Walking past the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle the other day I came across a large tent with the banner NYC Atheists, its surface festooned with large signs saying Total Separation of Church and State, and smaller ones saying Atheism is not an argument, it’s a conclusion and You don’t have to believe in god to be a moral or ethical person”. Also, There are no Jewish/Christian/Muslim children, only children of Jewish/Christian/Muslim parents.
Under the tent were were a bunch of lethargic looking people, and to the side one animated middle-aged guy wearing a T shirt that said The Bible: #1 Fiction Best Seller of All Time. He was having a fierce but friendly discussion with what sounded like an East European young woman who believed in God. New York has great street life. It used to be much better in the Sixties and Seventies when people felt you could actually accomplish something by persuasion and arguing. Against my better instincts, if such a thing is possible, I entered the argument. They might be giants, you know.
The evangelistic atheist with the T shirt was passionate yet polite. The bible was full of lies, he said, and God (god, actually) was like Santa Claus, and it was time to disabuse people. The world wasn’t made in six days, the ten commandments encouraged slavery (untrue), the testament god was bad, he made a flood to punish people (true), there wasn’t enough water to cover the earth the way Noah/God claimed, etc. All these inaccuracies perturbed him greatly. He couldn’t accept the fact that one might regard creation as a metaphors, even though some people no doubt do take them literally. And he defended his T-shirt slogan to the woman by saying it was equivalent to wearing a Christian cross on a chain around your neck, as many do.
Conversation revealed that he was a science teacher and he really really really loved science. He must have been very good at teaching it. He kept invoking scientific facts against the falsities of the bible. He knew all about gravity, Newton, the four forces, evolution, astronomy, cosmology, the size of the universe. I had a brief urge to tell him how complex and non-transparent apparent scientific verities were, and mentioned how distance to the galaxies was measured via Cepheid variable stars, a kind of analytic extrapolation of the idea of distance that involves many detailed models and theories in order to convert star luminosity to distance as an apparent fact, but he knew all about Cepheid variables too, and apparent and real luminosity. He’d even drunk the string theory potion, and told us how M-theory was just around the corner. Soon everything would be understood. Somewhere in the discussion with the woman he invoked Spinoza (he called him Espinoza) and the fact that Einstein believed in Spinoza’s God. He was good about science; many of the people who respect science and despise religious beliefs can’t explain to you why you they believe in atoms, but he likely could.
Eventually my instinct for self-preservation prevailed and I left. The woman and he were still at it, both passionate, he trying to convince her that science negated her religion by its facts, and she persisting that his evangelistic disbelief was just another kind of belief. I was glad I left; they were both nice but they weren’t giants.