The slippery arguments of religious people

Maybe I am getting old and cranky but I must say that my patience is wearing thin with religious fundamentalists and the shifty way they argue.

Recently I had an extended email exchange with someone (let’s call him Henry) from Sri Lanka whom I did not know before but who had heard about my switch to atheism from an old friend of mine. My friend is a religious fundamentalist member of a charismatic church with a sweet and gentle nature of whom I am very fond. For her sake, I showed more patience and spent more time responding to Henry than I would with a total stranger.

Henry clearly wanted to try and persuade me to change my mind and show me that his belief in god was based on science and reason. He wanted to argue that so-called ‘intelligent design’ (ID) and its associated ‘specified complexity’ were arguments for the existence of god. I have, of course, heard all these arguments before and they are nothing but the tired old ‘god of the gaps’, where people look for things that science has not explained yet or things that seem highly improbable, and insert god as an ad hoc solution. It is Paley’s watch repeated yet again. It seems like this same argument gets resurrected repeatedly, the only ‘new’ features being that they keep looking for new gaps as the old gaps get explained by science. It is quite extraordinary how believers can never come up with actual evidence but are very imaginative when it comes to inventing new metaphors to say the same old thing.

Usually at some point in such discussions I ask such people what they believe because religious people like to keep things vague so that when you corner them on one point, they will say, “Oh, but I don’t really believe that.” It is usually a good strategy to ask them right at the beginning what things in the Bible (or whatever their holy book is) they think are true. I usually do this early in the conversation but did not do so with Henry because he sounded like he was a sophisticated religious apologist who took almost everything in the Bible as a metaphor.

At some point in the ensuing correspondence, I began to suspect that I was mistaken and asked him flat out about specific beliefs. It turns out that Henry believes in the historicity of the Bible such as the stories of Adam and Eve, that Jesus was born of a virgin and was resurrected from the dead, and so on. At that point I told Henry that the discussion was over, that anyone who believed in such absurdities had essentially abandoned science and there was no use having a discussion about science with him.

Henry could not seem to understand my point. He kept saying that what he believed about Adam and Eve etc., was immaterial to whether ID was true or not. He could not see that what he believes about god is relevant to whether or not it is worth arguing the matter with him. He would have been right if his other beliefs were about cooking or films or politics. But the question of whether Adam and Eve and the resurrection are historical events is very relevant to the question of whether his version of god exists.

It seems to me that one can have a reasonable discussion with someone only if the parties share certain premises within which the debate can proceed. In discussions on science, one has to value evidence, the rules of logic, and accept the basic laws of science. If one is willing to accept all the ridiculous other things that Henry believes in, then one is saying that one is willing to jettison science whenever it contradicts your particular dogma and are using it only when and where you think it suits your purpose. As an analogy, when scientists discuss superconductivity, they use quantum mechanics as a basic framework of analysis. There is no point discussing superconductivity with someone who rejects quantum mechanics as not being valid.

I have seen Henry’s kind of argumentation before. It is the same ‘wedge strategy‘ that the ID people used in their attempt to foist god on us. Their idea was that if you can find some narrow, esoteric, isolated phenomenon and argue that god must have acted there, then therefore god exists. Once you have established that beachhead, then since god is a Magic Man who can do anything, you can believe any nonsense you want because god could have done it.

This is the opposite of how we think and argue in any other area, science or otherwise. If there are huge and glaring contradictions with a theory that stare us in the face, then we need to address and solve those before we even think of applying that theory to some esoteric event. It would be like using quantum mechanics in a highly technical field like superconductivity when it does not explain basic things like atomic structure. The reason that we nowadays use quantum mechanics to explore highly esoteric and difficult areas of knowledge is because it has been able to successfully address more straightforward problems. If it had failed to do so, we would have abandoned it long ago. Similarly, the reason that Newton’s laws of motion and gravity were taken seriously was because they enabled us to successfully address the major problem of the motion of the planets in the solar system. Over time, as the theory’s ability to successfully address problems became apparent and confidence in it rose, it was used to investigate more esoteric problems.

This is why when people tell me that they believe in Adam and Eve and the resurrection and all that kind of stuff, I insist that they provide evidence to reconcile those with science before I will even bother to discuss things like ID. Of course, the only way they can explain such events is by postulating a Magic Man who can do anything. Once they say their Magic Man can create complete human beings out of nothing and even raise people from the dead, then it becomes pointless to discuss ID because creating a bacterial flagellum would be a piece of cake for their Magic Man.

The greatest success of the new/unapologetic atheism movement has been in making reason and evidence and compatibility with modern science the measure of whether any idea is worth taking seriously. People may not realize what a huge shift this is. This has made it embarrassing for people who believe their religious myths. What people like Henry try to do is to shift attention away from their embarrassing and obviously implausible anti-science beliefs like Adam and Eve and the resurrection to what they think sounds intellectually plausible. They try to limit the debate to a very narrow spectrum of knowledge where they think science does not obviously contradict their pre-determined religious beliefs.

The new atheists are having none of that. If you want to debate the existence of god, be prepared to defend the full spectrum of your beliefs about god, not just the ones you think are defensible.


  1. henry says

    FYI -- I’m not THAT Henry.

    When I encounter someone who argues for ID I usually take this approach. I’m not sure it is a logical argument but it makes sense to me.

    This morning I used the bathroom. I do this nearly every day. The fact that I have to eliminate waste is pretty good evidence to me that there is no intelligent designer.

    A intelligent designer would have made animals who did not need to eliminate waste. We would have been made with the ability to process any food stuff we eat. In fact, an intelligent designer would have made animals solar powered. No need to eat at all. Why would an intelligent creator (the most intelligent I dare say) create such a complex system like the digestive system.

    Why not just create solar powered humans?

    Usually at this point an ID advocate will start talking about how animal waste is needed as fertilizer for plants.

    But an intelligent designer would have made plants solar powered too! No need for fertilizer at all!

    I think when you look at the ID thing on a basic ground level its easy to see how absurd it is.

  2. says

    Hi Henry,

    I should have used another name so as not to confuse my correspondent with you! I am not sure why that name came to my mind, other than the fact that the first letters are the same.

  3. Jared A says


    I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic with “an intelligent designer would have made plants solar powered too!” bit. Because. You know… photosynthesis. I hope I’m not being that asshole who ruins a joke by spelling it out.


  4. peter lafond says

    Photo synthesis is an elegant self perpeturating action. There is no waste, no superflous activity. Pavey’s problem is that a watchmaker also acts so as to reduce needless structures, scientists do that with examinations of theroy. The problem that Newton and Darwin dealt was a personal one. They knew that the old Formal and Final causes were erased by what they discovered and codified. I think the only old cause left was material and perhaps efficent cause- and those beliefs lasted 2000 years. But i digress
    When you look at the human body it is one inefficent thing- just look up how T4 is made in the body then get back to me

  5. says

    Actually, it doesn’t really matter whether we make sarcastic or serious statements about photosynthesis. The fact remains that it is a sustainable solar powered process provided by nature. Even though it would required the used of technology, humans should make more effort to emulate it whenever and wherever it is possible.

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