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Dec 30 2011

Movie Friday: How to debate an atheist child

Here’s a movie from the exact opposite of my upbringing:

For too many children, the idea of the gods is not one that can be treated like any other idea. It cannot be debated, it cannot be rejected, it cannot be tested using evidence; it must simply be believed. In the video above, this belief is enforced by violence.

My childhood was not like this in any way. Despite growing up in a practicing Catholic household, I was always encouraged to challenge authority figures and ask questions (I’m sure dad regrets giving me that advice). Sure, dad was a former priest, and we attended church every Sunday and I sang in the choir and was valedictorian of my confirmation class and taught Sunday school… but no idea was ever too taboo to discuss. I remember a long car ride wherein the merit of group practice was debated, and where I first encountered the argument from popularity as a justification for faith.

To my credit, I was a skeptic even when I was a believer. I simply made the mistake of assuming that there were good answers that I just hadn’t found yet.

I have a younger cousin who is reaching the age I was when I first began to question religion. Instead of the usual toy or game that I usually buy him, this year I bought him an illustrated anniversary edition of Bill Bryson’s excellent science book A Short History of Nearly Everything. I received this book as a gift in my teenage years, and it was probably the best “how do we know this” book I’ve ever read. Bryson walks the reader through what was known, and how that story developed into what we know now. As a skeptic “how do you know that” is now my bread and butter. I have Bryson’s book to thank for that, at least in part.

I wrote this inside the cover:

To N_____: Your mind is the most powerful weapon you have, and questions are its most potent ammunition. No question is more powerful than this: ‘how do you know that?’

Be always wary of the easy answer, and never be afraid to challenge authority. The truth is usually found after digging it out from among many falsehoods, and science is the best tool we have for that task.

I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did, and I hope it fills you with many questions.

If he’s not an atheist by the time he’s 20, I will consider myself a failure.

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5 comments

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  1. 1
    NathanDST

    I don’t think I would have ever been slapped, but something about this reminds me of my 13th birthday. My mother bought me a subscription to Discover magazine, which I was very happy about. However, she said to me “If you start talking about evolution, I’m taking it away.”

    I never talked about evolution.

  2. 2
    opposablethumbs

    Great gift for your cousin! Hope it is much enjoyed (I loved it!)

  3. 3
    aspidoscelis

    Hm. A book I’ve not read yet. Perhaps I should correct this oversight.

  4. 4
    otrame

    @3 You most certainly should. Some of the science is a little out of date, but the overall point of the book is more about how science works. It’s about scientists as much as it is about the results of science. It’s brilliant and EVERYONE should read it.

    I remember one review I noticed on Amazon several years ago that said, “I’m giving this book one star because it never once mentions the Creator of all the wonders it describes.”

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    It really is one of my all-time favourites, because it tells the story about how many times we got things wrong, and how we used science to figure out what explanation was correct. There’s no better way to get people curious and excited about discovering new things than by showing them exactly how it all happened. It’s not just “what do we know?”, but also “how do we know it?”

    Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth is like that too, if you haven’t yet read it. I’m not all that biological, but it’s still interesting science.

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