Ask Richard: Atheist Wants to Convince His Mother About Evolution January 15, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Wants to Convince His Mother About Evolution

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Dear Richard,

I was hoping to get your advice on how to warm a parent up to the idea of evolution being true and readily observable. My mother seems to be wholly against evolution for reasons that even she doesn’t seem to understand. When ever I ask her what’s wrong with evolution, she says something to the extent of “I never paid much attention in science class, so I couldn’t tell you” or (her apparent favorite) “it’s just wrong.” And she seems to mean wrong as in evil, although the wrong as in incorrect is likely implied also.

So, my main question, is how best to get her to come around to the idea. Oddly, despite my own ever-rapidly growing sense of outspoken atheism, I couldn’t really picture my mother without her faith. Honestly, at this point I don’t think our family could survive it, and it’s already too late for her to really de-convert. Mostly, I just want her to have a better understanding of the world around her.

I doubt she would read Dawkins, and I hesitate to give something like “Thank God for Evolution” because people like Kent Ham have made me wary of anyone trying to marry science and religion. Have you heard anything about this book? Should I even consider this, or just try something relatively obscure, like “Why Evolution is True”? Again, I think anything fueled by someone such as Dawkins would simply put her off. So I’m looking either to meet her half way at religion, or find someone unknown or secular enough that she wouldn’t feel self- conscious reading the book.

Sorry if this sounded like something of a ramble. Thanks for any help you can offer.

Sincerely, Mike

Dear Mike,

You’re unquestionably a very intelligent and perceptive person. I think the first thing to do is to focus that perceptiveness on yourself. Before wondering what books to show her, ask yourself why is this so important to you.

When taking any kind of action, we should always be crystal-clearly aware of our motives. Far more important than knowing how we are going to do something is knowing why we are going to do it. In this, we must be scrupulously, arduously honest with ourselves. This is often where we gloss over, concentrating instead only on the execution of our actions. Not knowing the correct “how” can result in failure, but not knowing the correct “why” can be much worse, causing a lot of hurt to others and in the worst cases bringing us guilt, regret, humiliation, disgrace, and grief.

Some of the worst things are done by people who thought they had a good motive, but hadn’t really taken a long, close look at it. Succeeding at something that was done for the wrong reasons can end up being a sad outcome.

I have explained how evolution works in lay terms to lay people many times. It usually takes about fifteen minutes. But those people wanted to hear about it, talk about it and think about it. It is a waste of time and breath to try with those who don’t want it.

Both of your mother’s replies that you have quoted make it very plain that she does not want to hear about it, talk about it or think about it. But you think there is something more important that must override her desire to be left alone about it. What?

Is she a public school biology teacher pushing creationism on her students? Are you hoping for a loan from her to finance your college education in paleontology?

If she was curious but skeptical, or if she was interested but had misconceptions, or if she was expressing a desire to find a way to reconcile her faith with this scientific theory, then she would be supplying the reason why you should proceed. But she is clearly indicating the opposite of those things.

You say that you think your family could not survive without their faith. Then why are you pressing something that might begin to unravel their faith?

You say that it’s already too late for her to really de-convert. Do you wish you could de-convert her? Without her expressing any interest, curiosity or willingness for such a prospect? If yes, why?

You say that you just want her to have a better understanding of the world around her. Will she be better able to do what she does in the world around her if she understands genetic mutation, natural selection and deep time?

Consider carefully what she might gain and lose, and what you might gain and lose. Would this be more for her, or more for yourself?

I’m not going to offer my own guesses for the answers to these questions. I avidly avoid telling people about their inner selves. That’s their task. These questions are not rhetorical; I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m saying know intimately why you want to. I’m asking these questions because the answers are not obvious to me. If they are obvious to you, be sure that they are obvious because of careful introspection rather than “obvious” from having not given it much thought.

Mike, you or others might think that I’m being hard on you by asking these pointed questions, but please understand that my respect and caring for you are high. I look closely at my own motives too. My motive here is to help you balance your intelligence with wisdom. While intelligence is often about how we should do something, wisdom is often about whether or not we should do something. Understanding why we want to do it often answers the question of whether or not we should.


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  • Doesn’t look like that problem Mike has to deal with is that his mother is against evolution – she seems to be against possessing the knowledge in the first place.

    I know this might be dangerous – but maybe get her into Intelligent Design. Then pick holes in it.

    Of course, “why bother?” seems like a reasonable option too. Unlike religion, evolution doesn’t care how many people believe it.

  • If the aim for the moment is to persuade someone about evolution, not try to use that as a means to deconversion, then perhaps the best method would be to offer the person a book that presents the evidence for evolution in a way that is (1) not hostile to faith, and (2) specifically debunks young-earth creationist and intelligent design claims. The best book of this sort that I know of is Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God. Francisco Ayala’s Darwin’s Gift is also good.

  • My parents and my sister had been pushing YEC lies. I tried explaining that they were not true. They all reacted saying that evolution would destroy their faith. Not wanting that, because that is not my intention, I convinced my parents to read Dr. Ken Miller’s book “Finding Darwin’s God”. They are both far more open to the Theory of Evolution than before, although they still both question it. My sister still refuses to read the book because she “knows Jesus is real” and he works in her life. I just don’t bring the topic up with her anymore. She is convinced of her delusions and doesn’t want to know anymore. So part of it is that they have to want to gain knowledge. My mother and my sister are teachers and that was my concern.

  • If you decide to discuss evolution with your mother, it might be prudent to give her some literature by a Christian author that holds the position that evolution is “the way that God did it”. At least then, she can become somewhat literate in the mechanics of evolution and know that the concept is not by itself “evil” or anything. She can still hold on to the fantasy that God then blessed the most advanced animal with a soul and that this particular animal has a special place in God’s plans.

  • I can easily understand why Mike would want to help inform his mom about evolution. Religion aside, it’s sad for someone who loves science to see a loved one openly denying it. Picking apart people’s beliefs in god is one thing, and there’s clear reason to avoid then when their belief isn’t clearly harmful. But there’s never any cause to censor real science. If there’s any tension between Mike and his mother about his atheism, it seems that her continued denial of the science for no good reason would only increase that tension.

    Have you read The Greatest Show on Earth, Mike? Dawkins actually makes no attempt to persuade anybody from religion in that one; the most atheistic bit of the book comes early on, when he mentions some archbishop’s endorsement of evolution, and states almost as an aside that he happens to disagree on some statement the other made about god. One would say the main purpose of that book is to convince people who have previously doubted evolution. If your mother knows Dawkins’ reputation and refuses to read it on that account, you can read it instead (if you haven’t already) and report on the salient points.

  • Trace

    Mike, you use terms such as “true…readily observable…de-convert”. Just saying. Good luck.

  • Jeff Dale

    First, I’ll echo what (the other) Jeff said about appealing to religious authorities who accept the truth of evolution. It shouldn’t be too hard to round up some quotes from well-known Christians who choose evolution over I.D., and the fact that they tend to believe “God” was somehow involved initially or throughout is of lesser concern.

    Second, after doing the above, if it comes to a point where she actually does want some detail about how evolution works, you might try “The Making of the Fittest” by Sean B. Carroll. I have a hard time with Dawkins, because of his tone-deaf contempt toward religious people, but Carroll’s book is just science, well written and accessible. It focuses on the DNA record, in detail, which makes evolution damn near impossible to refute. I agree with Richard, though, that this should be done only if she has some interest, in which case you could read the book to have some explanations and examples to share with her, or she might want to read it herself.

  • Andrew Morgan

    This XKCD coming expresses my opinion nicely.

  • Tizzle

    When talking to a believer, I stress that evolution isn’t about the Big Bang, that’s what cosmology is for. I try to emphasize the smaller points of evolution…like finches’ beaks. Because this fact isn’t about the origin of life or species, you’re not going to get argument about it. It’s a small seed, but so are acorns. I figure if the believer can accept that much, at least I can then use the word evolution in the future without them closing their ears and minds.

  • Spurs Fan

    Probably somewhat off topic, but I always think it’s telling that among Christians, there is debate over evolution and a diversity of opinion, but that among non-theists there isn’t. Same with global warming. Doesn’t this give a lot of weight to science?

  • Polly

    I’m glad Richard Wade answered the way he did. Other than as a matter of public policy, I don’t care what individuals think about evolution. As someone else noted, evolution doesn’t need believers. So, I’m usually curious about people who feel the NEED to get others to “accept” evolution.

    Unless she’s a biology teacher or sits on an education board, what are you really trying to accomplish trying to convince someone of a scientific theory when they have already made it known they have no interest in science in general much less science that they think is “wrong”?

  • Hitodama

    Polly: Because it’s his mother. It’s a natural feeling. I’d know, I feel the same. My father, brother, grandmother, etc, all know and understand it, but my mother refuses to attempt to. It puzzles me.

  • Jeff Dale

    Unless she’s a biology teacher or sits on an education board, what are you really trying to accomplish trying to convince someone of a scientific theory when they have already made it known they have no interest in science in general much less science that they think is “wrong”?

    In individual cases like this letter writer’s, it may be fruitless. But where there’s some chance of influencing people’s opinions, I think it’s worthwhile, because people who “believe” that evolution is “wrong” seem to think it important to vote for candidates who agree with them.

    Since the anti-evolution view is based on a strong desire for evolution NOT to be true in spite of the overwhelming evidence, it can only be sustained with vigorous fingers-in-the-ears denial and denunciation. Hence the inflated importance (in their minds) for supporting candidates who will try to obstruct the evidence in education and policy-making.

  • June

    Mike, you might try reading all those books for yourself (Dawkin’s Blind Watchmaker is a favorite of mine) and picking out interesting bits to tell your mom in the context of “I just learned something cool”. Don’t mention evolution at all, just see if anything about the natural world interests her.

    See, your mom doesn’t want to listen to “evolution”, but she might find it cool that while we’ve found 13-year cicadas and 17-year cicadas, there aren’t any cicadas that sleep for 15 or 12 years. Why? What’s so special about insects sleeping for prime-numbers of years? Well, we think it’s because other cycling insects sleep for 2 or 5 or 3 years and every time a 15-year or 12-year cicada woke up, it’d face competition from all of those other insects. By using a prime-numbered sleeping pattern, the 13 and 17-year cicadas avoided the competition and survived to be a major pest today while the others died out.

    If she thinks such things are worth learning about (or just likes that you’re interested in it), you’ve gotten her interested or at least accepting evolution and science **even if she isn’t calling it that**. That’s what you want, right?

    Who cares if she doesn’t want to say the E-word?

  • Reality Chic

    Leave your mother alone. She is not interested. Don’t let this affect your relationship with her. Drop the subject. I’m as big a proponent of evolution as anybody, but she is your mom and that’s more important than whether or not she believes in evolution.

  • Kate

    Ken Miller – Finding Darwin’s God. Not only does it do an exceptional job of explaining evolution, he goes beyond to carefully destroy every creationist argument…from a theological perspective! It’s really a great read.

  • Stephen P


    Unless she’s a biology teacher or sits on an education board, what are you really trying to accomplish trying to convince someone of a scientific theory when they have already made it known they have no interest in science …

    How about if she votes for the members of an education board? How about if she votes at all?

    The anti-vaccination movement is gaining ground due to people who have no interest in science. The inaction on global warming (especially in the US) is due to people who have no interest in science. The declining effectiveness of antibiotics is due in large degree to people who have no interest in science. The destruction of the worlds fish populations is due in large degree to people who have no interest in science.

    And the creationists are (at least in the US) one of the major causes of poor science teaching.

    Is it unreasonable to suggest that it is part of the duties of every responsible citizen to pay at least some attention to science?

  • Polly

    How about if she votes for the members of an education board? How about if she votes at all?

    If that’s his only reason it’s kinda silly, imo. Any 1 person’s vote is bound not to matter much. Factor in the tremendous effort and the slim chance of success and you’ve got a big waste of time.
    I’ve talked to successful adults who thought heavier objects fall faster than light ones. Hell, we aren’t even getting across the theory of gravity!

    Yes, I’d like people to be more science-literate. But, people are what they are.

    If his intentions are personal or relational(I think it is), then as I said, I find it curious. I normally don’t even discuss a topic with people who aren’t interested in it, much less feel the need to educate them about it in order to improve my relationship with them. I’ve had sports fans talk to me about a game even AFTER I informed them that I don’t follow sports “at all.” It’s annoying.

    I do like one suggestion above about mentioning interesting little factoids without ever bringing up the “E” word. But, you know, even the interesting bits may not seem interesting to others. Still, it’s worth a shot and good conversation-fodder.

  • Andrew n

    My advice is how to communicate evolution if you choose to do so. Of course there is overwhelming evidence. Tell her the evidence!

    I think the best lines of evidence you should bring up are:
    1.) The seasonal flu
    2.) Pharmaceutical drugs(especially antibodies)
    3.) Cancer
    4.) agriculture
    5.) Dog breeding

    Make it clear that if one believes in cancer, they believe in evolution(and so on and so forth). I mean the human body is like one big communist party and the renegade cells(cancer) are the ones with the mutations that allow them outcompete the rest and disturb functions.

  • Fritzy

    Mike, I’m with Richard on this one. Why do you want your mother to warm up to this, or any other valid scientific theory? Your mention of deconversion, (something that is not in any way necessary in order to accept the theory of evolution at any rate), even as something you state you don’t want for her, is very telling. Your mother has made it quite clear that she doesn’t want to learn about evolution. Evolution does not need her approval and I would hope that her denial of the theory has no bearing on your acceptance of evolution. Unless she is spreading her ignorance to children, let it be. You’re creating a potential divide where one need not exist if you continue to press the issue. Continue to love your mother for who she is, faulty reasoning and all. If she’s interested in learning about evolution, she’ll come to you.

  • muggle

    Do people really spend this much time talking about evolution off-line? Seriously.

    Because I rarely see it brought up except in on-line forums. Once in a great while, some moron will say something like all I know is I’m not descended from apes and I’ll tell them about the common ancestory thing and they growl at me and go away but even that’s rare.

    Seriously, this topic just really doesn’t seem to come up that often.

    Neither does the big bang and all. Sometimes someone will say where does this all come from if “God” didn’t create it and I’ll say what I really think — I don’t know or care; I just take it as it and deal with it and if it’s so complicated that it had to be designed, then the designer would have to be even more complicated and would have had to had a designer and on and on. That evolution’s trial and error makes much more sense. And that too ends it.

    But seriously, I’m lucky if either topic even comes up twice a year. Are people really that interested in either? I mean outside politics and the ID nutters wanting to ruin schools?

  • Kelly

    “The Language of God” by Francis Collins might be perfect here. I’m not a huge fan of Collins, but “The Language of God” is written from a Christian perspective to convince other Christians that evolution is real. That’s a fine goal.

  • WEIT is obscure?

    Jerry will roll over in his grave – the one you put him in by calling his wonderful book obscure. Buy it, read it, give it to your mother.

    Maybe give her one of Bart Erhman’s books while you’re at it (Jesus Interrupted, or maybe Misquoting Jesus)

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