Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale

I par­tic­u­larly re­mem­ber one scene from Bill Ma­her’s “Religu­lous”. I can’t find the ex­act quote, but I will try to sum up his ar­gu­ment as best I re­mem­ber.

Chris­ti­ans be­lieve that sin is caused by a talk­ing snake. They may have billions of be­liev­ers, thou­sands of years of tra­di­tion be­hind them, and a vast liter­a­ture of apolo­get­ics jus­tify­ing their faith—but when all is said and done, they’re adults who be­lieve in a talk­ing snake.

I have read of the ab­sur­dity heuris­tic. I know that it is not carte blanche to go around re­ject­ing be­liefs that seem silly. But I was still sym­pa­thetic to the talk­ing snake ar­gu­ment. After all...a talk­ing snake?

I changed my mind in a Cairo cafe, talk­ing to a young Mus­lim woman. I let it slip dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion that I was an athe­ist, and she seemed gen­uinely cu­ri­ous why. You’ve all prob­a­bly been in such a situ­a­tion, and you prob­a­bly know how hard it is to choose just one rea­son, but I’d been read­ing about Bibli­cal con­tra­dic­tions at the time and I men­tioned the myr­iad er­rors and atroc­i­ties and con­tra­dic­tions in all the Holy Books.

Her re­sponse? “Oh, thank good­ness it’s that. I was afraid you were one of those cra­zies who be­lieved that mon­keys trans­formed into hu­mans.”

I ad­mit­ted that um, well, maybe I sorta kinda might in fact be­lieve that.

It is hard for me to de­scribe ex­actly the look of shock on her face, but I have no doubt that her hor­ror was gen­uine. I may have been the first flesh-and-blood evolu­tion­ist she ever met. “But...” she looked at me as if I was an idiot. “Mon­keys don’t change into hu­mans. What on Earth makes you think mon­keys can change into hu­mans?”

I ad­mit­ted that the whole pro­cess was rather com­pli­cated. I sug­gested that it wasn’t ex­actly a Op­ti­mus Prime-style trans­for­ma­tion so much as a grad­ual change over eons and eons. I recom­mended a few books on evolu­tion that might ex­plain it bet­ter than I could.

She said that she re­spected me as a per­son but that quite frankly I could save my breath be­cause there was no way any book could pos­si­bly con­vince her that mon­keys have hu­man ba­bies or what­ever sort of balder­dash I was preach­ing. She ac­cused me and other evolu­tion be­liev­ers of be­ing too will­ing to ac­cept ab­sur­di­ties, mo­ti­vated by our athe­ism and our fear of the self-es­teem hit we’d take by ac­cept­ing Allah was greater than our­selves.

It is not clear to me that this woman did any­thing differ­ently than Bill Ma­her. Both heard state­ments that sounded so crazy as to not even merit fur­ther ar­gu­ment. Both rec­og­nized that there was a large group of peo­ple who found these state­ments plau­si­ble and had writ­ten ex­ten­sive liter­a­ture jus­tify­ing them. Both de­cided that the state­ments were so ab­surd as to not merit ex­am­in­ing that liter­a­ture more closely. Both came up with rea­sons why they could dis­count the large num­ber of be­liev­ers be­cause those be­liev­ers must be bi­ased.

I post this as a cau­tion­ary tale as we dis­cuss the logic or illogic of the­ism. I pro­pose tak­ing from it the fol­low­ing les­sons:

- The ab­sur­dity heuris­tic doesn’t work very well.

- Even on things that sound re­ally, re­ally ab­surd.

- If a large num­ber of in­tel­li­gent peo­ple be­lieve some­thing, it de­serves your at­ten­tion. After you’ve stud­ied it on its own terms, then you have a right to re­ject it. You could still be wrong, though.

- Even if you can think of a good rea­son why peo­ple might be bi­ased to­wards the silly idea, thus ex­plain­ing it away, your good rea­son may still be false.

- If some­one can­not ex­plain why some­thing is not stupid to you over twenty min­utes at a cafe, that doesn’t mean it’s stupid. It just means it’s com­pli­cated, or they’re not very good at ex­plain­ing things.

- There is no royal road.

(spe­cial note to those prone to fun­da­men­tal at­tri­bu­tion er­rors: I do not ac­cept the­ism. I think the­ism is wrong. I think it can be demon­strated to be wrong on log­i­cal grounds. I think the nonex­is­tence of talk­ing snakes is ev­i­dence against the­ism and can be worked into a gen­eral ar­gu­ment against the­ism. I just don’t think it’s as easy as say­ing “talk­ing snakes are silly, there­fore the­ism is false.” And I find it em­bar­rass­ing when athe­ists say things like that, and then get called on it by in­tel­li­gent re­li­gious peo­ple.)