Thursday, October 08, 2009

Creationism And Politics

It has been fashionable for years for people to write books about the conflict between faith and science. Some hope to resolve the conflict, some wish to solidify it.

I’m not going there, not because I don’t have an opinion, but because any discussions involve people willfully misunderstanding each other. So much time is spent explaining “I said this, but not that,” “No you didn’t, you are just avoiding my point,” and folks giving out the same tired formulas as if they are some great new revelation that it’s not worth the annoyance level for me. Dueling soapboxes, rather like Hyde Park, but less colorful.

There are some interesting practical considerations, however, and that might be fun. (For me, that’s who.) Volokh Conspiracy recently had a thread about a 7D creationist running for political office, and whether that should be an automatic disqualifier. As an evangelical and an evolutionist, the question interests me.

Much depends on how the question came to be raised. If the candidate is bringing it up as an issue, it’s a red flag for me on two counts:
1. He’s majoring in minors in terms of governance.
2. He’s majoring in minors in terms of culture war.
The fact that he is also wrong on the issue is nearly irrelevant. A candidate focused on keeping creationists out would be almost as bad. Someone needs to enroll in a local Get A Life chapter. The issue is more symbolic than real.

OTOH, if the issue is only coming up because some journalist is trying to make him look bad, I am less concerned. It’s a pink flag, but not a red one. The usual argument that this person will have to make decisions about Science! as an elected official doesn’t hold up well. The amount of science mythology running around about vaccinations, organic and GM foods, or - God-help-us - energy sources is much more pertinent. Creationism is not an infallible proxy for scientific understanding and belief in genral. It is a good proxy for attitudes toward taking academics’ word for things. That has overlap with scientific understanding and belief, but it is not the same thing.

I believe the evidence for the general outline of the theory of evolution is considerable, but I did not produce any of that evidence. Even armed with a manual, I could not easily replicate any of the thousands of observations and experiments that have gone into that body of evidence. Time and money constraints, let alone training, would prevent nearly all of from going to the Galapagos Islands and redoing even Darwin’s observations of a century ago. Even among the few who have contributed to the scientific underpinnings of the belief, they have done so in only one narrow field. They are dependent on the knowledge of others for 99% of the rest. The belief in evolution is built from thousands of bits of information across a dozen disciplines. That is its strength.

I read a bit in linguistics, prehistory, and evolutionary psychology. I used to read a bit in astronomy and anthropology. I do not approach an expert’s knowledge in any of those fields, but I have some idea of what is generally known and plausible. The evidence from all those fields points in the direction of an ancient universe and changes in species over time. I don’t believe in evolution because of any one of those skeins of knowledge but because everywhere I turn, that theory – or something close to it – seems necessary for the knowledge to fit together coherently. A vast conspiracy across all those disciplines to hide true knowledge is surpassingly unlikely.

Do I need to mention that those who are most irritated by creationists aren’t able to do the foundational research either? They take other people’s word for stuff – as do I, remember, so there’s no sneer in that – often without any particular understanding of why. It is not simply a matter of whether you trust the smart good people or the stupid evil ones. An entire complicated epistemology of how we know things, who we trust, what doubts and exceptions we have, and how we act on it goes into this. Always believing the scientific consensus doesn’t have such a great political history, even through the 20th C.

But one would think that a belief in 7D creationism would be highly problematic for evaluation of any scientific knowledge. Yet that is a superficial interpretation, itself driven more by culture war than science. I disapprove of creationism or even Intelligent Design being taught in public schools, but the idea that we completely undermine children’s belief and understanding of science by doing so is simply absurd. Belief in the received authority of the dominant intellectual culture is what is really undermined, and why they are so upset by it. The energy behind the issue, both on the creationist-encouraging and creationist-stomping sides, comes from the war of cultural dominance, not science education. I am always torn whether such ironies amuse or irritate me. (I have a soon-upcoming post about the impressions that evolutionists try and create, versus the facts.)

There are a half-dozen types of creationism, for openers, with varying degrees of friendliness to evolution.

There are engineers who are 7D creationists – people who design wings, or circuits, or chemical processes. Doctors, chemists, mathematicians, and a dozen other –ists are found even among the Young Earth Creationists. Whether they encounter intellectual conflicts with the information in their narrow fields and how they deal with that I don’t know. But they seem to be able to do their jobs, don’t they? Some scientists also have specific carve-outs in their beliefs for creationism, having concluded that belief in a literal Genesis 1 is necessary for their faith, and putting aside scientific information they understand quite well, undealt-with. That may be a problem, but it isn’t a scientific understanding problem.

At a more popular level, people believe contradictory things all the time. Parents who tell pollsters they are biblical creationists (so that they don’t appear to be saying anything bad about God or the Bible) and even make impassioned statements at school board meetings still get thrilled at how much their fourth-grader is interested in dinosaurs or astronomy or geology. Those of you who make condescending noises at that – D’you shop at Whole Foods…Go to casinos… diets…supplements…unproven medical interventions…

I could offend all of you if I kept going, couldn’t I?


Ben said...

I recently gave a physics talk at a science-and-theology conference attended by conservative Lutheran theologians, pastors and lay folk. The conference agenda was designed to avoid the whole "creatonism/evolution" debate, which has been discussed to death in that denomination. But it was on everyone's mind and formed the subtext for many of the questions asked. It was interesting (and depressing) to see how sore a point this has become.

My main worry about "7D" creationists is the religious harm they do. They believe that, if you are a serious faithful Christian, then you must accept the Biblical account of creation as a literal description. Some people believe this, but apply it the opposite way. These are led by their intellectual consciences to leave or avoid the faith.

In less charitable moments, I wonder whether this is the actual intention of (some of) the creationists. A strictly literal reading of Genesis becomes a kind of circumcision -- the mark of the true faithful and a barrier to the Gentiles. It keeps the riff-raff out of church.

As you mention, there are also people on the other side who would use belief in evolution as a prerequisite for participation in the public/political sphere. I don't like that much either.

So I'm not offended yet. Keep trying!

Donna B. said...

I admit ignorance... is 7D creationism a belief creation occurred over 7 days?

Mike O'Malley said...

That's a good question Donna. At first it seemed 7D was a typo for ID (Intelligent Design). I'd guess we are both out of this loop and that a bit of clarification might be helpful.

terri said...

"At a more popular level, people believe contradictory things all the time. Parents who tell pollsters they are biblical creationists (so that they don’t appear to be saying anything bad about God or the Bible) and even make impassioned statements at school board meetings still get thrilled at how much their fourth-grader is interested in dinosaurs or astronomy or geology."


I would love a post about how you approached this with your kids when they were growing up. Were you as certain of evolution then as your are now? How did your children reconcile that with what they were probably being taught in church, christian school etc?.....not that I intend to assign you posts to write......I'm just curious because it's what I'm facing right now.

I had to sit quietly and painfully listening to my children and my brother's children arguing over the origin of the universe the last time we were all together. All of them are very smart, but my brother's children kept asserting that the universe was only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs and humans lived together and my children scoffed at such statements, sure that the dinosaurs died long before humans and that the universe is millions/billions of years old.

Unwilling to start a family scuffle, I tried to change the subject and suggest they go do something outside. I'm a coward.

Believing in Creationism shouldn't be a disqualifier for a politician. There are so many more pressing issues and creationists can be quite capable at so many other important aspects of governing.

karrde said...

I think I join you in some respects. My knowledge of the physics behind certain portions of the broad theory may be deeper, but I end up at roughly the same place.

Of course, I was a little surprised (and later intrigued) when I realized that not all the giants of the faith taught a literal rendering of Genesis 1.

I was even more surprised when I read an agnostic scientist write about ultimate beginnings in God and the Astronomers.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

terri, tough question. Tough position to be in, though not unique. My sons when to heavily Baptist schools where creationism was taught. I don't think I had a master plan about how I was going to deal with that, though I thought about it. I think you have to play the cards as they come up, and not force the issue.

I am sure that my approach was different at different ages. I doubt that I forcefully said "I am an evolutionist" until they were well into HS. But very early on, I let them know that different Christians (not just different "people") saw this differently. I allowed a fair bit of ambiguity. In terms of other people being confrontive with them, I took the same tack that I took with our not teaching Santa Claus and Easter Bunny (even though our own parents pushed those beliefs). Our family is a bit different. Be polite. Not everyone understands things as we do. I would drop things in judiciously as we went along.

In terms of your brother, you might make an appeal where it hits evangelicals hardest: "I'm not willing to lose my children over something that not even Christians agree about." Then don't press it, but let that sit.

If my sons Jonathan and Ben could weigh in on this I'd be grateful. I may not remember what I said to them, actually, and may be making myself wiser in retrospect than I really was.

GraniteDad said...

What Dad said mattered little, I'm afraid.

Dinosaurs = Awesome flesh-ripping monsters of destruction.

When the first 7D creationist told me that maybe God put the dinosaur bones out there to test our faith, they lost me forever.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That 7D thing. I made up the abbreviation, thinking that people would lock into it after a few uses in context.

terri said...

AVI....not to usurp your role of "precision enforcer"...but shouldn't it be 6D creationist?...after all, day 7 God slept in.


Boethius said...

I am not a 6D creationist however I am a creationist. The science supports micro-evolution but it would take faith for me to swallow macro-evolution.

Terri: my children attended one of the same schools as AVI's sons. I handled the debate by having lots of books, supporting different theories, in the house to refer them to whenever they had questions. The biggest question they wrestled with during their HS years was predestination. That is the topic I sent them over to the bookshelves for most often.

Ben Wyman said...

Terri, God did not "sleep in" on the 7th day. He went to church - and the early service, because he's more holy.

I have stronger memories of the creation/evolution argument than Jonathan does, I think. During my time in high school, I was taught 7D creationism so heavily that it amounted to - and I don't use this word lightly, though I'm sure this wasn't their intention - brainwashing. Not only was 7D creationism true, people who questioned the theory were wrong. Evolution was a run by a massive propaganda who hated Christians, and the reason that most of the world believed it is because they'd been brainwashed by it (and also because they hated Christians). People who spoke up with objections were shot down and sometimes disciplined for being troublemakers.

What's strange is that most of the more dramatic memories I have of this happened not in science class, but in Bible class, usually taught by either our principal or our guidance counselor, both of whom felt they had "scientific minds." We did lengthy studies about how evolution was a fraud, using a lot of very questionable pieces of information. I remember watching a video and thinking "why are we taking Jerry Falwell's opinions on fossil records as scientific fact?"

What's interesting about this strategy is that it totally worked. I was fully convinced that 7D creationism was a fact, evil evolution scientists were trying to disprove God, etc. I remember having a conversation with AVI and him mentioning that the major purpose of creationist theory was to seek out the holes in evolutionary theory and keep evolutionist accountable, and thinking "well, that's just wrong."

At the same time, none of the pieces seemed to fit together in my head, and almost the moment I arrived at college and took my first science class, the whole house of cards started to tumble. Why would scientists continue to use carbon dating if it was as ridiculously inaccurate as I had been led to assume? Why couldn't the world be older than 6,000 years?

7D creationist believe what they believe because they think that interpreting the Bible any way other than literally (or how they view literally) is a tremendously slippery slope. If we start to question Creationism (and note that the word "question" and "doubt" are interchangeable in their heads), than we start to doubt God's awesome power to create. And then we start to doubt if Jonah really got eaten by a fish (or possible dinosaur), and if the sun really stood still, and if Jonah existed at all, and if Jesus was really raised from the dead.

Creationists don't fear science - they fear that moving around these bricks of information in their head will collapse the whole foundations.

terri said...


Thanks for your post. You are of course right that the split over evolution/creationism has little to do with science and more to do with a fear at the far-reaching implications of accepting evolution.

I have previously willfully ignored the conflict, simply putting it into the category of "mystery".....generally taking a view that it didn't matter how God created things.

Honestly, I think there are implications for our theology once we begin to embrace what I guess could be labeled as "theistic evolution". There is no denying that if we think through what this means for our interpretation of Scripture and our formation of theology....things get a little messy.

Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that we can only choose which messes we prefer when it comes to certain theological/scientific conclusions. No view gets off scott-free without a struggle in trying to reconcile the observable, material universe with a theology of the unseen.

Wrestlers with God, only being released with an injury after demanding to be "win" against God comes with consequences...though hopefully the blessing will outweigh them.

Or at least that's what I tell myself.

The conspiracy theories about science/scientists aren't just rooted in a belief that certain people are wrong...but that they are spiritually deceived. That's a powerful argument which makes many people feel guilty and paranoid that any questions about the failings of YEC/7D creationism aren't simply a matter of wanting to learn more about science, but about battling the forces of evil and having faith in the face of mountains of evidence.

I find it difficult to know what to do in regards to my children simply because children don't always get the distinction that people can be authoritative in one area while being completely inadequate in another.

I struggle with that concept also.

P.S. maybe God didn't sleep in...but I have it on good authority that he ate too many pancakes and loafed around on the couch all day.