave, and it was quite late. The night was quiet as we walked across the empty moonlit campus grounds to the parking lot. The lecture had been interesting and we were both glad we had made the effort to attend. But I was troubled by something.
It wasn’t the accuracy of the science: That was fine. It also wasn’t the fact that Dawkins is an atheist and that the message of the night had been primarily an atheistic message. No, what was troubling me, and that which struck me most profoundly was the extent of the pent-up anti-Christian fervor and hostility that we sensed in the audience. The intensity of this response really was something that I had not anticipated. As we talked, we wondered about the source of this anger toward Christians that was so pervasive in the crowd. You could sense there was more than just anger; there was personal and emotional pain.
Then it hit me. I turned to Sally and said, “They have been hurt.”
Maybe I am wrong, but I must confess that I departed both the 1976 creation/evolution debate and October 2011 event profoundly disappointed and, in each case, for the same reason – the failure of Christians to successfully articulate and live out a Jesus-modeling faith that welcomes and draws people rather than alienating and excluding them.
Hopefully there is a better future for the faith.