Pharyngula

Leaving creationism

We occasionally get threads full of deconversion stories here: atheists arrive at their conclusions by some very different paths, where sometimes it was an easy and natural transition, and sometimes it was painful, agonizing, and there are still deep wounds left from parting the ways with religion. Today, though, I’d like to ask a narrower question: How did you come to accept evolution?

Some of you will find the problem odd, because you’ve never believed in anything else. I know when I was growing up, despite going to Sunday School and all that nonsense, my church never mentioned the subject of evolution, either to approve or disapprove; my public school classes never discussed it, either, to their disgrace. I grew up devouring books on natural history at my local library, and absorbed the evolutionary explanations within them, only getting formal training when I entered college. It was quite a shock to me to discover what kind of absurd twaddle other people thought was real science!

But others may have been instructed early on in creationism as part of their religious upbringing, and the process of learning had to involve a lot of unlearning as well. Where were you on the continuum? Was your childhood science untainted by religious dogma, or were you a full-on bible-thumping young earth creationist, or something in between? How did you wrestle the myth to the ground and drop-kick it into the local lake?

Ken MacLeod was a youthful creationist who got better, if you need an example. He brings up another interesting point, a perspective that I share: once you recognize the fallacies behind creationism, you also realize that creationism’s promoters are not simply deluded folk — they are monsters of malice who are intentionally trying to undermine science education because it conflicts with their religious values, and they are perfectly willing to lie and slander to achieve their goals.

What quote-mining shows is that some people who produce creationist material are conscious liars. Behind these pseudo-science hacks are worse people yet. These are theologians who have the education to understand the conflict precisely. It’s not one between ‘science and the Bible’. It’s a lot more stark than that. It’s a conflict between a particular way of reading the Bible (what is loosely called ‘literalism’) and normal scientific method. There would be a certain integrity in acknowledging the conflict, admitting that there was no obvious resolution, and pointing out that we are not always given to comprehend the intent of the Ancient of Days. That at least would allow young people from these traditions to study biology and geology and astronomy without the constant arguments at home interrupting their thoughts like a buzz of static across their brains.

There’s one further ironic revenge visited on all this. A frequent complaint against the New Atheists is that they’re only arguing against fundamentalism, and ignoring the broader and more accommodating forms of religious belief. This isn’t exactly true, but to the extent that it is, they’ve hit a sweet spot in the market. When I rejected fundamentalism I didn’t turn to broader and more accommodating forms of religious belief. I didn’t start wondering if maybe there was something to be said for Anglicanism. I just went straight over to atheism. If this is typical, and I think it is, then there must be many for whom the New Atheist books are like water in the desert. We need no condescension from those who have already found an oasis.

I’ve interacted with a lot of creationists over the years, and one thing I’ve learned is that they aren’t necessarily stupid people: they are often accomplished, literate, successful in fields that aren’t science, and entirely capable of following some of the most byzantine threads of logic. And yet, when they are confronted with the logic of evolution, which is relatively simple and clear and also backed by impressive amounts of empirical evidence, they balk and begin to reach desperately for the worst arguments, striving to debunk the truth with dishonesty to an exceptional degree.

It’s one of the reasons I encourage students to listen to the other side. If the student has any knowledge of biology at all, they find the lies they use appalling and horrifying. And I do not hesitate to call them lies: they know better. Anyone who can ferret their way through the chaos of the Bible is smart enough to understand how to read a lucid Charles Darwin for meaning.

MacLeod’s last point about the New Atheists is also valid. Encountering fundamentalism was the trigger that woke me up to the follies and fallacies of creationism, but it also made the conscious blindness of less toxic religions obvious. Over and over again, I have witnessed the silence of the churches. Over and over again, a creationist rides into town, spouts his lies and nonsense, and who rebuts them? Usually, only the atheists. Even the liberal church congregations sit quietly, many of their members even attend these talks with muted assent, and the general attitude even from sects that don’t demand adherence to beliefs in a young earth is…let them abide.

I often hear the argument that not only is creationism bad science, it is bad theology. I don’t accept that argument at all. In part, it’s because all theology is bad, and if we’re going to start winnowing out particular religious beliefs on the basis of their nonsensical nature, we can’t stop with Genesis literalism — Jesus and Mohammed and Vishnu are all going to have to go, no matter how socially progressive their advocates might be. And it’s also because I see all those churches, each with their brand of theology, all almost entirely silent on the theological errors of their neighbors. Bad theology apparently doesn’t matter that much.