James Randi at University of Illinois

James “The Amazing” Randi spoke at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a couple nights ago.

It seems to have gone well.

Justin Doran, a member of the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers group that helped bring Randi to the school, wrote a piece about him and (Nobel Prize winner and fellow speaker that night) Dr. Richard Roberts in the Daily Illini:

Randi’s speech focused on one central theme: how reasonable, intelligent people can be tricked. This includes trained scientists. In fact, as Randi pointed out, assuming the world and other people operate in a manner conducive to scientific investigation is a dangerous misstep. We must constantly be skeptical of the world around us, and to do any less would be to backslide on the empiricist tradition that has so greatly propelled the human species.

By far the most important quality exhibited by these two men was openness to the possibility of being wrong. Even though Professor Roberts is probably attached to his personal theory of religion, if its inadequacy could be demonstrated to him I have no doubt that he would abandon it immediately. And this, I think, is the quality that should continue to define atheist communities in the United States.

You can read a much more detailed account of what happened at Action Skeptics. My favorite part of the story is this:

The clear champion [of questions asked], though, was an Asian kid who began, quite ironically, by saying “I’m going to preface my question with a story.” The audience began to groan because, see, we had actually heard professor Roberts speak. I’m going to try, now, to the best of my ability, to recount the first part of his story as he told it.

“A couple of years ago, I was driving down the road and I was involved in a hit and run. I got into the accident and I was just so scared of something happening that I just fled the scene. Later on, when the police came to my house to ask about it, I was just so scared of getting in trouble that I lied to them about it.

“But, even though I was in this terrible situation and could have got in big trouble, through the grace of God I was able to avoid punishment. God delivered me through that situation because of my faith in Him. We are all tied together in faith and in Christ–”

Randi: “Do you have a question?”

Hit-And-Run: “Yes. Can science prove love?

Randi and Roberts looked at each other, pondered for a second, and then said “No!”

The audience erupted. It was comedy gold.

Hit-And-Run, however, was undeterred. Before they could move over to the other mic for the next speaker, he began rambling even more about faith and Christ and how Jesus saved him and the path was open for us all and Jesus said this and Jesus said that, each met with a “No, a man said that Jesus said that,” from Randi.

What had begun as a collective groan became mass heckling. “Sit down!” we shouted. “Shut your ass up!” “We don’t come to your church and bother you!” “Get off the mic!” I leaned over to Tom and said “Somebody taze him, bro!”

Someone shouted “God bless you!” He was in the minority.

Randi and Roberts kept telling him to give up the mic to someone else, as he had been there for at least five minutes, but he refused. Eventually they just cut that mic. He tried to speak anyway, unamplified, but Randi talked over him and moved to the other mic.

Buddy just stood there, a look of placid, idiot determination on his face, as Randi and Roberts fielded question after question from the other mic. Every once in a while he would try to say something, but, unmiked, his words would fall flat.

Then someone made the mistake of turning his mic back on. “Can I finish my point?”

Randi: “You don’t have one. You’ve been there long enough.”

He tried to speak some more about Christ and salvation and blah blah blah.

Randi: “I think he’s hogged enough of everyone else’s time, don’t you folks?”

The hall resounded with applause and shouting. Hit-And-Run reluctantly and frustratedly sat down, head still held high.

It is hard for me to impress upon you, the reader, the sheer incoherence with which he spoke. It was long run-on sentences, rambling nonsense with no point in sight. He was a Godbot, almost literally, and he didn’t seem to understand that nothing he was saying was going anywhere. He stood there like a moron once they cut his mic, in a display that he and his few Christian supporters probably thought was brave but was, in reality, ignorant and pathetically pigheaded.

I don’t understand where this notion comes from, that the way to make your point is to evangelize to a crowd that wants little to do with your religious beliefs.

Someone tell me how his story had any sort of positive effect on the audience. If anything, they want less to do with Christianity than before.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • stogoe

    It’s just so clear to them – these people obviously haven’t heard the Good NewsTM, or they’d already be saved.

    On a Replying-to-everything-with-a-Simpsons-quote note:

    Barlow: Mayor Quimby, you’re well-known, sir, for your lenient stance on crime. But suppose for a second that _your_ house was ransacked by thugs, _your_ family tied up in the basement with socks in their mouths, you try to open the door but there’s too much _blood_ on the knob –
    Quimby: What is your question?
    Barlow: My question is about the budget, sir.

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com NYCatheist

    Could it be that people with that mindset only feel more righteous the more they are shouted at to shut up? If they feel they are being repressed they only get more energy to speak out. This quality would be admirable if it was backed up by logic and reason, not incoherent rambling.

  • mike

    I was at the lecture, and wasn’t as swept off my feet. Sorry this is a long comment, but I had been thinking about this for a few days.

    I agree with the Daily Illini’s assessment of the first speaker. Dr Roberts’ topic was “how science led me to atheism”, but what he really talked about was essentially a long list of “y’know what bugs me about religion?” According to what he said, all religious experience has a logical explanation in schizophrenia/bipolar disorder. Also, no one during the beginnings of religion actually believed it, they were just using it to control people. I’m only exaggerating what he said very very slightly for effect here. I can really do without this kind of crap, especially the armchair psychological diagnoses. I agree that schizophrenia might explain rare prophetic experiences (hearing the voice of god), but it is not widespread. At one point he actually attributed all alien abduction stories to the condition (never heard of sleep paralysis, Doc?).

    The rest of his talk was very very basic unsophisticated atheism talking points that I’d heard a million times before. More importantly, I know that If this were my first exposure to atheism, I wouldn’t have been swayed or even impressed if this was the best they had to offer. And I think the whole notion of “all of religion as mental illness” is grossly inaccurate and does no favors to atheism advocacy. How about just acknowledging that everyone can fall prey to commonly known cognitive/neurological biases (and describing them and how they might contribute to a god-belief) instead of claiming “all you god-believers have defective brains” ? Same goes for “it was all made up in the beginning and everyone knew it and no one ever believed it” (think about saying that all atheists know god exists but are just being contrary or want to act immorally).

    I was really hoping for something more sophisticated and interesting (or at least relevant to the title of his talk). After all, the guy is a Nobel laureate…

    It was great to see the Amazing Randi in action. That guy is just a hoot. But I wish I hadn’t watched hours of his youtube videos, because almost everything he said I had already seen. That’s ok though, it is good stuff.

    The microphone-hogging, proselytizing kid was pitiable and amusing. He seemed like a freshman who had never before met anyone with different beliefs, and thought he could just swing in and save the day with Bible verses… Oh well, he’ll go back to his church and be celebrated for braving the lions’ den, and the perception of persecution will be reinforced ;)

  • Becky

    I wondered if you were going to mention this. I live here (townie) and James Randi was AMAZING! I got to meet him after, and he is incredibly nice. =D
    Pic of him and I

    The man who stood up to the mic was annoying, but an understood fact at a lecture such as this. *sigh* .. and the great part of Randi and Dr. Roberts’ curt reply of “no” was that Dr. Roberts had mentioned earlier about a colleague of his, during a Q&A, getting a “question” from a man who just wanted to hear himself talk. He went on and on about nothing, and then finally asked some inane “question”; to which Dr. Robert’s colleague simply replied: “No”, and moved on to the next question.

    And Mike, I kind of feel you on the Dr. Roberts thing, your points are the points I was trying to make to my boyfriend yesterday, but he did not agree. Oh well =)

  • Renacier

    Poor kid probably thought life worked like a Chick Tract. Just mention Jesus a few times and the childish atheists will fall on their faces with repentance.

  • Christophe Thill

    What a nice guy ! Hit-and-run, then lie to the police. And he gets away with it. He doesn’t seem to regret. On the contrary, he thinks that, if he’s had no problems, it’ because God watched over him. Seems there’s really a God for the bad guys, doesn’t it ?

  • http://groundedinreality.blogspot.com Bruce

    I don’t understand where this notion comes from, that the way to make your point is to evangelize to a crowd that wants little to do with your religious beliefs.

    I think you do understand. Jesus was a martyr for God. These people are just following in Jesus’ path. They welcome the humiliation these sorts of things bring upon them. They aren’t doing the Lord’s work if they aren’t getting hit with rotten tomatoes.

  • Cade

    At both of our atheist events on our campus there was at least one Christian there that just wouldn’t shut up in the Q and A. August just decided to call on other people and ignore the guy. But when we ho Lori Lipman Brown came a different guy just wouldn’t shut up. We all just kept arguing with him until he left. :S When I went to their ID presentation, I wasn’t nearly so rude. I just asked my question (which they didn’t really answer), thanked them, and left.

    I know that most Christians aren’t like that. What kind of person does it take to do that kind of thing? Is it just a certain brand of evangelicals that promote that kind of evangelizing?

  • Karen

    What kind of person does it take to do that kind of thing? Is it just a certain brand of evangelicals that promote that kind of evangelizing?

    It takes a certain obnoxious personality type. Most Christians – even the fervently religious – wouldn’t have the moxy to do something that extreme.

    This guy will go back to his church or his Campus Crusade group and be given heroic martyr status because he “spoke the truth in love” to all those persecuting, hedonistic atheists. They also believe that “the word never goes out void,” so they’ll claim that the holy spirit magically touched peoples’ hearts despite his negative reception. And you know, he’s going to get an extra helping of goodies in heaven because of that performance, don’t you?

  • http://www.xanga.com/drew85 Drew

    I need to stop reading Hemant’s blog, it always makes me wish I still lived in Illinois.

    I’m sure there are all kinds of great atheist happenings out here in Northern California (duh), but without an entertaining and intelligent blogger writing about them every day, I miss out.

    Come to think of it, Dawkins was at Berkley the other day… I was too busy to go. :(

  • QrazyQat

    It’s the bees and the spiders again…

  • Siamang

    What a nice guy ! Hit-and-run, then lie to the police. And he gets away with it.

    This is the trap of a belief system where you ask empty space for forgiveness rather than the people you wronged. He’s PROUD of doing this and asking the empty space for absolution. Too bad for the injured or dead person in the other car, or their family.

    Many years ago my wife was involved in a car accident that was the other driver’s fault. My wife had her neck messed up for awhile, and required years of physical therapy for it. As soon as the accident happened, the woman in the other car rushed out and said “It’s okay, it’s okay… we’re CHRISTIANS!”. Like that meant they wouldn’t shirk their responsibility for the accident. She answered with a noncommital “ummm….. ookay?” like “what does that have to do with a car accident?” But cool, they offered to pay to fix the car and her doctor expenses.

    Of course they weren’t insured, and no, my wife never saw dollar-one from these Christians who had a change of heart when they saw her medical bills.

    My wife’s neck is fine now, and she no longer suffers the chronic pain she had. But “It’s okay, it’s okay… we’re CHRISTIANS!” is a little inside joke in our family. It means ‘trust me, sayeth the shark’.

  • http://fjwhfekh42.com Dave

    I think “Mr. Hit-and-run” is a fairly common occurrence when you have such a gathering. Case in point… My local bookstore has guest authors quite often. Whenever there’s someone even slightly controversial, whenever it gets to “questions for the author”, there’s usually one person who feels he must call the author out on some minor point. Not only that, but he must spend an inordinate amount of time at the mic doing it. Saw a woman bring up abortion to James “Mr. DNA” Watson once – wouldn’t back down until the crowd turned on her. Sheesh!

  • robin

    This story reinforces my prejudice – albeit a common one – that generally believers aren’t as bright as non-believers. Given the original topic of discussion “how reasonable, intelligent people can be tricked” it seems less intelligent people can be tricked all the more readily. Yes the mistress of the obvious is in the house…

    [derail] Now surely there must be some very smart people out there who are believers. I mean statistically there must be a few who have some kind of Nobel prize or Fields medal and still believe in the virgin birth…? This might be the wrong place to ask but if you can suggest a few names of smart believers whose very existence can destroy this stereotype for me I’d appreciate it. And no politicians please because I suspect most of them fake their faith for the votes.[/derail]

  • Christophe Thill

    As soon as the accident happened, the woman in the other car rushed out and said “It’s okay, it’s okay… we’re CHRISTIANS!”.

    I think I couldn’t have resisted saying something like: “What? You couldn’t kill me, so now you try to convert me?”. Of course, it would have been a joke…

  • Siamang

    HA!

  • Karen

    Now surely there must be some very smart people out there who are believers.

    Considering that the vast majority of Americans are believers, I’d say you are right. ;-)

    If you want examples outside of intelligent theologians and academics, about half of biologists are theists of some kind, including Christian Francis Collins, who led the team that decoded the human genome, and Catholic Ken Miller, author of a leading biology textbook and tireless advocate for teaching evolution.

  • robin

    Thanks Karen I’ll check those links out.

  • cipher

    What kind of person does it take to do that kind of thing? Is it just a certain brand of evangelicals that promote that kind of evangelizing?

    They aren’t really trying to convince you. They’re trying to convince themselves. This kid perceived a threat to his addiction. It’s like trying to take liquor away from an alcoholic – he reacts like a cornered animal.

  • Claire

    robin said,

    This story reinforces my prejudice – albeit a common one – that generally believers aren’t as bright as non-believers.

    I see this mentioned as a prejudice, and I see it denied by well-meaning atheists, but I’m curious – has the research been done? Do we really know if it is or isn’t true? Or are we just being PC for the sake of niceness?

    This might be the wrong place to ask but if you can suggest a few names of smart believers whose very existence can destroy this stereotype for me I’d appreciate it.

    And you want anecdotal evidence why? It’s a statment about a group, so a few exceptions (or a few examples that confirm it) doesn’t mean it is or isn’t true.

  • http://www.SecularDignity.net Secular Dignity

    What kind of person does it take to do that kind of thing? Is it just a certain brand of evangelicals that promote that kind of evangelizing?

    A few people here have used this anecdote to question the intelligence of believers, and it makes me question the intelligence of some of them too. More than once I have been asked if I have been to church (you mean those buildings on almost every block in this country?) or if I have read the Bible (not the whole thing, but a big chunk of it, some parts more than once). And they seem to think that I have either not done these things or they have never occurred to me.

    And then comes the piece de resistance: You should come to our church. It’s different. I have a news flash for you: No it is not.

  • robin

    It’s a statment about a group, so a few exceptions (or a few examples that confirm it) doesn’t mean it is or isn’t true.

    I’m not trying to prove the relative intelligence of believers versus non. I simply don’t like to assume the norm for all members of any group. If we can clearly see examples lying outside the norm, then it lets us appreciate the full spectrum of the group. This isn’t a scientific study, it’s my effort to grab a few datapoints to frame the universe.

  • Aquaria

    And then comes the piece de resistance: You should come to our church. It’s different. I have a news flash for you: No it is not.

    Oh so true. Some are louder than others. Some have pushier acolytes than others. Some are classier than others. But they’re all essentially the same: Believe in the imaginary friend in the sky and get an eternal reward. Um… Yeah. Whatever.

    My favorite response to “my church is different” is: They’re all the same, because they all ask me to believe in a being that doesn’t exist, except in a book. If I’m going to waste time fantasizing about spending eternity with a fictional character, I’d choose Mr. Darcy, thanks. Or maybe Harry Bosch. Or Ricardo “Ranger” Mancuso. Oh, hell, I’ll be a pantheist and take all three!