There Is Hope For Atheists! At least, Ken Ham at the creationist site Answers in Genesis thinks so. I’m sure you’re all as relieved as I was to hear that.
(A shout out, by the way, to Libby Anne’s post on the subject on her excellent blog Love, Joy, Feminism, without which I would not have found that article. I have not yet reached the strength of stomach required to actually browse AiG in search of reading matter.)
The hope in question, it seems, is that creationists may yet manage to persuade us to give up the ‘evolutionary ideas’ in which we have been ‘indoctrinated’ and turn to Christianity instead. (Ken Ham is one of those people whose worldview holds Christianity and evolution to be incompatible, hence the either-or.) What gave Ham this hope, or at least what inspired him to write this article about it, was apparently an encounter with a woman called Donna who, according to her testimony, actually did convert from atheism and ‘evolutionary ideas’ to Christianity after hearing one of his lectures back in 1993. Donna is quoted as saying:
I was a die-hard evolutionist, completely convinced that the fossil finds in Olduvai Gorge supported the “evidence” that we evolved from less-complicated, early hominid creatures, like the so-called “Lucy”.
To keep a long story short: I attended a Creation Seminar at Cedarville College [now Cedarville University], sat in rapt attention as Ken Ham told me “the rest of the story,” and I realized that all of the fossil finds I believed supported evolution were, in all cases, misinterpreted. I was blown away! So, learning the truth about evolution preceded my realizing that God was real (after all!) and that the Bible was His Word. I became a creationist before I became a believer in Christ.
She then went on to convert to Christianity and spend a blissful life reading the Bible, listening to Christian music, and raising two God-fearing daughters, one of whom went on to marry a pastor. All thanks to Ken Ham’s creationism (and Jesus, of course), natch.
So, this story (the bit I quoted in italics, not the rest) reminded me of something that happened when I was still in medical school.
I was at a student discussion group run by a fundamentalist Christian couple, the remit of which was to discuss controversial issues from a primarily Christian perspective. I wasn’t a Christian and had absolutely no desire whatsoever to become one, but I was a lonely, insecure introvert with limited social skills and a desperate desire to feel part of a tribe, so every year at Freshers’ Fair I would sign up for any group that sounded even vaguely interesting, and the group was happy to accept my sign-up. (You know… reading that over, I bet they really were.) Besides, this was pre-Internet; I didn’t have that many other opportunities to have heated discussions about controversial issues.
So, a few weeks in, we ended up doing the topic of creationism vs. evolution. And the people running it showed us a video about why we should believe creationism. The narrator told us about all the reasons why, despite all scientific claims to the contrary, the Earth could not possibly be any more than a few thousand years old and therefore there was no chance that the diversity of life that exists today could have developed through evolution. I watched and listened to the explanations of why radioactive dating was hopelessly unreliable, of how research had demonstrated that neutrino flux would destroy any shreds of reliability that radioactive dating retained, of how the Earth’s magnetic field would have been far too strong thousands of years ago for the Earth to have held together in those days. It was well-presented, logically argued, persuasive, compelling. It sounded extremely convincing.
Weeeeeeell…. except for the fact that believing this video would mean believing that scientists – a bunch of extremely clever people with a whole lot of degrees and PhDs and scientific knowledge to their credit – had somehow all, every last one, collectively missed the existence of all this apparently unarguably persuasive evidence. Somehow, that bit didn’t really seem very convincing at all.
Something just wasn’t adding up right here. I decided I really wanted to find out what the other side of this story was, and that I wanted to reserve judgement till then.
This was, as I said, in pre-Internet days, so it wasn’t all that easy. On the plus side, however, I did have access to both a major city centre library and a university library where I could read journals. I was (am) also obsessively persistent. I plugged away over the week, ferreting out what bits of information I could on the topic; and in due course my search led me to the Journal of Geological Education 1982, vol 30, issue 1.
The Journal of Geological Education 1982; 30(1) was an issue devoted entirely to debunking Young Earth Creationist claims. And oh, what a delight it was to find. It covered every single point the video had covered and then some, and it did it beautifully. It explained, in ways that I as a non-geologist could follow with reasonable ease, exactly how and where each of their claims was wrong. The claim about the neutrinos. The claim about the Earth’s magnetic field. The claim about the cosmic dust. The claim about the misdated Hawaiian volcano. Every last point that that video had raised was in there and was deliciously debunked.
It was fantastic reading. I blessed the authors who’d written it (which was rather ironic of me, come to think of it). I was hugely grateful to them for putting so much time and effort into spelling out why all these plausible-sounding creationist claims were such utter rubbish.
(And I wasn’t oblivious to the implications of them having done so. After all, these were sciencey people running a science journal, so they no doubt had all sorts of far more important and interesting things to write about than hopelessly failed science and the ways in which it had hopelessly failed. And yet they had felt the need to devote an entire issue to it. Why, it was almost as if… no, surely not… almost as if Creationists were really renowned for insisting on spreading utter misinformation to the point where they were making a major nuisance of themselves!)
Anyway, I made careful notes, typed them up, and took them with me to the next week’s meeting, where I somewhat diffidently informed the group that before we got started I had been reading about the things we’d been told last week and thought I had better let them know what I’d found out. I went through each point in turn and explained to them the things I’d learned about why all the claims we’d heard were in fact known to be completely and hopelessly inaccurate.
After I’d finished, there was a short silence while everyone tried to figure out what to say next. The man in charge eventually said “Right. Well, that was… very good, and obviously we’d have to ask you for your references for everything you’ve just said…”
“Journal of Geological Education 1982, volume 30,” I chirped brightly, best Helpful Mode on. “On the _____ floor in the ______ library. Around [details of roughly where on the shelves I’d found the issue located].”
“Ah… yes. Thanks. We’ll… look into that. Thank you.”
And we moved on to discuss whatever that week’s issue was and let the matter drop. I have no idea whether that incident made any lasting difference to the worldview of anyone there. But it is nonetheless satisfying to know that at least that was one time when creationists didn’t get away with spreading their lies unopposed.
Meanwhile, my take-home message from that incident was, of course, that Creationism is not a movement that can be trusted to give accurate or reliable information about anything. Sadly, nothing that I have learned about them since then has ever done anything to disprove this.
All of which leaves me with the thought that, if this story about Donna is actually true (and I do take the point of the commenters on Libby Anne’s article that it may not be), then what happened was that she had the same first reaction as I had, but not the second. She had the “Wow, I never heard all this before and it sounds so plausible! There must be something to it!” reaction, but not the “But how could every scientist have somehow missed this? This doesn’t make sense. Better check this out further.” Instead, she looked for further answers from the very group that was – unbeknownst to her – feeding her misinformation, rather than checking the accuracy what they had to say.
(Which is, unfortunately, a very normal human reaction; so much so that it has a name, confirmation bias. Our natural tendency as humans is to look for information that supports what we already believe to be right, rather than actively searching for the existence of information that might potentially prove us wrong. I escaped that tendency on this occasion, but there have been many other times in my life when I fell into the confirmation bias trap and wasn’t too proud of myself later when I realised. Although, mind you, while Donna ended up believing Creationism, I’ve ended up an atheist skeptic with my very own FreeThoughtBlogs platform, so I guess I must have done something right somewhere along the way.)