Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

You Can Believe Whatever You Want, But I Don't Have To Respect Whatever You Believe

Whenever people say “I don’t believe in evolution” it strikes me as odd.  Given that evolution is a solid scientific theory and one that we can observe taking place, the choice not to “believe” in it seems like one that is inspired either by ignorance or by a stubborn rejection of reality.  Either way, I’m not one to say you can’t refuse to believe in evolution, but I sure as hell don’t have to respect your position on the subject.

As we’ve seen recently with the pathetic Miss USA responses when asked if evolution should be taught in school (Seriously?!?  Next are they going to ask if heliocentricity should be taught in school?  My stars…) a lot of people like to take the safe position that “either belief” ought to be represented – suggesting not only that evolution itself is a belief, but that the only counter to evolution that exists is the Christianity-based concept of creationism.

But the most egregious error in this thinking is the comparison between creationism/Intelligent Design and evolution as if they are on equal footing as “beliefs”.  Creationism and Intelligent Design certainly are beliefs.  In fact, I feel like one requires a very bright and active imagination to support either of these concepts as if they are true.  The amount of evidence and information that must be ignored in order to seriously believe that the earth was made by a god (not something evolution concerns itself with, but a claim that is prevalent in creationism) or that everything was made as it is by a creator takes some serious make-believe skills.  We know how the eye evolved at this point.  Irreducible complexity is a sham – as long as you take a good look at all the evidence.

By contrast, the concept of evolution began as all science begins – as a hypothesis which could at any moment have been (and could still be) proven wrong.  In fact, many people argue that science isn’t the practice of proving anything right, it is the constant process of proving things wrong.  Like the Cat in the Hat trying to find the missing something by finding out where it’s not, science is similar in that we can hardly ever find anything that can be with 100% certainty labeled as true, but we can easily weed out information or ideas which are proven false.  And if something stands the constant barrage of testing for a long enough period of time, that idea becomes considered a “theory”.

We’re not talking Sherlock Holmes and his whimsical theories that the pips found at the scene of a crime were from a particular orange only grown in a particular place which indicate death for a group of old men.  The scientific  definition of theory is very different from that way in which the word is commonly used.  When Sherlock suggests his theory on where the seeds of a fruit are from and what they represent, he’s essentially saying “I have an idea these are from this orange, from this place, and they symbolize this.”

The “theory” in the Theory of Evolution is far far FAR more complicated than that.  In fact, it often takes at least 50 if not 100 years for a hypothesis to be considered a theory and something can only be considered a theory if there is no evidence found that can prove the hypothesis to be false.  These ideas not only have to withstand the scrutiny of those contemporary thinkers who might try to discredit a hypothesis, they have to stand up against decades, literally generations of scrutiny before they are considered strong enough explanations of the natural world to be labeled a theory.

So – if you want to take the position that you don’t believe in evolution – well, there’s nothing I can do about that.  I certainly hope you’re not in a medical profession and if you are, please let me know so I can avoid ever coming into contact with you in any kind of professional setting, but you can believe or not believe whatever you want.  However, if you claim a disbelief in evolution or a belief in creationism instead of evolution, don’t get pissed off when I laugh in your face and let you know how little respect I have for your position.

Unless you have some empirical (i.e. – not biblical) evidence to back up your assertion.

If that’s the case, we can totally talk.

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Mike Gillis

Big applause, Beth. Great article.


Exactly. Why acknowledge theistic evolution and efforts like the Clergy Letter Project and bring people together when you can use evolutionary theory as a pawn to polarize folks and reduce the debate yet again to making science and religion an either/or proposition?

The paucity of nuance on display here is as disappointing as it is unsurprising.

Manolo Matos

Beth, I loved the article. Here in KY I have felt like that so many times… People think you have to respect their beliefs, but they laugh at Tom Cruise for being a scientologist. #FAIL


Jeff–the Clergy Letter Project IS worthy of acknowledgement…in an article about those whose opinions Beth DOES respect. She is hardly addressing those hundreds of clergy who support maintaining the integrity of science inside and outside the classroom. She is talking to the same folks those clergy countering: creationist IDers intent on denigrating evolution to “just a theory.”


here’s an excerpt from the Clergy Letter…”We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.” Seems much in line with the sentiments of Beth’s article, no?

Jim Hoerst

Toleration for religion is a social convention that came about as a response to the social divisions that religion causes. So in order to have religions that place one person or group closer to a god than another without fighting about it all the time and without it disrupting all of our lives and society we as society agreed to just not talk about religion. So arguing about religion is gosh, no matter how stupid and toxic the religion happens to be. I say the hell with all of that. Religious ideas are as at least as important as any… Read more »

Jeff II (not the other Jeff above)

“And if something stands the constant barrage of testing for a long enough period of time, that idea becomes considered a theory.” I don’t think this definition of “theory” is accurate. My understanding is that a theory can be correct or incorrect. It is a set of rules, mechanisms, etc. devised to explain the world. It doesn’t have to be experimentally verified to be “promoted” to a theory. That’s why we have “string theory”, which at this point is a set of ideas about how something might work, but has no proof for it yet. That’s why we get statements… Read more »

Jeff II

As one further example, the Gravity Probe-B mission just confirmed an aspect of General Relativity theory which had never been shown before. If it had never been shown to be correct until recently, then General Relativity couldn’t have been a theory before that (by the definition in the article), and if it still has any outstanding issues which have not been demonstrated to be correct, it still couldn’t be called a theory today.


“…and reduce the debate yet again to making science and religion an either/or proposition?”

It’s not the vast majority of scientists making it an either/or proposition, it’s a small minority of loudmouthed Bible-thumpers who insist that anything that contradicts their specific version of an ancient creation myth must be incorrect, despite the mountains of evidence backing up the theory of evolution, and the complete and utter lack of any kind of credible evidence backing up the “the invisible man in the sky made the world out of nothing in six days” theory.


Beth – you might want to Google “theistic evolution” before commenting about it further, especially botching suggestions about how I feel about it or what should be done with it. It’s not a scientific theory as you incorrectly guessed. It’s the philosophical view that evolution is real and happening, and is compatible with the teaching of the Bible. It also happens to be the POV of churches serving the overwhelming majority of Christians in the United States, including the Catholic church. So, no, I do not want a philosophical POV taught in a science class. That teaching is best served… Read more »


RobC – if you could show me what part of my comments led you to infer I thought scientists were doing anything besides science, I would really appreciate the feedback. That was not my intent. I agree with you that YECs (Young Earth Creationists, the folks who think the earth is only 6000 or so years old) bear a lot of responsibility for escalating discussion of evolution into a referendum on organized religion. My intended purpose of the statement you quoted was to say that Beth was the one improperly creating the either/or proposition. By doing so, her article won’t… Read more »


Jeff – So to be clear, is your complaint that I didn’t mention people who believe in evolution in a post specifically about people who don’t believe in evolution? And where in the post did I say anything about it being either/or? I certainly focused on creationism since that was the concept mentioned by the Miss USA contestants, but I don’t see how I claimed that those who accept the theory of evolution can’t be religious or even that people who don’t believe in evolution do so only because of religion. I apologize for assuming you were suggesting something you… Read more »

Rob El

A great post Beth. A somewhat common objection/tactic to the statement “Unless you have some empirical (i.e. – not biblical) evidence to back up your assertion” is to attack the assumption that empiricism/verificationism is valid (and not a form of Logical Positivism) over, say rationalism (or even faith based notions?). I would love to see a post by you or others that would give a simple atheist such as myself a rundown and defense of our foundational relability on empiricism/verificationism (wow doesn’t this read as: “please do my homework for me”, it’s not intended as such). I would love to… Read more »


Jeff said: “I don’t think this definition of “theory” is accurate. My understanding is that a theory can be correct or incorrect. It is a set of rules, mechanisms, etc. devised to explain the world. It doesn’t have to be experimentally verified to be “promoted” to a theory.”

Your understanding is incorrect.

This video is about 10 minutes long, but it’s well produced and accessible. You might find it useful.

Jeff II

First let me say that I have a Master’s degree in science, so accessibility is not a major concern. Now, I watched the video. The second person said that Ptolemy made a theory about the Sun revolving around the Earth. It was incorrect. He also said that evolution is a theory, but that it might turn out to be wrong, as much as that would shock him. Theories can be wrong, according to the video. The first and third scientists did not contradict what I wrote, either. If theories have to be true and have to have withstood years and/or… Read more »

John-Henry Beck

I’m no physicist, and I expect we may need one to jump in.
But when it comes to String Theory…is it actually considered a theory? Or do we just use that name because it sounds better, because it’s easier to say, than String Hypothesis?
Basically, I’m not sure if it’s actually treated as a theory in physics the same way something like general relativity or heliocentricity or whatever else.

Jeff II

I would still refer to geo-centricity as a “theory”. I would make a statement such as, “The geo-centric theory is incorrect and helio-centric theory is correct.” But that’s just me. A theory can be pushed aside when a better one comes along, which is my point. But we would sure be in a bit of a pickle if scientists labeled string theory with the tag “theory”, if it really isn’t one. That would understandably lead to some confusion on the scientific definition. My (extremely limited) understanding of strings is that they are probably falsifiable, but nobody has figured out how… Read more »

Jeff II

“(String theory) is falsifiable as far as I know, so some people contend it is a theory.”

I missed this line of your comment before. If true, this is pretty much confirmation that something that is untested and not widely-accepted can be called a “theory”, before it is ever experimented on. It is falsifiable, and may turn out to be complete garbage, but can still be called a theory today. Wasn’t that my point?

Jeff II

As a last point before I give you a chance to respond, I did a search for an expression I’ve heard in my scientific days, “competing theories”. The search engine came up with several ‘philosophy of science’ type books and papers, about how scientists go about choosing the best among two or more competing theories. If the definition of theory in the article is correct, then neither one could be called a theory if they have not been accepted and supported in the long-term, and they would have to be called “competing hypotheses”. I believe “theory” is a description of… Read more »


Beth – my experience with folks who lead with “just to be clear” is they are doing anything but that. Your use of that phrase did nothing to change that impression. Anyway, I’ve been looking for an atheist to team up with for a series about social justice, specifically how theists and atheists could/should work together to fight social injustice and where their differences get in the way. After reading through this site and interacting with a few of y’all, it’s clear I need to search elsewhere to find that partner, as your solution for social ills seems to boil… Read more »


Jeff – You’re making way too many assumptions about me for me to really take you seriously, but in case you really are actually involved in something, I wish you the best of luck and I hope you find whatever you’re looking for. My suggestion would be to be more straightforward in the future, instead of being upset that something which was posted didn’t focus on what you would like it to focus on. This wasn’t a post about those who accept evolution, rather it was post about those who don’t. I understand you would have liked it to be… Read more »


Also – I was already aware of the idea of “theistic evolution” and I summed it up as the acceptance of evolution with theism thrown in. You have not explained to me why that (albeit very simplified) understanding of what theistic evolution is is incorrect, you’ve just ran with the idea that I was wrong and had no idea what I was talking about – a confirmation of your already existing bias. So really, I’m very sorry Jeff, but I don’t see much value at all in what you’ve posted because it seems to me (and at this point I… Read more »


You should have quit after that first response, Beth. That would have been just fine. But you just couldn’t exit gracefully – you had to continue the argument and attack my character some more. “I was already aware of the idea of “theistic evolution” and I summed it up as the acceptance of evolution with theism thrown in.” Where exactly did you do this summing up? In your article, which while defending you’ve gone to great lengths to say you didn’t mention that POV and were under no obligation to? In comment #4148 where you criticized practitioners of theistic evolution… Read more »


If you want to contact us, there is a big red button titled “ask a question” which you are more than welcome to utilize. I hope (*hope*) you’ll understand if I’m not comfortable giving my personal email out to some random dude on the internet. The grammar comment was childish. The desire to be treated like you’re special is perplexing. I dunno what to tell you man. It’s all getting pretty boring for me, and it seems like I’m the last one left who is even interested. I could continue to defend myself and the rest of the producers, but… Read more »


Beth, you are so adorable I could just eat you up. “If you want to contact us, there is a big red button titled ‘ask a question’ which you are more than welcome to utilize.” My favorite part about “censorgate”? I was satisfied with how y’all acted once the initial shock wore off, didn’t mention it after the first exchange, and y’all didn’t even notice I’d dropped the issue. You were too busy using it as an ad hominem attack against my character when you couldn’t reconcile your statements in different threads that were proven to be inaccurate to realize… Read more »


so then what do you “believe” in?

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