Over on Camels With Hammers, Daniel has reminded us of several temptations that atheists should watch out for. It’s excellent advice, starting with this.
We atheists need to remind ourselves that figuring out that the interventionist gods of the major religions are false is a fairly easy intellectual discovery. We are not geniuses or especially smarter than the average religious believer simply on account of our ability to figure this out. We have just, for whatever combination of reasons, either assiduously avoided or managed to escape the emotional, social, and identity entanglements that cloud the minds of otherwise smart religious people. We need to recognize it is just stupid to call religious people stupid just because their ideas are ridiculous.
In general, I like to promote what I refer to as “atheist evangelism” as much as I can. But there are traps that atheists can fall into, when we get overconfident and lazy in the belief that atheism makes us smarter and less prone to errors. Recently I’ve made a similar point in a number of replies to the show’s email which I would like to share.
The first email is the kind of thing I like to see. It comes from a high school sophomore from a part of Texas that has a lot of creationists — which narrows it down to anywhere that isn’t Austin. This student understands that creationism is incorrect, but realizes that he isn’t in a solid position to argue about it very well. He writes:
…Last year when i was in 9th grade, my biology teacher was about to start teaching about Darwin, Natural Selection, and the Theory of Evolution. Right when he started talking about the origin of species, he said — “The next chapter we’re going to read is about the Theory of Evolution….. I don’t know why anyone would call it a Theory because it’s never been proven or demonstrated in any way… But i still have to teach it…”— He seems like a ‘smart’ man, but it seems like his indoctrination as a child has probably clouded his belief in facts…
My cousin also told me a few days ago that his (Young Earth creationist) teacher was talking about science and how “unreliable” it is.–(I don’t know why he wasn’t doing his job.)– But he said that creation is obvious and that we shouldn’t rely on most things that have to do with science. Basically he said that evolution is false, and that when scientists ‘prove’ something, they don’t really know it’s true.
My Questions are, how would you respond to my old biology teacher, and what would you say to my cousin’s young Earth creationist teacher?
A person can be very smart and still be grossly misinformed in their understanding of science.
The answer to your teacher’s question is that a theory is a framework for explaining observed facts, which has been strongly tested and confirmed. And evolution is, in fact, that. For more information read this:
A lot of people have a misconception that there is a scientific controversy about evolution. This is incorrect. There may be a political and a religious controversy about it, but it is as well established as just about any scientific principle is.
Becoming educated about science is a long project… but it’s worth it. In your case it’s going to be an uphill battle, because you live in an area where you can expect most of your educators to be as badly informed as the ones you’ve already met. Since you’re fairly new to the concepts involved, I would not advise you to spend much time worrying about how to change your teacher’s mind — it’s mostly futile even for an expert — and instead start focusing on educating yourself.
Luckily, a bright high school student is probably well equipped to be reading and understanding scientists writing for an amateur audience, and there are some great books out there.
Here’s what I recommend for you. First, familiarize yourself with the talkorigins.org web site. Their Frequently Asked Questions page will give you a good place to start learning about the areas that interest you most.
Once you’ve been through their introductory articles, I recommend that you pick up a book to give you a bigger overview of evolution. Although I haven’t read it, I hear very good things about The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins.
After you get more familiar with evolution — and I can’t stress enough that patience is a virtue — then you might want to consider challenging your teachers. One of the opening techniques I find useful is to force them to get specific. If they say something like “Evolution is just a theory” I would ask “What do you think ‘theory’ means?” If they say “All science is unreliable” then I might say “Why are you a science teacher then?” or perhaps “How did you get to work today?” (i.e., all the technology around us is only possible because of science). As you get more and more knowledgeable, you learn to recognize uninformed nonsense and come up with better and clearer ways to respond to it.
To generalize this response a bit more: We get all kinds of email asking how we should respond to a particular Christian or creationist argument. Those are questions that can easily be answered on a case by case basis. Having the Index to Creationist Claims handy is a great place to find links, and of course, so is Iron Chariots.
However, although the work is harder, the solution to not knowing about a scientific topic is to learn about it in a broad sense, rather than relying on your own uninformed opinion about what you think the answer might be. Don’t fall into the trap of watching atheist shows or reading smart people on message boards, and thinking that they make the response look easy. You can deliver knowledge with a sound bite, but in order to phrase your sound bites effectively and convincingly, you need to give yourself the kind of broader knowledge that comes with reading a lot.
Case in point is our second email, coming from Mexico, where I gather it is difficult to generate much pushback against Catholicism convincingly. (English is not his first language, so be nice.)
…Last 2 years I have been reading a lot and have several discussions with my current Girlfriend ( who is the mother of my 3 kids) we have a stable family , I have a good income and we live in a nice neighborhood (somewhere in Mexico).
…As more as I read, the more I knew the people attending this church, the more i knew family members who called themselves “Catholic” – the less I wanted to be like them – the more questions without a logical answer, being the only answer –“because it says on the bible” or because “ Is the only way to get saved” the more stupid it sounds.
So this so called discussion are more about me not wanting to go to church any more, and either I don’t want her taking my kids to Sunday “christian” school.
Her arguments is that you have to give people faith in something , someone to believe in , and she asks , ok now you say you are atheist and I explain ‘ ok , I don’t believe in god, just like the bible says’ but I am sure something or someone out there created us, created everything, call it mother nature, called it ancient aliens or old people humanoids from other planets – she is scare to death about aliens, prophecy’s and apocalyptic events , thus I tried to explain this has no logic at all, how can someone even claim they can predict when it all will end – I mean , they can explain weather but only based in today’s weather, barometric pressures and stuff, but it something that you can prove.
So what can I tell her, in what do we atheist believe? ,what do we have faith on? what do I we think it will happen when we die? As an atheist, how can a tell or explain to a religious person that faith is good or wrong even stupid?
If I remove the idea of god to a catholic or Christian , she suggest to replace this idea with something else , I don’t agree with her, but what can I say or explain?
I usually don’t like to speak if don’t need to, so usually I let people to say whatever they want or think and only talk back or try to make them notice they are wrong or try to make my point only if it’s worth it.
In this case, we have someone who is really not clear on the scientific answers to his questions… but he’s filling the gaps in his knowledge by guessing at likely answers. Not an effective strategy. I wrote this in response:
I think you’re going to find that there is not a lot of support for your idea that we were created by “something or someone” like aliens. I understand that it can be tempting to remap the notion of God onto something that exists in the physical world but is in some way “god like.” However, there’s really no evidence to support this idea.
There’s one main principle that we like to promote on the show, and that is that the time to believe something is when you have a solid reason why is should be true, not before. So if you believe in God, or aliens, because you can’t come up with any good alternatives, then that is basically a lazy way of jumping to conclusions in order to avoid thinking about the subject any further.
I think what you ought to do is read up on some background science. The study of the origin of the universe and the earth is called “cosmology”; the study of the first life is called “abiogenesis,” and the study of the evolution of life is… well, evolution. :)
Here are some quick references on all three, at a great site that you should explore when you have the chance:
That should be a good way to start learning the subjects. If you need more, I can recommend some books.
And again I say: If you don’t know something, tell the other person that you don’t know. Religion plays on a need for the false sense of security that comes with having an absolutely unshakable “knowledge” of the right answer to every question. Ray Comfort regularly browbeats people by saying “You don’t know the answer — I do.” The temptation is to try to match his certainty with some of your own, rather than just call out his phony knowledge. But in reality, being able to admit that you don’t know something is a strength, not a weakness…
…As long as you’re willing to make the effort to put off the question and learn your subject better.
Email 3: Quantum Gibberish
This last email is going to illustrate the hazards of thinking you know a subject when you really don’t. There’s a sort of arrogant certainty that comes with the territory of gaining just barely enough knowledge to imagine yourself an expert, but not enough to know what you’re talking about. It’s the Dunning Kruger Effect writ large.
Tonight I watched show #737 by way of a video linked from who-knows-where. The balder fellow was interacting with Cesar(?) and he said that there is no information in DNA. Two of the basic findings of quantum physics that caught my attention was their announcement that 1.) “everything is composed of energy” and 2.) “all energy is conscious.”
I first found that information in 1975 when I read The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav. This was an overview of the “new” field of quantum physics for the layman (though quantum physics had been a field of understanding Newtonian physics from a very different point of view since at least the 1930s. Einstein was said to’ve hated quantum physics at first and said, “If quantum physics is true, then spooky things happen over long distances.” Sorry I don’t have a more-current source to recommend for such an overview. Generally I just pay attention to the field from afar, so to speak because my personal field of study is Pacific Northwest history.
So here we actually have a guy lecturing us about quantum physics using information he “learned,” not from textbooks or peer reviewed studies, but from unqualified new age gurus. Of course he doesn’t have a better or more current source of information, because the information he’s citing is bollocks.
I’m sorry to tell you this, but you might have been taken in by some pretty notorious phony science claims. While it’s become popular in new age circles to make wild claims like ”all energy is conscious,” there are no reputable scientific publications that make any such claim; and indeed, it’s pretty doubtful that such a claim would even be semantically meaningful for any appropriate definition we have of “conscious.”
Quantum mechanics, the centerpiece of modern physics, is misinterpreted as implying that the human mind controls reality and that the universe is one connected whole that cannot be understood by the usual reduction to parts.
However, no compelling argument or evidence requires that quantum mechanics plays a central role in human consciousness or provides instantaneous, holistic connections across the universe. Modern physics, including quantum mechanics, remains completely materialistic and reductionistic while being consistent with all scientific observations.
For more, see the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on Deepak Chopra, one of the biggest peddlers of this nonscience.
Now, dear reader, I’m sure you are feeling very smug right now because you do not fall for this sort of pseudo-scientific quantum mysticism. But in general, we all have subjects that touch on arguments we have in some way, and it’s a tempting trap to act more certain of the facts than we have justified with what we’ve learned.
The way to avoid this trap is, (1) Cite your sources in a way that would be convincing to your audience. If you don’t think that your sources sound neutral or scholarly enough to persuade other people, then maybe you should take a moment to consider whether the knowledge you have is actually well grounded.
And (2) If you come out of an argument feeling bad because you were challenged about something you didn’t know before, or you recognize that you gave the fake appearance of certainty in an area you really weren’t sure about… don’t just accept the guilt, fix it. Find reputable books on the subject and add them to your reading list. And then read them. The next time the same topic comes up, you won’t embarrass yourself with the subject a second time.