An interesting argument against creationists

Religious believers tend to talk in vague generalities. I have found that asking believers detailed questions is a good way of responding to their statements. I have written before of my experiences when talking with those who talk glibly of heaven. I ask them whether people eat in heaven and, if so, where the food comes from and whether there are bathrooms and sewage systems to get rid of the waste, what people do all day, and so on. They tend to find the conversation distasteful. I do the same thing with people who say that their god speaks to them. I ask them whether he spoke in English, what kind of accent he had, whether anyone else was around to hear it, and why they did not record the conversation, since having god’s voice on tape would be sensational news. It becomes quickly obvious that they have not thought through their positions, since most people give their pious statements a pass. (For an example of the resulting entertaining conversations involving heaven and evil and free will, see here, here, and here, for some of the fun I had with some Jesus people I met on the street just outside my office. One of them heard about my posts and responded in the comments.)

In the course of research for my book, I kept stumbling upon interesting articles and I found one that provided something along the same lines when responding to a popular creationist argument. Many of us have encountered religious people who insist that supporters of the theory of evolution produce so-called ‘missing links’, concrete examples of one species becoming another. Arguing with such people is hopeless because not only is the premise of their question wrong, they will reject any proffered evidence as inconclusive. This happened on this blog in February where a creationist named Gary popped up in the comments in my post about bizarre creationist apologetics proposed byWilliam Dembski.

Herbert Spencer wrote an essay titled The Development Hypothesis (a label that he uses as a synonym for evolution) that was originally published in The Leader for the March 20, 1852 issue and was reprinted in his Essays Scientific, Political & Speculative (Volume 1, Williams and Norgate: London. 1891, p. 1-7.) that provided a good response, pointing out quite accurately that “Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.”

His point was that people who say that they cannot conceive of how species can evolve seem to think that they can easily conceive how their own alternative, that every species came into being by special creation, would work. But in reality they are deluding themselves as any close questioning will verify.

Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none. Here we find, scattered over the globe, vegetable and animal organisms numbering, of the one kind (according to Humboldt), some 320,000 species, and of the other, some 2,000,000 species (see Carpenter); and if to these we add the numbers of animal and vegetable species which have become extinct, we may safely estimate the number of species that have existed, and are existing, on the Earth, at not less than ten millions. Well, which is the most rational theory about these ten millions of species? Is it most likely that there have been ten millions of special creations? or is it most likely that, by continual modifications due to change of circumstances, ten millions of varieties have been produced, as varieties are being produced still?

Doubtless many will reply that they can more easily conceive ten millions of special creations to have taken place, than they can conceive that ten millions of varieties have arisen by successive modifications. All such, however, will find, on inquiry, that they are under an illusion. This is one of the many cases in which men do not really believe, but rather believe they believe. It is not that they can truly conceive ten millions of special creations to have taken place, but that they think they can do so. Careful introspection will show them that they have never yet realized to themselves the creation of even one species. If they have formed a definite conception of the process, let them tell us how a new species is constructed, and how it makes its appearance. Is it thrown down from the clouds? or must we hold to the notion that it struggles up out of the ground? Do its limbs and viscera rush together from all the points of the compass? or must we receive the old Hebrew idea, that God takes clay and moulds a new creature? If they say that a new creature is produced in none of these modes, which are too absurd to be believed, then they are required to describe the mode in which a new creature may be produced–a mode which does not seem absurd; and such a mode they will find that they neither have conceived nor can conceive.

Should the believers in special creations consider it unfair thus to call upon them to describe how special creations take place, I reply that this is far less than they demand from the supporters of the Development Hypothesis. They are merely asked to point out a conceivable mode. On the other hand, they ask, not simply for a conceivable mode, but for the actual mode. They do not say–Show us how this may take place; but they say–Show us how this does take place. So far from its being unreasonable to put the above question, it would be reasonable to ask not only for a possible mode of special creation, but for an ascertained mode; seeing that this is no greater a demand than they make upon their opponents.

And here we may perceive how much more defensible the new doctrine is than the old one. Even could the supporters of the Development Hypothesis merely show that the origination of species by the process of modification is conceivable, they would be in a better position than their opponents. But they can do much more than this. They can show that the process of modification has effected, and is effecting, decided changes in all organisms subject to modifying influences.

Spencer is right that many people do not really believe in heaven or the afterlife or special creation or god speaking to people but believe that they believe and think that it is all clear. It is only under close questioning that things start to fall apart..

Notice that Spencer’s article was written before the theory of evolution by natural selection was proposed jointly by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in 1858 and Darwin published his major book in 1859. Ideas about evolution had been in the air for some time and gained considerable acceptance and what Darwin and Wallace did was to propose a specific mechanism for it and support it with large amounts of evidence.


  1. deepak shetty says

    I have found that asking believers detailed questions is a good way of responding to their statements.

    While I get why many believers who strongly value reason/rationality do things like counter question , I also do think some of us miss the point about what we are asking a believer to do.
    For e.g. were I to try to actively convince my spouse to give up her religious belief or plant seeds of doubt, Im also asking her to more or less severely damage her relationship with her family who are much more devout.I would never do that -- but perhaps for strangers we do not care as much for the impact of what we are doing or use the “Well, they started it!” excuse.
    Over the years, religious belief by itself(the non fundamentalist, non harmful variety) has ceased to bother me . Why do people like American football is currently higher than it.

    I also think , practically, that people need to be convinced that morality exists outside of religious belief. Most of the somewhat rational religious believers still think that their religion is what their goodness is based on and its that more than any heaven /hell nonsense that they cling onto. That is what they want to pass on to their children.

  2. screechymonkey says

    It also works for similar-but-not-necessarily-religious beliefs like ghosts. I’m curious about the details of beliefs like “my dead father is watching over me,” and the implications they carry. Does dear old dead dad watch 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or only for the highlights like your wedding and the birth of your child? If the former, then doesn’t that mean that your father is watching you shower, go to the bathroom, and have sex, and isn’t that a little creepy and disturbing? To say nothing of the sheer boredom of watching you sleep, or Netflix binge, or do housework — I don’t care how much you love someone, that does not sound like an appealing afterlife to me. If Dad only watches the highlights, then who’s doing the editing — how does he know when to turn on the TV, so to speak? — and what does he do the rest of the time?

    Are ghosts only allowed to watch their family members or loved ones, or can they spend their time checking out what the President, or Jennifer Lawrence, or the Kardashians, are doing? And if that is an absurd suggestion, why? If Dad was obsessed with U.S. politics during his lifetime, why wouldn’t he want to check out what’s going on in the halls of power now that he has the ability — and if he’s lost that desire, is he still the same person? Why does he lose his passion for politics but retain his love for his children? (Certainly some believers think people retain their love of at least some hobbies — plenty of dead relatives are supposedly enjoying the recent championship titles of the Red Sox or Cubs or whoever.)

    Of course, I never get a chance to ask those questions, because I’m aware that this kind of questioning is considered really inappropriate, especially in the context of a conversation when someone is talking about a dead relative. And I suspect that the answers wouldn’t be illuminating anyway because generally, people haven’t thought through and don’t want to think through the details; all they really want is (what they find to be) the warm fuzzy comfort of believing that dad really is at this wedding, baptism, birthday party, whatever.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    or is it most likely that, by continual modifications due to change of circumstances, ten millions of varieties have been produced, as varieties are being produced still?

    Notice that Spencer’s article was written before the theory of evolution by natural selection was proposed…

    Yes, I noticed that. Darwin/Wallace’s contribution was proposing a mechanism, that the modifications were due to natural variation in inheritance, and the “change of circumstances” lead to natural selection.

  4. OverlappingMagisteria says


    And if ghosts can watch others you can be sure that there would be all sorts of voyeuristic ghosts checking out what’s going on in the bedroom. Any reasonably attractive person is certainly being “watched over” by many ghosts while they’re in he shower.

  5. screechymonkey says

    Exactly. That’s what I was alluding to with the Jennifer Lawrence reference. Of course, I’m sure believers have some convenient answer for that, like that ghosts don’t care about that sort of thing because they no longer have gonads and sex hormones and such; of course, they don’t have a brain or oxytocin or other hormones either, yet somehow the good/pure/lofty emotions like love — and only those ones — survive.

    And for those who believe that ghosts can not only watch us, but also communicate with us and/or influence events or objects in our world, there’s a whole new set of questions. Why, according to most versions, can they only communicate in such obscure ways as giving a psychic “the letter M,” or causing the sun to shine on their child’s wedding day? Religious believers can fall back on the “God works in mysterious ways/He doesn’t want to interfere with faith by providing concrete proof” excuses (which have their own flaws and inconsistencies, of course), but why is that no dead skeptic (e.g.Harry Houdini) has managed to send back a clear message?

  6. mnb0 says

    It works for every single immaterial/ supernatural/ transcendental entity. How does it interact with our material/ natural reality? Which means does it use? Which procedures does it follow?
    I never got an answer but “We need not worry” (twice -- usually it’s crickets).

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    I have found that asking believers detailed questions is a good way of responding to their statements.

    What exactly is “good” about it? Does it make them doubt their beliefs? Does it make you feel good about your “gotchas”? The believers I’ve talked to simply believe, without the need for rationalization of their beliefs. I do wonder how James Clerk Maxwell or Abdus Salam would have responded to this kind of interrogation. I doubt it would have swayed them.

  8. says

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but that approach swayed me. Perhaps that’s because I actually expected my beliefs to be true and make sense.

  9. lanir says

    I still don’t get the “I have faith! But let me show you all this evidence supporting it.” schtick some of the religious people go for. It’s always really lousy made-up stuff or some hypothetical that’s vague and expansive enough you could stuff any sort of arbitrary nonsense in it. I suppose that’s the sort of religious person this kind of argument would work best with.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Rob @#8,

    Asking people why they believe whatever they believe and getting them to substantiate their statements is always a good way of getting people to examine their beliefs and more effective than immediately responding with your own arguments. It will not cause them to change their minds immediately (arguments never do) but it helps to plant the seeds of self-awareness for long term change. I suspect that is what happened with LykeX @#9

    It is a teaching strategy that I have used to great effect in my physics classes. When students come to me and say they cannot work a problem, instead of showing them how it is done, I ask them what they tried and why they tried it. It is surprising how just the act of articulating their ideas can result in them seeing flaws on their own, without any intervention from me. Of course, sometimes you have to provide some key insight that they have missed but then at that moment they are primed to appreciate it more because it addresses a question that they themselves raised.

  11. busterggi says

    Its’ not that believers really believe, its that they’re too terrified not to.

  12. tkreacher says

    Rob Grigjanis #8

    What exactly is “good” about it? Does it make them doubt their beliefs? Does it make you feel good about your “gotchas”?

    Does it make them doubt their beliefs? Sometimes. Does it make me feel good about my “gotchas”? Always.

    I’ve literally made unbelievers out of believers a minimum of four times, and that’s only the one’s I know of for sure because I knew them long after we’d discussed it. There are numerous other instances I suspect someone probably changed their stance after the discussions we’d had because of how the discussions ended -- but I’d never seen them again because whatever circumstances we were under changed, and I never saw them again.

    The detailed questioning about beliefs obviously wouldn’t have an effect on everyone, but four instances I’m certain of were of people who became long term friends, and part of the reason they became long term friends despite me being able to count that number on my hands is because they were rational people.

    In every instance it was questions like, “ok… yeah, yeah, but -- what *is* a soul? What is it made of? Where is it? By what mechanism does it effect a body? Ok… ok, but what’s the difference between that and any invisible intangible something-or-other that I’m making up right now? Right, ok… but why?”

    That sort of questioning on multiple parts of their belief, sometimes over the course of multiple conversations, lead to a sort of exasperated expression of thoughtfulness. Then to them reading parts of the bible we discussed, and them balking at how absurd it is when they think about it. Then, in a couple of instances, to no small amount of anger that they had been taught this shit. Then to them frequenting atheist blogs and them literally donating to orgs that work for separation of church and state.
    So your flippancy about it is kind of funny from my perspective. Two of my best friends of 10 years went from practicing Catholics to a staunch advocates for separation of church of state because of our conversations.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    tkreacher @13: What’s funny from my perspective is that, in nearly fifty years of questioning professing Christians, Muslims and Hindus about their faith, I’ve yet to meet one who ended up saying “gosh, I never thought of that!”. Of course, there may be some selection bias at play, since most people I ended up talking to about such matters tended to be fairly thoughtful to begin with. Or maybe I just suck at being a proselytizing atheist.

  14. Mano Singham says


    People do not change their views easily, let alone immediately in response to an argument. It almost always takes a long time from their initial rejection of your argument to the change in their views, and you will be unlikely to be around to see it.

    It is more helpful to look at ourselves. I have changed my views on any number of issues but I would be hard pressed to identify a single occasion that caused it. It is usually the accumulation of many small steps and each step might be imperceptible, like changing the direction of an ocean liner.

  15. tkreacher says

    Rob Grigjanis #14,

    I was thinking about it yesterday, wondering how it’s possible someone could have never run into someone who has the right mixture of logical thinking, desire to be correct, enjoyment of debate and a childhood spent in an indoctrinating bubble that has lead them to have a cognitive blind-spot in regard to their religion, since I’ve run into probably ten to a dozen.

    But I’ve thought about it and, really, when you’re talking about maybe ten or so over the course of decades, that’s very, very few. And when I consider how (to put modesty aside for the discussion) one of my strongest traits is conversational discussion/debate, and how many times I’d engaged in religious discussion in relatively friendly atmospheres, with particularly liberal-minded individuals, it may just be a matter a selection bias itself.

    It could well be I’ve had a very statistically unlikely number of such encounters. Or maybe I’m just really good at being a proselytizing atheist. Though in no instance did I set out to remove their belief -- I wanted them to make sense of it,or remove it. There is a difference.

    A side point to Mano: generally, that’s true. That it is not an instant thing, and often not in response to a single argument. But it can come basically that quickly. One of the four people I’ve considered my “best friend” was basically upended in a single, multi-hour conversation.

    It was the first time we hung out, and I considered him a funny, intelligent, thoughtful, intellectually honest person. The subject of religion came up and I was dumbfounded to discover he was a Catholic, went to mass, believed in god and all of it. Since he was such an energetic debater we entered into a very vigorous discussion.

    It was specifically the detailed oriented questions that lead to repeated moments of exasperation on his part. It kept turning into him retreating from a position until it ended with something invisible and intangible and a matter of faith. “So you believe it because you believe it?” Well…

    We broke out a bible at about 3 in the morning. He had difficulty apologizing for much of the violence and nastiness and absurdity.

    The light was coming up when he had retreated to just some sort of higher-power, but probably not the god of the bible. It was less than a day later that questions about why such an invisible-wizard-force was necessary, logically, and whether it was more likely to exist than not, that the idea was abandoned altogether.

    It was less than a week later that he was upset at his parents and church authority figures for being lied to and indoctrinated with such absurdities from childhood.

    It really was that fast, and he was embarrassed and confused how he could have never considered things in the simple, concrete ways in which we examined them. He had done so for everything else. When he was formulating other beliefs he would question the basics, look for the details, consider the logic of the political or social propositions, the effects of a thing on the real world, and the evidence that support a claim being true. But somehow he had never thought, “what do I mean when I say ‘spirit’? I mean, what exactly am I talking about when I use this word I believe applies to something that exists?”

    He’s said to me many times over the years, which a chuckle, “I thought you were such a dick the first time we met. I was like, ‘who the fuck does this guy think he is, ridiculing my religion?”

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that lightning can strike, however rarely.

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