Mike the Mad Biologist

Evangelicals, Evolution, and Kristof

I really wasn’t going to bash Kristof over his recent apologia for evangelicals. I’ve done so before, and I didn’t really see the point in doing so again. But, by way of ScienceBlogling James Hrynyshyn, I came across Kristof’s response to some of the criticism he has received (in bold is his synopsis of a particular criticism; italics mine):

It’s okay to deride evangelicals because they’re Neanderthals on science and other issues. If people don’t believe in evolution, they invite mockery. If we call them nuts, it’s because we have good evidence that they are nuts.

I agree that the fundamentalist opposition to evolution is ridiculous, and it’s certainly fair to argue that point or to criticize people’s scientific beliefs. But mocking religious beliefs is different because religions are neither rational or irrational. As Kant argued, breaking the old Cartesian paradigm, religion is neither provable nor disprovable. And Kant was no nut.

There’s also a question of tactics. Most of us would agree that female genital cutting is an outrageous ritual that is linked to religion (most of those who practice it are Muslims in Africa, although it predates Islam and also is practiced by some Christians). For decades, the standard Western response was to shower contempt on the practice and try to outlaw it, and this got nowhere. In the last decade, some local grassroots groups like Tostan have taken a much more respectful approach — that’s why it’s now called “female genital cutting” rather than “female genital mutilation” — and finally they’re making astounding inroads toward elimination of the ritual. Dialogue with people really does get you further than yelling at them.

I can’t speak for partygoers in Manhattan, but I don’t make fun of evangelicals because of their particular theological beliefs. I really don’t care if you think Jesus is the Son of God or if the Eucharist is really Jesus in flesh and blood. I also don’t care if you are an atheist, agnostic, deist, or anything else. I’ve been around long enough to realize that no single metaphyiscal position has a hammerlock on Good or Evil.

I’ve also never bought into the idea that religiosity or a belief in God (which are not the same thing) necessarily translate into a fundamental irrationality that manifests itself in other areas such as scientific analysis. Case in point: me. So if there are people espousing flat-out bigotry against evangelicals, stop it. It’s wrong.

Having said that, Kristof conflates bigotry (which probably does exist) with vehement political opposition. Once any sectarian dogma is translated in public policy, it is no longer ‘religion’, but is like any other -ism, such as liberalism, or conservatism. As such, I will treat it in the same way I treat political ideologies that I dislike. I will use scorn, derision, humor, and any other rhetorical trick that I deem fit and appropriate. I am tired of watching the sorry spectacle of theopolitical conservatives cowering behind the Cross the moment they receive any criticism of their political agenda (particularly when it is a moronic agenda). There is a reason the Blood of the Lamb has become anemic, and that has little to do with the prospect of same-sex marriage.

Another part of the response that bothered me was Kristof’s declaration that “Dialogue with people really does get you further than yelling at them.” Regarding creationism, we’ve tried that. It doesn’t work:

When I started first dealing with creationism, I suffered from what I call the Halberstam fallacy. In his landmark book about Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam describes how, once he realized the horrible mistake [which] that war was, he would talk to various civilian and military officials. He earnestly believed that if he could just provide them with yet one more piece of evidence, one more story, that these men of intellectual honesty would come around to his opinion. What Halberstam ultimately realized is that these men were not intellectually honest, that they were not interested in rationally assessing the evidence, but instead, had decided that the war was the desired outcome, and that the facts must be altered or ignored to fit the ‘reality’ of the war (if this sounds in any way, shape, or form similar to contemporary events….).

Quite simply, they were not operating from a position of intellectual honesty. Words were as weapons to such men. So too, with the creationists.

It took me a while to realize that the ‘professional creationists’ were not intellectually honest either.

….Creationist leaders and spokesmen are willfully ignorant. How many times do they have to be told what scientists mean by a theory? How many times will they misstate the basics of evolutionary theory, such as claiming that natural selection is a tautology? The list goes on and on. These creationists have heard the evidence-based rebuttals of their false arguments many times.

And these rebuttals did not take. They never take. Creationist speakers continue to repeat these falsehoods even though they have heard the explanations over and over again, to the point where they could probably make the arguments themselves, were they so inclined. And they present themselves as an embattled minority, struggling for the truth. They are quite simply on the wrong side of the evidence, evidence gathered from disparate fields, such as biochemistry, genetics, geology, and physics.

There has always been a debate among biologists about engaging creationists. Do we ignore them, and consequently allow them to spout their willful ignorance unchecked? Or do we engage them, and thus grant them intellectual validity by creating a situation where they can be viewed as a legitimate alternative? I think there is another way: engage them, but when doing so, make it clear that they are not only mistaken, but foolishly wrong. Make it clear that they have heard the arguments before, and that they refuse to seriously consider them. Make it clear that they are not intellectually honest, that they view words not as a means to understanding, but as tools to manipulate and intimidate.

Make it clear that their ‘science’ has as much validity, rigor, and seriousness as flat-earthism.

This is where a small dose of invective is not only useful, but necessary.

The evangelicals’ willful ignorance regarding evolution isn’t just a ‘lifestyle choice’, it actually has real-world consequences.

Comments

  1. #1 SLC
    February 11, 2008

    Re creationists

    If any of the readers want to see why trying to have a conversation with a creationist is a waste of time, I am linking to a thread on Ed Braytons’ blog in which a number of us attempted to engage in a discussion with a creationist named Collin Brendemuehl. The fact is that they don’t listen to the explanations from those who are better informed. Their minds are made up, the facts are irrelevant.

    http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2008/02/ken_ham_goes_to_europe.php

  2. #2 Vorpal Blade
    February 11, 2008

    If I hire someone to kill you because I feel that your choice of personal vehicle brings shame upon our neighborhood, how are you supposed to ‘dialog’ with me before you get your honor killing, especially in view of the fact I’m not going to tip my hand?

    The only rational choice for you is to kill all my kind as a preventive measure.

  3. #3 blue collar scientist
    February 11, 2008

    Based on a lot of science outreach experience, I’m of the opinion that it is futile to expect a creationist (including ones styling themselves ID’ers) to change their mind based on discussion and argument. We cannot win against these people. Their minds are closed. We should never go into the discussion thinking that we will change the mind of even a single creationist, because in my opinion, we won’t.

    The reason we have the debate is that undecided people are overhearing it. The aim should be to convert them.

    Kristol is right that heaping derision on a creationist isn’t going to convince the creationist to change their mind. But heaping derision on them most certainly will show others that they are wrong, and not only that, but that they are extremists, strange people, different from the sensible individuals that these onlookers encounter every day. Showing up a person’s willful ignorance can be an extremely effective didactic tactic. And so it should continue.

  4. #4 Sophie Hirschfeld
    February 12, 2008

    I’m going to just say that there is also the matter of life investment that sometimes changes people’s opinions. Though you get the occasional single nutcase that tries to live by and promote their own dogma, it isn’t common ground. As shifts occur socially that reduce the amount of exposure people get to an idea and the amount that their social interactions rely on that idea, the individual’s tendency to lean on that idea is also reduced. If a person thinks that a significant portion of their livelihood is dependent on a particular idea, then they’re more likely to dogmatically cling to it. I think that as we get to those people who are ‘on the fence,’ then as a side effect, others will start to be affected who lean farther onto the other side. That is one of the factors that lead to many social and religious changes.

  5. #5 Tlazolteotl
    February 13, 2008

    religion is neither provable nor disprovable

    Umm, isn’t it exactly that which makes religious belief illogical? I suppose he doesn’t mean this in the way we would say we can prove or disprove some data in support of a hypothesis, but really if his point is that the truth of religion is simply unknowable, then choosing to believe in something that is beyond knowing rather than being agnostic is the very definition of illogic, isn’t it?

  6. #6 Tlazolteotl
    February 13, 2008

    Wow. I just followed SLC’s link above. And just….wow.

  7. #7 Arctic Dude
    February 14, 2008

    As a geologist I would always lose my debates with creationists, even after standing on bedrock outcrop showing the evidence, because they would always say “Well the just the way God made it”. Then one day in a debate I responded with “Well what God then? Middle East, Aztec, Zulu?” Tell me which God are you talking about.”
    That at least shut them up.

  8. #8 symphonyofdissent
    February 14, 2008

    As a former creationist and now devout secular humanist, I can say honestly that dialogue can work with certain people. Even if the majority of creationists are woefully misleading and intentionally ignorant, there are still many that I would label as “seekers” looking for truth dilligently. In very much the same way that christian fundamentalists talk about saving a few individuals, these are the ones that can be swayed by rational evidence and discourse and are well worth the effort. This is not a battle to convince or convert the most radical but those wavering and searching for something more.

  9. #9 George Arndt
    February 15, 2008

    Darwin was a very devout Christian when he took trip on the Beagle and found data which contradicted biblical creationism. He based his Theory of Evolution on evidence, nothing more, nothing less. Creationists and ID proponents, on the other hand, reject evolution not based on “evidence”, but soley because it doesn’t fit in with their belief system. I have yet to hear if a single person embracing creationism based only on evidence. ID advocates and their ilk use smear tatics and misstatements because that’s all they have.
    Evolution is embraced by ninety-nine percent of biologists(who have intimate knowledge of the process of life). And evidence for evolution has gotten stronger over the years, not weaker. So much for the supposed “scientific controversy” over evolution.

  10. #10 James M. Martin
    April 16, 2008

    You write: “It’s okay to deride evangelicals because they’re Neanderthals on science and other issues….”

    That’s an insult to Neanderthals everywhere.