Maybe you have seen the video or read the story on the Internet. An atheist college professor is put in his place by God when his demonstration with a piece of chalk fails. I don’t know the origin of the story, and it has no author’s name attached. But anonymous texts are still amenable to linguistic analysis.

First, a quick summary of the story. A professor of philosophy teaches a class in which he spends a semester disproving the existence of God. The climax of the course on the last day is when he holds up a piece of chalk, and says that if God existed, he would keep the chalk from breaking when the professor drops it. On the day described in the story, the professor, as usual, challenges anyone who is still a believer to stand up. This time one Christian student does so. The professor tells him that he is  a “fool,” and then performs the experiment. This time, though, the chalk slips out of his hand, and its fall is cushioned on the fabric of his pants. The professor looks at the unbroken chalk on the floor, then runs out of the room. The student who stood up takes over the class to talk about his Christian faith.

Is this text what it purports to be, a factual account of a minor miracle that happened in a college classroom? There are three things we could look for to determine this: verifiable facts, internal consistency, and complete information. (If you want to see the original, go to
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6h09cF5uEDA.)

Now to be clear, I am not setting out to denigrate the Christian religion. I am a lifelong believing Christian with several philosophy classes under my belt, some taught by Catholic nuns. I am simply analyzing an anonymous text to see if it is what it claims to be.

Let’s start by fact-checking the story. What verifiable facts has the author included to add to his or her credibility? Unfortunately, none at all. The author doesn’t tell us when the incident happened. We don’t know the name of the professor, the student, or the class. There is no element in the story that can be verified by referring to an outside source.

What about internal consistency? If the story describes an actual incident, it won’t contain any contradictions within itself. Ah, but it does. Why was the student in the class? The story says that it was a required class (implying “required of all students”), that it was a required class for this particular student because of his major, and also that he just “happened to enroll.” These reasons can’t all be true.

What was the professor trying to prove? Another inconsistency. In orienting the reader, the author explains that each year the professor challenged “anyone who still believes in Jesus” to stand up. But in the class session that is the setting for the story, he substitutes God for Jesus. For a philosopher constructing an argument, belief in Jesus and belief in God are different things. One can believe in God and not believe that Jesus is his son—ask the Jews and Muslims. One can also revere Jesus as a wise philosopher without believing in a Creator God. The professor would have had to come up with a different set of arguments to refute each of the two beliefs.

There is also a disconnect between the character of the professor as described, and the words and actions attributed to him. He is supposedly a top-notch philosophy teacher with a great reputation. Yet he uses only uses a crude ad hominem attack against people who disagree with him: “You fool!” And he makes a statement before he drops the chalk: “If God existed, he would keep this piece of chalk from breaking when it hit the ground!” But he offers no logical reason why such an assertion would be true.

Okay, does the story at least answer the questions it brings up? Again, no. The existence of God has been debated by theologians and philosophers for centuries, if not millennia, something the professor would know. What arguments against God’s existence did the professor use on the students? What arguments for God’s existence did he undermine, and how? The story ignores the entire semester’s lectures, and only describes the chalk experiment.

One important question left unanswered is “Where did the author get his or her information?” We are told that the professor was a “deeply committed atheist.” Was this characterization in the faculty biography, or did the author interview the professor? The information that the Christian student prayed every day for three months could only have come from the student himself. What “most students thought” is presented as fact, even though it is a statement about the internal lives of the thousands of students who had taken the class over two decades. Did the author interview all of them?

And the story includes specific details about the fall of the chalk. “It slipped out of his fingers, off his shirt cuff, onto the pleat of his pants, down his leg, and off his shoe.” This is an unexpected event that would have taken only a fraction of a second to occur. Who could have provided this kind of detail? Maybe not even the professor himself.

It seems that the author of the story has taken on the role of the “omniscient narrator.” This is a useful device. But it is a device used specifically in fiction writing.

So, despite the assertion at the beginning that “this is a true story,” it is obviously a work of fiction. If you would like to read a fuller analysis of the story, including what can be deduced about the video’s two authors, see my website, http://www.devney.com/Ling/background.html, under “Sample Work.”

Bonus question: Can you replicate the professor’s experiment? The story hinges on the assumption that without divine intervention, a dropped piece of chalk “would shatter into a hundred pieces.” This is an issue of veracity that is outside of a strictly linguistic analysis. But if anyone would like to test this hypothesis, I’d be pleased to hear about it. The professor is said to have performed his experiment every year for 20 years. To test this, take 20 pieces of chalk and drop them one by one from chest height onto a tile floor, and record how many of them break into, say, more than five pieces. If the premise of the story is true, all 20 of them should shatter.