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.