Just when you think you've heard it all, something shocking happens.
Last night (Monday, February 28), I spoke at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (in the city of Indiana, PA, in the beautiful rolling hills about 70 miles northeast of Pittsburgh) to a crowd of about 200 students, faculty, and community members. The "Six O'Clock Series" event was sponsored by the Secular Student Alliance, a new student group on campus associated with the national Secular Student Alliance. Before the event, I enjoyed a fun college dinner of a hamburger and fries with club president Steve Luciano, Joe Nelis, Adam (I'm sorry, I forget his last name), and club advisor Professor John Mueller. I learned that the club was formed completely voluntarily by concerned atheist and agnostic students who want to socialize with other nonbelieving students, and who want to counter the religious groups by promoting science and reason over faith and superstition. These are really sharp students! Then we walked over to Pratt Hall for the lecture.
I talked mainly about my story of transforming from preacher to atheist and ended with a brief discussion of how to be good without religion. I think many of the students were there as part of a class, or for extra credit, because the crowd appeared to be mainly composed of believers. The spontaneous applause and laughter from the freethinkers seemed muted in that large room.
Then there was time for questions from the audience, and that is when things started to get interesting. I might be wrong, but I think every single question was from a believer. One student asked me about the resurrection of Jesus, another asked the predictable "What if you're wrong?" question, and another asked me how I could be so mean-spirited to call God a "moral monster." None of that was surprising. But then one angry woman came to the microphone to ask a "question" in a tone of indignation. I have to paraphrase from memory, but this is in essence part of what she said:
"How can you call God a moral monster when the real monsters are the doctors who are murdering babies? How would you like it if someone had jammed an ice pick up your wife's vagina to stab and tear your daughter's little body to pieces?"
She went on for a while like that, and when she was finished, I replied as calmly as I could. I pointed out that abortion is not an atheist-v-Christian issue because most Christians support the right of a woman to control her own reproductive future; and there are a few atheists who are anti-abortion. I expressed my own opinion that abortion is not murder, nor is it killing a baby or a person because we don't consider personhood to begin until birth — and the bible even claims that life begins with breath. Most abortions occur when the fetus is tinier than the tip of your little finger when there is no "person" there at all. I mentioned that since most pregnancies end in miscarriages, that would make God (if he existed) the greatest abortionist of history. Earlier I had talked about the Women's Medical Fund (run by FFRF founder Anne Gaylor), which helps poor women pay for abortions, including a 19-year-old whose husband was in jail, unable to pay the rent or provide for the three children she already had, facing eviction.
As I was talking, the woman started backing away from the mike, and when I finished, she turned around to walk toward the back exit. As she approached the door, I said, "If it makes you that uncomfortable to hear an opposing opinion, maybe you should walk out of the room." Many in the crowd turned to watch her leave. She hesitated, as if to say something else, changed her mind, and then raised her arm to give me the finger as she turned to exit the room. The crowd gasped.
Just to be sure I saw what I saw, I asked the crowd, "Did she wave at me with a finger?" Some students answered, "Yes, the third finger."
Not all the students were that intolerant. This was a university, after all, and the majority of Christians, though intellectually hostile, were civil and polite in that setting. A couple of them thanked me for coming and sparking discussion. One student came up to me to apologize for the attitude of the finger waver, and I countered that I didn't think he had any authority to apologize on behalf of a world religion for the antics of one its followers. One student, a tall, thin, blond-haired young man, actually told me that what I said that night was so new and logical that he was going to have to rethink everything.
Of course, the nonbelieving students were thrilled and excited to be a part of a freethought event, the first of its kind any of them had seen on that campus. Many of them bought my books and asked me to sign them, and take photographs together. Some of them said that they now no longer feel like scared outsiders on campus, that the secular students have just as much of a right to freedom of expression as anyone else.
One of them gave me a high-five — using all of his fingers.