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Notes on “A Friendly Conversation with an Atheist and a Christian”

July 22, 2010

Three denizens of Casa Decrepit went to the Evangelical Free Church in Bloomington, IL on Sunday night to hear “A Friendly Conversation with an Atheist and a Christian”.  The participants were Hemant Mehta and a professor named Todd Daly from the Urbana Theological Seminary. The format was all question-and-answer; I took notes best I could.  I’ll mostly focus on Daly’s comments here, because you can read (and respond to) Mehta on his website.

I’m used to rhetorical contact sports:  some of the online discussions I’ve taken part in amount to a cage-match between atheism and Christianity.  But this was a Friendly conversation so Mehta and Daly worked really hard on being nice to each other.  They’re both very nice guys going in, so that’s their style, but I kept wanting them to “turn it up to 11”.  I guess what works online doesn’t work when comfy chairs are involved.

Remember these are recollections, not quotes.  I’ve only used blockquote lines for clarity:

Question: why believe in God when there’s no evidence? 

Daly: Because just like in your marriage, you need trust to make a relationship work.  There’s a dynamic tension between belief and unbelief.  A life of risk is a life worth living.

About this time I’m thinking; does Daly supplement his income writing inspirational posters for “Successories?  “A ship in the harbor is safe, but it’s also a great place to throw a party”  But then…

Question: What is your vision for the Church? 

Daly: I would like the Church to explore what it would mean if we acted as if we believed Jesus was always, always on the side of the poor, the downtrodden, and the vulnerable. 

OK, I liked that, and so did Mehta.  If the most politically powerful Christians in my country took that approach, it is no exaggeration to say we’d have a better world.  Score one for the theologian.  But then…

Daly: Jesus took a bunch of outcast losers and spent time with them, molding them into a group of historical leaders.

Oh no! back to the Successories.  And it got worse; much worse.  Question: “How can you tell what parts of the Bible to take literally, and which are metaphor?”

Daly: By what we know today about how the world works. We’ve learned so much from carbon-14 and science and so on that parts of the bible that don’t fit can be taken metaphorically.

It was about then that my predatory, reptilian atheist mind wanted to simply lunge forward and devour the theologian in two or three gulps.

Really, I thought?  If it contradicts modern science, it’s a metaphor?  Are you implying that the biblical authors understood correct physics, cosmology, and biology, chose not to share it, and “spoke in metaphor” with a story about talking snakes, burning bushes, and a watery apocalypse, so the less revelatory fortunate would follow the story? 

Oh, and carbon 14 is a relatively short-lived isotope; it isn’t very useful to determining the age of the world.  It has a long enough half-life to determine that the Shroud of Turin is a fake, though.

(See, that was snarky of me, to think that.  Not Friendly at all.)

Daly: Were there really miracles, or was that something that the early church propagated to help spread the gospel in terms that would be understood at the time?  But of course, some parts of the story are not negotiable.

In other words, are the New Testament miracle stories lies?  Well they might be, but it was OK because the church told them to popularize the narrative.  At least, I don’t know how else to take it. Surely he couldn’t get any more incoherent, could he? Oh, me of little faith; you bet he could.

Daly told the story of how he was pondering whether to go to Scotland, and he felt God’s guidance because he asked for a sign, and the car in front of him at the stop sign had a bumper sticker that said; “Scotland” on it, and there was a bobblehead dog.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Mehta responded much more calmly than I would have, saying it was an example of confirmation bias.  “Nail him!”, I thought.  “Could he possibly be any more vapid and shallow?”

The question was posed: what could make Mehta believe in god? 

Mehta: An unequivocal miracle would be a good start, such as an amputee re-growing a limb.  If the scriptures were correct in their science.  If unambiguous and non- self-fulfilling prophecies written before the fact unambiguously came true.

I believe we will see amputees re-growing limbs, and in our lifetime.  Miraculous, in a way, but not supernatural.

The question was posed: what could possibly make Daly lose faith?  Maybe if he lost his family in a car wreck, he said.  (I couldn’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s wretched movie; Signs).

He said that secularists make a mistake, always thinking of Christianity in terms of the end game – heaven and hell as motivation and doctrine.  OK, fine; be sure to inform the rest of Christianity of that on your way out of the building, Daly.

Had enough?  How’s this:

Daly: Science has a bigger problem with “we don’t know” than Christians do.  Christians accept that some things are mysteries.

OK Todd, you’re a nice guy, but this is me taking off the gloves.  I don’t think you understand science, and maybe not Christianity either.  It’s Believers who have a problem with mysteries.

When Believers don’t understand something, they can just say; “Wow!  A mystery!  God must have done it!”  To me, it sounds like you could substitute “magic spells” or “aliens” and it would make just as much logical sense.  That attitude basically brought scientific progress to a standstill for more than a thousand years.  People starved, died of preventable diseases, and thought the Earth was the center of the Universe.  Even the ancient Greeks knew better than that.

When scientists don’t understand something, they say; “Hmm, that doesn’t fit our current understanding.  Maybe our theory is wrong.  Let’s see if we can design an experiment or some other way to study the subject in a meaningful way and get a better theory.”

By that rubric, a “theory” in science is something that’s stood the test and explains the facts.  And it gets tossed out the window if a better theory can be shown to fit.

At the end, Daly praised the Friendly™ tone of the evening, saying that most such discussions ended with the Christians thinking; “Wow, we sure beat that guy!” and the atheists thinking; “The Christian didn’t say a single coherent thing all evening!”

It’s as if, for a brief moment, he reached out into the audience and read my mind.


  • Hemant Mehta is the host of the website; The Friendly Atheist and author of the popular book I Sold My Soul on eBay; viewing faith through an atheist’s eyes.

  • In the picture, left to right, Hemant Mehta, the church’s moderator (whose name I missed and it wasn’t in the program) and Todd Daly.
  • I’ve been asked before why I’m so irritated with Christianity.  The short answer is that the most politically powerful Christians in our country are so intent on making life miserable for, well, basically anyone who isn’t a Straight Conservative Christian Male.  It has to be their flavor of Christianity, even.  You have to, you know, stand up for our country’s latest pointless war, and be against social spending that might help the poor.  There are Christians – lots of them – who aren’t like that but they don’t have their own television network(s) and Senators.
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Sue B.
    July 23, 2010 at 09:04 | #1

    Whewww!  George, sure glad you put that last sentence in your piece!!

  2. July 24, 2010 at 07:31 | #2

    It seems to me you are talking about two things: The question of whether or not there is a God and the practice of religion.  The latter is, for me at least, pointless.  Pointless that is, unless you could plausibly argue that believing in God causes people to people to act against their common interests.  I would argue instead that for most religious hypocrites (and they are legion), the concept of God is a convenient excuse, rather than a progenitor.

    In this context, I know and routinely associate with some pretty darn fine people who happen to be Christians.  Tomorrow in fact I will be working with many of them to fix up and repair the home of a single mom who is really suffering financially.  Other groups will be working at a number of locations around the community, including a safe house for abused kids.

    Now I’m not myself a Christian, but I have nothing but admiration for people like this.  They count God as their motivation for these good works.  So what?  Maybe the truth is that their recognition of God is actually no more than an expression of a healthy desire to perform good and useful acts as human beings.  I don’t see anything wrong with that, any more than I see anything right with using God as a means to justify the opposite behavior.

    Last, it seems to me there are questions which are beyond the ability of science to answer.  And I don’t mean to say this in the same prosaic manner which (you rightly point out) some people of religion have used to demonize or otherwise block the progress of scientific inquiry.  I don’t want to waste any more comment space by elaborating on the nature of these questions.  However, isn’t it at least possible to conclude that believing science will eventually solve every mystery is as much an act of faith as believing that it will not?

  3. July 24, 2010 at 11:00 | #3

    @Sue B – thanks.  I had our friends at the MCN in mind when I said that.

    @Chris – like you I’m delighted to know quite a few wonderful people who are Christians.  And by “wonderful” I mean just what you meant – active in mercy and compassion, and not on TV campaigning for creationism or worrying about whether Teh Evil Gayz are going to destroy the sanctity of Newt Gingrich’s fourth marriage.

    Discussing the practice of religion isn’t pointless – as you went on to do just that.  If there were more people like your friends, they could perform their kind acts in fealty to the Sacred Rubber Band and it would still make a better world.  It’s the modern Pharisees, who have discovered cable news and AM radio, that give religion a bad name and who should be opposed by atheists and good people of faith alike.

    One pastime of conservaChristians is dissing on atheists – we’re evil, we worship the devil, we want to institute Sharia law, nonsense like that. Mehta, to his great credit, has worked tirelessly to counter those lies.  Yet about once or twice a year, someone will find him on the Interwebs and write his entire school board, his principal, even parents in his school district to exclaim breathlessly; “OMG, do you know you have an atheist teaching math in your high school?!”  That must really get old.

    However, isn’t it at least possible to conclude that believing science will eventually solve every mystery is as much an act of faith as believing that it will not?

    Sure, yet oddly that’s a question that scientists usually don’t concern themselves with.  Richard Dawkins has said that sooner or later we’ll hit a wall – some question that science just won’t be able to answer – and we’ll know it when we get there.  Meanwhile, we keep exploring.

  4. RBH
    July 25, 2010 at 13:37 | #4

    Sue B wrote

    However, isn’t it at least possible to conclude that believing science will eventually solve every mystery is as much an act of faith as believing that it will not?

    I’ve been a scientist working in both applied and ‘pure’ science and technology contexts for nearly 50 years.  I’ve never heard a scientist claim that science will eventually solve every mystery.  That’s a straw man. And there may be ‘mysteries’ to which there are no solutions due to the incoherence of the questions.

    However, there’s a 350 year history of scientific answers to questions about how the world/universe works replacing religious answers, but no case I know of in which a religious answer replaced a scientific answer, so I know which I’m betting.

  5. August 2, 2010 at 08:32 | #5

    I have a pretty firm view about “religion” (a synonym for superstition). I do not believe anything worthwhile can come from a “debate” or discussion between a person who believes in the supernatural and one who doesn’t. The non-believer is at an instant disadvantage—he is on the “playing field” of the believer. He has already made a concession: that “religion” is a fit topic for discussion among thinking adults. “Religion” to me can be summed up by something Gertrude Stein (I think it was her) said of Los Angeles: “There’s no there, there.”

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