DEBATING RELIGIONISTS    (Scheduled for publication in AA Magazine,  2016)

(“Logical argument is easily defeated by simple refusal to reason logically.”           —Steven Weinberg {The Portable Atheist, p. 378})

I’ve never been inclined to join the big public argument on the merits of science versus religion —partly because, I must confess, I’m timid, but also because any discussion with religious persons seems quickly to tire and frustrate me. For, how can anyone but the daft stand their glib rant, their hysterical blindness to reason? As Richard Dawkins observes in THE GOD DELUSION, while true scientists toil ceaselessly to understand and explain the world around us, religionists tell us to give up trying, to forget it and accept it all as the deed of a god—their own particular god, to be sure.

Led by fundamentalists, and lately by creationists (aka Intelligent Designers), the dedicated believers get more shockingly impervious to reason all the time. Dawkins cites specific instances where religionists have gone to court to force inclusion of their creationist story in the science curricula of one US school after another, as a counter to evolution. In one case they adduced the obfuscatory, pseudo-scientific claim that our immune system had “Irreducible complexity” that cannot be understood except as the work of a god; that scientists had done nothing and can never do anything to prove otherwise. (Emphasis is mine.)

Their expert witness, Michael Behe —a professor of biochemistry— was shown scores of papers published in scientific journals, scores of book chapters, and dozens of books, all addressing the very point at issue. The good professor admitted he hadn’t read them; but he waved them all aside, nevertheless, and said they were not enough to convince him! Such dogmatic intransigence moved the presiding judge to characterize that particular effort of creationists as a case of “breathtaking inanity.” Condescending hubris has always been the hallmark of religious fundamentalists throughout history. It’s amusing to read that Galileo’s colleagues declined to look through “the devil’s own instrument” (aka telescope) and see for themselves the “extra” moons of Jupiter. But it is deeply tragic when a biochemistry professor in 21st-century America sinks to such illogic. I for one think it’s hopeless to try and argue with religious believers.

My timidity notwithstanding, I wear my atheism unapologetically on my chest (on T-shirts, buttons, stickers, etc.). Therefore, now and then I get challenged to impromptu an debate—from hecklers and from more serious zealots. (But, truth to tell, I also get an occasional furtive smile, or whisper of commendation when I step out in my ATHEIST T-shirt, which carries a positive statement of our social advocacy on its back.)

When I am challenged, I try to avoid getting bogged down with specifics in the bible. That is difficult to do because a zealot’s usual opening gambit is to quote (or ask me to read) Jeremiah or Paul or a Psalm, etc. The trouble with that is that they will cherry-pick their favorite passages; and if you ask them to explain any contradictory or embarrassing biblical passages they quickly retort that those passages are not to be taken literally. But not one of them will ever offer you a sound criterion for choosing what is literal and what is figurative in the bible.

However, as a lifelong science educator by avocation, I gladly rise to the occasion whenever a deist gloats that such and such eminent scientist had also believed in God. It is one of their favorite arguments, so popularly bandied that even college-educated friends and colleagues sometimes bring it up with a “gotcha” glee. One widow I chatted up at an online dating site was at pains to point out that her late husband believed in God although he was an accomplished scientist who had invented a useful gadget or two.

I relish such encounters. They provide me with a “teachable moment” to educate people on just who is or is not a scientist. There is a huge lot of misconception on that topic! I reply, in a nutshell, that invention alone does not make someone a scientist: otherwise, Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers would rank among the very greatest scientists of all time. A scientist, I tell them, is simply one who tries to understand our world, particularly nature, using the tools and methodology of science; and chief among those tools is dogged skepticism: a determination to take nothing on mere authority or “revelation,” to question all assertions, and to abandon any “fact” whenever it fails a properly constituted test.

I never did score at online dating sites, poor me! Some encouraging persons advised me to drop “atheist” from my profile. I refused and instead took down my profile and quit online dating altogether. I won’t give up my unbelief just to score a date. (Well, it would have to be some spectacular date!) So, being a black, an African, and also an atheist is a triple cross to bear. But, C’est la vie! If the deists are right about an afterlife, then perhaps my date will come along in heaven, as Moslems preach!!!

On a deeper note, I have a great and growing library of books by our luminaries of free thinking. I read them and I wonder again and again why the stark logic of our arguments seem to run off believers like water off a duck. Then it strikes me that our books surely must get them incensed the same way the silly certitudes of the bible irritate me these days. So, I admire those indomitable persons on our side of the argument who can muster the patience to read Christian books and tracts, the better to stay informed for the sake of debate. If it weren’t for these sages of science, our whole debate with deists would be a dialogue of the deaf!

Linus Thomas-Ogbuji
Retired Scientist