Being an atheist doesn’t excuse you from doing your homework

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.

Email 1: Creationist Teachers

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?

My reply:

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 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.

Good luck!

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.

Email 2: Catholics and Aliens

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.

My reply:

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.”

In the words of particle physicist Victor Stenger:

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.


  1. mithrandir says

    Daniel said:

    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.

    This bears repeating. As I once tweeted: “Atheists are not smarter or wiser than theists – we just believe in one less imaginary entity than they do.”

    Indeed, there have been several studies suggesting that atheists, collectively, are more likely than Christians to believe in things like astrology, palm reading, and speaking with the dead. To be sure, that’s likely because the more fundamentalist strains of Christianity directly contradict (or condemn as demonic) such superstitions… but it does seem to me that there’s a sort of “conservation of magical thinking” going on here. That is, the average human being is generally going to believe in roughly the same amount of magic regardless of their religious upbringing or lack thereof – religions merely constrain which magic they’ll end up believing in.

  2. John Kruger says

    As a rule of thumb, if someone tries to use quantum physics to describe anything besides sub-atomic particle behavior they are almost certainly completely mislead.

    There are a lot of unintuitive phenomena in quantum physics, and I have to go with Richard Feynman and agree that hardly anybody has a really good understanding of it.

  3. Jeff Sherry says

    Mithrandir, I hope you can post a link for those studies. In general any atheists I’ve met over the years didn’t have a woo factor or susceptibility for woo.

  4. Peter Helstrup Jensen says

    I definitely agree with you there. What I would really like to see from you guys Matt Dillahunty or some other of you guys at TheAtheistExperience, was a different kind of videos where say you would take up a part in the bible/quran/mythologi of a religion and then explain how this is against everything in you, or how this is wrong (or right).

    Matt obviously knows alot about the Bible, I’d really like him to make a few videos on some of his “favorite” passages which he often takes up, like the stoning of unruly children, slavery, forever burning in hell for not believing etc. to give atheists some better arguments and references and knowledge aswell.

    Maybe these videos are already there and I just haven’t look enough?

    Thanks for a great show.

  5. says

    I try to think that almost every christian is a potential atheist, and be nice. No point in alienating all of them. Granted, there are some dyed-in-the-wool believers who wouldn’t change their minds if Jesus himself told them to, but still. I’m not a particularly smart person, and am old enough to know it, so I try not to go rushing in like a fool.

  6. mithrandir says

    Are Atheists more superstitious than Christians? A lesson in poor polling

    It’s a Gallup poll commissioned by a religiously affiliated university that found, basically, that nonreligious people are more superstitious than religious people if you redefine religion as not being a superstition.

    My experience is like yours – most of the people I personally know that self-identify as atheist reject all forms of supernatural belief, not just religion – but it’s a mistake to believe that your experience is representative.

    Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the various believers in crystals and astrology and other such goofy things don’t self-identify as Christian – and that the fast one Baylor was pulling was shoving those people into the “atheist” camp.

  7. heisenbug says

    I basically agree with Kazim. However I do think that the more intelligent a person is, the less likely they are going to believe in superstitions. The studies I have seen (forgive me for not providing a link because of my sheer laziness) do show that the majority of scientists for example do not believe in God. Those who do believe in God, do so for reasons outside of their field of expertise (biologists for cosmological reasons and vice versa). Do all scientists have some superstitions? Maybe, but another study is needed to find that out.

    Furthermore, I would bet that the belief in Big Foot does not have any effect on their life and the existance of BF is much more likely than the existance of some omnipotent/omnibenevolent being (the concept of BF by itself does not violate any laws of nature). Not every supernatural claim is as invalid as the other. Therfore, it would be wise to reserve judgement on some of them.

    Finally, we are all human beings. And human beings tend to have biased opinions. We should always accept the possibility that we are wrong in our judgement and revise with care all the evidence we have as objectively as possible.

  8. heisenbug says

    I am a little wary about Gallup poll. Is it competent enough? The last time I checked they presented some ambiguous poll which claimed that very religious people have a “higher well-being” than moderately religious and non-religious people. They presented a list of foggy indexes with no explanation how they came to them.

  9. N. Nescio says

    Years and years ago when I was still at least nominally Catholic, I worked in a restaurant that had an openly atheist dishwasher-philosopher. That restaurant also featured a bathed in the blood, born-again, disciple-making manager, who pursued her particular flavor of Christian delusion with great zeal.

    One night, she leveled the typical “well if you don’t believe in God then what do you believe in?”

    The guy turned from his triple sink, looked the manager in the eye, and said “I believe in me”.

    I believe in me.

    That stuck with me through the years, and when I got to the point where I concluded I was an atheist and was willing to state it publicly, I realized that was exactly what I believed in. That’s the response most people get when they put questions like that to me.

    I believe in ME!

  10. Zengaze says

    Thinking you’re smarter than you are is a human flaw which can be very hard to keep in check. But that is why the critical mind which is propagated by science is so essential.

    I do not think that religious people are of lesser intellect than atheists by default. I rather think it has more to do with access to knowledge and training in critical thought. I can cite absolutely zero evidence for this, as I’m formulating an hypothesis from my own anecdotal experience, so feel free to dismiss this assertion lol.

    This is why I think education should be shunted from where it generally is now (giving students the information they need to pass tests) to training young minds to problem solve. To use the old adage give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

    I speculate that aswel as science graduates having greater knowledge about how the world actually works, it is also how they are taught to examine evidence that causes the byproduct of fewer woo heads.

    In summary lessons in the beauty of critical thought and logic should commence every school day. Imagine the advances humanity could make within a couple of generations!

  11. Warp says

    As for the third type of person, I have always found it both amusing and sad at the same time that there are people who seem eager to believe everything *except* science. It doesn’t matter how crazy or outlandish, they at least consider it as a possibility. Everything except actual science of course. If science says that something is not possible, then that must be false because, after all, science is unreliable.

  12. Aquaria says

    Case in point is our second email, coming from Mexico, where I gather it is difficult to generate much pushback against Catholicism convincingly.

    You gather incorrectly. Mexico has had one of the most anti-clerical governments in recent memory.

    In the first half of the 20th century, they lowered the hammer on the CC. Church property was seized, priests weren’t allowed to wear their frocks and collars outside their delusion palaces, they couldn’t vote or hold office, their newspapers and radio stations were shut down for good, religious schools were banned, jurisdictions were allowed to limit the number of priests/ministers in their areas, no foreign priests were allowed–and more. Much more.

    In 1992, Mexico relaxed some of the most stringent anti-clerical laws, such as allowing the return of religious schools, some property rights for churches and the ability to petition the government to have their services broadcast over TV or radio.

    But religions must still register with the government to operate, and Mexico still refuses to let churches own media outlets, still refuses to let worship take place outside of church buildings, still doesn’t allow priests/ministers to hold office…

    If Mexico is so religious, why do the people keep voting in the people who enact this stuff?

    According to Mexico’s populations analysis agency, INEGI, atheism is growing at just over 5% yearly, while Catholicism is growing at less than 2%. Their stats also show a drop of weekly church attendance from 70% in 1960, to about 47% by the 2000s. I’m not sure where to find the report on the INEGI site, but I know that these numbers had Catholic circles in a dither a few years ago, so they’re probably from 2008. That’s when I had access to a lot of Catholic publications that make the rounds in South Texas.

  13. Kazim says

    Well, that sounds like good news. I’m glad to be proven wrong on this one.

    Maybe this writer was coming from a particularly rural area of Mexico? Sort of like Mexico’s version of Mississippi or something.

  14. Sam C says

    I’m no physicist but I actually learned a lot from Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics” and a little more from the Zukav’s “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” (although I have forgotten it now).

    I didn’t buy any of the New Age stuff at all, but it was coming at the whole quantum thing from a different direction and I think I was cute enough to say “oh wow! that’s a different way of looking at it” and I picked up the nuggets of insight from the smoke and mirrors.

    It was just refreshingly different, and didn’t put me to sleep like most quantum and particle physics did then, with their obsessions about symmetries and formalisations.

    So, yes, the New Agey “quantum consciousness” takes you to la la land, but sometimes one can still learn something from alternative non-mainstream sources!

  15. Kazim says

    I know that it can — I watched “What the Bleep Do We Know?” and the section introducing QM was very nicely produced and informative.

    …Of course, the clip was created by someone else, who knew what the bleep they were talking about.

    The problem with getting information from an unreliable source is that even when they provide accurate information, there’s no way to distinguish it from the inaccurate information, except by going to a much more reliable source. Otherwise you might find that you “know” a bunch of things that are falsehoods.

  16. says

    From what I have read, Catholicism is losing ground in some parts of Mexico to Pentecostals and other Protestant churches.

    The PAN party consists of lots of conservative Catholics, and I believe the party’s current presidential candidate, a woman BTW, is vehemently anti-abortion rights.

  17. Zengaze says

    If I want to learn about car engines, I Look for that knowledge from those who design car engines, I don’t read a book about car engines written by a beauty therapist, and if I do and proclaim insight into the wrinkle reducing properties of car engines, you are quite free, nay I demand you call me a fool, because guess what, I’m a moron.

    What is it with people and their never ending attraction to woo? Is it that reality is so boring we need to add woo to it to make us feel life is worth something? Really I’m not being facetious here. I was a victim of this myself, declaring myself atheist, while defending the idea that we are all part of some universal consciousness (that was my Buddhist phase). I didn’t get the disconnect! And at the same time sneered at those stupid theists for believing in a deity.

    Wu li master horse shit, read it if you want to learn about wu. Read accredited physicists if you want to learn about physics.

  18. says

    “Atheists are not smarter or wiser than theists – we just believe in one less imaginary entity than they do.” –mithrandir

    A nice objection to a belief in a particular god, but not really true as far as Gnu Atheists are concerned because we also do not believe in the supernatural, which is quite a bit more than just one less imaginary creature. No, we reject all forms of woo (of which theism is a subset) as unsubstantiated.

  19. says

    Nice post. I agree, in general. But I think there’s another point to be made re. Email 1:

    Education is great, and it’s especially useful for schoolkids who might be looking for a future career. And I personally find evolutionary biology to be fascinating. It’s certainly worth learning about!

    However, as a practical matter, each of us can’t become an expert in everything. Do I have to become an expert in biology to debate evolution, an expert in climatology to debate global warming, an expert in astronomy and geology and who knows what else to argue that the Earth is more than 10,000 years old?

    For all of these “controversies” – and more – an understanding of the scientific method is plenty, it seems to me. If you understand what the scientific method is, and why it works – in particular, if you understand why science comes to a consensus – then you’ll know that the scientific consensus can be adopted by us laymen as the best answer we’ve got.

    It’s got the best chance of being true, compared to any other method of making a decision, and if it isn’t true, scientists themselves will be the first people to discover that, and the consensus will change.

    I just mean that, for the ordinary layman, understanding the scientific method will give you a valid reason for adopting the scientific consensus on all sorts of “controversial” (not controversial in the scientific community, of course) issues, without needing to become an expert in each of them.

    That only works where there’s a consensus, of course, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with learning more about these specific scientific questions. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. You may think you’ve got a good understanding of the issues, and therefore can reasonably disagree with the scientific consensus, but it’s almost certain that you’re just fooling yourself.

    So I would tell high school kids pretty much what you told him, but also emphasize that he needs to learn about the scientific method, so that he doesn’t have to become an expert in everything. There are very good reasons why we laymen should trust the scientific consensus. It’s not “faith,” not at all. It’s just an understanding of how and why the scientific method works.

  20. Hunchback Jack says

    Great email responses. I wish I could express these arguments so clearly and rationally, knowing when to explain in detail and when to refer them elsewhere.

    One comment I would make about “first books” to recommend to Christians who are interested in evolution: I tend to recommend “Why Evolution is True” by Coyne before Dawkins’ “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

    Both are excellent, but Coyne’s work is slightly less detailed, and slightly more cohesive a work. He better show how the detailed topic covered in each chapter contributes as evidence for evolution. Dawkins’ book does the same, but gets somewhat lost in the details at times. Coyne’s is an excellent first book, while Dawkins is an excellent *second* book, although there is a lot of overlap, of course.

    Another less legitimate reason for recommending Coyne is that he doesn’t have the reputation for anti-religion that Dawkins has. That shouldn’t be a reason for preferring his work, of course, but realistically Christians may be more willing to read someone not known to have a strong objection to their faith.


  21. Mark Rosengarten says

    I agree completely. However, the pious will view this as nothing more than pure self-centeredness and tote out the tired old canard that atheists reject God because they elevate themselves to the status of a god in their own mind. My response? I believe in this amazing, complex universe filled with wonderful things. Why? Because we KNOW IT’S THERE. I would prompt anyone to watch the animated movie of Tim Minchin’s “Storm” on YouTube. It sums it all up brilliantly.