Epic Atheist FAIL!: An Expert’s Step-by-Step, How-to Guide

“Do you guys believe in evolution?”

–Johnny

It was supposed to be a simple, easy, pizza- and beer-filled, non-science-denying day.  Johnny, a handful of fellow atheists, and I.  We’d already indulged in some skill-based and random-chance-based video games. We’d worked up a sweat. The skin on our thumbs was wearing thin. We were now sitting down to recoup, relax, and recharge. And that’s exactly what we were gonna do. Or so I thought.

The above quote was my first red flag.  I’d met Johnny this day, and for some reason, I just assumed he and I resided in the same mental space. You know, an essential understanding of the fundamentals of the life sciences. And despite 15 years of casual debates with the religious indicating the contrary, I thought maybe, just maybe, I could sway him.  When I say “sway,” I don’t mean “de-convert.”  I learned that lesson long ago.  People tend to believe whatever they want, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.  And it crosses all subjects; politics, religion, cuisine preference.  People tend to want to hold their opinions and tend to do whatever is necessary to do so.  On this occasion, though, I thought if I just presented the right evidence in the right way, Johnny would at least learn a little.

I was wrong.

STEP I: BE IMPATIENT

Right off the bat with his question, I’d already lost my patience with Johnny.  And I wasn’t hiding it.  I wasn’t interested in the social cliches of respecting others’ opinions or keeping an open mind.  I wanted to skip straight to the main course of laying out how wrong he was and why.  But I didn’t start with that.  Oh, no.  I thought it’d be much better to…

STEP II: BE CONDESCENDING

After a little laughter on my part, I held up a knife.  “See this?” I asked sarcastically.  “Do you see it?”  To his credit, Johnny indulged me.  A smile and a nod.  “Okay, watch really closely now.  I’m about to show you something truly amazing.”

STEP III: BE CONDESCENDING WITH GRAVITY

Yes.  I did it.  I dropped the knife.  I let it hit the table with a conclusive thud.  But I wasn’t done.  “Hold on, now.  There’s more.”  I picked the knife up again and dropped it again.  “I predict,” I drove it into the dirt, “that this will happen every single time I drop the knife.”  Good one, Anton.  Use one of the most universally understood physics principles to illustrate the frustration with one of the most universally misunderstood biological principles.

“I can observe gravity, not evolution,” Johnny shot back.

BAM!  Johnny: 1.  Anton: 0.

It’s not that it was such a home run.  We all know that it wasn’t.  But Johnny’s point is true.  I can pick up a knife and drop it to conclusively demonstrate gravity.  I can’t do the same with the more common and illustrative features of evolution, like genetics.  But I didn’t let that stop me.

STEP IV: BE INSISTENT

I could’ve taken a step back.  I could’ve taken a second to calm down.  I could’ve in the very least taken a deep breath.  But I didn’t.  I’m so sick and tired of people denying evolution and for the dumbest, most ignorant reasons, that I somehow felt it would not only be necessary to simply repeat my points, but that doing so would in itself wake Johnny up to the evidence.

I pointed out the different species of finches.

“We haven’t observed them transition from one species to another or seen new species appear.”

I tried to launch into how we, in fact, had, but this was the part I’d already lost.  Because I’d spent so much time screwing up with the early steps, I’d already lost my legitimacy in his eyes.  I’d had my 15 minutes and rather than use them wisely, maybe to find some common ground from which to build, I’d just launched right into it.

But that wasn’t enough.  Not by far.

STEP V: USE GOOD EXAMPLES OF EVIDENCE ABOUT WHICH YOU’RE NOT AN EXPERT

“The blue-eye gene!”  I shouted it out as if it were the big “gotcha.”

“That’s not evolution.”

Before taking the time to chill out enough to chill out, I went back to Step IV.  Then I returned to Step V.  I floundered with the blue-eye gene, how it’d appeared more recently than the brown-eye gene.  How the blue-eye gene was recessive and the brown-eye gene was dominant.  How each of the features I was pointing out drew a very comprehensive map of human evolution over the millennia.  And I did a piss-poor job every step of the way.

Johnny was having none of it.  Laughing confidently and patronizingly at my every sentence.  I went immediately to…

STEP VI: USE GOOD MEANS OF COMPARISON OF WHICH YOUR LISTENER IS NOT AN EXPERT AND SO LOTS OF EXPLANATION IS NECESSARY

I went into linguistics.

PAUSE: While I’m not a PhD or even an MA in linguistics, I’ve studied it for most of my adult life.  What I don’t get is how properly to explain it to someone who doesn’t.

I pointed out Latin, Italian, and Spanish.  I gave one of my favorite examples, which I felt was pretty straight-forward and easy to understand.  It was essentially this:

The word for “today.”  In Old Latin, it was “hoc dies.”  In Classical Latin, it was “hodie.”  In Italian, it’s “oggi.”  In Spanish, it’s “hoy.”  What I was trying to explain was this:

  1. hoc dies –> drop the “c” and the “s.”
  2. hodie –> the “d” and the “ie” sounds merge in Italian to form the “-ggi”, leaving “oggi.”
  3. hodie –> the “d” drops out entirely and the “i” and “e” merge in Spanish, leaving “hoy.”

Over time, the first words merged along predictable patterns relative to their evolving languages, and the sounds simplified along those language rules.  The longer, clunkier expression became shorter and easier to pronounce.  It’s the linguistic version of an organism (expression) adapting to more easily facilitate survival (communication).

Johnny was having none of it.  “That’s just languages mixing with each other.”

Fuck.

Technically, he was right–to some degree.  While it’s true that cultures influence each other, especially along trade routes, it’s also true that linguistic change, like biological change, occurs independently of outside cultures.

I tried to explain this.  It was too complex. Too abstract. How do I know this?  Because Johnny kept dismissing what I was saying.  Kept interrupting me.  Kept on me, until…

STEP VII: COMPLETELY LOSE YOUR SHIT

“Let me finish my fucking sentence!”  Yes, I said it.  Yes, out loud.  Yes, to Johnny.  No, I didn’t apologize.  Yes, during the brief moment of awkward silence I finally did what I should’ve done much earlier.  I chilled out.  I took a breather.  I chose not to pursue any more evidence for a second.

During this time, Johnny brought up a further objection to evolution.  “What about theCambrian explosion?  How did so many animals suddenly emerge purely by chance?  Creation explains that.”

I really hate that suggestion.  Purely by chance.  It implies that observed forces like gravity have no impact on anything.  That the changes we observe–biological and otherwise–occur for absolutely no reason at all.  I was so glad when a friend jumped in with an explanation.  He pointed out that not only are the conditions that lend to preserved fossils rare, but also vertebrates, those animals that leave behind fossils, didn’t appear in great numbers until after the explosion.  Thus, the explosion.

I’m really glad he handled that one because had I done it, we would’ve been all the way back to Step V.

STEP VIII: GIVE UP

The rest of the day, I didn’t bother with Johnny.  Sure, we conversed, even on evolution, but I simply didn’t say anything of real import, nor did I make any substantive comments on more of his bullshit.  I kept mostly quiet and left it alone.

I was so ashamed.  Like I said before, I’ve been doing this a long time.  I knew better.  I knew what works and what doesn’t.  And yet all that, every last bit, flew right out the window.

I failed.  I tried to help someone figure out why they didn’t have to believe bullshit about evolution.  I thought if I just explained enough slowly enough with enough detail that that’d be sufficient.

NEW STEPS

Since the episode, I’ve had discussions with those who know better than I, and I’ve come up with a couple of preliminary, replacement steps.

STEP I: ESTABLISH DEFINITIONS

My first big mistake with Johnny was that I assumed we were on the same page, working with the same vocabulary. What I should’ve asked him was, “What do you mean by ‘evolution’?” Of course, I would’ve had to have asked the question with a touch of delicacy so as not to fall into my previous Step II, but the fact is that many people simply don’t know what “evolution” actually means. There’s no guarantee that Johnny would’ve later had the eureka moment I was hoping for, but at least we would’ve taken care of any possibility of basic misunderstanding.

STEP II: HAVE THEM EXPLAIN THE THEORY AND GIVE AN EXAMPLE

The funny thing about this step is it’s something I did all the time in my days as a teacher. Once I had my students define a term, I’d have them use it so they could figure out for themselves how the term applied. This is a largely self-correcting process because if there’s any discrepancy between a student’s understanding of a term and the application thereof, he tends to realize so very quickly.

STEP II: FOCUS ON PREDICTABILITY

Depending on Johnny’s hypothetical definition and example of evolution, we might’ve had to return to Steps I and II, but assuming that those had gone well, we could’ve move straight into evolution’s power of predictability.

One of the issues that us lay folk always forget is that a scientific theory can predict results of a hypothesis. That’s why scientific theories are so powerful. Properly applied, you can use them almost to see into the future. The big gotcha moment, had I desired one, would’ve happened here.

In Creationism, there’s no predictability. One can’t point to Scripture and say, “X will happen in Y population of Z animal based on Genesis 1:1.” But you can with evolution. Had I pointed out to Johnny how antibiotics and bacteria co-relate, the latter, over successive generations, evolving immunities to the former. Or how some species of finches, if raised in the absence of their mothers, will, within only a couple of generations, independently re-develop their songs. Or even how husband and wife team of Peter and Rosemary Grant have observed a new species of finch develop in the Galapagos. These facts Johnny couldn’t have denied. They would’ve been the observable evolution he’d been so keen on. And maybe, just maybe, his swaying, on which I’d been so keen, would’ve been just a little easier.

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