Why the Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

A few weeks ago, Jon Huntsman torpedoed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by making the following announcement:

To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.

It's a pathetic commentary on the anti-intellectualism rampant in American politics that this is newsworthy: a major-party candidate announces that he doesn't deny a foundational theory of modern science! In fact, given the political atmosphere in the Republican party, it's not just newsworthy but a daring act: polls have shown that almost 70% of Republicans deny evolution.

Huntsman is clearly trying to position himself as the moderate candidate. But while that strategy might play well in the general election, it won't do him any good unless he can get the Republican nomination. And to win that nomination, he has to get past a huge obstacle: a solid bloc of Republican primary voters who are emphatically anti-science. This isn't an exaggeration for polemical effect; it's the plain truth. The modern Republican party has made a fervent rejection of scientific consensus its defining attribute - both on evolution and climate change, as well as in other fields - and Huntsman's refusal to submit to party orthodoxy is likely a fatal blow to his chances.

But opposition to climate change is something new in the Republican platform. As recently as a few years ago, both Mitt Romney and John McCain supported cap-and-trade laws, and Newt Gingrich appeared in pro-environment ads with Nancy Pelosi. The party's rejection of climate science is fairly new, and probably comes from its increasing dependence on campaign cash from dirty-energy barons like the Koch brothers.

By contrast, the Republican party's denial of evolution is much older and more grass-roots in nature, dating at least to when the national parties traded places during the civil-rights era. The conservative South, in addition to its other charming qualities, has a long history of passing laws hostile to science - from Tennessee's Butler Act, the 1925 law prohibiting the teaching of evolution that led to the Scopes trial, to Louisiana's 1981 Balanced Treatment Act, which decreed that "creation science" had to be given an equal share of classroom time.

But while fundamentalists have always been hostile to evolution, the modern creationist movement got its start in the 1960s, primarily due to the influence of an evangelical author named Henry Morris. Morris' 1964 book The Genesis Flood argued, among other things, that Noah's flood happened just as the Bible describes it - in other words, that it was reasonable to believe that eight people could care for a floating zoo containing at least two members of every species on Earth. Imagine trying to run the entire Bronx Zoo with just eight employees. Now consider that Noah's leaky tub, by even the most forgiving estimates, would have to have had far more kinds of animals (including dinosaurs, which creationists believe existed simultaneously with humans, a la the Flintstones). Imagine how much feeding, watering, and manure-carrying that would be. Imagine all this frenetic activity taking place in the cramped, dark, foul-smelling confines of a wooden boat, with predators and prey side-by-side in narrow pens, during the most violent and catastrophic storm in the history of the planet, with an absolute requirement that not a single animal get sick or die. Now try not to laugh too hard at the people who seriously believe that all this really happened.

As already mentioned, the creationist movement's original strategy revolved around getting friendly state legislatures to decree that their ideas had to be taught in public schools, regardless of scientific merit or lack thereof. This strategy hasn't fared well in court: aside from a Pyrrhic victory in the Scopes trial, judges have repeatedly recognized this for the obvious violation of separation of church and state that it is. And each time they lost, the creationist movement responded the same way: like a snake shedding its skin, they rebranded themselves with a new name, then tried again with the same ideas. "Creation science" became "scientific creationism," which became "abrupt-appearance theory," and so on. The currently preferred nomenclature is "intelligent design" (which is totally constitutional and not at all religious, because we're not saying who we think the intelligent designer is - nudge nudge, wink wink!). But even this watered-down creationism met with defeat in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005, when a judge appointed by George W. Bush handed down a resounding ruling that teaching intelligent design in public school is unconstitutional.

It remains to be seen how they'll rebrand themselves next, though we can be confident that their basic strategy won't change. One of the most hilarious parts of the Dover case was evidence showing that, after a court ruling which made it illegal to teach creationism in public schools, the authors of a creationist textbook did a find-and-replace to change "creationism" to "intelligent design" and "creationists" to "design proponents". At one point, someone mistyped and left a transitional fossil in an early draft: a paragraph that referred to "cdesign proponentsists".

But while creationists keep bumbling on the legal front, they've had more success in the cultural arena, by infiltrating the public schools with creationist teachers who flout the law and preach their religious beliefs in class. There are some notable and egregious examples: in an earlier essay on AlterNet, I mentioned David Paskiewicz, the New Jersey high school teacher who advocated creationism in class, in addition to telling a Muslim student that she belonged in hell. There's also John Freshwater, a creationist science teacher who was fired for breaking school rules about proselytizing in the classroom. Among other things, he allegedly used a Tesla coil to burn a cross onto a student's arm!

And it's not just the teachers, either. Creationist churches are training students at all educational levels to refuse to learn about any science their religion rejects, as in this story:

The last question on the test Mr. Campbell passed out a week later asked students to explain two forms of evidence supporting evolutionary change and natural selection.

"I refuse to answer," Bryce wrote. "I don't believe in this."

Although there are different kinds of creationists, the most fervent and most influential are the so-called young-earth creationists, who believe the world and every species on it is about 6,000 years old. The young-earth creationists, or YECs for short, believe that the universe was created in seven twenty-four-hour days, that there was a literal Garden of Eden, a literal Adam and Eve, and a literal talking snake just as the Book of Genesis describes.

To anyone who has even the most passing acquaintance with real science, these myths are laughably false, on the same level as believing in a literal wolf who blew down the houses of literal pigs. Anyone who knows anything about genetics can see the impossibility of a healthy species arising from a single breeding pair. A population starting from such a tiny gene pool just wouldn't have enough genetic diversity to adapt to environmental changes - not to mention the obvious problem of inbreeding depression, where sex between close relatives results in a far greater likelihood of the offspring inheriting the same rare and harmful mutations from both parents. (For fun, ask a creationist to explain about how they believe the prohibition on incest didn't apply in the beginning. After all, once Adam and Eve had sons and daughters, where was the next generation of human beings going to come from?)

Likewise, the geologic record shows that the Earth has an enormously long and intricate history. Preserved in the rock record, we see evidence of continents drifting and colliding, thrusting up mountain ranges that are then slowly worn down by erosion; glaciers advancing and retreating, carving and scouring the landscape; sedimentary rock layers slowly built up by eons of deposition, then cut into deep canyons by rivers or metamorphosed by heat and pressure; the same land becoming shallow sea, swamp, forest, plain, desert and back to sea again, as sea levels rise and fall over the ages. This grand tapestry stands in stark contrast to the creationists' cartoonish view of geology, in which Noah's flood was the only geological event of significance to happen in the planet's brief history. Geologists knew well before Charles Darwin that there was no evidence for a global flood, and modern scientists can add the evidence of radiometric dating, which shows the precise ages of ancient rocks and artifacts and proves that they're far older than the creationist worldview permits.

And then there's the direct evidence for evolution, in all its sprawling grandeur. We know evolution is true from genetic studies which show that all species share deep similarities at the genetic level. In fact, by charting which species' genomes share the same one-off mutations, we can build evolutionary trees which show the patterns of relationship between species and allow us to estimate when they branched from each other. This nested hierarchy, the pattern produced by descent with modification, binds all living and extinct species together in an unbreakable web of heredity and kinship, every bit as real as the one that connects you to your ancestors and your living relatives.

We know evolution is true from transitional fossils which preserve snapshots of evolutionary change, such as the bird-like feathered dinosaurs; the therapsids that are intermediate between reptiles and mammals; the primitive whales with legs that are ancestors of today's cetaceans; and in our own family lineage, the humanlike hominids that show how modern Homo sapiens arose from more ape-like ancestors. (Hilariously, the creationists all agree that there are no transitional fossils and that all fossil hominid species are either fully human or fully ape - but they can't agree on which is which, exactly as we'd expect from true intermediates.)

We know evolution is true from the kludges, hacks, and jury-rigs we find in the anatomy of living things, including us - evidence not of a wise and forward-looking designer, but of a slow, mindless, tinkering process of change, a "blind watchmaker" as Richard Dawkins famously termed it. From the useless goosebumps we get when cold or frightened, to the backwards-wired human retina, to the babies occasionally born with vestigial tails, human bodies bear the indelible stamp of our species' history.

The creationists are forced to deny all this and much more besides. That's not a figure of speech: major creationist organizations and religious colleges require their faculty to sign statements promising to reject any evidence that contradicts their worldview. The official statement of faith of the group Answers in Genesis, for example, requires members to affirm that "No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record." And when people affiliated with these groups do express doubt or flirt with unorthodoxy, retribution is invariably swift and harsh.

But as laughable as the creationists' beliefs are, the creationist movement is no joke. They want to wipe out all the findings of hundreds of years of scientific investigation, erase everything we've learned about the vast and majestic history of the universe, and replace it with a cartoon version that grotesquely magnifies our own importance, treating human beings as the crowning glory of creation and diminishing the immensity of the universe to a tiny stage crafted only so that the Bible's small stories could play out on it.

Why does this matter so much to them? It's not just an arcane scientific debate: in their minds, only Christianity can produce virtue, and Christianity can be true only if evolution is false. It follows that they believe - and they've said that they believe - that evolution underlies every moral problem they see in the world, from drug use to pornography to people voting Democratic. Tom DeLay infamously blamed the Columbine school shootings on the teaching of evolution, stating that "our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup."

The larger lesson to be drawn from this is that the religious right isn't just targeting the theory of evolution. By their own words, they can't be. They believe that a person's morality is completely determined by their factual beliefs - that being a good person depends on believing the right things about the origin of the universe. And since they believe that all truths worth knowing have already been revealed in the Bible, it follows that science is at best unnecessary and at worst a fatal deception that leads people away from salvation. Why, then, do we need science at all?

To those who hold the creationist worldview, everything has been going downhill since the Enlightenment. The willingness of people to think for themselves, to question authority, to investigate the world for truth - they see all this as a disastrous trend, one that only takes us farther from their ideal vision of a medieval, theocratic state. They seek nothing less than to turn back the clock of progress by several centuries, abolish the rational, reality-based view of the world, and return to the superstitious mindset in which blind faith is the answer to every problem. And, again, these are the people who've completely captured one of America's two major parties. What kind of havoc will result if they gain political power again?

September 23, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink40 comments

New on AlterNet: Why Creationism Is Dangerous

My latest article has been posted on AlterNet, Why the Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous. In it, I survey the history of the modern creationist movement, point out how it's completely captured one of America's two major political parties, and illuminate the larger ideological goals that lie behind the assault on evolution. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!

A few weeks ago, Jon Huntsman torpedoed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by making the following announcement: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

It's a pathetic commentary on the anti-intellectualism rampant in American politics that this is newsworthy. A major-party candidate announces that he doesn't deny a foundational theory of modern science! In fact, given the political atmosphere in the Republican party, it's not just newsworthy but a daring act: polls have shown that almost 70 percent of Republicans deny evolution.

Huntsman is clearly trying to position himself as the moderate candidate. But while that strategy might play well in the general election, it won't do him any good unless he can get the Republican nomination. And to win that nomination, he has to get past a huge obstacle: a solid bloc of Republican primary voters who are emphatically anti-science. This isn't an exaggeration for polemical effect; it's the plain truth. The modern Republican party has made a fervent rejection of scientific consensus its defining attribute -- both on evolution and climate change, as well as in other fields -- and Huntsman's refusal to submit to party orthodoxy is likely a fatal blow to his chances.

Continue reading on AlterNet...

September 12, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink14 comments

Tax Breaks for Ignorance

As you doubtless already know, America is suffering through an unprecedented economic disaster. With millions of people jobless and millions of homeowners underwater, the economy is stagnant and its prospects are dim. Which is why, in these hard times, nothing is more important than shoveling more taxpayer dollars into the gaping maw of the fundamentalist carnival sideshow:

A group of private investors and religious organizations is hoping to build a Bible-themed amusement park in Kentucky, complete with a full-size 500-foot-by-75-foot reproduction of Noah's Ark, a Tower of Babel, and other biblical exhibits on a 800-acre campus outside of Williamstown, KY. Their effort got a shot in the arm yesterday when the state approved $43 million in tax breaks for the project.

As the article notes, Kentucky has cut funding to education and Medicaid eight times in the past three years. But, somehow, its government has found room in the budget for a $43 million tax break, a 75% property-tax reduction over 30 years, $200,000 in direct incentives, 100 acres of reduced-price state land, $40 million in sales tax rebates, and $11 million in nearby road improvements, all of which are for the benefit of a creationist "amusement park" whose chief attraction will be a full-size replica of Noah's leaky boat. All this is to complement the "creation museum" which Kentucky already boasts, though I feel dirty even using the word "museum" to describe an institute devoted to the teaching of antiscientific ignorance.

This story is a prime example of something that I first saw pointed out by Sikivu Hutchinson. In economically depressed communities, storefront churches are both a sign of and a contributor to blight: a sign of blight because it means that profit-generating businesses can't get a foothold; a contributor to blight because churches, unlike businesses, pay no taxes and don't help broaden the revenue base. The same is likely to be true of these "creation museums": as soon as their builders have cashed the state's checks, we can expect them to turn around and claim that they're part of a ministry and should be entirely tax-exempt, over and above the massive tax breaks they've already been given.

This project is unlikely to help the state's economy, but it does help right-wing demagogues burnish their theocratic credentials for the benefit of the masses. In today's Republican party, being anti-science is a prerequisite, and dispensing government pork to some loon who claims that the universe is younger than the invention of writing is a solid bullet point on a politician's resumé. That said, I can't pin all the blame on Republicans: Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, also supports the project, which just proves that ignorance and pandering cross party lines.

Nor is it just Kentucky that's rewarding the purveyors of religious lunacy. In Texas (where else?), the state is funneling money to "crisis pregnancy" centers, those anti-choice fronts that typically do their best to look like legitimate family-planning clinics so that they can bombard women who come to them with religious propaganda.

What these stories show is that the Republicans' alleged fiscal conservatism has nothing to do with deficits, and everything to do with wielding the power of the government as a bludgeon to support their regressive, medieval views on science and women's rights. They're dead-set against raising taxes, except when it's raising taxes on abortion and family planning. They're ferociously opposed to more government spending, except when that spending is for the benefit of carnival-barker religious whackjobs or deceitful anti-choicers. They're more than willing to use the government's spending power to advance ignorance and take away choice, just never the other way around.

August 26, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink13 comments

Creationist Target Practice

Yesterday, someone calling himself Rev. Skeens posted the following comment. I rejected it since it had no perceptible connection to the post it was submitted under, but then I had second thoughts. Granted that this is beginner-level stuff and hardly challenging, but it's been a while since we honed our debating skills on an actual creationist around here, so I thought it might be entertaining to throw it out there and use it for target practice. Who wants to have a go?

Secular archeologist's may claim that there is no evidence of a global flood, but, Scientist's have found fossils of sea creatures high in the Himalayan Mountains, and also at between 7,000-8,000 feet above sea level in the Grand Canyon rock formation layers. These are the two prominent finds that support a global flood, but, if you do the research yourself, not just listen to what other atheists say, you can find that on every continent on the planet are fossils found high above sea level of sea creatures. If these formations weren't under water at one point in time or another, how did the sea creature fossils get there?

Mr. Skeens has taken his best shot at us. You may return fire when ready. I'll be sure to e-mail him and tell him about this post so he doesn't miss out!

August 6, 2011, 2:50 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink201 comments

The Language of God: Intelligent Design

The Language of God, Chapter 9

By B.J. Marshall

The subtitle to this chapter is "When Science Needs Divine Help," which immediately sets up a couple of problems. First, is Collins asserting that Intelligent Design (ID) is science? Second, where does divine help fit in with the application of the scientific method? In response to the first, Collins concludes that ID is not science. He doesn't really address the second problem. That second problem brings to mind a quote by J.B.S. Haldane:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

Focusing on that first problem, we want to see whether ID is a valid scientific endeavor. According to Collins, the ID movement rests upon three propositions:

  1. Evolution promotes an atheistic worldview and therefore must be resisted by believers in God (p.183)
  2. Evolution is fundamentally flawed, since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature (p.184)
  3. If evolution cannot explain irreducible complexity, then there must have been an intelligent designer involved somehow, who stepped in to provide the necssary components during the course of evolution (p.186)

Collins doesn't really address the first claim at all. He states right up front that Phillip Johnson, the founder of the ID movement, was more interested in defending the faith than by a "scientific desire to understand life (he makes no claim to be a scientist)" (p.183). Referencing the "wedge document," which "was originally intended as an internal memorandum but found its way onto the Internet" (p.183), Collins concludes that ID is not science. It fails to make predictions, is an unfalsifiable position (Collins says one couldn't verify it "outside of the development of a time machine" (p.187), and makes no claims providing a mechanism by which the postulated supernatural interventions would give rise to complexity. (Here's another example of where double-standards apparently elude Collins. His own position, that every naturalistic explanation just shows you how God works, seems to be an unfalsifiable position; even if we were to somehow explain the Moral Law, that would just show you how God works.)

The proposition Collins seems to be refuting here is "ID is science." He doesn't address the proposition as stated of whether evolution promotes an atheistic worldview. I found this very interesting, given that this would have been a perfect time for Collins to once again drive home his thesis of theistic evolution. He tore down Johnson's claim without ever reminding readers of the alternate case that is the main thesis of this book. Fail.

Collins does a much better job addressing the second proposition. He addresses the problems of irreducible complexity with examples such as the evolution of eyes, the bacterial flagellum, and the human blood-clotting cascade. He also talks about the suboptimal design in eyes, which seems problematic. Ultimately, he concludes that claims to irreducible complexity are just arguments from ignorance.

Collins also fails to properly address the third claim (so he's batting 0.33). All he says in response to this claim is that ID proponents haven't specified who this designer might have been "but the Christian perspective of most [not all?!] the leaders of this movement implicitly suggests that this missing force would come from God himself" (p.186). I shouldn't be surprised, but Collins did not address how this third proposition fits together into a framework that makes no sense given the first two. Proposition 1 states that evolution promotes an atheistic worldview, so ID would want to be done with the concept entirely, right? Then they backpedal a bit and say, "Well, maybe evolution works, but - look at Proposition 2 - it's fundamentally flawed!" Then they backpedal even more and say "OK, evolution's flawed but - look at Proposition 3 - our god, I mean, ahem, an intelligent designer could step in and fix that flawed, atheistic system." But, then the system wouldn't be atheistic anymore, since some god is mucking around with evolution.

So one can see how ID is getting really close to the edge of where Collins wants to take theistic evolution, but ID just can't seem to cross that line. And the next chapter will bring us there. Collins concludes this chapter on Intelligent Design with an exhortation. He starts by citing William Dembski, who said in "The Design Revolution":

If it could be shown that biological systems that are wonderfully complex, elegant, and integrated - such as the bacterial flagellum - could have been formed by a gradual Darwinian process (and thus that their specified complexity is an illusion), then Intelligent Design would be refuted on the general grounds that one does not invoke intelligent causes when undirected natural causes will do. In that case, Occam's razor would finish off Intelligent Design quite nicely (p.194 of The Language of God).

Of course, one cannot expect Dembski to just let ID die, but that's as separate an issue as the fact that Collins has pushed God so far back that Occam's razor can't even touch it. Collins instead focuses on the question of what happens to a believer's faith when one can no longer give God a resting place in ID. Take away ID, and where does that leave God?

Enter what Collins calls BioLogos.

Other posts in this series:

March 27, 2011, 10:40 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

The Language of God: YEC is Dumb

The Language of God, Chapter 8

By B.J. Marshall

I can summarize this chapter by quoting Collins himself: "Thus, by any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism [YEC] has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy" (p.177). He spends the bulk of this chapter providing reasons why YEC is horribly flawed, and then he concludes with a "plea to reason" that is anything but.

Sadly, I don't think Collins does enough (anything, really) to debunk YEC other than saying it's wrong. All he says is that, for YEC to be correct, we'd have to throw out all we've learned about chemistry, cosmology, geology, and biology. Assuming that his readership comprises theists who hold some Creationist views - and Collins calls himself a Creationist (p.171) given that God is behind it all - I would have thought that Collins would have worked harder to bring any YECs around. Here are two examples, which really wouldn't have required much ink to explain:

Aside from asserting that YEC is incompatible with science, Collins makes two other arguments. His first is that there's no reason to take the Bible literally. After all, does anyone take it literally when the Bible states that the right arm of God lifts up the nation of Israel (p.175)? (Of course, Collins then fails to provide some objective measure of how one should know which verses are literal and which ones aren't.) His second is that, by alleging things that are contradictory to all scientific findings, YEC seems to fall back on a Trickster God.

Collins says that YEC does more to damage the faith, by demanding the believers assent to fundamentally flawed claims about the natural world. He states that children, brought up in YEC families and churches, will inevitably see the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and leave the faith. If only that were true!

Finally, his conclusion with the subheading "A Plea for Reason":

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted (p.178)

He continues by saying these battles between science and faith cannot be won by attaching one's position to a flawed foundation. He quotes Benjamin Warfield to emphasize his point: "None should be more quick to discern truth in every field, more hospitable to receive it, more loyal to follow it, whithersoever it leads" (p.179).

The cognitive dissonance is almost too much. Collins encourages others to avoid attaching positions to a flawed foundation, yet at the same time he says one is right to accept the untestable and unverifiable "truths" of the Bible and that one is right to hold that God must be the answer to pressing questions of human existence because science can't explain them (yet).

Other posts in this series:

March 20, 2011, 6:09 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments

Fighting Creationist Pollution of Science Classes

This past weekend was Darwin Day, an international celebration of science and reason in the name of the one person who did more than possibly anyone else to clarify humanity's position in the natural universe. Alas, the great man's legacy is still threatened by religious ignorance:

Researchers found that only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straightforwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology. At the other extreme, 13 percent explicitly advocate creationism, and spend at least an hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.

That leaves what the authors call "the cautious 60 percent," who avoid controversy by endorsing neither evolution nor its unscientific alternatives. In various ways, they compromise.

A survey published in the latest issue of the journal Science found these dispiriting, though hardly surprising, results. The teaching of evolution still faces religious resistance throughout the country. Some biology teachers are a part of it, and work actively to spread ignorance - like the odious John Freshwater, an Ohio high school teacher who repeatedly defied the school's orders not to teach creationism in class, and who was finally terminated last month after a long and drawn-out legal battle - but most of them just keep their heads down, teaching about evolution as little as possible and trying not to draw attention to themselves. Of course, this is just what the creationists want. People who don't know the real facts about evolution are more likely to believe creationist lies, and the cycle of ignorance is perpetuated.

Although defenders of science education have repeatedly triumphed in court, creationists are working at the local level to undercut these victories. Thanks to sympathetic school boards and spineless teachers, they're often succeeding. If we want to turn back their assaults and create a scientifically literate population, it's essential for us to fight at the grass-roots level as well as in the courts. As it stands, we're winning the battles but losing the war.

And the people who can do the most are the ones on the front lines of this conflict. If you're an atheist student and you're not being taught about evolution in school, stand up and say something! Tell the school administration that you object to having your education watered down, that teaching creationism or otherwise bowing to religious objections puts them in a perilous legal position, that you don't want your college applications or your future job prospects harmed because you come from a school with a reputation as a creationist-run laughingstock. Sure, it's entirely possible to learn these things yourself - some students have even won scholarships on the basis of experience debating creationists on the internet. But it still harms your academic resume to come from a school that's known as a cesspool of ignorance. There are smart, freethinking students who've turned the tables on religious intrusions in their schools. We need more of them!

The same applies if you're a parent: join the PTA, go to school board meetings, keep an eye on what's being taught! Creationists, and religious conservatives in general, have the advantage that they're very good at organizing and politically mobilizing - a predictable if unfortunate consequence of a religious ideology that values obedience to dogma and the decrees of leaders. We'll probably never be able to match their lockstep conformity, nor would I want to. But with the law on our side, a small group of dedicated and watchful individuals can have a huge impact.

February 16, 2011, 6:43 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink9 comments

The Language of God: Intellectual Dishonesty

The Language of God, Chapter 6

By B.J. Marshall

Collins begins Part III of his book, entitled "Faith in Science, Faith in God," by trying to wrap his mind around why evolution is so difficult for some religious people to get. He recalls an experience where he was at a men's dinner at a Protestant church discussing how faith and science can mesh. All was well until the senior pastor was asked whether he believed in the literal story of Genesis. The priest carefully chose his words to give a non-answer any politician would be proud of. This prompts Collins to lament: if evolution is so well attested, why is it so hard for people to accept it?

He provides two possible answers: 1) it takes such a long time for evolution to occur that people have a hard time comprehending it, and 2) it seems to contradict the role of a supernatural creator. For his first point, Collins draws a comparison between evolution on earth and a clock, pointing out that, if the earth was formed at 12:00:01 a.m., humans would not have come onto the scene until about 11:59 p.m. For his second point, Collins talks about the creation myths (yes, both of them) in Genesis. To stress the idea that these myths might just be "poetic and even allegorical description" (p.151), he points out some odd things in the stories: Genesis 1 has vegetation showing up three days before humans, while Genesis 2 has humans first; if the sun was not created until the third day, what exactly does the notion of "day" mean? There are lots of contradictions in Genesis that Collins doesn't cover, but he's clearly asserting his view that Genesis ought not be taken literally.

When discussing Genesis and all its various interpretations he mentions St. Augustine, who wrote five analyses of the Genesis accounts:

With these facts in mind, I have worked out and presented the statements of the book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not brashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. (p.152)

It's amazing to me how the Augustine quote Collins pulls parallels the politically adroit Protestant pastor in his non-answer. After writing five analyses on the subject, all Augustine can do is give one big shrug? I find it disappointing sthat the preeminent Doctor of the Church couldn't take a stand on what interpretation might be better. Although, given how violent the church has been throughout history, maybe it was better for him to not ruffle feathers by saying it's all a crock of bull. But what's the pastor's excuse - a need to protect his organization's dependence on dogma?

Collins recounts the problems the church had with heliocentricity in a way to show that this story - science vs. dogma - has been done before. Although scriptural passages speak of how the earth is an immovable foundation, Collins notes that the scientific correctness of the heliocentric view won out despite strong theological objections. Showing the church's strong stance toward science, the Dominican Father Caccini insisted that "geometry is of the devil" and "mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies" (p.155). Collins wonders whether evolution can be harmonized with the Bible just as heliocentricity was. Collins ends his introduction with exhortation from Augustine's De Genesi ad Litteram to say something like, "Hey, Christians. You're really making yourselves look bad when you don't face the indisputable facts."

If [non-Christians] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?

Quick answer, St. Augustine? We won't. Even if Christians had their views right about a range of topics from the efficacy of prayer to heal their kids to evolution and cosmology, that still wouldn't warrant our belief in the resurrection or the walking zombie hordes that accompanied it. We arrived at our understanding of the efficacy of prayer, evolution, and most everything about objective reality through reason and evidence; and our views are provisional based on new evidence that comes to light. I'm doubtful that reason and evidence can get me to buy the resurrection, talking donkeys, zombie hordes, or the existence of a deity.

The next few chapters in this section explore what Collins sees as possible responses to the contentious interaction between the theory of evolution and faith in God:

Given Collins' options with respect to science and faith, and how he sees evolution as just an example of how God operates in the world, I'm more likely to see Option 4 as "When Faith Needs Scientific Help." But even that position is rife with problems since it presupposes that faith is something that needs helping. It's as if people cling to their baseless dogma so tenaciously that they can't budge; all they can do is try to reconcile scientific discoveries to their flawed worldview.

Other posts in this series:

February 7, 2011, 7:30 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

Bowing to the Text

By way of The Panda's Thumb, I came across this story that just had to be shared.

Regular readers of this site are probably familiar with the arch-creationist William Dembski, one of the founders of the intelligent-design movement. When I last wrote about him, I mentioned that he, like other creationists who insist their work is motivated strictly by science and not religion, has somehow ended up at a conservative Christian seminary - in Dembski's case, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

In 2009, Dembski published a book, The End of Christianity. In it, he acknowledged the great age of the universe and the recent emergence of humanity, but argued that Adam and Eve were real individuals whose original sin traveled backwards in time and retroactively corrupted existence from the moment of the Big Bang so that it had always included natural evil. (Neat trick, that.) Although this view represents a dangerous flirtation with scientific fact, he would probably have gotten away with it - except that his book contained one other statement so outrageous it couldn't be allowed to stand:

Noah's flood, though presented [in the Bible] as a global event, is probably best understood as historically rooted in a local event.

Naturally, this drew the immediate ire of Dembski's colleagues at SBTC. In short order, according to an article in the Florida Baptist Witness, he was called before the college president, Paige Patterson, who sternly explained that Dembski had expressed thoughts which professors at SBTC are not allowed to think:

"Had I had any inkling that Dr. Dembski was actually denying the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible, then that would have, of course, ended his relationship with the school," he said.

Surely, this will be remembered as a pivotal moment in the history of the ID movement! One of the godfathers of intelligent design, one of its towering intellectual giants, is called before a religious authority and is told that his views - views which, he says, are based on solid empirical evidence - told that those views clash with the literalist interpretation of the Bible which many members of that particular sect profess. Surely, this would be a chance for Dembski to stand up for himself and affirm his intellectual independence. Surely, this would be the hill where he would plant his flag and fearlessly declare for all the world to see: "Here I stand, I can do no other!"


"In a brief section on Genesis 4–11, I weigh in on the Flood, raising questions about its universality, without adequate study or reflection on my part," Dembski wrote. "Before I write on this topic again, I have much exegetical, historical, and theological work to do. In any case, not only Genesis 6–9 but also Jesus in Matthew 24 and Peter in Second Peter seem clearly to teach that the Flood was universal. As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality."

(I can't read that without hearing the minstrels from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Brave Sir Dembski ran away...")

Take a moment to savor the irony. The ID movement has always made a special point of lamenting how unfairly they've been persecuted by advocates of science, how their views have been unjustly "expelled" from academia. Yet here we have William Dembski, one of the most influential modern creationists, experiencing genuine persecution for his views - and it's coming not from an evolutionary biologist, but from the president of a religious institution! (Meanwhile, creationists such as Michael Behe continue to teach at secular universities and haven't been forced out, even though Behe's views are widely rejected by his colleagues.) Doesn't this speak volumes about which side really stands for freedom of speech, which side welcomes an open debate, and most importantly, which side is doing science?

But just as fascinating, I think, was Dembski's craven response. When threatened with losing his job, he immediately recanted, despite everything he had said before about how his views were founded on the evidence. He immediately surrendered those views and, in his own words, "bowed to the text" - prostrating himself before the Bible and confessing that he believes it, not because that's what the evidence says, but because that's what's written and he knows he's not permitted to doubt or think independently. Regardless of what the facts say, he knows his beliefs must be subordinated to the cold demands of dogma. Is this not a total abdication of intellectual honesty?

That said, the only thing Dembski has really done is to say explicitly what all creationists believe implicitly. Their interpretation of scripture must be held as true, trumping all fact, all evidence and all reason. Their conclusions are dictated to them in advance, prior to any investigation of the world, with no possibility that the 21st-century descendants of the scientific revolution know anything more than the Bronze Age scribes who first wrote these ancient books.

This episode also shows the ongoing collapse of the ID movement's efforts to seek mainstream legitimacy. In the beginning, its advocates put on a pretense of doing science, cloaking their religious intent in neutral language to sneak their way past the First Amendment. But no one was fooled, particularly not the courts. With ID advocates failing to win the scientific acclaim they'd sought, they're falling back on their natural allies - the right-wing churches and religious institutions that never had any qualms about identifying themselves as creationist. Naturally, these groups have little patience for the watered-down legal apologia of ID, and demand instead that everything be slathered with a thick frosting of Jesus. With the ID advocates now dependent on these groups for their livelihood, they're doing as instructed. This is a very positive development for defenders of church-state separation, giving us extra ammunition the next time the advocates of ID try to slip their dogma into public schools.

November 29, 2010, 6:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink23 comments

Creationists Flee from Criticism

A few weeks ago, I was alerted by a Google alert to a post, "Conversation With An Atheist", on the site Everyday Christian. Since I'm always interested to find Christians who want to converse with atheists, to see what they have to say about us and to us, I checked it out. It turned out to be a fairly run-of-the-mill creationist argument by a Christian apologist named Jack Wellman.

Since my interest was piqued, I posted a comment in reply to Mr. Wellman, and then another when he responded (you can see them by following the link to the thread). Several others chimed in as well. Wellman kept responding, using the typical creationist tactic of changing the topic to a new argument every time the previous one was refuted. He also posted several remarks that showed a spectacular misunderstanding of evolution, such as inexplicably claiming that the universality of the genetic code was evidence against common descent, rather than one of the strongest pieces of evidence for it. I tried to correct these fallacies in as civil a manner as possible.

However, at some point, it seems that either Wellman or the site moderators decided he wasn't faring well enough in the debate, and simply stopped allowing new comments to be posted. I subscribed to the thread by e-mail and got one final message several days ago, from another contributor complaining that his previous comments had been censored. But when I checked the thread, this comment had been deleted. Since then, no new comments have been allowed to appear.

This was my last comment, which was submitted over a week ago and hasn't been posted. There's been no explanation from the site moderators as to why it was rejected:

"And so you, evolutionists, and biologists had expected to see something that would link a primitive ancestor to the middle Cambrian animal Pikaia. Explain the archeological evidence that Pikaia had a less-complex ancestor then."

Easily done: Haikouella isn't an ancestor of Pikaia. You've jumped to the erroneous conclusion that a species living at time X must necessarily have been the ancestor of a species at time X+Y.

If you really want to understand this, Jack, I'm happy to explain it. Evolution rarely, if ever, works in a single, smooth trajectory of change - species A changes into species B, which changes into species C, and so on. Instead, what we usually see is a path of descent like a branching bush: species A radiates into species B1, B2, B3... and so on. Most of these go extinct, but B2, say, speciates into C1, C2, and C3, and again, some of the daughter species go extinct and others diverge in their own ways. But species don't have fixed lifespans, and there's nothing to dictate how long a particular species will survive before it goes extinct. There may still be living species from the A or B generation existing side-by-side with far more advanced descendants. It's like having an uncle who's younger than you: for humans, it's unusual but certainly possible. But in evolution, it's downright common.

For obvious reasons, it's difficult to reconstruct an exact line of descent from fossils, just as you probably couldn't put together an exact family tree just by looking at photographs. It's possible that either Pikaia or Haikouella is the common ancestor of all vertebrates, or it may be another species we haven't discovered yet. But what's certain is that evolution was doing a lot of experimenting with chordates in the Cambrian, and what's equally certain is that we came from one of those lineages, because true vertebrates - primitive fish called ostracoderms - start appearing in the Late Cambrian and then in greater variety in the next period, the Ordovician. This was why I wrote "Pikaia or one very like it" - all this detail is what lies behind that little phrase.

"Irises and humans have 25% of the same DNA, so based upon your faulty logic, we should be at least 1/4th part Iris."

It would be more accurate to say that irises and humans are very similar when it comes to the most basic functions of life, which is true, and is a prediction of evolution via universal common descent. Really, why are you so surprised by this? Sure, irises and humans don't look much alike, but at the lowest levels of organization, we have a lot in common.

We're both made out of eukaryotic cells. We both store genetic information in DNA, copy it into messenger RNA, and transcribe that RNA into proteins. We both use ATP as the cellular currency of energy. We both share basic components of cellular metabolism like glycolysis and the Krebs cycle. We have these and many other traits in common because we (that is to say, animals and plants) are both descended from an ancestral eukaryote that did all these things. We've both inherited a common toolbox of genes for performing the basic functions of life - genes that perform functions so basic, it would be essentially impossible for evolution to change them in any major way - and as the human and iris lines diverged, we each added our own specializations on top of that.

"Incidentally, you failed to mention the fact that the genetic code for protein-coding genes is nearly universal in eukaryotes and prokaryotes. Millions of alternative genetic codes exist, so why do all organisms have nearly the same one?"

Again: because we're all descended from a common ancestor. This is actually one of the most powerful lines of evidence for evolution. Why do you think it should be a problem for us?

Note that an omnipotent creator could easily have created every single species with a completely different genetic code, a completely different way of turning genes into protein. That's the kind of evidence that would prove evolution impossible. Instead, what we find is near universality, with just a few very minor variations - the only signature we could reasonably expect from a process of descent with modification.

If you see anything so inflammatory in this comment that a site moderator would have cause to reject it, please tell me what it is, because I'm stumped. The only conclusion I can draw is that Jack Wellman realized he wasn't doing well and didn't want to deal with any further criticism, and prevailed on the site admins to stop letting it through. (I've also saved a copy of the thread in case they go back and delete earlier comments, which wouldn't surprise me at this point.)

Sadly, in my experience, this isn't uncommon. I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that it's pointless to debate creationists and other religious fundamentalists in any forum that they control, because they'll shut down the discussion as soon as they sense they're losing, even if the contrary comments are polite and on topic. They simply can't be trusted to allow a fair and open debate; they have too much to lose. And this isn't true just on web forums, but in wider society, where religious believers constantly try to shut down criticism with blasphemy laws, "hate speech" claims, threats, and every other method fair or foul available to them.

After some searching, I found Mr. Wellman's own site. I've sent him an e-mail to let him know about this post and to invite him to continue the debate here, or even just to explain why my comments stopped being posted. I don't expect much to come of it, but we'll have to see.

July 18, 2010, 12:38 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink25 comments

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