Rarely is a topic more hotly contested than religion and creationism. Religious scholars and scientists have been hollering at one another over the subject for what seems like forever.

However, when emotions and conviction translate into name-calling and mockery, rarely does either side come out of the discussion with a better understanding of their opponent’s position. You don’t have to agree with someone to respect and understand — or attempt to understand — why they feel a certain way or believe in something you don’t quite get.

This is why Ethan Siegel’s blog titled, “22 Messages of Hope (and Science) for Creationists,” caught this author’s attention. Siegel, an astrophysicist from Portland, Ore., wrote the post after watching the nearly three hour debate between Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham and discovering a BuzzFeed post that “appeared to make fun of creationists by showcasing the ‘ridiculous-and-condescending’ 22 messages and/or questions they had for people who believed in evolution.”

Scientist Engages Creationists in Genuine Way in Blog Post

(BuzzFeed)

Here’s what Siegel came to realize:

The thing is, if all you do is mock the people who disagree with you, you miss your chance to honestly engage with them, learn about where they come from, and — just maybe — teach them a little piece of something that they might not have known before. Now, I’m not a professional biologist; I’m a professional astrophysicist, for full disclosure, but when I saw these 22 messages, it made me think of a large number of young people I’ve encountered throughout my life in various schools, classrooms and educational situations. If these were messages posed to me, what would I say? Without further ado, here we go!

So rather than mock creationists or cite his superior intellect, Siegel answered those same 22 questions as honestly and politely as he could — and he wasn’t afraid to admit it when he didn’t know the answer. For an example of how to answer the questions in a sarcastic and uninformative way, see Nature journal editor Adam Rutherford’s response to the same BuzzFeed questions in the Guardian.

We’ve included five of our favorite questions answered by Siegel, but we strongly encourage all readers to visit his site and read the rest.

Are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?

It’s very tempting to demonize anyone who doesn’t share the same perspective or beliefs as you. I myself have been chastized by christians for not being christian, by atheists for not being atheist enough, by jews for not being jewish enough, by the cool kids for being too nerdy and by the outcasts for being too mainstream, and by people of all virtually all political leanings for not having identical political leanings to them. So when you ask me (and — confession — I’m not Bill Nye), I’ve always been of the mindset that no matter what anyone else claims, you can always ask the very powerful question: how do you know?

And if you can pose a question that can be answered by looking to the Universe and asking it questions about itself, you can not only learn what we know, but also how we know it. To empower someone like that — to teach them how to seek answers to whatever questions they may have — I can’t think of a single way in which that’s a negative influence. Can you?

Are you scared of a Divine Creator?

I think there is this idea out there that every scientist who doesn’t believe in the divine word of scripture thinks that science will eventually tell a complete, whole story of the Universe, including every aspect of where it came from and why. I am going to come forward and just say it right now: we know that is false. The Universe is vast — some 46 billion light years in radius — with at least 200 billion galaxies and around 10^25 planets, total, in just the part of it that’s observable to us. There are some 10^91 particles existing in the Universe right now, all of which were created some 13.8 billion years ago. But as big as these numbers are, they are finite. And because of that, so is the total amount of information present in the Universe accessible to us. We maybe able to extrapolate back to the Big Bang and even a little bit before, but the scope of what is knowable to us, even in principle, is limited.

Scientist Engages Creationists in Genuine Way in Blog Post

Image credit: Cosmic Inflation by Don Dixon

So I understand that I can never know for certain every aspect of where this Universe came from and why, and that whatever I cannot rule out, I must admit as a possibility, however much it defies my sensibilities. Although my conception of what a Divine Creator would have to be to create our entire Universe may differ from yours, I can conceive of one. Thinking about it awes me and maybe does scare me a little; there is a Greek word that springs to mind — δεινός — that very much encapsulates how I feel.

If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?

This is a question where I’m proud to say “I don’t know.” Because it’s true: I don’t, but perhaps someday we will! You are asking one of the biggest questions of all: how did life come to exist in this world? And the answer is that — right now — we don’t know.

But scientists are working on it. There’s a lot that we do know that’s related to that question, but the big one — how we went from non-life to life in the Universe — is still an open one. I hope I live long enough to be there when we figure this puzzle out; don’t you?

If we come from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?

This is one of the most common questions I’ve seen about evolution. You might think that evolution is a picture where single-celled organisms turned into jellyfish, then into arthropods, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, primates and finally us. Well, that’s kind of true, but it’s more accurate to say that single-celled organisms gave rise to a diversity of descendents, some of which are single-celled organisms and some of which were multicellular ones. Of the multicellular ones, some of those gave rise to jellyfish, while some of those gave rise to animals with spinal cords. Of the ones with spinal cords, some of those gave rise to amphibians. And so on. Evolution isn’t a linear progression, but a complex structure with many branches.

The monkeys that existed millions of years ago evolved into both modern monkeys and modern apes, and the apes that lived just a few million years ago evolved into the modern great apes as well as — very recently, evolutionarily speaking — modern humans.

Scientist Engages Creationists in Genuine Way in Blog Post

Image credit: Leonard Eisenberg, 2008, via http://evogeneao.com/

5. What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation?

I promised to be honest with you in answering these questions, and in this case, that means I’m very likely going to give you an answer that you aren’t going to be able to relate to. I believe that the purpose of my existence is to increase the knowledge, understanding, and awareness that we have of the world around us, as well as the amount of kindness in it. I don’t know if that is a worthy purpose of an existence, or if it is the one that a divine being intended — if one exists and if that being has an intention for me — but it is one I have chosen for myself. If, at the end of my life, I discover there is some form of salvation, perhaps I will have earned it by living the best life I was able to live. If not, I lived a life true to the purpose I chose for myself.

Read all 22 responses to the creationists’ questions here.

(H/T: BigThink.com)