It’s “Ask an Atheist Day”?

I guess it is. You can ask me anything, but there’s nothing in the rules that says I have to answer.

I probably won’t. I volunteered to help out with new student registration today, I’m going to be locked into working with students all day long, so most of the questions I’m going to be asked are along the lines of:

  • “Why is my class section full?”
  • “Am I actually going to have to take an 8am course? I don’t get up before noon.”
  • “I’d like to take 30 credits this semester & get it all over with. Why won’t you let me?”
  • “Prerequisites? What are those? I want to take that 4000 level course in Fancy Science right now!”
  • “Where’s the pre-med course?”
  • “Why do I have to take a history course? I’m going to be a doctor!”
  • “No one told me I’d need math to be a bio major! Why are you doing this to me?”
  • “I can’t get into that course I’ve been looking forward to? Why does the universe hate me?”

At least I can answer that last one as an atheist. The universe doesn’t hate you, it doesn’t care about you at all.

You may ask, “Why are you volunteering to do this? Aren’t you on sabbatical?” Especially since this is such a highly stressful day for the incoming students — it’s not registration day without at least one student breaking down and crying because they’re confused by all the information coming in, and all the decisions that have to be made. I’m doing it because these are students who will be starting up in the fall, and I have to return to the classroom in the fall, and I better make sure the new students are ready for me.

Another question: “Do I really have to return to my labors in the fall?” <breaks down weeping>

Yes. Because the universe hates me.


  1. F.O. says

    Can I ask you a question as a biologist?

    There are a few different ideas regarding the evolution of sex, but most popular sources I encounter will usually throw in a few different explanations and mention that we’re not sure.

    Without any formal training in biology, I would expect the ability to propagate positive mutations faster alone to be well worth the costs.
    IE, without sex you need to wait for a rare event to happen twice in the same lineage of a population, while with sex two lineages that both carry positive mutations can merge.
    What am I missing?

  2. markgisleson says

    In your nearly two decades of blogging, how many individuals do you estimate you have saved from a life of Christ?
    Oh! And also:
    Is it true you have a sword and you call it The Soulreaper?

  3. cartomancer says

    8.00am classes? I thought your constitution had some kind of rule against cruel and unusual punishment.

    The only time anyone did anything before 9am at my university was when the visiting German professors forgot that civilized societies don’t expect anyone to be up that early. This is why I strenuously avoided modern European history.

    Mind you, teaching started at dawn when it first arose in the Middle Ages. So if anyone says there hasn’t been any substantial progress in human wellbeing over the centuries, I point them to that.

  4. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    As an atheist-by-default (i. e. I was never raised religious): What was it like for you? Were you ever religious? And if yes, did you gradually or more suddenly cease to be and can you point at possible reasons? As someone who never believed in the first place and never made such experiences, stories about belief and deconversion are interesting to me.

  5. drew says

    “there’s nothing in the rules that says I have to answer”
    So it’s Ask a Deity Day all over again? Bah!

  6. thirdmill301 says

    rietpluim, that’s hilarious and I’m stealing it. I do think it’s important to point out that nobody is born believing in religion; religion is something people have to be indoctrinated into. So actually all Christians come from atheists. Remember that next time someone accuses atheists of indoctrinating the young.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yeah, I remember 8 am classes. Never mind “the whining schoolboy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school”. Try trudging through the predawn Edmonton winter to teach a first year physics lab. Barbarity on several levels.

  8. leerudolph says

    Yeah, I remember 8 am classes.

    I had 8 am classes as an undergraduate; the university even had Saturday morning classes, but I never took one. Then 20-odd years later, I taught 8 am classes for a couple of years, before that university got rid of them.

    One reason (far from the only one) that I’m much more ignorant of algebraic topology than I ought to be (I’m a geometric topologist) is that the “introductory” course on the subject when and where I was in graduate school was taught at 7 am.

  9. cartomancer says

    By the common consent of the Classics tutors at my college, nobody did a lick of work before lunchtime. Students, fellows, none of us. Ancient History doesn’t go anywhere if you let it sleep in. Polybius and Livy will still be there in the afternoon. Nobody wins prizes for translating Tacitus before they’ve had two meals and properly woken up. The Modern Historians had not been informed of this rule, however – barbarous people that they were. Though the mummified grandees of the History faculty observed it themselves, having experienced enough of life to realise that the a.m. hours have nothing at all to recommend them. The Regius Professor was well known for never doing any work until nightfall.

  10. Brian says

    Sorry, it’s irrelevant of me to mention this, but I’m laughing to myself at the &rt; (in place of the &gt;). I just love the implication that &lt; is short for “left than” instead of “less than”, and now I want to find an excuse to use that in conversation with a stranger. (“Hey, I’m looking for the nearest bus stop; do you know where it is?” “I’m not sure, but I think it’s left than the Safeway.” “Uhhhh … thanks??”)

  11. chrislawson says


    I’ll have a crack at answering a small part of your very big question…

    First, we have to be careful with definitions. Most people use “sexual reproduction” to mean the meiosis and gamete production common in eukaryotes. But bacteria and archea and asexual protists have sexual gene transfer through a number of mechanisms such as swapping plasmids, a major vector for spreading antibiotic resistance. And in biology, this is confusingly called sexual transmission.

    Second, it’s very difficult to know how sexual reproduction evolved. Non-meiotic sex probably goes back >2 billion years and meiotic sex is at least 1.2 billion years old. It’s very difficult to piece together that evolutionary pathway.

    Third, as you would be aware there are advantages and disadvantages to sexual vs. asexual reproduction. Whatever the full accounting, it must be a close balance judging by the fact that there remain huge numbers of both sexual and asexual organisms, and plenty of examples of species evolving from one to the other (e.g. the amazing whiptail lizard). It also shows that some of the supposed disadvantages of asexuality such as Muller’s ratchet can’t be as noxious as we suppose because asexual organisms have been ratcheting away for billions of years and still seem to be thriving.

    Consider the bdelloid rotifer. Like us they are multicellular eukaryotic animals, but they are tiny (just too small to see without magnification). They used to reproduce meiotically like us but gave it up >25 million years ago and now reproduce parthenogenetically. And yet they survive in large populations in freshwater all over the planet, are good at outwitting parasites despite the prediction that asexual organisms would have trouble keeping up with parasite evolution, are extremely resistant to ionising radiation implying some unexpectedly effective DNA repair mechanisms, and swap DNA so promiscuously that 10% of their genome comes from distant life branches such as fungi, bacteria and plants!

    I doubt there is an overwhelming advantage either way. Probably it’s a set of stable minima with very low cusps.

  12. jrkrideau says

    @3 cartomancer

    8.00am classes? I thought your constitution had some kind of rule against cruel and unusual punishment.

    US is weird.

    We had classes that started 8:30 but profs suggested moving them to 07:00 pm. I think I have horrible memories of an 8:30 chemistry class that lead to me falling asleep in a 11:30 matrix algebra class–best class in first year but every once in a while I fell off the desk.

  13. blf says

    Nobody wins prizes for translating Tacitus before they’ve had two meals and properly woken up.

    Only two — just two — meals!? Barbaric… which is, I suppose, ancient history…


    One of my instructors introduced me to a great unit I’ve used ever since: The microcentury. It is, as they pointed out (parapharsing), “the maximum sensible duration of a class, lecture, meeting, or between cups of coffee.”

    I used it ever since (broadly in the manner described), and have noticed a corollary: “If someone cannot figure out how long a microcentury is, then they are a manager one will eventually loathe and seek to avoid.”

    (I’m tempted to bill consulting work in units of microcenturies, but have never actually done so.)

  14. nomdeplume says

    Oh PZ, I envy your students. Back in Medieval times when I went to sign up for first year university the monks offered no advice, other than the legalities of combinations of subjects, need for prerequisites etc. I needed someone with the advantage of hindsight to say “look, no, don’t do Physics, given your interests Botany or Geology would be better” and so on. One stumbles through in the end, years later, but having a wizened old academic like PZ to point out which was the best entrance to the maze would have saved me a lot of blind alleys and wasted time.

  15. blf says

    Ah, but, nomdeplume@16, back then didn’t the students pay on a lecture-by-lecture basis — and more importantly, if the lecture was rubbish, didn’t pay? However, Latin was de rigueur

  16. nomdeplume says

    @17 Yes, and the thin gruel we ate at the refectory table, and the 4am prayers, and the shaved heads. Never could manage the singing though…

  17. DanDare says

    Professionals like PZ who actually care make the world go around.
    I left high school with no idea what I wanted to do and bummed around for a year. I stumbled on the first release of apple II in a shop where I was working and fell in love with computers.
    The Institute of Technology in Sydney had a computing science degree course but I didn’t have the grades to get in.
    So I went to see the dean of the computing faculty. He listened to my story and then said something that changed my life trajectory. “I have power, I have a pen, you’re in”.

  18. blf says

    Ah, but at least you didn’t have Ride of the Valkyries blasting out of every sound system (at a setting of 11, of course) on campus at some absurd time in the morning during finals week — back then, you had the actual Valkyries…

  19. reynardo says

    One used to have to have a certain level in High School mathematics to do most science or engineering classes in Australian Universities. Some time ago, NSW changed so you just had to have a certain high score in the HSC. Thus, a lot of students did the easier subjects to get the mark, instead of the maths.

    My stepmother-in-law (who is wonderful, by the way) has to teach the kids who have come in with Year 10 maths so that they can start understanding Engineering 101. She is having running arguments with the faculty who are all “But we learned from Chalk and Talk and it worked for us!” and who just don’t understand that it works for a tiny percentage of people and not for these kids. They were all educated before Gardiner’s Theory of Intelligences was a thing, and also didn’t need to do any teaching courses to become lecturers. She is trying to lobby for as much hands-on kinesthetic learning as she can fit in. It’s not pretty to see the fights.

  20. KG says

    Why is a raven like a writing desk? – chigau@6

    Duh! Because there is a b in both, of course!

  21. leerudolph says

    Consider the bdelloid rotifer

    how it grows; it toils not, and (despite its name) neither does it spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory couldn’t undergo meiosis like one of these.