Why I Don’t Trust The Creationism Movement


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.)

Comments

  1. Brother Ogvorbis, Fully Defenestrated Emperor of Steam, Fire and Absurdity says

    I recently went to get an MRI done of my lower back (on the job injury from ~18 months ago). I brought some recreational reading along (to a doctor’s office? always) which was Earth before the Dinosaurs (Life of the Past) by Sébastien Steyer and Alain Bénéteau (excellent book for a competent layperson). The technician came out to get me and asked what I was reading. I showed it to him.

    He said, “I am a creationist. You must be an atheist. I believe in evolution, but each kind was created separately. And the earth is much younger than science says. About 15,000 years.”

    Which, right off the bat, worried me. Here I am, in a major non-profit, non-religious hospital, in the radiology department, with a young earth creationist who subscribes to baraminology. Yikes.

    He, as he prepared me for the procedure, explained that he had a degree in science (yes, that is how he phrased it) and believed all of the old earth propaganda until he got a Ken Ham film about dinosaurs and, boom, he was a young earth created kinds creationist.

    I didn’t even try to argue.

    He kept proselytizing. Through the headphones (to protect my ears, but he could use a mike to talk to me).

    Turns out, I am claustrophobic. Not sure if the incipient panic attack was because of the very tight MRI, or the idea that a radiologist was a young-earther.

    As I got dressed again, I pointed out that, if the earth is really as young as he thinks it is, none of the machines that use radioactive decay in his radiology department would work.

    He stopped talking and said, “I never thought of that.”

    I left (later got the MRI at an open MRI facility (with people who did not try to proselytize)) and sent a nice email to the radiology department concerning his proselytizing.

    Long story, I know, especially for a first comment on your blog.

    But it struck me as amazing that he was converted to young earth creationism by a Ken Ham video. Apparently, they are out there.

    • Dr Sarah says

      I very nearly laughed out loud when I got to “I never thought of that.”

      Interestingly, such is the ability of the human mind to compartmentalise things that he might very well have been an excellent radiology tech. Sounds like you made a chink in that wall, anyway – we can only hope it came to something. Of course, berating a patient of his with his religious beliefs is never appropriate behaviour, so good on you for following it up with an e-mail.

      By the way, does your name have as good a backstory as it sounds as though it has, or is it just an excellent collection of random words?

  2. Cuttlefish says

    I got to hear Duane Gish talk at Cuttlefish U. in the 1980s. As soon as I saw the posters announcing the talk, I went to the library to check up on him… and found a book that, like your journal’s special edition, dissected his talk point by point. I figured he’d have to have changed some of his tactics since they had been so thoroughly dismantled, but the talk he gave appears to be the one, slide for slide, that had been addressed. It was infuriating, actually.

    He was very good; his “Gish Gallop” left geologists wondering about the biology, biologists wondering about the astrophysics, and astrophysicists wondering about the geology. Divide and conquer!

    Thanks for the story, and for the journal recommendation! It’s now on my reading list.

    • Dr Sarah says

      Well, bear in mind it was written in 1982, and all that information and more is now easily available on the Internet anyway. But at the time it was a absolute breath of fresh air.

      Creationists are tricksy buggers. But surely those geologists/biologists/astrophysicists would have all at least known that Gish was blatantly misrepresenting the state of play in *their* bit of the science? Didn’t that clue them in?

  3. dannorth says

    “Creationism is not a movement that can be trusted to give accurate or reliable information about anything.”

    In my opinion quite an understatement. From what I have seen the Creationist/ID mouvement is mostly about muddying the issue.

    The followers are probably honest in their belief but the amount of fallacious statements by creationists would fill a fair sized library.

    It was interesting to read your story. I live in Québec, Canada where Creationism doesn’t get much traction but I see the fight being wage to stop it the US with sympathy.

    • Dr Sarah says

      Luckily for me, I live in Great Britain, which is also a relatively creationist-free zone. I only got into that debate because I had actively and knowingly signed up for a debate group based on a Christian worldview. The situation in the USA, with students actually getting *taught* this rubbish, sounds appalling.

  4. grumpyoldfart says

    I’m not surprised to hear about people jumping from atheism to creationism after a single video or sermon. I used to watch it happen nearly every Sunday evening when the street preachers would be surrounded by a small group of listeners and suddenly one of them would lurch forward and dedicate their life to Jesus. They knew nothing about the bible; they had never owned one, and never read one, but suddenly they were devout Christians who regarded the bible as the source of all knowledge.

    It happens in bulk as well. Think of the old Billy Graham altar calls. Hundreds of people, utterly ignorant of the Christian religion, flocking to the altar to sign a pledge that they will spend the rest of their life dedicated to the service of the Lord. [Here, sign this piece of paper. I’ll fill in the details for you later.]

    But why? Well the new convert now knows everything. Just tuck the bible under your arm and the knowledge seeps in through the skin. All of those what, where, when and why questions can be instantly (and authoritatively) answered with the words, “God did it”. And two billion fellow believers will agree with you – so how could you be wrong!?

    Isaac Asimov summed it up rather neatly when he said, “God is a three letter word meaning ‘I don’t know’.”

    • Dr Sarah says

      Interesting… I think the ‘conversion after one sermon or altar call’ thing is actually a different phenomenon with different factors at play. What happens in those cases is that the preacher deliberately whips up a highly-charged emotional atmosphere to stimulate people to make a major declaration of change.

      In a lecture or video, on the other hand, what you have is someone planting a seed that may then go on to blossom into a conversion later, with enough metaphorical watering. Donna, in this account, didn’t jump straight to creationism – she became interested and looked to find out more, eventually leading to her conversion. Unfortunately, she seems to have made the very natural and human mistake of looking for more information from the people who were sounding so superficially convincing (and probably very warm and helpful to her as well), and failing to check out the other side.

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