Which Questions Stump Atheists?

A simple question for you all:

When you’re discussing faith with religious people, which of their questions do you always have a hard time answering?


  • RHawk68

    “What do you do with that extra 10% of you income that you don’t tithe?”

    It’s always hard to answer that without laughing… :)

  • http://brokenocean.wordpress.com Nick_O

    It’s not usually religious people that stump me, but agnostics. And it isn’t so much that they “stump” me as much as my trying to mentally weed through their rhetoric. (“Impossible to know,” “can’t know,” etc. as if certainty is a requirement.)

  • http://thecrashiscoming.blogspot.com XauriEL

    There’s not a lot of questions I have ‘trouble’ with. What I have trouble with is in situations where I say ‘I don’t know’ the answer to a question, and they act like they have some source of knowledge beyond perception and reason that has given them the answer.

  • http://t3knomanser.livejournal.com t3knomanser

    @Nick_O: I usually point out that pretty much all agnostics are atheists. There are a handful of agnostics that are theists.

    Theism:Atheism::Red:Not Red.

    All people that aren’t theists are atheists.

    I hate Internet Agnostics, who are usually religious apologists, but “don’t personally believe”. There’s this idea that agnosticism is a culturally acceptable middle ground, but it isn’t the middle of anything. It’s a statement of certainty- the root word is “gnosis”- knowledge.

  • TXatheist

    Can you prove that god doesn’t exist? You have to back track so much on that one to even get them to the starting point of explaining why that’s not going to happen it’s sometimes very enduring.

  • http://www.europeanalliance.blogspot.com Thorum

    I have 2 I get:

    Why are a so smug and arrogant?

    Prove God doesn’t exist.

    Very irritating!!

  • Shawn

    It’s not the Agnostics that are difficult to deal with (or the theists come to think of it). The “nobody knows” argument is fine, mostly because, regardless of the likelihood or probability, we actually don’t know.

    The problem is the ‘spiritual’ people. At least with a bible bashing cristian or muslim or hindu it’s easy to point out the plethora of problems with the things they base their religion on.

    How do you argue with the ‘spirituals’ who really base what they believe on nothing. It’s a ‘feeling’. There’s no questionable logic, no problematic evidence, no book, no history, no story, just a ‘feeling’.

    It leaves me speechless.

  • lamb

    My sister once asked me if I believe that we have souls. I just kind of looked at her and said “Define ‘soul.’” Then SHE was stumped and the conversation was dropped. :)

  • Eric

    Basically anything that’s more than one inferential step becomes a hassle. Most versions of theism contain beliefs which are either (a) 1-2 inferential steps from basic beliefs (even if the steps are false steps), or (b) ingrained at such a young age that all the necessary steps were taken a long long time ago. In contrast, the basic principles behind a rationalism that leads to atheism, as other commenters have noted, involves many inferential steps about ideas like certainty or proof, among many other things. So to most theists, the beliefs of theism seem “obvious” and atheists are idiots for thinking otherwise, and the beliefs of atheism are not obvious and atheists are crazy for believing them.

  • http://personman.com danny

    Any conversation that depends on them having some background knowledge and honest curiosity. Sorry, I can’t educate you on humanist morality or biological evolution when you refuse to do any reading on the subject.

  • Chad

    The hardest times I have often stem from the inability for some people to accept that there are other valid viewpoints out in the world. I’ve had a number of conversations with theists who get flabbergasted and breathlessly spew off baseless assumptions (How can you be good without God? Where did we come from? You’re just doing this because you’re a sinner, and so on)

    The hard part isn’t the answering of these individual claims. It’s getting the conversation to a point where you’re actually talking about and responding to each claim without the theist ignoring each one and jumping to the next assumption.

    It’s like trying to coax Ray Comfort out of a tree while avoiding the constant barrage of bananas.

  • Tyro

    The only way to be stumped, tricked or encounter difficult questions is if you’ve committed yourself to conclusions which can’t be supported by the evidence.

    Frankly, I can’t think of a single question which stumps me. Not one.

    Yes, there are things I don’t know and there are questions I can’t answer but that’s because I don’t know everything. On these issues I don’t even pretend to have a position. I’m happy to say “I don’t know” and will often do some research to find answers. If I learn something which contradicts views I expressed earlier, I change my views. Problem resolved, no stumping.

  • http://www.rationalitynow.com Dan Gilbert

    I’m with XauriEL. Any time I don’t have a pat answer for some claim a theist makes, whether it’s some obscure argument against evolution or some theistic statement that is pure spiritual gibberish, it’s a bit aggravating because of their “ah HA!” reaction.

    However, the one that usually comes up that I HAVE an answer for (but is equally frustrating) is just the basic definition of “atheist” versus “agnostic.” The common misconception is that an atheist claims there is no god while an agnostic is unsure whether there is. I admit, I used to think that, too. It’s amazing what a little self-education can do. ;-)

    I had a Catholic woman (who is as close to a nun as you can get without being one) telling me that someone who doubts is a nontheist and someone who makes an absolute claim is an atheist… which I found a bit absurd.

  • Siamang

    The hard part isn’t the answering of these individual claims. It’s getting the conversation to a point where you’re actually talking about and responding to each claim without the theist ignoring each one and jumping to the next assumption.

    This.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,
    if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

  • Chris Carlson

    I think the hardest part for me is trying not to offend people I respect by directly countermanding their beliefs. “Why don’t you believe in God?” is a good example of a question where I have a hard time answering non-offensively. “Well, I just don’t think it’s reasona…Fuck.” “I don’t believe in fairies eith…Shit.” I’m pretty sarcastic in general, but I try to treat people with religion with kid gloves so I’m not labeled an “angry atheist.” Basically, I strive to be like Hemant, but have a hard time doing it.

  • http://makarios-makarios.blogspot.com makarios

    Or you can just make something up. To my comment that the concept of caring for the needy en mass i.e. early hospitals didn’t exist until the early Church led one atheist to tell me that thousands of atheist and pagan hospitals existed before Christianity.

  • SarahH

    The hard part isn’t the answering of these individual claims. It’s getting the conversation to a point where you’re actually talking about and responding to each claim without the theist ignoring each one and jumping to the next assumption.

    Word. Trying to keep a discussion going when the other participant is dancing around like they have extremely convenient ADD is incredibly frustrating. It’s a tactic that “stumps” me, and it does so by frustrating me so much that I give up.

  • Jen

    Questions about evolution. I like reading science blogs and listening to podcasts, but I am not a scientist. And I have found that most of the time, anti-evolution claims take moments to make and hours to refute. I don’t know all those answers, but I try. Still, its a lot easier to say “there are all those missing links” than to explain what missing links mean, and how they aren’t really missing.

  • littlejohn

    I sometimes get “What do you base your morals on?” or “How do avoid ethical relativism?”
    I can answer these questions, of course, but the answers are long-winded and complicated.
    So I have taken to giving this answer (which borrows from Dawkins, I think): “Is your religion the only thing that stops you from killing, robbing and raping? If that’s the case, I think people should keep a close eye on you.”

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Iason Ouabache

    “What caused the Big Bang?”

    I honestly don’t know my physics enough to properly explain that time didn’t exist before the Big Bang and no one is 100% sure what started the whole thing. It’s extremely frustrating when they then shove their particular concept of god into that gap.

  • K

    I don’t have discussions of faith with anyone. I’ve never understood the point. Sure, people have tried, but I got hobbies. Besides, I usually never get past the pointing and laughing stage once they say something that tickles my funny bone.

  • Jeff Satterley

    However, the one that usually comes up that I HAVE an answer for (but is equally frustrating) is just the basic definition of “atheist” versus “agnostic.”

    I agree. In fact, any time a theist has an ingrained assumption that makes their question wrong from the get-go is difficult. It is difficult to correct them without sounding like you’re trying to side-step the question. In reality, the question starts with an incorrect premise, and thus can’t just be answered directly.

    The atheist/agnostic distinction is a good example, because I always get the “Well how do you know?” questions. When I try to explain that their definition of ‘atheist’ is mistaken, many of them assume I’m trying to wriggle away from the question, as if they’re the first person to think of this and stump me with it.

  • http://www.noonespecial.ca/cacophony Tao Jones

    It’s not their questions that stump me, it’s trying to form an answer that will make sense to them.

    Questions on morality are usually lost in translation between “moral absolutist speak” to relativism and back to absolutism.

    Also, questions about “knowledge” as mentioned earlier often require an understanding of epistemology.

  • http://labkatblog@.com Lab Kat

    I sometimes get “What do you base your morals on?” or “How do avoid ethical relativism?” I can answer these questions, of course, but the answers are long-winded and complicated. So I have taken to giving this answer (which borrows from Dawkins, I think): “Is your religion the only thing that stops you from killing, robbing and raping? If that’s the case, I think people should keep a close eye on you.”

    littlejohn… I’m memorizing your response. Thank you.

  • Keruso

    There’s no actual “stumper” but a stalemate occurs ever so often when attempting to question why believers are convinced of the inherent veracity of their religious beliefs, even when confronted by non-believers who use reason & evidence to posit material and natural answers. It is because faith doesn’t play by those rules, rules of logic, reason and evidence. Forget the fanciful inventions of theologians and apologists, faith is rarely if ever questioned, believers see faith as an emotional yearning, an essential and innocuous behaviour. I suppose the tough question is “Why do I still believe” when faced with evidence to the contrary.

  • Sean

    It’s more of a statement than a question, but whenever they say “He died for your sins!”, my brain is always too shocked by the stupidity to come up with a witty response. “Uhh…no he didn’t?”

    How do others here handle that little gem of wisdom?

  • http:/www.lyvvielimelight.blogspot.com Lyvvie

    I was stumped by the creationist – my first encounter with one – claiming that carbon dating wasn’t accurate. And I was like “what are you talking about, it’s completely valid.” and they said they’d picked up shells from the beach or had stuff from the 1950′s carbon dated and the dates came back as 3000 years old. I didn’t know how to reply to that and faltered. Still stunned that this person, who I’d been friends with for months, was telling me the Earth was only 6000 years old. I’d never heard such lunacy before.

    Now I know that when I come up against something like that, I have to say I don’t know but I’ll look into it and come back later. A respectful debate break I’d extend to anyone I was debating.

    Carbon dating denialism stumped me.

  • AnonyMouse

    Answer #1: What sins?
    Answer #2: Do you really think I haven’t heard that before?

    The only thing that has come close to stumping me was, “Well, the church you went to had it wrong. That isn’t how Christianity works.” It is so tempting to believe that and convert to a more liberal sect, but then I remember: my mother used to say the same thing to me about other churches. I have no reliable way of determining which church is right.

    But the question that really annoys me: “Well, if you don’t believe in God, how do you explain animals with irreducibly complex features?/how do you explain all the missing links?” Nearly every Christian seems to assume that if they can disprove evolutionary theory, I will magically start believing in their god. Since I am not an evolutionary biologist, I am not as qualified to answer these questions as, say, Richard Dawkins, and end up having to make something up or try to dredge up the few things I remember.

  • http://www.cvaas.org R.C. Moore

    Questions that tautologies, because if someone can’t see tautologies, they are not going to be able understand your answer.

    “If there is no Creator, then how was everything created?” (Creation implies a creator, but by definition a Creator is someone who creates)

    “How can the Bible not be the word of God it the prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled by the New Testament?” (The Old Testament contains prophecies, because things happened in the New Testament that created prophecies of things said in the Old Testament).

    “How can you be good if there is no God to define what good is?” (God defines good, and we apply it to God to prove he is good).

  • http://blog.myspace.com/johnpritzlaff John Pritzlaff

    When you’re discussing faith with religious people, which of their questions do you always have a hard time answering?

    That is the only question that stumps me, because honestly, I don’t remember a theist ever stumping me. As someone said above, if you value evidence and only give your convictions a degree of certainty that the evidence warrants, it’s hard to be stumped.

    I do wish we could encounter something new and challenging more often when debating religious people, but that’s not normally what happens. I do hope it does though.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    Non sequiturs always stump me.

    Me: Morning, good weekend?
    Loony: I prayed that Jesus would tell me what his plans were for me?
    Me: WTF?

  • CatBallou

    “How can you break my heart like this??”
    But I mostly just get this from my mother.

  • http://www.aperfectfool.com Codswallop

    I seldom get actual questions from theists. Since they tend towards absolutism in their knowledge claims, they often feel they already know the important stuff, so why ask the atheist? A typical question from such a person is merely rhetorical, just a thinly veiled statement intended to draw the unwary respondent into a discussion about his “relationship with the Lord.” And that never stumps me.

  • Thilina

    Never had too many questions that’s stumped me. I’m more than happy to say i don’t know or I’ll have to look that up. But i have had some annoying questions.

    “How can you be sure?” is definitely annoying.
    But by far the most annoying is the spirituality questions and arguments that they base on mountains of assumptions and speculation. They take a lot of time to explain and most of the time they refuse to acknowledge their assumptions are assumptions.

  • Max

    How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,
    if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

    A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could chuck if only a woodchuck could chuck wood.

  • http://idahoev.com IdahoEv

    More a statement than a question. I was talking about my Ph.D. research in astrobiology and the probability of life on other worlds.

    And this woman said:

    “I do believe there was life on other worlds! But they gave it up! So that Jesus could create us here on Earth!”

    I didn’t think I would be able to bridge the gap in that conversation, so I simply shut up at that point.

  • http://idahoev.com IdahoEv

    To answer the question more specifically, I generally come upon problems where I can’t give an answer not because I don’t know it but because I don’t think I can get it across to the other person. Either because we don’t share a common lexicon or they just don’t have the background to understand extensive arguments in epistemology, evolutionary biology, physics, etc.

    For example, “well, what caused the Big Bang then?”. The short answer is “we don’t know”, but the more correct answer involves the fact that causality is probably meaningless with respect to the big bang. Because causality is measured against time, and time is discontinuous at the Big Bang. “Before the big bang” is a meaningless phrase, insofar as we know.

    But that’s a very hard concept to get across to someone who hasn’t already gotten used to the fact that physics is not comprehensible from a “common sense” standpoint. Our brains just aren’t built to grasp it.

  • Todd

    The one that gets me is, “How do you find meaning in life without God?”

    And I don’t need religious people to get tripped up on it, I do it all by myself. It doesn’t help when fellow atheists seem to have solved the problem themselves. I can’t be the only one who teeters on the brink of pure nihilistic despair.

    On the other hand, when I was religious I struggled with the meaninglessness of Calvinistic predetermination, so I guess I’m screwed no matter what I believe.

  • NeuroLover

    You’re not screwed and certainly not alone, Todd. I know many other atheists who “teeter on the brink” of nihilism at least occasionally.

  • http://jewmanist.com Rose

    I have the hardest time when discussing god with deists or reform theists. That is to say, its harder to for me to reply to vague assertions of an enigmatic higher power than to the strict Abrahamic version of god.

    ie, someone asks about “a force out there”, all I can say is “why bother with that” or “what’s the difference?” (or something to that effect).

  • http://naturalpond.blogspot.com village1diot

    Do you BELIEVE God does not exist?

    Trying to make the person who asks that question realize that I can’t answer it is, to them, saying I dont know what I believe.

    I try to ask a similar question to them…
    Do you believe the coin in my pocket does not exist?

    You can’t answer that with any certainty until you can see if the coin is in the pocket. The question presupposes and they just don’t get it.

    Very hard to explain.

  • http://millennialthoughts.wordpress.com/ Christine

    I think a problem that seems to be cropping up is the fact that religion has easy (though false) answers, and science has complex (and verifiably true) answers. Majority of atheists are not scientists, and probably have amateur-level knowledge of evolution, cosmology, etc. So when theists ask “Well, what’s your explanation for how we got here?”, it’s a lot easier for atheists to get tripped up because we don’t know off the top of our heads. I mean, I know the answers are available, but hell, I haven’t memorized every facet of the theory of evolution. It’s a bit much to ask, but we’re expected to be walking encylopedias in order to defend our non-faith.

    I’d suggest telling these kind of theists to go do some research on their own, but I know a waste of time when I see it. (And many of the ones who might do the research will probably just conclude that the science is wrong.)

  • medussa

    I read a lot of science books, and have a a little bit of a science background, so I can debate most of the issues that come up, IF the theists are willing to actually have a give and take, as others have pointed out.

    But for some reason, I can’t get a handle on the question “if evolution is a fact, why is it called the THEORY of evolution?” I usually point out that gravity is also “only” a theory, but that we know it’s exists, but in reality I’m just buying time, trying to remember the many smart texts I’ve read and that have addressed this. Sometimes I change tactics at this point and explain that questioning the validity of evolution by no means proves the existence of god, but again, I’m avoiding the real issue.

    Part of the problem is that the answer needs to be packaged as a soundbite, quick and to the point, because a longer answer loses my debate partners’ attention.

    Any helpful tips?

  • nick

    i think we all could eat a piece of humble pie. don’t you agree?

    Questions that i get stumped on in a debate are usually moral questions.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com Sabio

    A few years ago, http://www.edge.org (a pro-naturalist science site) asked the question “What do you believe that you can’t prove.”

    I’d like to see atheists answer that one honestly !

  • Carl

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

    “Explain consciousness.”

    Not that I think religious people have any better answers to these questions; they’re just mysteries (for now, anyway).

  • Todd

    “What do you believe that you can’t prove.”

    I’d like to see atheists answer that one honestly.

    The Cubs will win the World Series. Okay, it’s not looking good right now, but THIS IS THEIR YEAR!!!

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com efrique

    Any question where I can tell as I start to speak that they’re not actually listening to the meaning of the answer at all — which means there’s an ulterior motive to the question.

    I’m never sure whether to stop mid-word, turn on my heel and walk the other way, or blather on anyway and hope some of it sinks in somewhere. Either option is unsatisfying.

  • Reuben

    Todd. No comment in this section resonates more with my experience than your own.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    “What do you believe that you can’t prove.”

    I’d like to see atheists answer that one honestly !

    Um, pretty much everything, other than mathematical theorems. Perhaps you mean “What do you believe without evidence?” That strikes me as a more interesting question.

  • http://naturalpond.blogspot.com village1diot

    “A few years ago, http://www.edge.org (a pro-naturalist science site) asked the question “What do you believe that you can’t prove.”

    I’d like to see atheists answer that one honestly !”
    _______________

    Proof is subjective. What I call proof, might be inadequate to you. And different beliefs may require more evidence than other beliefs. If you say your name is “Tom”, I would believe you, but I can’t prove it. Some things matter more than others.

    I believe the sun will rise tomorrow, but I can’t prove it. But based on experience, I can assume it to be true. When it comes to God, there is NOTHING(proof, experience, or otherwise) that would lead me to believe there is any God(s).

  • Tom

    I find that theists often play games with questions. They’re not really asking something they want to know the answer to, they’re asking you something that they think they can use the answer to in some kind of trap to “prove” that you actually believe in god, or that what you’re saying is false. They’re not trying to have an honest argument with you, they’re wasting your time trying to lead you on to play some stupid mind game with you.

    So, I don’t play their game, I make them play mine. They ask me to prove there is no god… I refuse, and demand that they prove there is one. I point out that I am merely observing and as there is no evidence for the existence of god, I have no reason to believe, so it’s their job to demonstrate that this magical being they believe in actually exists, and is not a grown up version of an imaginary playmate. They get very indignant about this, but I’m quite insistent. It’s not my job to prove there is no god, it’s their job (or this alleged god’s job) to prove there is.

    They demand I prove evolution… I tell them to do their own homework, go read a biology book or talk to a biologist. They whine at me about it, and I point out that I got A’s in high school science class, and the fact that they don’t understand the basics of the most fundamental theory of all contemporary biological science tells me only that they didn’t read the textbook, and it’s not my problem to correct the deficiencies of their education. If they want to understand evolution, it’s their job to go learn about it, not my job to teach it to them. As they clearly don’t understand it, they’re not qualified to try to claim to me that it’s false.

    If I’m feeling generous, I offer to refer them to a nice WGBH documentary on the topic, which they can watch online.

    They start trying to claim to me that there’s all sorts of scientific proof of god but the godless atheist libruls run all the media and won’t let the evidence get published… I glare at them like they’re a two year old claiming that all the cookies just vanished on their own, and tell them very calmly that that’s utter bullshit, I know plenty of respectable scientists who publish in major scientific journals who would be ECSTATIC to publish proof of existence of a god, and explain that I’m not stupid enough to believe that there’s all kinds of such evidence laying around unpublished, so please stop trying to insult me in this manner.

    I call shenanigans on all similar such claims of miracles, or of science being entirely untrue, etc. I tell them straight up that they’re full of it and that such arguments are going nowhere with me.

    They whine “but if you don’t believe in god, then life has no meaning!” and expect me to put up some big argument about the meaning of life that they can sneer condescendingly at. Instead of arguing I tell them that’s right, life has no meaning, it doesn’t have to, but I’m planning on living it anyway. They don’t know how to cope with that.

    They whine “but if you don’t believe in god, then morals are all subjective!” and expect me to argue. I point out that that’s right, morals are all subjective, and that’s not my problem. They don’t know how to cope with that either. And if they start up with the bs about how atheists can all just go kill and rape because we don’t have a god to stop us… I stare them straight in the eyes and point out that they’re calling me a rapist murderer, and wouldn’t they like to take that back?

    The key is, don’t play their game, don’t let them run the show, don’t let them try to play with your head, don’t let them try to position themselves as the authority who is condescending to demonstrate to you the error of your ways. When they start up with you, make it clear that you have nothing to prove, it’s their job to prove their religion, and you’re not going to take their bullshit. Throw them off their script, force them to have to think about what to say because you’re not giving the expected responses, and keep them out of their element. They’ll get pissed off at you, they’ll probably storm out sooner or later, but they won’t have wasted your time and you’ll have dramatically incrased the chance that they actually thought about it for a change, instead of just parroting their memorized BS at you.

  • Stephan Goodwin

    A few years ago, http://www.edge.org (a pro-naturalist science site) asked the question “What do you believe that you can’t prove.”

    I’d like to see atheists answer that one honestly !”

    1. There is life somewhere else in the universe.
    2. Humans have free will.
    3. What I call ‘crazy conservatives’ actually do have their best intentions in mind when they do crazy things.
    4. There is no inherent meaning to life other than that which we give it.

    While I can not prove these things, they are highly probable and can either be proven (1 and 3) or disproven (2 and 4) with enough knowledge and study. If any of them are disproven or become highly improbable I will abandon them.

  • Julie

    I am always stumped when they bring in the Big Bang and conservation of energy stuff, because I have always been terrible at physics. I guess I’d say, I’m not sure, so I won’t make something like God up to fill in the blanks.

    “What do you believe that you can’t prove.”

    I’d like to see atheists answer that one honestly !

    Well, pretty much everything that influences my daily life. I am not an -ologist; proofs are basically out of my reach. However if you meant irrational beliefs that completely lack evidence, well… I can sometimes be absurdly superstitious about sports (college football, NBA playoffs).

  • Joe

    Would you agree that evolution is a theory and not fact? What facts do you base your beliefs.How do you know carbon dating is accurate? I find your conclusions just as puzzling as the religious.

  • Barker

    Sean,
    For a response to “He died for your sins!”, how about “And on the third day he reneged.” At least it points out that dying isn’t much of a sacrifice for someone who can’t die.

  • Tony

    How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,
    if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

    How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could Chuck Norris?

    All of it….

    I’m not easily stumped by these things which is nice because they are always framed in order to stump. As pointed out by others there isn’t a genuine interest in your answers, just a means of trying to twist your words and claim some sort of shallow rhetorical victory.

    But for some reason, I can’t get a handle on the question “if evolution is a fact, why is it called the THEORY of evolution?” I usually point out that gravity is also “only” a theory, but that we know it’s exists, but in reality I’m just buying time, trying to remember the many smart texts I’ve read and that have addressed this. Sometimes I change tactics at this point and explain that questioning the validity of evolution by no means proves the existence of god, but again, I’m avoiding the real issue.

    Answer: A scientific theory is an explanation of observed phenomena which has been tested successfully against repeated observations. If the observations match the predictions of the theory then the theory is better supported. If they do not then the theory is modified to better account for the new observations. If the new observations point to a better explanation then the theory is discarded. A scientific theory is not just a wild guess, as the vernacular definition would suggest.

  • Tony

    Also of note, some religious people might labour under the misconception that a scientific theory is lower in the heirarchy of reliability than a scientific law. This too is fallacious, and is based on the misunderstanding of what a scientific law is. Essentially a law is the mathematics behind the mechanism of the theory. Which is why we have a law of gravity, and also a theory of gravity. The theory of gravity is that all matter is attracted to other matter via weak forces and that this force increases through increased mass. The law of gravity calculates the forces involved based on the masses involved.

    Hopefully that helps.

  • Stephan Goodwin

    Also of note, some religious people might labour under the misconception that a scientific theory is lower in the heirarchy of reliability than a scientific law. This too is fallacious, and is based on the misunderstanding of what a scientific law is. Essentially a law is the mathematics behind the mechanism of the theory. Which is why we have a law of gravity, and also a theory of gravity. The theory of gravity is that all matter is attracted to other matter via weak forces and that this force increases through increased mass. The law of gravity calculates the forces involved based on the masses involved.

    Hopefully that helps.

    In addition to that, I would add that from my experiences in the sciences laws are generally limited in scope (as in this is true when…) whereas theories try for broader definitions. The law of gravity, for instance, only applies outside of relativistic velocities and above quantum sizes. The theory of gravitation has to account for the law of gravity and those events that fall outside of the law’s scope. The mathematics of the law are then altered for the new scope according to the theory.

    This may be poorly worded as I’m doing this and working at the same time, maybe someone can clarify it more. Or just disagree with me on this one…wouldn’t be the first time.

  • Tony

    I won’t argue as I am certainly not a physicist!

  • Stephan Goodwin

    I won’t argue as I am certainly not a physicist!

    Nor am I. I am a biologist. However, I’ve had to deal with the hypothesis/theory/law issue a lot when talking and teaching about evolution. It just appears to me that what we learn in middle school doesn’t really apply in the modern sciences anymore.

    It came up when I was teaching how natural selection is a law, not a theory. Given a large enough popuation size, and given differential fitness, there MUST be natural selection. It is simply a function of mathematics, and therefore a law. However, we observe populations that don’t always have both of these, and the theory of evolution, along with other laws, explain what happens in these situations.

  • Mike Mixer

    The one that always makes my teeth grind is the ones that ask if I have been raising my children in faith so they will be saved. Then they mutter under their breath if I don’t answer.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    “What do you think is the central message of Christianity/the Bible?”

    I can’t answer this, because no matter what I say, they will end up disagreeing with my answer. Because in my experience, there are lots of different answers. I think it’s an unfair question, like asking me what I think their favorite color is, just so they can tell me that I’m wrong. So I don’t answer at all. I think this makes it sound like I’m waffling, or like I have no clue.

  • MakeTheMostOfLife

    I find the hardest and most impossible questions to answer are against people who quote the Bible as historical fact, backed by historians.

    It can just go on and on and on….. Nothing you can say can get close to making a case against this. No matter what you say, you can’t use logic and reason, as they believe that is along with utter fact, is what they have on their side.

  • http://www.pricebonus.com/ PB

    I won’t argue as I am certainly not a physicist!

  • Stephan Goodwin

    “What do you think is the central message of Christianity/the Bible?”

    I can’t answer this, because no matter what I say, they will end up disagreeing with my answer. Because in my experience, there are lots of different answers. I think it’s an unfair question, like asking me what I think their favorite color is, just so they can tell me that I’m wrong. So I don’t answer at all. I think this makes it sound like I’m waffling, or like I have no clue.

    I think I’d have to answer “There isn’t one, it is a compilation of many different books with contradictory messages.” At which point, the Christian will get annoyed and claim there are no such contradictions, just our misunderstandings, and then you are on another completely pointless topic.

    However, I think “there is no central message” is the most accurate answer.

  • T Rav

    I don’t like questions like “What about all the prophecies that have been fullfilled in the Bible!”.
    Mainly because it is so hard to explain that so many of these “prophecies” are after the fact. Still many others are so vague they are more like eventualities. Educated guess work at best! I also mention how other holy books also contain “prophecies” such as the Holy Quran and the Purana Vedas.
    There are some however which I need to do research on in order to accurately respond to. Such as when a Christian brings up specific prophecies. One of the best of which I believe is in Daniel (or Ezekial?) about how Alexander the Great would come and sack Tyre, or something… Then all the “prophecies” about Israel…

    I know it’s all bull spunk, but I don’t have the patience to go through each claimed prophecy and try to debunk them. Has anyone already done it? Any web sites which have an exhaustive list of how the biblical prophecies are bull?

  • jamboh

    When faced with a theist who jumps all over the place firing off non-related questions, I often stop and ask him or her “Are we having a discussion or an interrogation?”
    They always say “discussion” which I then define as a 2-way conversation with the a mutual exchange of views and ultimate aim of persuading the other person to your point of view.
    At that point I list the types of evidence which would make my view flip to theirs, e.g. rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian, a miraculous documented cure of an amputee (as opposed to cancer patients going into a temporary remission, etc), a god/angel/cherubim actually appearing, etc.
    I then ask what would make them tear up their particular book of fairy tales and am met with “Even if you showed me absolute proof, I would still believe in God/Ganesh/Mithras/etc”.
    I then inform them that they are not really seeking a discussion, Instead they want me to commit my valuable time to a one-way proselytization session in which anything I say which contradicts their view, no matting how rooted in fact and logic, will be ignored.
    “In that case, why should I waste my time talking to you?” is followed by my literally turning my back on them.
    I recommend this technique if you want to see a theist lose it big time!!

  • Dylan Armitage

    For me, it’s not so much the questions as just the justifications they produce in order to deny certain things.

    One time, I was told the typical statement of “we have never observed evolution.” To that, I provided a link to the article about the one scientist growing cultures of E. coli, where one batch developed a significant mutation that allowed it to use citrate as an energy source. He asked if it had a different genome because of this, to which I said that of course it did. He countered, saying basically that because it did not evolve into a dog, or cat, or even HPV that it had the same genome and did not evolve.

    I have no idea how he passed biology.

    And then saying that all the water in our solar system is because of the water leaving Earth after the flood!

    I have pages of him saying stuff like that.

  • Indigo

    The one that I get, which is difficult to answer because it seems to come from genuinely well-meaning but puzzled individuals who just have trouble “getting it”, is “Isn’t your life meaningless without some kind of spiritual belief? How do you not collapse in despair without it?”
    Not because I don’t have an answer, but because it’s difficult to communicate where that answer comes from to someone who is already struggling to see my point of view. For one thing, it’s a bit like trying to explain to someone who carries a teddybear around constantly and derives most of their comfort from it that you just don’t really need a teddybear of your own. You just…don’t. What they find totally essential to their well-being, you just find extraneous. Very warm and fuzzy and all, no doubt, but unnecessary.
    The other is that a great deal of what I feel for meaning of life is based on the fact that the universe is just simply an amazing, fascinating place and that I am beyond fortunate to be alive and conscious in it whether there’s a god or not. It’s not really a logical, concise train of thought, it’s just an intense inner feeling of wonder, mostly one that sneaks up on me while lying on a beach by the ocean at night or hiking through a forest or listening to a thunderstorm. Many other atheists I’ve met express similar feelings. I have just as much trouble grasping that some people *don’t* think the evolution of life in a cosmos so huge our minds can’t grasp it all is the most astonishing thing EVER, as they do in understanding that I can be happy and enthusiastic about life thinking that I wasn’t created by a guiding intelligence.

  • http://users.livejournal.com/_53/ Marcus

    I don’t get stumped, honestly. I get exasperated sometimes, but not stumped.

  • franz dibbler

    I’m rarely stumped by a questioning theist but like many here it is easy to get exasperated by some of the standard AiG arguments. Once they get to Pascal’s Wager the conversation is pretty much over.

    What if you told the theist that your “meaning” of your life was to debunk religion.

  • llewelly

    There’s this idea that agnosticism is a culturally acceptable middle ground, but it isn’t the middle of anything. It’s a statement of certainty- the root word is “gnosis”- knowledge.

    That’s like saying ‘atheist’ is a statement of belief in god because the root word is ‘theist’. It’s a ridiculous assertion. The ‘a’ in agnostic means the agnostic lacks knowledge. (This does mean that applying Occam’s Razor makes an agnostic also an atheist.)

    (I agree with your complaint that certain vocal internet agnostics are annoying apologists. But that doesn’t mean ‘agnostic’ is a ‘statement of certainty’. )

  • llewelly

    What stumps me is people who won’t listen to any explanation that requires more than fifteen words.

  • georgie

    I don’t really get stumped but I get fed up or amused by the silliness of their questions and or answers. I have had theists ask me when discussing evolution or the universe if I believe everything I read. Well I can never answer that because I’m laughing too hard. Which I probably shouldn’t do, it’s not nice to laugh at people. But that is a question that shows me I have just seriously wasted my time even discussing it with that person in the first place.

    sorry if this posts twice

  • Tony

    It’s more of a statement than a question, but whenever they say “He died for your sins!”, my brain is always too shocked by the stupidity to come up with a witty response. “Uhh…no he didn’t?”

    How do others here handle that little gem of wisdom?

    You could just say “Oh that was really nice of him. I just wish he had asked me first though, I’d have told him not to bother…”

  • anonymouse

    I think the biggest one is proving big bang/lack of a god or some other thing. I just say that science is humble enough to not jump to conclusions, and science says “this is the best we’ve got so far”. It’s really not up to me to prove that ANYTHING doesn’t exist. How could I? I can’t even prove unicorns don’t exist, truly. They don’t. That’s accepted widely as fact. But still I can’t PROVE they don’t exist.

    It’s up to them to prove that god exists if they are the ones living and judging according to that standard/belief system and want to argue about it. It’s all very circular.

  • J Myers

    Joe, you have posted a comment on a blog, so presumably you are aware of the internet. It can answer all of your silly, silly questions.

    T Rav,

    One of the best of which I believe is in Daniel (or Ezekial?) about how Alexander the Great would come and sack Tyre, or something…

    Actually, this one rather sucks. I’m sure you can find some comprehensive prophecy-debunking sites with a few internet searches.

    llewelly,

    But that doesn’t mean ‘agnostic’ is a ’statement of certainty’.

    I think this may have been but a bit of sloppy writing on t3knomanser’s part; I suspect he was trying to convey that agnosticism is a statement regarding certainty–namely, that it is lacking.

  • http://none Kriss the Sexy Atheist

    When watching the awesome theist non theist debates, one side will say Hitler was Catholic and the other will say he was not. Which is it? W.L. Craig says that the NT is the best primary source of the accounts of JC. I thought that the current bible was written and rewritten over and over again. Which is it? How do you shut down the god in the gaps theory. Anyone can talk for minutes about evolution, but all “one of them” has to do is insert god in the beginning or at the end of said pontificating. Then there is first cause, or even “the cause”. We can talk all we want about biology, but then all the theist has to say is, “Well, who or what is the cause in the first place.” No one can possibly know all the anwsers from all the sciences, so what should we do when the believer gives the non answer of god. Coolio. Out. Thanks

    Kriss

  • Tony

    When watching the awesome theist non theist debates, one side will say Hitler was Catholic and the other will say he was not. Which is it?

    Hitler was nominally Roman Catholic, but was certainly not devout or practising by the time he came to power. Having said that for someone who purportedly did not believe in god he sure spent a lot of time talking about how he believed in god! Furthermore the crimes of the Nazis were carried out principally by christian Germans so this nonsense about “Hitler the atheist kills people therefore atheism is dangerous” is exactly that. Nonsense.

    W.L. Craig says that the NT is the best primary source of the accounts of JC. I thought that the current bible was written and rewritten over and over again. Which is it?

    The new testament of the bible was assembled from various writings at the council of Nicaea under the Emperor Constantine after christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, principally as a means of controlling what was a dangerous cult. Knowing this means that we cannot hold the gospels to be a reliable account because if anything they suggested ran contrary to the official line of the Empire they would not be included. Secular sources are notoriously silent on the subject.

    How do you shut down the god in the gaps theory. Anyone can talk for minutes about evolution, but all “one of them” has to do is insert god in the beginning or at the end of said pontificating. Then there is first cause, or even “the cause”. We can talk all we want about biology, but then all the theist has to say is, “Well, who or what is the cause in the first place.” No one can possibly know all the anwsers from all the sciences, so what should we do when the believer gives the non answer of god.

    It begs the question “If everything has a cause, what caused god?”. Of course the answer is that god doesn’t have a cause because… hey, it’s god! So to that I would suggest we simply say “The Big Bang didn’t have a cause then. No need for god! Simple!”

  • J Myers

    The new testament of the bible was assembled from various writings at the council of Nicaea…

    This is not true, though it is a common misconception. See the “Canonization” section here.

  • http://picklepumpers.com Miture Binesderti

    I think our whole problem is we are trying to think of how to logically discuss and debate ideas with the religious.

    It’s that simple. They are not logical or rational and no amount of those will fill a hole dug by willful ignorance. They KNOW they are wrong but they just can’t bring themselves to admit it because no one likes to admit they are wrong… and how do you admit you are wrong about the most important (imaginary) thing in the whole universe?

    You can’t rationalize the irrational. So just be nice to the dicks and don’t let them bully you and don’t let them push you around. The answer if you don’t know is always, “I don’t know but I’m willing to learn in a scientifice, objective maner. But I’m not going to mindlessly follow a bood written by people who would worship a laptop if they saw one.”

  • http://civic.bev.net/atheistsnrv/index.html John B Hodges

    When I debated with believers, I would refuse to spend time on Evolution or the basic existence/non-existence question. I would say, “Look, let’s cut to the chase. It’s Yahveh in particular you want me to believe in, right? You aren’t trying to get me to believe in Poseidon or Ganesh or Isis. But all we know about Yahveh is what we read in the Old Testament, and from what we see there Yahveh is an evil character. He is a mass killer, slave trader, bandit leader, baby killer, and he collects foreskins as trophies of war. He unnecessarily punishes the innocent for things they did not do. He gives many pages of detailed instruction on the correct way to perform animal sacrifice, and all the many occasions on which animal sacrifice is required. He strikes me as a very unlikely Creator of the Universe; If he exists I’d say it’s more likely he is a local demon who gains power from bloodletting.

    If the conversation is specifically about Jesus, I say the bottom line of the entire Bible is the instructions Jesus gives about how to get into Heaven, and I point out all the stuff he says in Matthew, Mark, and Luke about following the Law of Moses down to the last iota, leaving your family, selling all your possessions, giving all your wealth to the poor, practicing strict nonviolent pacifism, abstaining from all sin even in your thoughts, and even cutting off body parts that tempt you to sin, like, make yourself a eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake. Jesus says in many places in all four gospels that to enter Heaven you have to actually DO all the things that Jesus commands his followers to do. Most Christians have never heard of this, and it stuns them, and they go away. See http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/JesusEthics.htm


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