Feb 07 2014

Questions from the Nye-Ham Debate

There has been a lot of discussion about the Bill Nye-Ken Ham creationism debate from the other night. Questions about whether or not the debate was a good idea, and who won, are probably too overwhelmed with subjectivity for there to be any definitive answer. We talked about it on the SGU this week so you can listen to the next show to hear my thoughts.

One sideshow that emerged from the debate that I do want to talk about came from journalist Matt Stopera. He reports:

I asked 22 self-identifying creationists at the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate to write a message/question/note to the other side. Here’s what they wrote.

Take a look at the 22 photos – this is not a scientific survey by any means, but probably does reveal something about what the “rank and file” creationist on the street believes. I thought it would be fun to actually answer the 22 questions, since there are likely to be many creationists out there who believe the same sorts of things.

1) Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?

This is an easy one – yes! Bill Nye is famous and loved among skeptics because he has had a huge positive influence on spreading enthusiasm for science and promoting scientific literacy. The likely implication of the question, however, is that Nye is somehow having a negative effect by being anti-religious. This is a theme that will crop up throughout the questions, looking at the world through a thick religious (specifically Christian) filter.

2) Are you scared of a divine creator?

Of course I can’t answer for Nye (although I strongly suspect what his answer would be) so I will answer for myself. Simply, no. First, I see no compelling evidence (not even remotely compelling), neither have I heard any valid arguments, for the existence of a divine creator or anything like it.

But, given that I have limited knowledge and perspective, I can’t say absolutely that one does not exist. I don’t worry about it, though, and certainly the absence of definitive knowledge is not sufficient reason to act as if this one remarkable claim were true.

Further, if something like a divine creator exists, why would an atheist fear that? Such a being would very likely not concern themselves with the details of my existence (the notion that such a being would be intimately concerned with the details of our lives seems like massive egocentric hubris). If it were, I have no fears of being judged. I cannot see how such a powerful being would fault a mere human for being logical and evidence-based. I don’t see why such a being would demand something as irrational as faith, and punish people for not being irrational.

So the question is really asking – do you, as someone who does not believe in a god, fear the existence of an inconceivably personal, petty, irrational, and even childish image of such a god? It doesn’t keep me up at nights.

3) Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings, Adam created as an adult…?

Yes, it is completely illogical, in the sense that this is a bit of ad-hoc special pleading that only serves to render the notion of creation unfalsifiable and therefore outside of the realm of science. The now common rejoinder is – God could have also made the earth 5 minutes ago but with all the fake history of 13.4 billion years, including all your fake memories.

Also, as I have pointed out before, when you think through this claim, God would not only have had to create things “mature” but with a deliberate fake history. He would have had to not only create starlight on its way to earth, but light from fake stars that never existed, that went supernova before the creation. God would have had to create an elaborate fake history.

What this is also stating is that the universe looks as if it is old and as if evolution were true – that is the scientific answer we get when we observe reality – but this reality is an elaborate deception made by an omnipotent being. We are trapped in the Matrix and can’t get out.

Of course, there is no way to distinguish (and this is the point) actual history from the perfectly fabricated history. That’s why the idea is pointless.

4) Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove evolution?

No. It does not. I have discussed this question at length before as well (it is an old canard that will just not die). The quick answer is that the earth is not a closed system but one that receives lots of energy from the sun. Life can use this energy to evolve. There is simply no thermodynamic problem.

Some creationists try to back up a step and say – well, the universe as a whole is a closed system. But that is irrelevant. Entropy is increasing in the entire universe, but that does not mean that it has to increase everywhere equally. You can have temporary local decreases in entropy if energy is being added to the system, which means that there is a larger increase in entropy elsewhere – i.e. the sun.

Creationists have their hands on a very flawed and superficial understanding of the second law which they twist, in their ignorance, to attack evolution. Their arguments have been destroyed countless times, and they have no valid response. But it is still a useful deception (apparently) for the creationist masses.

5) How do you explain a sunset if there is no God?

Planetary rotation.

6) If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?

Because they don’t. See #4

7) What about Noetics?

What about it? The Institute for Noetic Science was founded by astronaut, Edgar Mitchel. It’s dedicated to the notion of finding evidence for ESP or consciousness in the universe. They have not produced any valid evidence for ESP or anything outside of conventional science. It’s the vanity project of a celebrity. Noetics is not even valid, let alone a source of evidence that calls into question evolution.

8) Where do you derive objective meaning in life?

This is a very revealing question. First it assumes there is objective meaning, and also implies that less than objective meaning is not worthwhile. It also (in the context of this debate) is an argument from final consequences – evolution can’t be true because if it is we are just animals and there is no objective morality.

Evolution can be true regardless of the perceived moral implications. Those alleged implications are also highly problematic and rife with assumptions and poor logic. Here is a longer discussion of the topic.

I also feel this issue (which is a false issue) is used to hook believers – if you believe in evolution then you are immoral. The point is to maximize motivated reasoning against evolution, then all that is needed is some misinformation and plausible deniability.

9) If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance? 

No, by evolution. Evolution is a non-random process in that certain configurations are selected over others. A great deal of biochemical evolution took place prior to the first cell arising. There are still questions about what types of chemical evolution might have led up to the first living cells.

Also – the typical creationist misleading argument is to point to a contemporary eukaryotic cell with all its evolved complexity and then falsely argue that biologists believe such a cell arose “by chance.” This is absurd. Modern cells are the product of several billion years of evolution. The first cells were definitely much simpler, perhaps just a lipid bilayer surrounding some RNA and proteins.

By now you can see the pattern – the questions are largely either non-sequiturs, or tired old anti-evolution myths manufactured by creationists.

10) I believe in the Big Bang theory. God said it and “BANG” it happened. 

This, of course, is not a question, just a zinger. But, again, it is revealing. During the debate Ham essentially took the position that while Nye may have all of science and research on his side, Ham has the bible on his. This is the “goddidit” position. This is overtly choosing one’s religious faith over science. Adults, of course, have the right to do that, but it just admits that creationism is a religious belief. It’s not science.

11) Why do evolutionists/secularists/humanists/non-god believing people reject the idea of there being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terrestrial sources?

This is just a bit of distortion and propaganda. The answer is – we don’t. There is no evidence for any sort of top-down design in nature, alien or otherwise. The evidence all points to bottom-up evolutionary design.

12) There is no in between…the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an “official proof.” 

I am assuming that this is a clumsy framing of the – there are no transitional fossils – claim. This is a factual claim, and it is demonstrably wrong. I invite any creationist to look up the fossil evidence for themselves. It is all there, published, in museums, described on websites and textbooks, with photos and everything.

The notion that Lucy is the only (let’s be generous and say “human”) transitional fossil is just nonsense. I write about “transition denial” here and here.

Here is a list of prominent human ancestor fossils with references. That took all of 30 seconds on Google to find. These are just the best hundred or so. There are literally thousands of specimens. There are also plenty of reasonably complete skeletons that are unambiguously transitional. The same is true for many evolutionary transitions – dinosaurs to birds, land mammals to whales, reptiles to mammals, and countless others.

This claim always bothers me because of the necessary intellectual laziness. This is a demonstrably false factual claim, and the evidence is right there for anyone to see. Just take a look.

13) Does metamorphosis help support evolution? 

Why, yes. Just like many aspects of biology, the telltale signs of evolutionary history are there.

I am not exactly sure what the point of the question is, but I have heard metamorphosis brought up by creationists as an alleged counter to evolution. The claim goes something like this: a caterpillar enters a cocoon, its body turns into mush, and then a butterfly emerges. The implication being that this is such an astoundingly complex process, how could it have evolved?

This is just another version of the – how did the eye evolve, or any other complex structure.

However, the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly has to be seen in the context of all insects. Insects generally have a larval feeding stage and a mature mating stage. Maggots turn into flies, for example. The larval stage includes what are called imaginal discs that contain the cells (with the genetic information) to create the adult tissue.

Caterpillar metamorphosis is just a version of this common feature of insects. It may be an elaborate version, but it is not unique. It did not come out of nowhere. It has antecedents and relationships. In other words – it is part of an overall pattern in nature that is consistent with common descent through evolution.

14) If evolution is a theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is evolution taught as fact?

This is the “just a theory” gambit. It comes from a misunderstanding of the definition of scientific theory. A scientific theory is not a guess, and does not imply anything about certainty. It is an explanatory framework that is testable scientifically. Therefore, creationism and the Bible are not theories.

Evolution is a scientific theory, but it is also well-established beyond any reasonable scientific doubt. It is therefore also a solidly confirmed scientific fact. It not only accounts for the data we have, but it has been remarkably successful in making scientific predictions. There are also no viable competing theories.

The question is good evidence, however, of how creationism promotes scientific misunderstanding and illiteracy.

15) Because science by definition is a theory “- not testable, observable, nor repeatable” why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?

Because they result in scientifically illiterate people who can ask such questions.

The principle of charity motivates me to assume that the questioner meant “evolution” and not “science.” There is simply no way to make sense of the question as written – science is, by definition, not science?

Evolution is testable, observable, and repeatable. We can observe anatomical features of living animals and their geographic distribution. We can make predictions about what we will find when we sequence genes of different animals (and now even some fossils) and see if the patterns fit what evolution would predict. We can predict generally what kinds of fossils must exist if evolution were true, and look for them.

There are, in fact, multiple independent lines of evidence that point only to evolution. The genetic evidence by itself is an undeniable home run.

Meanwhile there is no evidence for creation or intelligent design, and these notions are not even scientific as formulated by their proponents. They are classic pseudosciences, nothing more.

16) What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?

At last, a coherent technical question. It’s still complete propaganda, but it is at least a real question.

There is plenty of evidence for processes that increase genetic information. The most basic is that of gene duplication. Sometimes, in the reproduction process, a gene, a group of genes, a segment of a chromosome, or even entire chromosomes is duplicated. Where there was one gene in the parent, there are now two genes in the offspring. This is an objective increase in genetic information.

Because there is now a redundant copy of the gene, one copy is freed from selective pressures to maintain its current job, and it is free to mutate and take on other functions. We can see from examining genes (looking at non-coding sequences, mutations, insertions, etc.) that genes also display a pattern of common descent – genes evolved from other genes.

Again, if this were such a burning question (rather than just regurgitating propaganda), it would not take much time on the internet to find fairly definite sources.

Another mechanism is viral insertions – literally inserting new genetic material into a genome. There is even evidence that sometimes these pseudogenes can mutate and become functional genes.

17) What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation?

Again, irrelevant to the question of evolution. The universe is what it is, regardless of our interests and desires. It is massively narcissistic to think that the universe is here just for us, for our salvation. It’s quite possible that we have no objective purpose, that we simply are, and we make of our lives whatever we do.

18) Why have we found only 1 “Lucy” when we have found more than 1 of everything else?

Because you are being lied to and you are believing the lies uncritically and without checking out the evidence for yourself. I linked above in #12 to a list of fossil hominids. Lucy isn’t even the only specimen of Australopithecus afarensis.

19) Can you believe in “the big bang” without “faith?”

Sure, with the caveat that within science we don’t really “believe” anything in the same sense that those with religious faith “believe.” Rather, we assess the totality of evidence and determine what the current most likely answer is that is consistent with that evidence, is best at making predictions, and is most compatible with everything else determined by science. At some point we pass a threshold where it would be (as Stephen Gould put it) “perverse to withhold provisional assent.”

There is solid evidence for the Big Bang, and at present it’s really the only theory that accounts for what we observe. There is still a great deal that is unknown – we are plumbing pretty deep into cosmology, quantum mechanics, and relativity. But that the Big Bang occurred is well-established, sufficient to accept it as the prevailing theory.

No faith is required.

20) How can you look at the world and not believe that someone created/thought of it? It’s Amazing

Of course, I look at the world and think, “how can people believe this was all just magicked into existence by some impossible being?”

In any case, our emotional gut reaction to the astounding complexity and beauty of nature is hardly an argument or a reason to accept any particular explanation.

When you follow the process of science and use logic and evidence to explore questions of the origins of nature, evolution is the answer you get. There is no controversy here.

21) Relating to the big bang theory…Where did the exploding star come from?

This question is good evidence that people need a basic education in science. Clearly the questioner hasn’t the slightest clue what the Big Bang theory actually states. It wasn’t an exploding star (I’m not even sure where that idea could possibly have come from). The Big Bang was a rapid expansion of space-time itself from a singularity. It was a quantum event. Here is a discussion from space.com.

22) If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?

The series ends with a classic. First, humans did not evolve from monkeys. Monkeys are on a different branch of the primate tree, not leading to humans. Often the question is framed as, “if we evolved from apes” or “from chimps.” We did not, however, evolve from modern apes. Apes and humans evolved from a common ancestor.

The question is the equivalent of asking – if I came from my parents, why do my parents still exist? It is rooted in ignorance of evolution.

The concept of species, while many people think of it as a concrete thing, scientifically is quite fuzzy. There is no sharp demarcation line between one species and the next. Rather, there are populations of interbreeding creatures. These populations are fluid. They can migrate, merge, divide, and intermingle.

When a population divides and becomes separated, they will drift in different directions, and may start to live under different selective pressures. Eventually they may become so divergent that they no longer share genetic material, and are separated beyond the species barrier. This is called a speciation event. Whatever these two populations eventually evolve into will share the parent population as a common ancestor.

Humans and chimps, for example, share a common ancestor they each split off from about 8 million years ago. There probably was some gene sharing for a period, but for the last 6 million years or so chimp ancestors and human ancestors were separate. Eventually they evolved into chimps and our ancestors evolved into modern humans. But chimps are as evolutionarily distant from that common ancestor as we are. That ancestor was not a chimp. It was an ape, one population of which evolved into chimps, while another evolved into humans.


Stopera states that he asked 22 people for their questions, and here they are. I don’t know for sure if he discarded some answers or if some people refused, or if there was any selection process. In any case, the distribution of questions is not surprising to someone who has been engaging with creationists over the years.

Their questions are either just a reaffirmation of their religious belief, or are based upon factual lies or distortions about evolution.

They also change remarkably little over time. Creationists are still preaching about the second law of thermodynamics, and alleged lack of transitional fossils, and that evolution is “only a theory.” It doesn’t matter how many times scientists destroy these myths. That’s the nature of propaganda.

But today we have the internet. All of these questions (the ones that actually were science questions) could be answered by investing a relatively small amount of time on the internet. You don’t even have to make a trip to the library anymore. The answers are just a few clicks away.


Note: I notice my friend, Phil Plait, had the same idea I did. Here are his answers.  If there are any other good responses online, add the links in the comments.

38 responses so far

38 Responses to “Questions from the Nye-Ham Debate”

  1. Kestrelon 07 Feb 2014 at 8:05 am

    Thanks for this, Steve. Makes me wonder if you’d ever jump into one of these debates. You’re well-versed in the tired creationist gimmicky arguments that’ve been dispelled countless times.

    To the critics of Nye’s performance, I’m not sure we watched the same debate… I thought Nye was absolutely stellar. He was upbeat (as opposed to Ham, who seemed somewhat downtrodden at times), quick to respond, and clearly a master of the facts. By contrast, Ham’s arguments almost always boiled down to arguments from authority (ie “this biologist believes X, therefore X is true”). You could play a drinking game with how many informal logical fallacies Ham commits in even his opening arguments.

    It seems the harshest criticisms really arise from missed opportunities. There were openings that Nye passed on or did not recognize. Maybe others were disappointed Nye didn’t deploy skeptic/atheist dog whistle arguments. All these would’ve been lost on the general crowd. Remember, Nye wasn’t trying to persuade the skeptics, he was speaking to the man on the street. And to that end, I’d say he was very successful.

  2. Inajiraon 07 Feb 2014 at 8:08 am

    Steve, I admire your patience, dealing with the same crap over and over again.

  3. BevansDesignon 07 Feb 2014 at 8:33 am

    I always enjoy #3, because it defines their god as deceitful and cruel. “I’ll create this universe to look a certain way so people will be led astray by science! Bwa-ha ha!”

  4. dziublaon 07 Feb 2014 at 8:47 am

    From a scientific education perspective, I think the best thing that came from the debate was the answers to the question: “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?”
    Effectively the answers were:
    Ham: Nothing
    Nye: Evidence

    These are answers that both candidates are very proud of, I am sure.

    To Ham, being unflinchingly faithful in the face of everything is a sing of religious strength. It is a sign of devotion to his belief and it is clearly a demonstration of his deep passion for his religion. I give him credit for that.
    But it isn’t science.

    To Nye, evidence is all that is needed. When one’s views are not dogmatic, it is no shame to be wrong. It is no “sin” to be shown that our views were incorrect. The glory comes from learning something new. something closer to the truth.

    This is the distinction between the two points and this is WHY creationism isn’t science.

  5. egoburnswellon 07 Feb 2014 at 8:50 am

    If people came from Africa, then why is there still Africa?

  6. inconsciouson 07 Feb 2014 at 8:51 am

    Ugh. I think the guy who did No. 8 graduated from high school with me…

    Nye did not do a good job “debating” Ham, IMHO. Several times in the “debate” Ham essentially tried to REDEFINE what science IS. He blatantly said that we cannot study anything that is not occurring in the “present” and that, to learn anything about the way way back past, we must of course defer to The Bible. Nye hardly challenged him on this and instead kept repeating some talking points over and over again: the majesty of nature; the US needs to have solid scientific education to keep up with the rest of the world. These are valid points, but completely missed the mark. Ham pulled a huge bait and switch and Nye barely called him out for it, setting up the rest of the “debate” for utter failure.

    I also think that he was too nice, but that’s his thing.

    Overall, I think that I have to side with the majority of secularist/atheist groups who thought, as soon as Nye agreed to the debate, that it was a huge mistake. It gives the like of Ham the appearance of a kind of legitimacy as well as a false equivalence of the two views presented, as if there really is some sort of controversy out there in science.

  7. Daniel Clementson 07 Feb 2014 at 9:04 am

    Ethan Seigel (Starts With A Bang) also answered the questions:

  8. Kawarthajonon 07 Feb 2014 at 10:32 am

    It is quite offensive for evolution deniers to assume that people who accept that evolution is true have no meaning in life and that they have no moral compass. I make my life meaningful by having a meaningful job, contributing to my relationship with my wife and family, by raising my children in a loving way and by volunteering in the community. Does this sound like a life without meaning? I don’t have to rely on some outdated book to give me meaning, I make my own.

    I also do not believe that I am immoral (perhaps religious people would disagree). While I am by no means perfect, I don’t need a random book to know that treating others in a respectful way and making a contribution to the community is the best thing for me to do. This whole “atheists are immoral” argument really pisses me off. Horrible things are done by both religious and athiest people. You don’t need religion to be a moral person.

  9. pdeboeron 07 Feb 2014 at 11:21 am

    “if I came from my parents, why do my parents still exist?”

    Shouldn’t that be; if I came from my parents, why does my brother/sister still exist?

  10. Hosson 07 Feb 2014 at 11:29 am

    I enjoyed watching the debate. It seems that Ham’s go to counter was – you don’t know, you weren’t there. And Ham “justifies” this statement by arbitrarily splitting science into historical and observational science.

    I have noticed a trend among fallacious belief systems. It seems to me that fallacious belief systems attempt to arbitrarily build a partition between the real world and their fallacious beliefs in order to rationalize away real world observations that contradicts the belief system.

    I’m glad the debate took place. I’m of the opinion that the net outcome will be an increase of science understanding and a decrease of biblical literalism. Yes, i think the debate probably reaffirmed the beliefs of young earth creationist. However, I also think Nye did a decent job of deconstructing biblical literalism, showing the absurdity of it’s many claims, while doing a terrific job of promoting science. Hopefully, this will have an effect of increasing biblical skepticism.

    Personally, I didn’t like some of Nye’s anecdote. I also wish he would have been able to properly address the misapplication of radiometric dating that Ham brought up, which was extremely intellectually dishonest of Ham. I’ve heard old earth creationist use similar examples at an attempt to undermine evolution. I feel it was a missed opportunity to clear up the misinformation about radiometric dating. I also wish Nye would have hit harder on the historical and observational distinction Ham made, although Nye did completely decimate it with his CSI example.

    I feel bad for the people who are locked into fallacious belief systems like this. The people who are locked in do not have the ability or the tools to free themselves from trapping of these insidious, fallacious belief systems. Many of these people can be reached and are only temporarily locked in(myself included). I just wish more people would take a stand against irrationality. Every fight against rationality should be fought because you never know when you might actually get through to someone and free them.

    Bill Nye stood up and confronted irrationality, and I commend him for that.

  11. Karl Withakayon 07 Feb 2014 at 11:34 am

    “If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?”

    “The question is the equivalent of asking – if I came from my parents, why do my parents still exist? It is rooted in ignorance of evolution.”

    I think it’s a little closer to saying, “If I descended from my cousins, why are they still around?”

    I kind of like the rejoinder, “If God made Adam our of dust, why is dust still around?”

  12. pdeboeron 07 Feb 2014 at 11:34 am

    Actually, asking “If we came from monkeys then why do monkeys still exist” would be the like asking “if I came from my brother/sister, why does my brother/sister still exist?”

    The premise of who our ancestors are is false.

  13. Bronze Dogon 07 Feb 2014 at 12:02 pm

    The Last Thursdayism bit is one I find more amusing than irritating, mostly because it amounts to an assertion that their perfectly good god is incredibly dishonest. He planted evidence to make us think that certain things happened or existed that never did. When we ask the faithful why god would do something like that, the answer is essentially that he’s trolling us for the lulz. Thinking about it, it seems to say that salvation is achieved by being in on the joke, and damnation by trusting god’s word in the form of the false evidence he anonymously planted.

    For thermodynamics, one metaphor that comes to mind is a casino:

    The first law means it’s a zero-sum game. No new chips and no destroying chips. (Conservation of energy)

    The second law means the house makes a profit. When playing against the house dealer, the odds always favor the house, so they inevitably profit in the long run. In games between players, the house takes a cut of the pot every round. “You can’t break even.” (Energy is lost to entropy)

    The third law means you can’t cash in your winnings and go home. (Unless you can figure out how to turn yourself into a perfect crystal and freeze yourself at 0K. But that would be boring.)

    These rules don’t mean that the house wins every single game. There are strategies to hedge your bets and create temporary winning streaks, but eventually the resources run out and the house takes your winnings. Life is one of those winning streaks. Evolution is where players passes down their gambling tricks and strategies in the form of DNA and some of the chips they saved up. The next generation then tries new variations and combinations of the tricks they learned from their ancestors while saving up chips for their offspring. And all the while, they’ve got other players trying to find ways to take advantage of them.

    Life is essentially running on the sun’s charity as it’s throwing “free” chips at us from the VIP parlor slightly faster than the house wins those chips from us. The sun is also steadily losing money, but it has a much larger stock of chips than little old Earth does.

    Yeah, it’s a pretty nasty picture, but we can at least have some fun while we’re losing and civilized agreements not to ruin other players’ fun.

  14. SteveAon 07 Feb 2014 at 1:50 pm

    “They also change remarkably little over time. Creationists are still preaching about the second law of thermodynamics, and alleged lack of transitional fossils, and that evolution is “only a theory.” It doesn’t matter how many times scientists destroy these myths. That’s the nature of propaganda.”

    I doubt they think that much about the science, or even care. People like Ham seem to be aware that science and reason pretty much slaughter their supposed arguments, so they try to level the playing field (in their eyes at least) by coming up with some scientifical-sounding fancification that includes words like ‘thermodynamics’ and ‘theory’ to convince their less educated brethren that the godly-folk have some of the good stuff on their side.

    Plan B is to clap hands over ears and run away shouting La-La very loudly.

    I think that the lack of change is a positive sign, it betrays a stagnant argument going nowhere. We just have to keep knocking down the pins till they eventually collapse into dust.

  15. BBBlueon 07 Feb 2014 at 2:27 pm

    I wonder what the net effect is of characterizing an image of a god as petty, irrational, and childish. I know Dr. Novella is too polite to have intended it to offend, but it’s a common point often made by others in a sort of smug, Dawkins kind of way.

    Yes, I agree, a god would have to be a real asshole if he existed and put humans through the wringer for 200K years (or even 4K) before offering salvation, but does making that point to believers encourage much rational thought on their part?

    Just curious as to what others may have experienced. When you have made that point, do you usually get a furrowed brow and a “you may be right” in response, or is that point more likely to cause believers to become angry and stop listening?

  16. The Other John Mcon 07 Feb 2014 at 2:55 pm


    In my experience…most people just aren’t interested in talking about it. Don’t care, don’t wanna hear you smash a cherished, valued, emotionally-invested belief system.

    Think of all the neural re-wiring that would have to be un-done and then re-accomplished if they had to view their entire universe in a whole new way…waaaaay too much work. Not interested.

    That’s been my experience. So I just learn to shut up about it unless asked, which course I never am.

  17. TheFlyingPigon 07 Feb 2014 at 3:50 pm


    You’re looking at the wrong time-frame. People rarely make life-changing philosophical changes to their world-view during a conversation… and the thoughts of “you may be right” likely come after the conversation, not during it.

    I’ve heard lots of deconversion stories, and I think it’s always a long process (especially if it happens as an adult). The primary influences of a person’s deconversion also vary a great deal… some people responded to mild criticisms, some to scientific data, some to flamboyantly angry arguments (eg, Hitchens).

    I’m curious… is there any data on what types of argument were the primary factors in atheists’ deconversions?

  18. sonicon 07 Feb 2014 at 4:07 pm

    In my experience characterizing god in this way can cause a listener to say- ‘why you have no idea what you are talking about.’

    When I engage in blasphemy I get two other reactions depending on how much the person likes me-
    a quick prayer for forgiveness (‘he is truly good, yet ignorant lord, we trust in your great wisdom you will grant him understanding in time…’), or a ‘you’ll go where you belong’ look and maybe a statement to that effect.

    I’m not sure those two sentiments are at odds now that I think about it. 🙂

    Anyway- that sort of thing doesn’t work very well where I live- even with the non-believers.
    (Have you no respect– we hope one day you will learn to show some respect for others…)

  19. BaSon 07 Feb 2014 at 4:09 pm

    I think this post will be very valuable in the long run. Therefore, I think it should be made as good as possible. To that end, I have some notes for you:

    “This is a theme that will crop us” us -> up

    Answer to Question 5 is way too verbose 😉

    “has to bee seen” bee -> be (although it was a funny slip since the sentence is about insects)

    “The question is the equivalent of asking – if I came from my parents, why do my parents still exist?”
    I think you get into trouble here, because your analogy is actually jumping generational lines, encouraging a retort of “my parents were the previous generation, if I evolved from them they will die before me, and not be around forever like monkeys are” or something. A closer mapping of the original question would be “If I evolved from my cousins, why do my cousins still exist?” since it accurately keeps the generational boundaries. I’m not sure there’s any fruitful way to analogize such a “not even wrong” idea though.

    Hope this helps!

  20. shchasmon 07 Feb 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Sometimes, there is just no polite way to say something that is ultimately the truth. Just as there is no poilte way to tell someone they’re going to suffer eternal hellfire for not subscribing to a particular superstition. The belief itself demands that any truthful analyses of it will be offensive.

  21. BillyJoe7on 07 Feb 2014 at 11:45 pm

    If religious people insist that their god is omnibenevolent, it would be a fine strategy to quote from the bible to show that, actually, he is a malevolent and vindictive monster. They might shrug you off, but every time they read their bible and come across one of those quotes, it will cause them a little pain…like a thorn pricking in their big toe. One day they just might decide to pull out that thorn.

    …wait, they don’t read their bibles. God damn!

  22. BillyJoe7on 08 Feb 2014 at 12:14 am

    I watched the debate last night. It was way too long. I heard all the arguments in the first half. I was actually quite impressed that Ham was able to remain calm and confident right through the nearly three hours of the debate, and that he made a pretty good show of defending the indefensible. It would have appealed to my fanatically religious adolescence. His followers would have been impressed. Nye started off reasonably well and, for a while, gathered momentum, but then became much too repetitive and squandered many opportunities. He harped on and on about his passion for science. I think we heard it the first time, confirmed it the second time, and cemented it the third time. By the fourth time it was starting to grate. Perhaps it was his strategy to drive home a few points rather than try to cover everything. But, for me, it made for a rather boring second half.

    Instead of a debate, why don’t they ever have a format where they just ask each other questions? If they give an evasive answer, follow up with a repeat question. If the answer is unclear, follow up with a clarifying question. That I think would be worth watching. In this debate’s question and answer section, whenever they did ask each other a question, it was relegated to the back room by the next question from the audience. And the audience always ask either silly questions or questions for which we already know the answers.

  23. JAMESMEARSJRon 09 Feb 2014 at 3:45 am

    “This claim always bothers me because of the necessary intellectual laziness. This is a demonstrably false factual claim, and the evidence is right there for anyone to see. Just take a look.”

    I am striving to be a skeptic and I am agnostic toward God. This comment that”evidence is right there for anyone to see” doesn’t account for common ignorance. When I look at the examples you link to I see a collection of bits and pieces that mean absolutely nothing to me. I might as well be looking at Egyptian Hieroglyphs. I am confident that evolution happened, but those human fossils, without the ability to understand how they fit together and why they are compelling, don’t tell me anything. I could easily dismiss those as evidence out of scientific illiteracy and motivated reasoning…and the literacy is not easy to develop.

  24. JAMESMEARSJRon 09 Feb 2014 at 3:45 am

    Great blog entry by the way. Really thorough and interesting.

  25. Paul C. Anagnostopouloson 09 Feb 2014 at 7:05 pm

    If we came from Africa, why is there still Africa?

    ~~ Paul

  26. ravingdesion 09 Feb 2014 at 11:48 pm

    Reading those questions, it almost seemed as if the believers were less intelligent than the average person. How can it possibly be that within 22 question “there” is misspelled twice as “their”? An average university student in Germany can write English better than that.

  27. BBBlueon 10 Feb 2014 at 1:41 am

    The Other John Mc, TheFlyingPig & sonic, thank you for your replies.

    I agree that one conversation rarely if ever leads to de-conversion, and by the same token, the same can probably be said about one debate. That’s not a knock, as I think the debate was a positive thing and worth having. To a large degree, Ham and Nye were preaching to their respective choirs, and I doubt many were swayed one way or the other, but Nye provided a useful example to those who may struggle to articulate their own skepticism to others, and for those who may be on the fence, the religiously unaffiliated, Nye’s friendly face and manner is great advertising for science and reason.

    From the 1970s through the 1990s, they argue, “religiosity and conservative politics became increasingly aligned, and abortion and gay rights became emblematic of the emergent culture wars.” The result, they write, was that many young Americans came to view religion as “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.”

    The above is from a 2012 Pew Research Center study that cited cultural, social, and economic theories as reasons for increasing numbers of “nones”. If the unaffiliated represent a wellspring of new agnostics and atheists, and if their numbers are increasing to any degree because they are rejecting something that is negative rather than being attracted to something perceived as positive, then perhaps they may reject science and reason too if it were presented as judgmental dogma. I know some who would say that’s fine, good riddance, and part of me feels the same way, but I cringe a little when certain overbearing skeptics use language that seems to say “You nitwit, can’t you see what a jerk your god is?” Regardless of whether or not that is true, maybe it is something best left unsaid if the intent is to guide more people towards the light.

  28. BillyJoe7on 10 Feb 2014 at 5:07 am


    You can’t homogenise the debate. Different people are going to approach this from different angles. That is a fact of life and you may as well get used to it. And, in the situation where there is a dearth of evidence as to which type of approach works best, it doesn’t even seem sensible to discourage certain types of approaches. Without evidence, what we have is plausibility, and you can make a plausible case for almost any type of approach. So it’s just personal bias as to which approach you think will work and which you think won’t.

    Besides, aren’t you just aching to say “You nitwit, can’t you see what a jerk your god is”. After all, it’s actually true, as evidenced by the bible itself. I mean why can’t people see that. How can people read the bible and not see that? Wake the #v<|< up already.

    (Note: I was one of these people)

  29. NNMon 10 Feb 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Just wait until they learn that science says the Earth isn’t flat… That’s going to lead to some even more interesting debates…

  30. Bronze Dogon 10 Feb 2014 at 12:31 pm

    I’m a big fan of the combined arms approach. Different people respond to different approaches, so let’s have a big, diverse community where everyone finds a style they’re good at. If someone doesn’t respond to your methods, you can still refer them to someone who uses a different approach that might be more effective. It would be worthwhile to find out which ones are the most successful overall so we can emphasize them, but we wouldn’t want to overspecialize since some people would be left out.

    I think I would have responded well to the “your god’s a jerk” approach because that’s what I was thinking when I actually started reading the Bible without the Sunday School whitewashing. It’d be kind of hard for me to dismiss people as reflexive god-haters if they use good moral reasoning to describe god’s biblical actions as immoral. But then again, I was raised in a liberal Christian household that thought of god as a secular humanist in the sky, rather than, say, a divine command theorist.

  31. sonicon 10 Feb 2014 at 1:17 pm

    One result of this ‘debate’ is that Pat Robertson has said Ham is wrong on evolution.
    I think if the point is to get a religious person to have a renewed look at evolution, that might help more than an attack on god in general.
    2 cents.

  32. jruffattoon 10 Feb 2014 at 2:00 pm

    “The series ends with a classic. First, humans did not evolve from monkeys. Monkeys are on a different branch of the primate tree, not leading to humans. Often the question is framed as, “if we evolved from apes” or “from chimps.” We did not, however, evolve from modern apes. Apes and humans evolved from a common ancestor.”

    Steve, I’d like to point out that it isn’t completely incorrect to say that humans evolved from monkeys. As you stated, we didn’t evolve from modern monkeys just like we didn’t evolve from modern apes. As the molecular phylogeny in this genomic analysis shows, the apes diverged from the old world monkeys after the old world monkeys diverged from the new world monkeys. In other words, the most recent common ancestor of all three groups is the same. The monkey clade is a paraphyletic groupparaphyletic group that excludes the apes.

    So, if you consider the most recent common ancestor of both new and old world monkeys to be a monkey, we also evolved from monkeys because we share this ancestor.

  33. BillyJoe7on 10 Feb 2014 at 10:38 pm

    ’bout what it’s worth. (;

    Those who believe in a literal interpretation are a fringe religious group.
    Mainstream religion has moved on to theistic evolution some time ago.
    Should we really be happy with that?
    A half lie?

    Or should we just tell the truth…
    …there is no god discernible anywhere.
    Surely the truth has to be the starting point.

    Here’s your two cents back (:

  34. Lukas Xavieron 11 Feb 2014 at 9:33 am

    @Bronze Dog
    “The Last Thursdayism bit is one I find more amusing than irritating, mostly because it amounts to an assertion that their perfectly good god is incredibly dishonest.”

    Yet for some reason they don’t seem to get that this is the implication. In my experience, when I’ve pointed out this fact, all I get is confused stares and a quick change of subject.

    It’s almost as if they’re just regurgitating lines that they’ve learned by rote without actually thinking about what the words mean. Who would have thought?

    “When I look at the examples you link to I see a collection of bits and pieces that mean absolutely nothing to me. I might as well be looking at Egyptian Hieroglyphs.”

    That’s part of the problem. They presume to speak on the validity of a scientific theory without having any understanding of the relevant background.

    To use your example, they act like a person who wants to be taken seriously about the validity of a translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, despite not actually knowing hieroglyphs, not having looked at the original material being translated, and not having studied any Egyptian writing, history or art at all.

    It is not unreasonable to expect people to educate themselves to the point where they can understand the relevant evidence. Actually, it’s the bare minimum if they want to participate in the discussion.

    Moreover, the relevant background is easily available. It takes a bit of spare time and maybe a library card, but that’s about it. Of course, part of the reason for the problem is that the big name apologists, like Ken Ham, actively work to keep the rank-and-file as ignorant as possible.

  35. orlando19on 12 Feb 2014 at 12:59 am

    R.e. whether to be rude or polite (BBBlue/BillyJoe7

    I certainly agree that there needs to be a range of approaches because I was snapped out of a vague belief in homeopathy by an extremely abrupt and arrogantly toned article which began, to paraphrase from memory “Homeopathy- This practice is a ridiculous, abhorrent form of quackery.”.

    I don’t think I’d have bothered to read it if it hadn’t been so provocative, because I wasn’t specially interested in homeopathy- but because the author backed up his statement with facts, it gradually changed my attitude to all unproven medical claims & alternative medicine. I simply hadn’t thought to question alternative medicines before, because so many people I knew used them- they just seemed like part of normal life.

    This lack of examination is true of some creationists, especially those who (in my experience) just aren’t particularly interested in science or origin myths, and aren’t in an extreme church.
    However, obviously just being snarky or rude without the backup is pointless.

  36. DrJoeinCAon 17 Feb 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Re#9. Where did the first “living cells” come from? Thin air?

  37. MaoJinon 27 Feb 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Hahah, I don’t know how you are able to deal with these questions so patiently Steve but I’m glad you do 😉 If only those responses could reach those who ask them…

  38. Romanon 09 May 2014 at 11:07 pm

    Asked by DrJoeinCAon 17 Feb 2014 at 2:10 pm
    “Re#9. Where did the first “living cells” come from? Thin air?”

    Primitive troll. Check google. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abiogenesis

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