"Were You There?"

“We need to ask ourselves this question: ‘Where do we put our faith and trust? In the words of scientists who don’t know everything, who were not there? Or in the Word of God — the God who does know everything — and who was there?’”

—Ken Ham, “Were You There?

I’ve been reading this stomach-turning story about young-earth creationists taking groups of children on tours of real museums, using the exhibits and displays of real science in the service of lies. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Enemies of science like Ken Ham have raised child-brainwashing to a fine art, drilling their young devotees in the art of mindlessly reciting creationist talking points:

Evangelist Ken Ham smiled at the 2,300 elementary students packed into pews, their faces rapt. With dinosaur puppets and silly cartoons, he was training them to reject much of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as a sinister tangle of lies.

“Boys and girls,” Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, “you put your hand up and you say, ‘Excuse me, were you there?’ Can you remember that?”

I have nothing but sympathy for the children whose minds are being poisoned by this evil ignorance. Sadly, many of them will grow up into adults who will carry these tactics forward to the next generation. I routinely get e-mail from creationists using the same “Were you there?” ploy, apparently thinking it’s a stumper question.

The distinction which creationists seek to create between present and past events is an artificial one that does not exist in reality. Events that happened in the past and were not directly observed can be scientifically verified. We do it the same way we scientifically verify a claim about a present event: derive testable predictions and go check whether the evidence supports them.

Here’s a simple example which I routinely use when creationists ask me this. A man claims he is innocent of murder. There were no witnesses to the crime. However, at the crime scene, we find fingerprints on the murder weapon which match that man’s fingers, genetic traces under the victim’s fingernails which match his DNA, bite marks on the body which match his teeth, and bloody bootprints which match his shoes. Is the question of this man’s guilt or innocence beyond scientific verification, just because the crime was not directly observed?

The same principle applies with evolution. We do not directly witness the past, but we can reconstruct the course of events by examining the traces they leave behind. We date rock layers using radiometric dating and other methods; embedded in those layers, we find fossils which display varying characteristics. We can relate those fossils to earlier or later fossils, as well as species living today, and observe how they have changed over time. From the hypothesis of descent with modification, we derive further predictions (such as the existence of vestigial structures, or shared molecular errors forming nested hierarchies) which we can test in living things.

There is no basis for this bizarre belief that the only way to know how something happened is to directly observe it. If anything, empirical evidence of the past is more reliable than eyewitness testimony. It is amply documented that human beings routinely exaggerate, misremember, confabulate, and lie. Physical evidence of the past is not distorted by deception, by the limits of human imagination, or by the tricks that memory plays.

The creationist argument fatally undermines itself. Creationists like Ham say that, since no human was there when the Earth was created, we can’t really know what happened and must rely on the words of God, who supposedly was there. But how do we know God was there? After all, we weren’t there! Creationists who say the Bible is infallible weren’t there to see it written, so how do they know who wrote it? How do they know it was written by someone with any knowledge of the events it relates?

What the creationist argument comes down to is that we should believe one set of claims about the past rather than another, based on nothing but their unsupported say-so. This assertion is really just the aura of infallibility in a different form.

Weekend Coffee: March 28
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://humanistdad.blogspot.com HumanistDad

    Instead of the ‘murder scene’ analogy (maybe not appropriate for young children) how about a simpler example:

    Suppose you are walking on a path in the woods when you come across a tree laying across the path. Since you ‘were not there’ when it fell, how can you verify that it did fall?

    The path came first, then the tree (clue 1). Trees grow up, not across the ground (clue 2). There is a stump very close to the end of the tree (clue 3). The stump bark looks very similar to the tree bark (clue 4), etc.

  • hb531

    This wouldn’t concern me too much if I knew without a doubt that people like Ken Ham don’t hold any credibility with policy makers. But I have my doubts…

  • An Atheist

    I can’t stand the indoctrination. I am face to face with it everyday, as are many others. When I go to work, everyone there is completely and hopelessly devoted. My sister’s two kids and another on the way, my brother is about to have his first, and worst (because I see it everyday) my step daughter who is 12. I try to foster critical thinking in her without attaching it to religion, but she really doesn’t care (understandable for her age). She has I love God, among other things, written on everything which is difficult to see because I can’t discuss it with her. When she repeats something someone has said and has no reason other than authority to believe it, I ask her simply why. The answer is always I don’t know, with a sigh that I am going to bother her again to think about what she said. Interestingly, it is the same with adults. They react identically.

  • Steve Bowen

    If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, “you put your hand up and you say, ‘Excuse me, were you there?’ Can you remember that?”

    We can only hope any teacher worth the title would answer that question along the lines of “No, but I did’nt have to be because…”. Children’s minds are malleable for good and evil, biblical indoctrination can be fought by good secular influences from elsewhere in their lives. The real fear for me is when this creationist drivel gets into school, then we have a problem.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com superhappyjen

    Creationists claims are so ridiculous that they embarrass themselves trying to invent elaborate pseudoscience to explain them. I can’t imagine why people want to turn their children into parroting idiots.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com superhappyjen

    Creationists claims are so ridiculous that they embarrass themselves trying to invent elaborate pseudoscience to explain them. I can’t imagine why people want to turn their children into parroting idiots.

  • An Atheist

    I too, would hope the teachers would respond logically. However, I think the children who would say this have been taught that “Satan” will try to trick you.

  • Paul S

    I have a 3 1/2 year old son and sometimes worry that a friend (or adult) at some point will try to indoctrinate him into believing in God. I’ve heard religious people say that a belief in a supernatural power is an innate characteristic in humans. I thought I’d try to find out if this is true or not, so one evening when finishing up dinner I told my son that we certainly had a delicious meal. He agreed and then I asked him, “Who do you think we should thank for this meal?” He said he didn’t know. I said, “Well, how did this food come to be on our table?” He said, “Mommy made it.” And I said, “Then who should we thank?” He said, “Mommy!” And then he said something that makes me believe I have a pretty smart kid. He said, “We should also thank the store for the food too.” No mention of a higher being because we have never, ever talked about such things in our house.

  • James B

    Great article. Thank you for this cut-out-and-keep refutation which I will probably have to use at some point! :)

  • Jim Coufal

    Has anyone tried asking Ham and others of his ilk, “Regarding the crucifiction and resurection, “Were you there?”


  • http://www.synapticplastic.blogspot.com InTheImageOfDNA

    I was thumbing through Ham’s “The New Answers Book” at Wal-Mart the other day and it is the height of absurdity. I’d have liked to have bought it for the laughs but I couldn’t bring myself to give money to this idiot or his publishers. It had an illustration of a baby Jesus in a manger with a dialog bubble juxtaposed with a scientist asking something to the effect of “who are you going to believe?” I burst out laughing right there!

  • Karen

    Has anyone tried asking Ham and others of his ilk, “Regarding the crucifiction and resurection, “Were you there?”

    My fellow ex-fundies may smile at this comment, because “Were You There?” will be instantly recognizable to many of them as the title of a popular gospel hymn that is often sung in churches on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. (That’s what came to my mind as soon as I saw the title of this post, in fact.)

    The lyrics ask “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and each verse progresses through the moments of the crucifixion, such as “when they hung him on the tree,” “when they laid him in the tomb,” etc. It’s a very poignant, highly emotional and mournful hymn meant to evoke Christ’s suffering.

    Of course, Christians singing it don’t see the irony of asking “were you there” when of course the rational answer is “No.” Since we are supposed to be “crucified with Christ” and made clean through his suffering, identifying strongly with the passion of Christ is required (or at least highly encouraged). The fact that no one alive today was actually there doesn’t make any difference, because of course we are supposed to have the divine record of what happened in the bible, which is infallible, and thus trumps both science and the remoteness of history.

  • goyo

    His statements are ridiculous. Who was anywhere? Hell, how can you say anything about anything or anybody, if this is all that is required to refute it.
    Ken Ham is an idiot!

  • Samuel Skinner

    Of course, if you are like me and wish to do the ass hole answer, when asked “where you there” tell them you where. And when the express incredulity make up a story involving a time machine. If they object… well, where they there?

  • Christopher

    My reply to “were you there?” – “were *you*?” Since the answer to both questions is “no,” there’s no point in taking this line of converation any further…

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar (India)

    Simply beautiful. Loved this post.

  • Mrnaglfar


    That’s brilliant! I’ll need to remember that.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Having recently posted some comments on the site of a Christian who is fond of repeating that evolution is not testable because it is a ‘historical science’ (even after I’d explained how some of the tests work!), I can inform you that the usual reply to “You weren’t there either” is “Well, at least I acknowledge my biases. You’re just being dogmatic.”

    At that point, I suggest a response based on this post by Ebonmuse (or this one of mine).

  • Ngeli

    Don’t these guys realize that this can be _reversed_ so easy that it isn’t even funny?

    “Jesus died for our sins!” – “Were you there?”
    “Adam committed the ultimate sin which is the reason why we do not live in paradise anymore” – “were you there?”
    Or even: “God created the universe” – “were you there?”

    Geelith, giving this argument to sons and daughters of creationists is like giving them loaded guns.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.ocom yunshui

    This is priceless. I love watching creationists tie themselves in logical knots trying to “disprove” evolution.

    This is such an easy argument to refute that I think we should encourage it. As Ngeli points out, it’s a sword that cuts both ways – hopefully some young, enquiring minds will see be able to recognise this and start asking the same question of Mr Ham and his ilk.

    Creationists – shooting themselves in the foot since 1859!

  • http://stargazers-observatory.blogspot.com/ Stargazer1323


    It’s sad that the irony of their use of the word “dogmatic” to describe science is probably completely lost on them.

    We can all agree that none of us were there to witness the beginning of the universe. However, Christians are taking the word of desert nomads who lived thousands of years ago as the truth about how the world was created, while scientists are constantly observing the world as we see it now, forming ideas as to what that says about its origins, testing them, and revising as necessary when new information contradicts old ideas. And they say that science is dogmatic?! *ARG!*

    This is one of the most frustrating things about people like Ken Ham’s understanding of science. At its core (and if you are going to lump every scientific discipline under the blanket word “science,” you better be talking about its core), science is no more than testing our observations about how the world works. Without humanity’s inherent ability to make observations about the world, test them, and revise our actions and decisions based on the outcomes of those tests, we would have never survived to be the dominant species on this planet. I have occasionally hypothesized, though I am no anthropologist or historian, that many of the teachings of religions started out as a shortcut to pass on people’s observed ideas about the natural world without everyone having to go out and test them for themselves. Unfortunately, by turning observations into religious beliefs, it placed those ideas in stasis, never to be questioned or changed.

    This is the impasse I see now between science and religion. Religion still believes that it can make claims about the way the world works, but they don’t want to do the observation and testing because it may contradict their beliefs, many of which are nothing more than observations based on incomplete knowledge, and all science wants to do is continue on with humanity’s great work of understanding the world we live in, because we have finally created a discipline in which the observation can be done and the knowledge can be exchanged, but it does not have to be written down as dogma in order for non-scientists to understand and accept it as the best information we have about our world today.

  • Polly

    “Were you there?”

    Polly: Yes. Prove me wrong if you don’t believe me.

  • Polly

    …but you can’t use logic or evidence.

  • Samuel Skinner

    For saying yes to “where you there”, I am reminded of Overboard- “Remember Charlie- a good lie has details.”

    So for those who want to go all the way, or simply have to much time on their hands here is a list:
    1) Sound sincere. Alot of people judge things on how sincere their proponents sound (see UFOs). Practice if you need to keep from laughing.
    2) Falsibility. Remember to keep in mind science about our past, but add in so unknown details. For example if you say you went back 4 billion years mention you neeeded to wear a space suit due to the lack of oxygen and ozone. Mention other basic details about the planet that are known, but make up everyting for the specific period. If caught you can point out you aren’t a professional classifier or that “the scientists are wrong”.
    3) ALways remember you are lying. Don’t get to caught up- you might unintentionaly contradict yourself. Or make an idiot of yourself.
    4) Give limitations on the time machine if they ask (there is only one and I had to send it back to the future, you can’t bring anything back (conservation of mass), it can’t go to the future, etc). If you are particulary creul tell them it is in your garage, you just need to “clear it out”. Would they like to help? If they are gullible enough you can tremendously speed up spring cleaning.
    5) Get a confederate. A lie seems more convincing with each person endorsing it. Try for someone who isn’t obviously connected to you.
    6) Don’t go over board. If you managed to start a new cult/pseudoscience… well, lets try to avoid that.

  • LindaJoy

    Another way to counter Ham’s arguments is to point out that many pagan civilizations surrounding the Jews of the Old Testament had creation stories and flood stories exactly like those he touts long before the Jews picked them up. The Egyptians and the Babylonians, etc. etc. So when he is touting these stories as absolute truth, he is evangelizing for pagans! I have been reading Will Durant’s History of Civilization, and have been discovering that the all of the major themes of Christianity, from the Garden to the Resurrection have all been borrowed. There is nothing original about Christianity at all!

  • Jeremy

    There is a kind of seduction in the pronouncements of prophets. I desire to know the truth about the origins of our galaxy as much as anyone, so the prophets say, “The minds of secular man can only speculate about the truth, but I know the truth because I receive it directly from god(s).”

    In effect, Ken Ham is manipulating the human desire to know the truth. The appeal of “divinely revealed truth” as opposed to the “tentative” truth of scientists is difficult for people to turn away from. My heart breaks for those children being indoctrinated into this, for I was one of them. On the bright side, however, that makes me living proof that all is not lost for the indoctrinated.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The idealist in me is outraged over the manipulation of these children; the cynic in me cheers this on, for it gives my son a priceless leg-up.

  • 2-D Man

    Again, I am reminded of a song. I should have noticed this earlier. Again it is Streetlight Manifesto, this time with their song “Down, Down, Down to Mephisto’s Café”. The lyric goes:

    “Way back when the prophecies began,
    Do you think they really had a master plan -
    Or were they merely writing fable stories?”

  • KShep

    It’s kind of odd, to say the least, to see a religious nut teach basic critical thinking skills but here it is in all it’s glory.


    We can only hope any teacher worth the title would answer that question along the lines of “No, but I did’nt have to be because…”.

    You are correct here, and with that in mind, I think there is a strong possibility that this tactic will eventually backfire on Ham and all his thoughtless followers. He’s teaching these kids how to think critically, after all, and one day the kids just might decide to use those critical thinking skills.

    It seems better than just teaching kids to be mindless followers, like their parents already are.

  • goyo

    KShep: You’re right. Two years ago, I was teaching high school in a predominately upper-middle class school district. There was, and still is, a high percentage of christian kids attending, (morning prayer breakfast/worship service, rally ’round the pole events, witnessing, etc…), and I was pleasantly surprised to see an anti-christian movement among many of the youth. It was everything from satanists, paganists, and out-right atheists. I was popular, as I had told them I was a free-thinker when they had asked questions about me.
    Most young people are smart and curious, especially now with the technology they have access to, and they are realizing that science just doesn’t match up with the things they are being told in church.

  • Steve Bowen

    This BBC radio 4 documentary is another sad example of the way fundies will indoctrinate and exploite their kids. Scary!

  • David Beber

    Has anyone read the Conservapedia article on atheism which discusses the issues of atheism/creationism/evolution/science? I am referring to this article: http://www.conservapedia.com/Atheism

  • Marey Cohen

    Read part of the conservapedia article. It left a bad taste in my mouth. It doesn’t really address the claim of no god but considers atheists as arrogant and having bad relationships with their fathers. also the tactic of these famous persons used to be atheists but they’re now theists (ex Anthony Flew converted because of ‘intelligent design’). They can’t see their own arrogance. How dare we question them!

  • Samuel Skinner

    I know. I tried to sign on and change it, but they set it in stone. The site isn’t a wiki! They lied!