My friend Josh made my day yesterday by quoting me in a forum discussion about science and religion. I have constructed a series of three questions to use in such debates (well, not so much “debates” as friendly conversations; they can be asked with a friendly tone, discussed calmly, and still discredit bad ideas). He used the first one, and Russell Glasser (of Atheist Experience fame) called it “elegant”. Thank you Russell, and I agree. I figure that if he or his people like it and want to use it, I should make proper attribution possible, and I might want to join the conversation to a degree:
- Which came first, trees or stars? It’s only six words but it captures so much. Any science-minded person (after pausing to rule out trick questions) should answer, “Stars, duh.” It’s a grab-bag for Christians though, and thus a great way of cutting through labels and seeing how individual people think. Lots of Christians don’t have an answer immediately and need to be reminded of the text of Genesis 1: on day three, God creates (among other things) trees, and on day four, God creates (among other things) stars. I picked these largely because of how little wiggle-room there is in the text: they are mentioned by name, not by something poetic like “great light to govern the day” for the sun. Also, talking about the sun invites discussion of light and photosynthesis, which I don’t think is as productive of a conversation (especially since “light” is created on day one) as where carbon comes from.
- What in the world is a firmament? This is a similar question but with a different intent. Trees coming before stars is just a problem of order, and in case the Christian defending the Bible has some funky idea about how verses are aligned poetically so as to make order irrelevant, the firmament is something that demonstrably does not exist. Pretty much everyone says “I don’t know”, so I typically follow with the (admittedly hand-wavy) hypothetical, “You know how people would respond to that question 1-3 thousand years ago? They would say, ‘Everyone knows it’s the hard shell separating the realm of the earth from the realm of the heavens.'” It’s a feature of a defunct cosmology. It’s the Bible lending explicit support to a scientific anti-fact. There is no firmament, at least as surely as we have sent probes beyond the planets of our solar system, which should definitely be on the other side of said firmament, and they didn’t hit anything hard.
- Why do we think that the Bible is perfect or whatever? Maybe “we” is not the best pronoun, but I used it while I was still a Christian but not a creationist, and I imagine that it makes the conversation more contemplative and less adversarial than using “you”. Assuming two questions is enough to establish doubt at the data level, this question should force that doubt deeper into the level of basic assumptions. The point is to ask this question when it’s already clear that there are problems, so that dodging it is emotionally harder.