Foolish evangelicals. You can’t convert me!

I decided to go gunning for all the religious kooks who’ve been polluting my mailbox.

Transcript below.

Hey friends…and evangelical fundamentalists–

I’m going to take a moment to save us all a lot of time and effort. I get mail from people who want to persuade me that I should not be an atheist, that that perspective is invalid and that I should really adopt their views on everything. Some of them are quite fervent and sincere; some of them are abusive and obnoxious. They’re all wasting their time. I’m going to list a few flaws in their beliefs and presentation that convince me to quickly reject their opinions. Stop doing these things and maybe I’ll take a little time to consider your ideas!

First and easiest on my list — are you trying to tell me that evolution is false as part of your campaign to convert me to Christianity or Islam? Evolution is a fact. It’s part of the history of our world. We can argue about the details, or about the mechanisms, but when you try to defy all the evidence by claiming the earth is only a few thousand years old, or that humans are not apes, or that there was a world-destroying global flood, all you’re accomplishing is the total destruction of your credibility. Common ancestry is a fact. Descent with modification is a fact. The universe is over 13 billion years old. If we can’t agree on the most straightforward understanding of the evidence for basic material facts, there is no point in discussing more subtle, esoteric interpretations of how the universe works. This is especially true since the conclusions of your holy books, which you are ultimately trying to persuade me to adopt, are in no way contingent on our scientific understanding of nature. Not only does it tell me that you don’t understand the scientific evidence for our material universe, but you don’t have a clue about how to assemble a comprehensible presentation of your position.

I could stop right there, because that filter that kills all the anti-scientific creationist junk in my inbox obliterates 99% of what these people send me. That percentage will vary — I tend to be a magnet for the anti-evolution cranks, and your reputation may draw in other people. Also, stealth creationists exist, and they may hold back on the overt anti-science stuff, figuring there’ll be time for the radical denigration of science AFTER they’ve brought me over to Jesus or Mohammed.

I should add that the concern here is with evangelicalism, which seems to rot people’s brains from the inside out. A great many Christians and Muslims are perfectly comfortable with the compatibility of their religion with physics and geology and biology, but they aren’t the people who are driven to harass non-believers with their crank beliefs. Face it, the kind of person who bombards strangers with baloney they got from Kent Hovind or Ken Ham or the Discovery Institute isn’t rational or normal.

OK, my second tell that a correspondent is wasting our time: they quote their holy book at me. If I see a mention of the Bible or Quran, I might skim a little further…but if all they’ve got is citations to one holy book or apologists for the same, we’re done. That isn’t particularly persuasive to a non-believer who does not accept the authority of your source, but also…I teach students how to write science papers, and anyone who turned in an essay with a single source cited would fail. I expect some critical assessment of the source, validation of the interpretation from multiple authors and multiple angles. Show me some evidence for a claim outside the sacred dogma. Quoting Second Peter at me to prove that I’m a fool because I do not believe in the authority of Second Peter is not just circular, it tells me that you don’t know of a second source to back up your assertion.

You know, I was just reading an article on nondisjunction in mitotic divisions in embryonic tissue — a narrow, very specific topic that only specialists would care about. It cited 87 sources in a short 9 page paper. I don’t expect that in an informal letter, but ONE source? For a topic with much broader significance, if true? I’m going to dismiss that as pathetically thinly supported.

Related: I’ve seen scientific papers where the only citations are to the authors work, or to the work of others in their lab. Those are also not credible, just like your citation of only one holy book and the prophets and proselytizers of that one religion. Come on, show me that you’ve even considered viewpoints that disagree with you.

The third sign that I need to trash this correspondence: threats. I get so many threats. I’m going to Hell if I don’t believe. Or, alternatively, I’ll go to heaven if accept their belief. Evangelicals often don’t even realize that what they’re offering are nothing but threats and bribes to change my mind, because they’ve so thoroughly absorbed their Manichaean doctrine that they can’t imagine anything but a sharp boundary between paradise and damnation, requiring only a single step to cross it. They think they’re being kind to rescue me from a tiny misstep.

Sometimes it isn’t even a direct threat to me. Instead, the nation as a whole is in great danger because the gays or the commies or the godless liberals are taking over, and we have to support their version of god lest we are all washed away in a deluge of sin and immorality. That is an ineffective line to take with me because a) I don’t accept the concept of sin, and b) some of my best friends are sinners. I’d rather have them take over the nation than you.

The fourth approach that I find unimpressive but at least isn’t founded in hate is the recitation of miracles. The general tone is “ha ha, here’s something you can’t explain with your feeble materialist worldview, therefore God.” It never works.

First, I often CAN explain whatever phenomenon they’re talking about! It might be delusions, it might be cheap magic tricks, it might be psychological errors of perception, it might be the work of con artists. Out-of-body experiences are confabulations, demons are mental illnesses, miracle healings are spontaneous remissions, visions are the products of fevered imaginations, voices in your head are a symptom of schizophrenia. And never underestimate the possibility of con artists! As a general rule of thumb, if you cannot produce a material outcome from your miracle, I don’t have to explain it.

But secondly, there are a million phenomena I cannot explain. Science is all about asking questions and seeking answers, not about having answers for everything right now. Show me a “miracle” I can’t explain, and I’ll shrug and say I don’t know. Not knowing everything is not a flaw in my perspective, it’s the natural state of things. Maybe I’ll turn it around and ask you how you explain it, and what you have done to test your hypothesis. I know what answers I would get: “God” and “baffled look”. The leap from observing a mystery to invocation of an extraordinarily powerful invisible being is so routine that they don’t even think about the evidence for it…or the lack thereof.

Ultimately, what I am looking for is a COHERENT explanation for events, one that doesn’t rely on the whim of a deity, but does provide a testable model for how the world works. By definition, the theistic model allows anything and everything, inshallah, and doesn’t lead to a deeper understanding of the universe. To do that, we need to be skeptical, question everything, and only accept hypotheses that have passed some kind of empirical evaluation. Talk to me when miracles aren’t miracles, but are instead useful consequences of repeatable circumstances.

One last thing I really detest finding in my mailbox: mindreaders. You know the type: they tell you that everyone has a god-shaped hole in their heart, or that all humans are hardwired to seek god, and therefore they know deep-down that I actually believe in their god already. No. Humans throughout our history have been looking for explanations for phenomena in the environment — we are pattern seeking animals. If we can’t find a pattern that fits, we tend to invent one, and god is just a one-size fits all stop-gap explanation that people have stuffed into the lacunae in their understanding of the world. I’ve never found deities to be satisfying. I do find people who try to tell me what I really think to be irritating.

So, a shorter summary of the advice I’m giving to evangelists:

  1. Don’t build your case on tearing down science. I’m more sympathetic to those who see complementarity between science and faith (sympathy, but I still disagree.)
  2. Don’t use your holy book to justify your holy book. External sources are essential.

  3. Threats and bribes don’t work at all, especially when I think your Hell is imaginary and that a promise that is only going to cashed after I’m dead is not appealing.

  4. Miracles don’t impress. They’re nothing to me but mysteries that need closer examination and critical evaluation, not direct springboards to god-belief.

  5. When I say what I am, that I’m an atheist, believe me. I’ll return the favor by accepting that you actually sincerely believe in your goofy mythology.

When I tell you that you can’t use what you consider the most valuable tools in your arsenal of evangelical tactics, you’re probably feeling that I’m demanding that you disarm yourself and strip naked before you can bother me with your conversion script. Sorry not sorry. If making you uncomfortably aware of how ridiculous your arguments are prevents you from pestering me, I have acheived my goal.

Also, you know that there are a lot of Christians and Muslims who are comfortable and content in their faith and never feel the urge to annoy atheists with bad arguments, right? You can be a believer and lack a need to justify yourself with pseudoscience. Try it.

Look, here’s a bunch of people who support me on patreon, at There are a bunch more who read The transcript of this video, and the video itself, will also be posted at both places. You can feel free to comment below, or at the blog, or on patreon — you can disagree all you want. But if you try to use any of the 5 tactics I listed, know that I’ll be rolling my eyes and might even make a rude, snide comment.


  1. nomdeplume says

    “disarm yourself and strip naked” – you don’t really want to see Kent Hovind naked do you?

  2. says

    Threats and bribes don’t work at all, especially when I think your Hell is imaginary and that a promise that is only going to cashed after I’m dead is not appealing.

    Wrote some haiku about Pascal’s Wager, recently. Couple of them compared Pascal’s Wager to cryptocurrency: They both promise wild returns, but come up short in explaining how that outcome is even remotely plausible. As PZ observed, it also replaces, “Is this true?” and “Is this moral?” with a narcissistic, “What’s in it for me?”

  3. John Morales says

    They both promise wild returns, but come up short in explaining how that outcome is even remotely plausible.

    Existence proof: crypto millionaires exist.

  4. StevoR says

    When it comes to multiple sources does it help if they count the Torah / Old Testament, New Testament, Dead Sea Scrolls and Book of Moron, sorry Mormon*, all separately? Or I guess the Quran, Hadiths and Sufi poems? Different editions? ;-)

    Sorry, they do make it too easy, couldn’t resist. Does the citing the South Park version add to the count? Quantity not quality natch..

  5. Ed Peters says

    PZ. I think this is the best post you have done on this topic (people trying to convert a non-believer to a believer) that I recall in the 20+ years of reading you. It is concise, cogent and complete. And all it took on your part was distilling decades of email from the uneducated, the deranged, and the self-absorbed. Your perseverance amazes me once again. Thank you.

  6. cheerfulcharlie says

    “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”
    – Richard Feyman

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there who didn’t make a human sacrifice of their oldest son.

  8. says

    Don’t use your holy book to justify your holy book. External sources are essential.

    A discussion I’ve had about Judaism:

    Me: I’m not Jewish
    Someone else: Yes, you are, your mother is Jewish.
    Me: My mom is Jewish, but so what? I don’t have to be the same religion as my mom.
    Them: But the Talmud says that if your mother is Jewish you’re automatically Jewish.
    Me: I don’t care what the Talmud says because I’m not Jewish, so it doesn’t apply to me.
    Them: But you are Jewish because the Talmud says so!
    Me: Were you born Muslim?
    Them: No
    Me: But the Koran says everyone is born Muslim, so you were born Muslim. And you can’t ignore what the Koran says because you were born Muslim.
    Them: But the Koran doesn’t apply to me because I’m not Muslim.
    Me: Well the Talmud doesn’t apply to me because I’m not Jewish.
    Them: But you can be Jewish and atheist!
    Me: Yes, you can, but I’m not.
    Them: But the Talmud says….

    At that point I gave up.

  9. rietpluim says

    Imagine that the evangelicals would have some good evidence for their religion — then it wouldn’t be religion anymore, would it? It would be science.

  10. says

    The bottom line, if you want to convince, please recognize that assertion is not evidence. Just because someone says it’s so doesn’t make it so. Prove it with evidence and logic, or go away.

  11. beholder says

    I’m going to take a moment to save us all a lot of time and effort.

    It would sure be nice, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately the people who need this advice will never listen to it.

    If it makes you feel better, these keyboard crusaders are composing e-mails instead of violently attacking people ⸺ judging from the content of some of those e-mails, I suspect it’s either-or for a few of them. Your inbox died so that others may live.

  12. John Morales says

    If it makes you feel better, these keyboard crusaders are composing e-mails instead of violently attacking people

    Shallow thinking.

    By definition, a keyboard crusader composing e-mails instead of, else they would be an actual (rather than a keyboard) warrior.


  13. John Morales says

    (sheesh! obviously, composition is not my thing)

    “composing e-mails instead of violently attacking people” is the definition of a keyboard warrior.

  14. John Morales says

    Ah well, if people compose emails, then they must be composed.

    (Not to worry about composed people, right?)

  15. rietpluim says

    @beholder #16 – I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Violence can come in various forms. In fact, threatening with Hell is violent already.

  16. says

    183231bcb @12:
    That was painful to read. My sympathies for having to go through that experience.

    Reminded of someone who got asked if he was Protestant or Catholic.
    “I’m an atheist.”
    “But are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”

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