Jonny Scaramanga wrote a good post explaining why creationism matters.
We should be worrying about creationism. But everyone is worried about it for the wrong reasons. Yes, creationism is false, and young-Earth creationism is particularly ridiculous. But with thousands of false beliefs in circulation, why should we particularly care about creationism? It doesn’t make much difference to my daily life whether or not I accept that all life on Earth shares a single common ancestor, or that the planet is 4.54 billion years old. Even in science, there are limited areas where the fact of common descent is immediately relevant.
The trouble is that the areas of fundamentalism which are truly oppressive— the denial of women’s rights and bigotry against LGBTQ people, for example—are intimately bound up with creationism. You’ll notice that, amid its busy schedule of producing pseudoscience, Answers in Genesis has found time to oppose gay marriage. There aren’t a lot of copies of The Selfish Gene in Quiverfull homes, either. These facts are not coincidences.
I agree. It takes a special something to regard a book as literally infallible, and once you’ve adopted that position, it leads to a remarkable acceptance of antique ideas that contradict the modern experience. Answers in Genesis, for instance, gets a lot of press for pushing creationism, but to the fundamentalist community, they do a heck of a lot more: they affirm the centrality of “Bible-believing” dogma to a whole flock of issues. They fuel the kind of apocalyptic despair that the Bible is so good at promoting: denying the literal truth of the book of Genesis is just the thin edge of the wedge, because next they’ll question Jesus, and then the doctrine of Original Sin, and then the whole idea of salvation, and next thing you know, your children are having gay sex before burning in Hell.
Strangely, Jerry Coyne disagrees.
His problem is that Scaramanga doesn’t blame religion enough.
I think the problem with this logic is obvious. Yes, of course the same people who accept creationism by and large favor a secondary role for women and promote discrimination against gays. But that doesn’t make creationism any worse than it already is; all that means is that it’s a symptom of a larger syndrome.
That syndrome is called religion, and its instantiation in this case is fundamentalist Christianity and much of Orthodox Judaism. But just because creationism is linked to these other symptoms doesn’t make it matter more. It’s like saying that because nerve damage, frequent thirst, and slow healing of cuts are all symptoms of diabetes, the frequent thirst matters more than it did when we were unaware of the other symptoms.
What matters is the underlying cause of all three conditions, and that is religion. The Biblical connection between these three forms of bigotry and ignorance means that we should fight harder against religion, not fight harder against creationism. If we prohibit the teaching of creationism in schools, will that efface the homophobia and misogyny of its adherents? I don’t think so. Now Scaramanga would be right if by concentrating on creationism, rather than on religion in general or on homophobia and misogyny, we could get rid of religion faster. But I’m not sure that’s the case. You cure the disease by attacking the disease, not by treating one of its symptoms.
I oppose religion, too. But how do you treat it? Religion is a complex smear of compulsions and rituals and traditions, and it’s all tied up in identity. It’s a category error to treat it as one “cause”, and all of us treat the symptoms. Coyne promotes science and fights creationism, and those are just as much combating symptoms as critiquing Quiverful philosophy or going after bad educational policies or or ridiculing politico-religious arguments. Religion is a personal phenomenon, and we’re all batting at eruptions of nonsense in the hope that it will awaken people to the problem.
I have no idea how we’re supposed to attack the cause in this case other than by chomping at the weaknesses, bit by bit. It’s not as if there is some central citadel called RELIGION that we can assault, and after it falls, everyone just stops believing.
Scaramanga has an excellent rebuttal. If you’re going to pin problems like creationism, sexism, and homophobia on a root cause, you better be sure you pick the right one.
The underlying cause of creationism, homophobia, and misogyny, says Jerry, is religion, and it is religion we must oppose. And here, I suspect, it is Jerry whose logic is flawed. Clearly, not all religion is all of these things, althoumuch (perhaps most) of it is. Some religious people are among the most vocal opponents of creationism, and for some their faith is an extra reason to oppose the subjugation of women and gay people. Some of those people are among this blog’s most vocal supporters. So we’re going to need a different reason to oppose all religion, because this one is not fit for purpose.
Biblical literalism, on the other hand, is a root cause of all three of the problems at hand. The problem is the way creationists read the Bible. It promotes not just creationism, patriarchy, and gay-bashing, but also the denial of history, the enthusiastic acceptance of immorality, and an irrational rejection of opposing evidence. It is an intellectual black hole. But not all religion is Biblical literalism.
There is a syndrome of denial — the rejection of sexual and racial equality, for instance — but mere religion isn’t part of it. There are atheists who are as rancidly awful as anything out of the Phelps clan, and religious people who are selfless, egalitarian, and open-minded. Coyne is just flat out wrong.
But I can also understand one aspect in which he is right. If your central concern is truth, then all religion is equally terrible, because they all promote faith and the acceptance of nonsense. If the disease is lies, then yes, religion is a cause, and you should attack it on those grounds.
But that’s not the only disease we have to deal with. If religion is the Father of Lies, then dogma and tribalism and authoritarianism are the Mother of Injustice. These aren’t the same thing. You can use the truth to promote evil, and lies to promote good. Obviously we’d like to support both, and use truth to create good consequences for people, but you’ve also got to prioritize…and sometimes you have to focus on Justice, not just Truth. Knowing that the Earth is 4½ billion years old is cold comfort when you’re starving, or being beaten to death because your sexuality fails to conform to the mean, or being shot or imprisoned because authorities think your skin color means you deserve it. Maybe we should be wagging our fingers at Quakers and liberal Catholics and Episcopalians for believing in very silly things, but there are also times when we should be far, far more concerned about conservative literalists in high office who think Noah’s myth means we don’t have to worry about climate change, that Leviticus and the Ten Commandments are the laws of the land, and that the book of Revelation should guide our foreign policy.
Coyne is arguing from the position that values truth most of all; Scaramanga is standing up for justice. Both are essential to a well-rounded atheism. Truth and justice. Reason and compassion.
But then Coyne concludes his blog post with an incoherent mess…which also lets slip what really bugged him about Scaramanga’s post.
Why do I care about this logical fallacy? Because I see the evolution/creation battle as separate from the other battles about “social justice” that currently sunder the atheist “community” (if there is one). While I think all atheists are opposed to creationism, and most of us see religion as harmful, there are huge schisms in the movement about matters of social justice—more often about “misogyny” (a word sometimes applied to feminists who don’t agree with other feminists) than about homophobia, which all of us despise. I don’t want to have my battles against creationism subsumed into the “atheist wars”.
So much wrong to unpack in one little paragraph.
Sure, you can see evolution/creation as one battle, and social justice (which is a whole bunch of battles) as another. But how does this hang with his claim that there is one central cause, religion, which ties everything together into a neat bundle? We all have our causes and our talents, and I can say, you go, Dr Coyne. Be all the Jerry Coyne you can be. But that doesn’t mean you get to tell everyone else how they should combat religion. Your (and my) battle against creationism is a relatively narrow front, and one that actually doesn’t matter to a lot of people.
What he’s really doing here is suggesting that “social justice” and “misogyny” (in lovely scare quotes) are lesser concerns, or even distractions, because they cause these schisms. The implication is that there are legitimate concerns for atheism (Science!) and others that are less worthy (Feminism!) But I see the reverse. Because these cause Deep Rifts, it makes them more important to resolve.
I would throw his own words back at him. If religion is the central cause of all these ills we must oppose, how is it that atheists, who have if nothing else shed the poisonous burden of religion, can still promote sexism, racism, transphobia, etc.? Shouldn’t that tell you right there that theres more to it than religion? Unless, of course, you are vested in the attitude that we atheists can escape culpability by trivializing the problems. We just define away social problems propagated by atheists as non-serious!
And a fine job of trivializing he does. “Misogyny” can be waved away by putting it in quotes and claiming it’s a meaningless insult thrown by feminists at other feminists. Boko Haram apparently doesn’t exist; nor does the gunman who shot Malala Yousafzai; or the Republicans who campaign against reproductive rights for women; and Elliot Rodger was just crazy, don’t you know. We can all agree to despise homophobia (not all atheists do, actually), with the implication that endemic sexism is ignorable. Never mind that the Abrahamic religions that we’re supposed to fight are deeply patriarchal and misogynistic at their heart.
In fact, oppression of women and of gays are matters of greater import than is the teaching of creationism, and if I could wave a magic wand I’d make the first two disappear before the third. But it’s important to recognize that the bigger battle for social justice, however you define it, is the battle against religion, not against its symptoms. Those symptoms can and should be fought individually, but just as we can’t say that homophobia becomes more important because it’s philosophically linked to creationism, so we can’t say that creationism is more important because it’s philosophically linked to homophobia. There’s that unrecognized third variable in the mix!
OK. Once again: how do we fight religion without fighting its symptoms? Why fight against religion if you think social justice is something you postpone dealing with until religion is magically vanished? Why is religion the central variable we have to change when, as Scaramanga pointed out, there are religious individuals and organizations working hard for causes we all agree are important, while some atheists are fighting against them?
I would think that if we’re going to make opposition to religion our central cause, we’d also have a good body of clearly spelled out principles we’re fighting for, and if social justice isn’t high on the list, I’d like to know why.