All the creationist fallacies in one easy-to-read pamphlet

If you want to see how the other side thinks, and I mean more than just the vocal leaders at the top of the creationist movement, there’s an excellent example at The Friendly Atheist. It’s written by a fellow who visited his local church, Parkview Christian Church, and reviewed a 25 page pamphlet on creationism put out by the pastor, Tim Harlow.

I have to be blunter than the Friendly Atheist (he’s friendly, after all; I have no such qualifier): Reverend Tim Harlow is sincere, caring, literate, and open to conversation, but his pamphlet is 199 proof distilled stupid, aged in oaken casks and decanted with love. It’s a collection of “scientific” creationism’s greatest hits, from “evolution is just a theory” to “evolution causes sexual deviancy and Naziism”, by way of quote mining, tornadoes in junkyards, Piltdown man, the Loch Ness monster, and every logical fallacy trotted out by the parade of fools we’ve heard from between Henry Morris and Phillip Johnson. This thing is a hotbed of quote mining. He’s quoting Richard Dawkins in support of Intelligent Design creationism; he quotes Carl Sagan to say evolution is impossible; he’s even got the infamous dishonest partial quote of Darwin on the evolution of the eye.

This pamphlet is written as a letter to his children’s teacher, and it’s presented as the work of a well-meaning parent begging a teacher to be fair. I’ve had students who ask me to be fair, before—it usually means they’ve thoroughly bombed on some test, and want some special consideration for their errors. That attitude holds true here, too.

So, as a teacher, you are bound to teach evolution. That is not your fault: it is simply the reality and I do understand that fact. I just want to try to keep you open to the idea that my child, and probably most children in your classroom, do not believe that “theory.” I am asking you to teach (or continue to teach) evolution as just that — a “theory,” and keep your classroom open to other theories of the origin of the world. The essential issue of the famous Scopes trial that started all of this was the fundamental right in a free country to study any theories of origin. At that point, the courts decided that evolution could be taught with creationism. Somehow the pendulum swing went way over to the other side. I would suggest that many people — some scientists included — would like to see it swing back.

Right there in his opening entreaty he demonstrates that he doesn’t know what the scientific meaning of the word “theory” is; I am not kindly disposed. The rest of the pamphlet is even worse, and there wasn’t a single paragraph I could find that was untainted by error. Sorry, Harlow, but it’s only fair that I flunk you.

I hope no teachers are taken in by his phony plea, either. Yes, you are free to learn any old stuff and nonsense you want—does anyone doubt that Harlow’s children are getting thoroughly and repeatedly indoctrinated into the baloney in his pamphlet? —but the job of the public schools should be to teach the best, established, superstition-free ideas, not echo the unscientific myths of ill-informed parents in the community, of whom Harlow is an excellent representative.

Harlow is also representative of the kind of authority figures standing at church pulpits all across the country, trading in fellowship and community good works, and handing out lies, nonsense, and ignorance with a happy glint in his eye. And people believe him—after all, would a preacher lie to you?

Now the scary part: there are pastors like Harlow in your town, right now. And they have congregations that listen to them, and vote, and harass your public school teachers. You should be afraid.


  1. Caledonian says

    Now, now, PZ. Don’t you realize that by claiming the creationists are grossly ignorant liars, you’re driving a stake into the heart of quality science education?

    Clearly the correct course of action is to let this letter to a teacher go unchallenged, serene in the knowledge that our highly knowledgeable teachers will dismiss it out of hand; especially given how secure their job positions are, there’s no need to worry about catering to the masses’ demands. That’s why we pay them so well, after all – to safeguard our children’s minds for us.

  2. says

    And people believe him–after all, would a preacher lie to you?

    My mother-in-law works as a church secretary. That particular church has been without a preacher for a while because the former preacher quit and decided to go sell used cars.

    Somehow, I thought that was an appropriate second job for a preacher.

  3. SteveInMI says

    On reading PZ’s summary, I was tempted to suggest that a counter-strike be launched. After all, the considerate Dr Harlow was kind enough to distill all of the creationists’ drivel in to 25 easy-to-refute pages, right? How could one ask for an easier target? The counter-document might even make a good masters’ project for a motivated grad student.

    I then made the wholly regrettable mistake of attempting to READ the Harlow missive. Maybe you’ve seen the television ads for the insurance comany featuring a shrilly voiced animated duck who “quacks” out the company’s name. I recall seeing one spot in particular where the duck came across Yogi Berra in a barbershop. The legendary coach and language assaulter was spouting off such convoluted nonsense that pitiable Gottfriedian critter was completely stymied… it just stood agape and speechless at the sight of a seemingly rational person spewing utter nonsense with such naive, earthy sincerity.

    I’m sorry to say I’ve read Dr Harlow’s propaganda, and it is EVERYTHING our friend PZ claims. I’d love to give it a good point-by-point refutation, but at the moment I can’t even quack.

  4. James Orpin says

    I love the line “I have good friends and loved ones who believe in evolution and they have a right to their opinion, and I will still love them.”

    So reminiscent of ‘I’m not racist/homophobic I have black/gay friends.’

  5. Chuck says

    Is Kent Hovind credited anywhere in the document? Because his fallacious arguments are referenced on nearly every page. We have the “Lucy’s knee was found two miles from the rest of the skeleton” lie, and the various flawed radiocarbon dating examples — the old “water canopy shielded the earth so Carbon 14 levels were different in the past” is even in there.

    If this pastor shares Kent’s views on taxes as well, he won’t be distributing this pamphlet for very long.

  6. James Orpin says

    He uses the differences and change between the foetal and adult circulations as an example of good design! He doesn’t even get the details right.

    “Then new tissue grows across the [foramen ovale] sealing it off. This muscle contracts only once during the entire duration of life. Yet, if it doesn’t close correctly the first and only time, it could mean the difference between life and death.”

    There is no muscle contratction involved in closing the foramen (he may be thinking of the ductus arteriosus) and failure to close the foramen does not mean death. ~25% of people have a PFO (patent foramen ovale) it means an increased risk of stroke in later life but very little else.

    As for his other eveidence for design two stand out:
    “The crust of the earth is adjusted to within ten feet. Any thicker and there would be no oxygen to breathe.”
    (Don’t mention the difference between mountain crust and oceanic crust, hint it’s more than 10ft)

    If the oceans were a few feet deeper, all the carbon dioxide and oxygen would be absorbed and vegetable life could not exist.
    (Changes of 100ft during glacial interglacial transitions don’t count)

    It almost as if he has no understanding of science ;)

  7. George says

    From the pamphlet: …out of that primordial ooze (that came from where) life appeared in the form of a single-celled amoebae which grew into a fish, to a frog, to a lizard, to a bird and a bunny, to a monkey, to his mom and dad. “And that’s where you came from, Johnny. Now don’t you feel good about yourself?”

    What is so horrible about the idea that we are the product of evolution? It’s amazing and wonderful! I just don’t get it.

  8. valhar2000 says

    I actually find people like this pastor scary; they are crazy. They are not consistent and logical in their crazyness: instead, their minds are full of compartments, and you never know what you will find in the next compartment you open. Thus, he can be friendly, intelligent and reasonable one minute and creationist the next, and who knows what he won’t do after that?

  9. BMurray says

    It’s particularly sad that anyone thinks we ought to adjust what we teach to what the children already believe. I thought the whole point of teaching children was to give them some facts to get going with in order to avoid living in caves forever.

    I guess we better start on the course material for “there really is a boogeyman in the closet”.

  10. says

    If you wanted to learn religion and theology would you choose to learn them someone who’s a total scientific igoramus (and apparently proud of it)?

  11. G. Tingey says

    As I always say: Creationists fall into two non-exclusive groups – folls and lairs.

    I suspect that this “pastor” is wholly in the former group.

    He probably does not realise what a complete load of shite he is peddling.

    Here is a really worthwhile project.
    Convince him that he is wrong.
    However, you will nedd to get practicing or recent christians to do it, since he will probably reject any avowed atheists.

    Because of his pre-set blinkers.

    Sad, isn’t it?

  12. Molly, NYC says

    Why is this directed at Harlow’s kids’ teachers? Why not other parents? If they’re so convinced that ID is true, why won’t they bother to teach it in their own homes, to their own kids, on their own time?

    Nevermind, I’ll tell you: It’s not entirely a matter of imposing their views on the general public. It’s also that if they believe in ID, they’re probably not capable of teaching anything that even resembles science, even if it’s BS. Even in their own homes, even to their own kids.

    ID was never intended to convince anyone who’s especially into science. It was meant to give a science-y-sounding gloss to a superstition, for the benefit of the ignorant. They don’t get the details of ID, any more than they get the details of real science. They just like being told that they’re not superstitious ignoramuses.

    It’s unlikely that Harlow (whose education lists only Bible colleges) has taken a science class of any sort since high school–and he’s what passes for an educated man among the hyper-religious. Among the less-educated . . . really, can you imagine that Evangelical lady on Trading Spouses explaining whatever the hell the IDers’ point is about bacteria flagellae?

  13. says

    What is so horrible about the idea that we are the product of evolution?

    It offends their sense of pride. (One of the seven deadly sins, no less.)

  14. Chris says

    So, as a teacher, you are bound to teach evolution. That is not your fault: it is simply the reality and I do understand that fact.

    For an advocate of a movement that elevates dishonest quote-mining to a lifestyle, he really ought to be more careful how he phrases his own words. Evolution *is* simply the reality, but I doubt he meant to admit it.

  15. Christensen says

    frndly thst? Hw bt tht?

    hv nvr mt n bfr.

    nfrtntly, hstrclly spkng, thsts hv nt lwys bn frndly.

    Wht th hck! Lts f ttmpts t dstry rlgn hv bn md, by mn fr mr brllnt nd tlntd thn th crrnt crp f blggrs.

    Thy hv ll fld nd ndd n rn.

    dn’t s tht ts gng t b ny dffrnt ths tm.

  16. entlord says

    You have to wonder where his kids really do go to school since most of these sorts seem to have all sorts of ideas about what public schools should teach while they either homeschool their own kids or else send the kids to a Christian academy.

  17. Chuck says

    “Unfortunately, historically speaking, atheists have not always been friendly.”

    Right, as compared to that friendliest of gods, Yahweh. Why, in Hosea 13:16 we find a perfect example of his omnifriendliness: “Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.”

    That’s the kind of friendly we atheists tend to avoid.

  18. says

    I then made the wholly regrettable mistake of attempting to READ the Harlow missive.

    Yeah, as you can tell in the comments over there, I only made it through page 10 (and the very beginning of 11) before I had to stop.

  19. says

    Agh, finish thoughts, then post.

    Nice to see that PZ caught this; I was going to mention it to him, but looks like I don’t need to!

  20. says

    Rick: The pastor that performed my marriage ceremony was a used car salesman before becoming a pastor. He didn’t understand a damn thing about science either, yet spouted off on it as if he was a frickin Nobel Prize winner in biology.

  21. Torbjörn Larsson says

    “I recall seeing one spot in particular where the duck came across Yogi Berra in a barbershop. The legendary coach and language assaulter was spouting off such convoluted nonsense that pitiable Gottfriedian critter was completely stymied… it just stood agape and speechless at the sight of a seemingly rational person spewing utter nonsense with such naive, earthy sincerity.”

    “In an AFLAC commercial, Yogi is at a barber shop.
    >Yogi (to barber): Not too close. You think I got that insurance?
    >Man next to Yogi: What insurance is that, Yogi?
    >Aflac Duck (kicking door open): AFLAC.
    >Yogi: The one you really need to have. If you don’t have it, that’s why you need it.
    >Man: Need what?
    >Aflac Duck: AFLAC.
    >Yogi: Well, if you get hurt and miss work, it won’t hurt to miss work.
    >Aflac Duck: huh?
    > Yogi: And they give you cash, which is just as good as money.”
    ( )

  22. McH says

    now I’ve read it and to quote Mr. T. F. Gumby “my brain hurts”. The dinosaur bits were quite amusing, especially the compelling evidence from the Japanese fishing boat and the “Time for Kids” (is it peer reviewed and what is the impact factor?).
    Just a passing thought, has anyone ever tried to persuade the people who want to sneak religion into science classes to consider mandatory science teaching at church or in bible classes?
    One could let the “students” read Mayer and Dobzhansky on evolution for half a year. Or let them read Dennet and Dawkins for the atheism alternative to the theory of religion.
    Anyhow, it’s getting late and I got to be off to feed the brontosaurus now.

    >T. F. Gumby – My brain hurts!
    >Specialist – Well let’s take a look at it, Mr Gumby. (Gumby >specialist starts to pull up Gumby’s sweater.)
    >T. F. Gumby – No, no, no, my brain in my head. (specialist >thumps him on the head).
    >Specialist – It will have to come out.
    >T. F. Gumby – Out? Of my head?
    >Specialist – Yes! All the bits of it. Nurse! Nurse! (a >nurse enters)
    >Nurse, take Mr Gumby to a brain surgeon.

  23. Scott Hatfield says

    Actually, PZ, I’m not the least bit afraid for myself. I know how to deal with these folk. Shoot, just a week ago I ‘crashed the party’ at a local Baptist gathering that was talking up Lee Strobel’s version of ID in a mid-week service. I found my way to the head pastor’s table, waited for the misstatements, then enjoyed a happy hour or so of correcting the misinformation as I could.

    So I’m not afraid, myself. But I *am* very concerned for many of the other science teachers of my acquaintance, because in my experience they don’t have the know-how to combat this stuff effectively.

    BTW, on that note, I look forward to corresponding with this pastor myself….SH

  24. Chris Nedin says

    PZ citing the Reverend Tim Harlow

    The essential issue of the famous Scopes trial that started all of this was the fundamental right in a free country to study any theories of origin. At that point, the courts decided that evolution could be taught with creationism. Somehow the pendulum swing went way over to the other side.

    This is completely ass-backwards (why am I not surprised!). Far from a ‘fundamental right to study any theory of origin’, the Scopes trial came about because of the Butler Act prohibition on the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. The 1925 trial found Scopes guilty of teaching evolution, it did not change the law to allow evolution to be taught. That occured much later, in 1968.

  25. June says

    There is not much one can say to those who are controlled by invisible supernatural powers.

    “To believe on faith is to believe in defiance of rational guidelines, and this is the essence of irrationalism.”
    – George H. Smith in “The Case Against God”

  26. says

    Anyone who could treat any fact of science in such a cavalier reckless fashion could not be trusted to get any text right, it seems to me.

    The pulpit committee at the church should have a conversation with the preacher, insisting on checking the sources for all material used in sermons. There is a severe lack of discernment demonstrated in this pamphlet that should concern the entire congregation.

    Recently several Christian congregations have had difficulty when they discovered their pastors were using sermons from pre-written sources, without credit, or (gasp!) taking sermons from other preachers without acknowledgement. That is considered a great enough sin in many congregations that preachers lose their jobs.

    Here a preacher has made erroneous claims relying on proven unreliable or proven false sources. Surely that is a greater pulpit crime than borrowing good material without credit.

    The “friendly atheist” may be too gentle to make the call to the elders and pulpit committee. Who will do it?

  27. says

    By the way, were there a “water canopy” or a “water vapor canopy” that does what creationists claim, cut off UV light, then all mammals would die of rickets, at a minimum. That UV is essential to building bones that are rigid and strong.

    There is no other source of vitamin D under those ancient circumstances (they didn’t have processed milk in cartons). Is there no nutritionist in that church to see the difficulty? They claim to have more than 3,000 members — what are the odds that they could get 3,000 people, all of whom are completely ignorant of nutrition and the need for vitamin D?

  28. Caledonian says

    There may well be individuals who are aware of the necessity of vitamin D. Those individuals likely also accept the ‘shroud’ idea.

    Until and unless one’s beliefs are logically analyzed, and conclusions drawn from them, contradictions within those beliefs are invisible. It’s necessary to actually put two and two together – until that’s done, they can be oblivious to the fact that four is right in front of them.

  29. suirauqa says

    George wonders:

    What is so horrible about the idea that we are the product of evolution?

    Echoing Dorkafork’s answer to that, I, too, would like to wonder what it is that makes the idea of evolution so repugnant to the average American? Please don’t find it remiss if I indulge in a little generalization, excluding present company of course. It occurs to me that the average American is so sure of his/her superiority over anything that Nature has to offer, that s/he actually finds it distasteful to consider that there were less developed ape-like beings somewhere in the ancestry – never mind the million-year time frames through which the process moved (which they conveniently ignore), or the fact that this does not pertain to any individual but to the entire humankind as such (which they don’t understand).

    Perhaps also, the idea of a common descent from apes shakes the core of the belief system of White man’s superiority over the Black or the Brown or Yellow man (one of the reasons why Jesus – by all accounts, of a middle Eastern origin – inexplicably became blond with blue eyes).

    And therefore, the average American finds it easy solace in religion which panders to all kinds of divisive feelings, and says that the so-called creator created man in his (note the masculine emphasis) own image. This, in turn, makes it easy to regain that shell of heightened self-importance and swollen ego.

    Can this be the real explanation of the religious hysteria so prevalent in this country?

    I have to ask: I was born and raised Hindu, and Hindu philosophy says that there is a spark of the divine in everyone, and that human beings are born pure. Therefore, by that thought alone, every professing Hindu anywhere in the world should have been bursting with militant self-importance [Some, unfortunately, do!!].

    But, though I studied partly in a Christian missionary school and partly in a Hindu missionary school – clarification: these were regular public schools, run by missionaries, not theology schools – why is it that I was never told in my classes that evolution was ‘only a theory’ and there are so-called ‘alternatives to evolution’ to explain the origins of mankind? Why is it that we were always, without exception, taught about the different schools of thought (such as Darwin and Lamarck), and the merits of Darwinism based on available evidence and so forth? Take any high school biology text book (standard X and XII) from India, and you’d see what I mean.

    Then, why is it that before coming to the United States, I was totally unaware that ideas such as ID and creationism and young Earth even existed, against all possible evidence and rationality?

    Of course, I was also totally ignorant of the idea that learning multiplication tables, being able to do mathematical computations in the head, knowing how to do algebra and geometry and so on were such a big deal.

    Thank Cthulhu, I did not have to endure the school system in this country! What if my teacher really received a letter like the Harlow missive and decided to forgo the teaching of biology and the sciences?

  30. says

    Two other comments, and then I really gotta stop before I start tallying the errors (dozens per page, by my count).

    1. I’ll wager the good pastor didn’t bother to get permission before using the cover of the National Geographic Society’s publication. A man who will trample over the intellectual property rights of another with such abandon cannot be counted on to protect the rights of anyone. He didn’t even bother to note the piece was copyrighted. He might claim fair use, except he’s using it contrary to the wises of the Society. The church should try to rectify things by seeking a license for the use.

    2. One more point of dishonesty: The good pastor cites a 1995 resolution from the almost-inconsequential National Association of Biology Teachers (“inconsequential?” Well, consider — they have 9,000 members; there are 15,000 public school districts in the U.S.; there is less than one NABT member for each school district in America. How much influence are we supposed to imagine for the hypothetical?)

    But NABT amended that resolution almost immediately, at the request of Eugenie Scott, in order to avoid creationist claims (like Harlow’s) that the process might challenge any kid’s faith. In fact, the statement has been amended at least three times since. Why does this fellow use an incorrect version that is 11 years old?

    Here is the NABT statement today

    As stated in The American Biology Teacher by the eminent scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973), “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” This often-quoted declaration accurately reflects the central, unifying role of evolution in biology. The theory of evolution provides a framework that explains both the history of life and the ongoing adaptation of organisms to environmental challenges and changes.

    While modern biologists constantly study and deliberate the patterns, mechanisms, and pace of evolution, they agree that all living things share common ancestors. The fossil record and the diversity of extant organisms, combined with modern techniques of molecular biology, taxonomy, and geology, provide exhaustive examples of and powerful evidence for current evolutionary theory. Genetic variation, natural selection, speciation, and extinction are well-established components of modern evolutionary theory. Explanations are constantly modified and refined as warranted by new scientific evidence that accumulates over time, which demonstrates the integrity and validity of the field.

    Scientists have firmly established evolution as an important natural process. Experimentation, logical analysis, and evidence-based revision are procedures that clearly differentiate and separate science from other ways of knowing. Explanations or ways of knowing that invoke non-naturalistic or supernatural events or beings, whether called “creation science,” “scientific creationism,” “intelligent design theory,” “young earth theory,” or similar designations, are outside the realm of science and not part of a valid science curriculum.

    The selection of topics covered in a biology curriculum should accurately reflect the principles of biological science. Teaching biology in an effective and scientifically honest manner requires that evolution be taught in a standards-based instructional framework with effective classroom discussions and laboratory experiences.

    Adopted by the NABT Board of Directors, 1995. Revised 1997, 2000, and May 2004. Endorsed by: The Society for the Study of Evolution, 1998; The American Association of Physical Anthropologists, 1998.

    Why not tell the whole truth, Pastor Harlow?

  31. says

    First church I went to, the pastor left after ten years because he’d been finally caught up to by his debtors and had embezzled roughly a quarter of a million dollars over those ten years from the congregation, including using several trusting members’ houses as collateral against his activities, and had to skip town or go to prison. All to prop up a dozen failed technology businesses.

    I find that honesty and christianity do not only not go hand in hand, they run far and fast from one another.