We get email: The difference between being unreliable and 100% wrong

Last week, Matt and Tracie got in a brief argument with a caller named Charles before hanging up on him.  Charles has continued to email us, and although Matt has decided that he’s a fake, I usually feel that genuine stupidity is the less extraordinary claim.  Anyway, I’m going to excerpt selected parts of this exchange, because it illustrates a couple of principles.

First, there is this perenially weird argument that if any one thing is found to be true in the Bible, then the whole thing must be true.  As I mentioned on the latest Non-Prophets, it’s as if fundamentalists live in this sharply divided world like the logic puzzles of Raymond Smullyan.  Everyone in the world is either a knight, who always tells the truth, or a knave, who always lies.  In Smullyan’s puzzles, proving that a person has made one true statement is enough to conclusively prove that everything that person has ever said or will say is also true.

In the real world… not so much.

Second: People who are bad at arguing commonly use a tactic known as “Quick!  Change the subject!”  NEVER allow the argument to continue if they’re dodging the point.

Charles says:

U discredit the bible you say you don’t care what the bible says. Then u validate it saying there are facts in the bible but then say there’s also false things in the bible (which is an unsupported assertion). That sir is a contradiction.


No, it’s not a contradiction. It’s true.

There are true things in the Bible (like Herod and Jerusalem). There are false things in the Bible (like the cure for leprosy, the global flood, the genesis story, the exodus).

Imagine that I wrote you a letter and the letter read:

“Dear Charles, The sky is blue. The Earth is a rough spheroid that orbits the sun, which is a star. Mars is the biggest planet in our solar system. You should eat more vegetables. I am the supreme ruler of the universe.”

Some of that is true and some of it is false. So, referencing that letter is useless – because whatever is true, is true whether it’s in the letter or not. The same is true for whatever is false. So telling someone “Hey, it’s in the letter from Matt” doesn’t give them ANY information about whether or not the claim is true or false.

The same is true about referencing the Bible.

At this point I jumped in, not wanting to miss out on the fun.


I’m going to walk over to my bookcase right now, pick up the first work of fiction I see, and find a true statement written in it. Ready?

The book is The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett. This is actually an especially easy one, because Follett writes historical thrillers, and this one takes place in Egypt during World War II.

End of the book, chapter 29: “Rommel glanced up and saw the British bombers approach low from behind the nearest line of hills: the troops called them ‘Party rally’ bombers because they flew in the perfect formation of display aircraft at the prewar Nuremberg parades. ‘Take cover!’ Rommel yelled. He ran to a slit trench and dived in. …Today was September 1, and something had gone terribly wrong.”

Rommel was real. Egypt was real. The British bombers were real. Does that mean, then, that the whole book is to be taken as literal truth? It concerns a fictional agent capturing a fictional spy and falling in love with a fictional girl. The fact is, I can accurately say that the book contains both true facts and made up events and characters, and finding true stuff in this book is no proof that it’s reliable as a whole.

Suddenly, a wild change of subject appears!

Mr Dillahunty, I remember you hanging up on me for saying evolution is a theory (which it is) just a little hint I thought u should know. Evolution is the only one of millions of theories that was taught in every American public school. That should make everyone pause to think about who is making the decisions of what does and does not get taught in schools, and what their agenda is. I have more proof of God’s existence than every text book has of evolution. The type of evolution that people believe would disprove God has not been disproved either. God decided that to this point, we didn’t need to know how he created us. If evolution is proved to be true then I guess we will know how he created us. According to Darwin’s own words, evolution is false.

I’m not having it.


I noticed that you’ve changed the subject very abruptly. Does that mean that you now recognize that books like the Bible can contain some true statements and still not be reliable? I’m happy to discuss evolution with you, myself, but first I’d like some acknowledgment that you were paying attention to the things we already talked about.

Charles says:

The unsupported assertion that the bible is “unreliable” totally baffles me. And yes I was paying attention to what was said and I’m going to discredit evolution simply because its a theory not a fact.



Here’s the problem with this conversation. You’re claiming the broad ability to overturn a major pillar of modern science, and yet you seem to be psychologically incapable of comprehending even the most basic questions about critical thought. Apparently you find it “baffling,” and it’s hard to have a conversation with somebody who can’t even share that most basic foundation.

We’re not even talking right now about whether everything in the Bible is true. You started this conversation by claiming Matt contradicted himself by saying that
(1) There are true statements in the Bible, and
(2) The Bible as a whole can’t be used to determine truth.

Several of us have now explained to you why that’s not a contradiction. Matt pointed out that people and books in the real world often make both true and false assertions at different times. I even gave you a live example by finding a fictional book that has true statements in it.

The question isn’t “Is the Bible a reliable book?” at that point — the question is “Do you understand that it is possible for the Bible, or any other book, to say some things that are true, and still not be a true book overall?” Your response was to not acknowledge this question, but to hastily change the subject to something else that you thought would go better for you. But I’m not cool with that.

It’s a really simple question, Charles. Do you understand and agree with what I’m saying about true and false statements, or don’t you? If you’re going to just run away from a subject every single time you don’t like the way the conversation is going, then I don’t really see what the point is of talking to you.

Awaiting an answer that may or may not come.


  1. Uncle Glenny says

    sigh. Maybe he’s practicing for the new Texas education standards, where – not having been able to shoehorn ID/creationism into the curriculum under the guise of critical thinking about evolution – critical thinking becomes verboten.

  2. says

    Since it’s inevitable that someone will jump in here and declare Charles a Poe because “no one could be that stupid!”, seriously, people, what will it take? Yes, fundies are frequently and commonly exactly this stupid, if not stupider! The stupidity of the subspecies Homo fundagelicus can, in fact, be impossible to adequately catalog. And I think that’s who we’re looking at here.

    Glad you remembered the Comic Sans.

  3. Kazim says

    On a side note — I am coming to positively hate the use of the word “Poe” to describe a fake theist.

    For anyone who takes Poe’s Law seriously, the point is that it is impossible to tell the difference between a real fundie and a satire of one. Anyone who declares that they have determined for certain that a particular caller or writer is fake, either does not understand or does not believe Poe’s Law. So for those who know Poe’s Law, the accusation makes no sense; and for those who haven’t heard it, it’s an unnecessary bit of impenetrable lingo.

  4. michaelbuchheim says

    It’s sad but sometimes this is really the best approach. Go slow and explain what may seem as the most basic of logical conclusions.

  5. Tony Pingree says

    Love the show.
    I wonder if our more “keen” religious friends will ever realize that the book they use as a weapon is double edged.
    Barrel, fish and shooting seen to spring to mind.
    Keep up the good work.

  6. moresco says

    Exactly, Martin. I have often called fundies stupid, and I get attacked for it because I guess I’m not totally clear on what I mean. Obviously, human beings can pick up books and learn things, but yet they retain this uncanny ability to just be downright clueless when it comes to something like logic, or language, or whatever the shortcoming is that makes them the way they are. I don’t think it’s necessarily because of a religion that these people are like this either, but I think religion makes sense to them because it fits their mold. And so, fundies are stupid and sometimes crazy, and stupid and sometimes crazy people are likely to go on to become fundies?

    In semi-related, I just quit my job doing sound at a local church because I couldn’t take it anymore. And I really loved running sound, too. =/

  7. says

    See people this is why you don’t make fake phone calls. Now anytime stupidity comes up no one knows if they can trust it or if they are wasting their time on some joker.

  8. says

    Wow, his paragraph on evolution is bordering on fractally wrong.

    Evolution is the only one of millions of theories that was taught in every American public school.

    I must be having amnesia. I’m only aware of maybe a dozen or so. In regards to the diversification of species, there’s only one scientific theory right now.

    That should make everyone pause to think about who is making the decisions of what does and does not get taught in schools, and what their agenda is.

    You’re right. Damn you Don McLeroy!

    The scientists, on the other hand, have the agenda of discovering and relaying the truth, which is based on evidence based investigation. The evidence is the decider.

    I have more proof of God’s existence than every text book has of evolution.

    I think this goes back to the source-of-information issue. He doesn’t seem to get that books aren’t the source of information – at least the non-fiction and non-axiomatic ones.

    The source of the “proof” is evidence.

    The type of evolution that people believe would disprove God has not been disproved either.

    How many types of evolution are there? As far as I’m aware, the only non-metaphorical type is biological evolution.

    This may also be the only true statement he’s made – yes, evolution hasn’t been disproved yet.

    God decided that to this point, we didn’t need to know how he created us.

    Spiderman doesn’t want us to know how he shoots his webs either. And? Wait, you’re serious?

    If evolution is proved to be true then I guess we will know how he created us.

    So what’s all the fuss about? If evolution is false, God exist. If evolution is true, God exists. What’s the problem?

    According to Darwin’s own words, evolution is false.

    What? Let me guess – the evolution of the eye quote mine?

  9. says

    Darwin’s own words, evolution is false.

    I’ll also add that science doesn’t suffer from the Spiritual Leader Vulnerability. You can show that Darwin made everything up that he said. That would have no effect on the modern theory, because others picked it up, and it turned out to be right.

    Proving that the Wright Brother’s flight was a hoax wouldn’t cause all airplanes today to drop out of the sky.

    If Darwin said that, he was wrong.

  10. jacobfromlost says

    I taught English for several years, and I can tell you that the problem Charles seems to be having is often seen in high school aged students–more often with the younger kids than the older ones. The divide between fiction and nonfiction is stark in the minds of the younger students, and the way you know the difference is that the teacher TELLS you which book is fiction and which is nonfiction (ie, authority, because they can’t imagine how else you would figure it out since they probably have little or no background knowledge regarding the subject of the book). The older kids are more likely to question and be able to reason how or why a text should be considered fiction or nonfiction, but some are also more likely to have certain ideas cemented into their heads as “facts” from home and church–and if anything contradicts those “facts”, then it isn’t true by definition.

    It’s possible that one of the “facts” cemented in Charles’ head is that “the bible is true in every word” because that’s how it was presented from a young age. So when someone says, “There are true things in the bible,” he doesn’t hear “Some of the things in the bible are true and some are not,” he hears “There are true things in the bible because the whole thing is true.”

    He may hear this even AFTER it is explained (that many things are not true in the bible), as the explanation is in direct conflict with a “fact” that is cemented in his head (ie, the bible is all true) so the explanation must be false.

    All that being said, I still think Charles was a faker–not because I find it hard to believe someone could be this stupid, but because his responses just didn’t ring true.

    In any case, faker or not, we can still use Charles’ responses as a perfectly useful example of a bad argument and bad thinking in reality.

  11. Daemon6 says

    Having lived in Austin my whole life, and having been raised in a family that’s almost entirely christian, and majority southern baptist, I always find myself a little frustrated when people call “Poe” right out of the gate.

    The arguments that this guy has been making doesn’t even seem that spectacular with regard to “lay” apologetics (or even “professional” apologetics).

    In fact, it seems pretty much on par with the types of conversations I’ve had with family and family friends X\..

  12. Daemon6 says

    I wouldn’t really call it “double-edged” to be completely honest. A more apt analogy would be holding a one-sided blade backwards.

    I would even go so far as to say that it’s axiomatically true that the best argument against the bible is the bible.

  13. Tony Pingree says

    Hi Daemon6,
    holding a one-sided blade backwards is interesting but i still think double-edged has more of a ring to it. We use this expression a lot here in the UK.
    The best argument against the bible is the bible is spot on though.
    Sorry about the spelling and grammar, dyslexia can be a real pain sometimes.

  14. annabucci says

    I usually say poe when I can’t make the determination. If I know for a fact that the person is a faker, I’ll just say he’s a faker. If he’s tricked others into thinking he’s real, but I know he’s a faker, then I’ll usually say “Poe’s Law strikes again” to point out that other people couldn’t tell the difference.

    In any case, I don’t care if this guy is a faker or not. I think there are enough real christians who have the same responces as this guy to find this example useful. I’ve had to deal with a few personally.

  15. terrycollins says

    Matt: “Going through Genesis 1, taking what it says and then reinterpreting it to fit something, doesn’t really accomplish anything.”

    Charles: “Why doesn’t it?”

    (Background laughter)

    By asking that question, he’s basically admitting he’s reinterpreting the bible to make it fit. A typical theist would protest that assertion. Smells fishy to me.

  16. says

    There’s a comic book in which Spider-Man fights Doc Octopus. New York City and the Empire State Building figure into the story.

    New York City and the Empire State building are demonstrably real.

    Therefore, we know that the Spider-Man story is authentic, and that Spidey and Doc Octopus are real.

    Believer logic for the win!

  17. says

    I think this guy was for real. He came into the conversation thinking he’d outsmart you somehow, and once you started poking holes in his logic he probably just thought you were playing mind games with him.

    Once a person like this gets it in their mind that they are absolutely correct and you are absolutely wrong, there’s pretty much nothing you can say that will change their minds. They just KNOW you are wrong, and that’s it…

  18. cswella says

    It would only be double edged if it cut us as much as it cut them.

    Since they only ever hurt themselves by using it, it wouldn’t be double edged.

  19. Tony Pingree says

    Hi cswella,
    a good point but it can still be used as a weapon. Its the skill with which people use it that’s important.

    Not all Atheists have mastered its use yet.

    I will concede that the one edge is a bit blunt.

    Like the point though.

  20. jacobfromlost says

    I agree. I don’t think he was a faker on the grounds that “no one could be this stupid”, but on the grounds that when people are this stupid, they respond in different ways and with a different tone and with different timing.

    The caller “Jonathan” from a few months ago, for example, gave many responses that were contradictory and yet his tone throughout was sincere, open, and sometimes confused (he was reflecting on his own position throughout the discussion). Those kinds of markers found consistently throughout a conversation, and even in subsequent conversations, indicates to me a caller is not a faker.

    terrycollins above points out one response that just doesn’t ring true, even if Charles was a true believer. But there were several others. (Such as falling completely silent when Matt explained that you could have one thing in the bible true and one thing false, THEN conceding the point after the silence, THEN ignoring the point. It’s not so much what he said, but how he said it and when he said it that suggests fakery to me. True believers don’t tend to understand the rationalist side of the argument and therefore don’t often say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time in exactly the wrong way consistently–in order to do that, you have to REALLY understand the rationalist argument, and true believers rarely do. Fakers, however, are more motivated to entertain fellow atheists, and so do that consistent dance of wrong thing/ wrong time/ wrong way as much as they can while trying to hold back just a little so as not to make it TOO obvious (because then it isn’t as entertaining). It’s easier to notice this in retrospect than when actually engaged in an argument, and if it is TOO consistently wrong thing/ wrong time/ wrong way, it is easy to spot even when engaged in the argument. Matt has spotted them several times using exactly what I describe.

  21. DelSolar says

    I have more proof of God’s existence than every text book has of evolution – Charles

    What is it with these people claiming they have “proof” of God’s existence? If that were the case they have in their hands the most important breakthrough in human knowledge ever. They have an astounding piece of information and yet they are keeping it for themselves. They are not calling news agencies, scientific institutions or universities; they are not even calling the Discovery Institute. No, they are calling an atheist show to reveal it to humanity.

    If God has decided to reveal the proof of his existence to this guy, and for some reason to no one else, then he has a big responsibility to share his finding. That would change forever the history of humankind. Discovering God as a fact of the universe would be the end of faith, because you don’t need that to believe in a proven fact. There won’t be more need for churches because the whole point of their existence is precisely the lack of proof of their supernatural claims and the need of faith reinforcement to believe. That would be the end of every quarrel or disagreement with other religions and every human would have a hint of what are the real rules to follow.

    Unless, the “proof” they have is not a proof but, as always, some flavor of the argument from personal incredulity: “I don’t understand this, therefore God”.

    Well handled Matt, Tracie and Kazim.

  22. says

    It usually boils down to the fact that they don’t understand what “proof” actually is. It’s kind of annoying when most of the debate is simply trying to get the theist to understand what proof actually is and why their proof isn’t actually proof. It’s pretty fruitless…

  23. jacobfromlost says

    Their Idea of Proof:

    1) A rock monster exists.
    2) The rock monster coughs up rocks.
    3) I found rocks in my back yard.
    4) I found rocks all over the world.
    5) Thus the rocks are proof the rock monster exists, otherwise where did the rocks come from?

    6) Also, you can’t prove he DOESN’T exist, so he does, obviously. Proof!

  24. annabucci says

    I think AXP should do a show on viewer mail and list all the crappy arguments made. Or how’s about a show on logical fallacies?

    Perhaps they’ve already done one, but I must’ve missed it.

  25. annabucci says

    I don’t care. I’ve never been big on the callers(on any shows) because most people don’t know how to keep things short and to the point, or they’re too nervous and they stammer. It’s annoying to listen to.

  26. Chrish says

    I think it’s inaccurate to call someone stupid because of their beliefs, even fundies. Yes they have some batshit crazy and unsubstantiated worldviews based on their bible, but that doesn’t automatically make them stupid.

    I attribute it more to human nature and the desire to defend deeply ingrained beliefs, even to the point of the absurd.
    Your not just trying to change a simple idea, your attempting to change who they feel they are at the very core of their being.
    Their identity is so wrapped up in the idea of being a Christian, that that they can’t separate the ideas from their own self worth.

    I guess I’m simply trying to say that it’s a lot more complicated than “fundies are stupid and crazy”. And anyone who nonchalantly dismisses someone as stupid and crazy is doing themselves and the person they’re trying to reach a great disservice.

  27. hoary puccoon says

    When arguing that some parts of the bible are true, others not, another point to bring up is that Genesis is a collection of stories that were passed down as sagas, myths, and oral histories before the invention of writing. When the Hebrews had writing, one of the first things they did with it was write down their traditional stories. They almost certainly didn’t care to what extent the stories were factual. They just wanted to save their traditional culture before the old stories were forgotten. (Virtually every Native American group has done precisely the same thing.)

    The last parts of the bible, like the Acts of the Apostles, on the other hand, were written down as things happened. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily true– they were edited, copied, etc. But, for instance, there’s a straightforward account in Acts that a mob dragged early Christian missionaries into the theater at Ephesus. And if you go to Ephesus today, sure enough, there’s the theater. (Down the hill and take a right at the library. You can’t miss it.) So, that particular part of the bible is at least plausible.

    It’s giving up too much to say that the Bible is *completely* myth. But it needs to be clearer that Genesis is a special case, and was never meant to be taken literally. What would “literally” even mean, before the invention of letters?

  28. says

    I used to tell people this just about every day. And every day, there seemed to be more people misusing the expression “Poe”. One day, I gave up. Ride on, Kazim, carry the flag.

  29. NorskVind says

    True, but imagine how bored the hosts would be. They just monologue for an hour for months with no real variation or conversation. I’d be bored out of my mind if I had to do this.

  30. Jdog says

    I wouldn’t use this point. The person you’re arguing against (or the somewhat saner Christians observing the argument) will just interpret it as you saying that the New Testament is correct.

    If they’re so far gone into fundie-land that they believe the Genesis account as literal truth, even many Christians today (the same ones who believe the “but that was the Old Testament!” argument) will accept that they’re nuts.

  31. says

    Didn’t somebody (Don, maybe?) do a series on logical fallacies while back? I seem to remember something like that.

  32. ohioobserver says

    You have far more patience than I.

    Arguing with this yahoo and others like him is almost certainly a waste. His mind is ossified into rigid, reassuring falsehood that will never be broken.

    If I ran a blog like this, I’d probably have a policy that would ban any commenter whose chronic misspelling or lack of grammar indicated that he wasn’t in command of the language. The first duty of an intelligent person is to communicate courteously and clearly. Anyone who can’t or won’t doesn’t have any contribution worth considering.

    I suppose I’m a language bigot. One reason I’ll never run a blog, I guess.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  33. Tony Pingree says

    ppl who am bad spelers nd has bad gramer shud b ignord, that sounds like the slipery slope to me. Dats prejuduce to the dislexic… dizlexic… deslexic, bad spellers that is.

  34. RobNYNY1957 says

    It’s so funny that Christians never see how their arguments are equally good for any other religion. If you any part of the Koran as true, the whole thing must be true. If the historicity of Jesus is proof of something, then the historicity of Mohammed is much better proof. (He’s even mentioned in Byzantine sorces during his lifetime or shortly afterwards). Not to mention the historicity of Joseph Smith (photos and living decendants) and Sun Myung Moon (on live TV!). If the Bible is true because it is unchanging (wait, didn’t the New Testament come after the Old Testament? The Protestant version versus the Catholic Version? The addition of the Book of Mormon?), then the Koran is even unchanginger and consequently truer.

  35. G.Shelley says

    Assuming he is for real he is surely capable of telling that something can have both true and false statements, as he thinks it applies yo your original statement about the bible having true things (true in his mind) and false ones (that not everything in it is true).

  36. escuerd says

    How many types of evolution are there? As far as I’m aware, the only non-metaphorical type is biological evolution.

    How about linguistic evolution?

    Or how about the way physicists use the word “evolution” to describe how any system changes over time? E.g. “the evolution of the particle’s wavefunction is described by such and such.”

    Evolution as a word to mean “change with respect to time” predates the explanation for the diversity of life.

    Of course, I’m sure that this caller/emailer had any this in mind. Assuming he was even sincere, he was probably thinking something along the lines of different theoretical standpoints on evolution (ignoring, of course, that the common descent of life on Earth is pretty much common to all extant theories that are consistent with the evidence).

  37. escuerd says

    What would “literally” even mean, before the invention of letters?

    Because there’s no way to express that something is verbatim without a reference to writing? 😉

  38. pyrobryan says

    I always assumed they were called “Poe” because they were trying to take advantage of Poe’s Law to get the lulz. Not because you couldn’t tell, but because they hoped you wouldn’t be able to.

  39. pyrobryan says

    I had assumed the guy was poe, especially with his “just a theory” comment, but if he kept it up off the air in (somewhat) private emails, I am willing to admit that I was wrong and change my position based on new evidence.

  40. Alvaro says

    Wait, there was a new non-prophets? When? The last one in the archives in March 24th.