Faith & Physics, Part III

ILYBYGTH is happy to continue our series of guest posts from Anna.  In her first post, Anna described her shift from creation science to mainstream science.  In her second, she described her early education in the world of conservative Christian fundamentalism.  Anna blogs about her experiences leaving the fundamentalist subculture at Signs You Are a Sheltered Evangelical.  She holds an M.Sc. degree in Astroparticle Physics and currently lives in Virginia with her fiance Chelsey and a cat named Cat.  Good news: She has recently been accepted into a PhD program in physics at a top research university in the United States. 

Why is Creationism so appealing?

Last installment, I spent some time discussing my Creationist curriculum.  Through five years, I learned science alongside Young Earth Creation apologetics.  No small amount of time was spent on discussing the evidence for young earth, explaining the Grand Canyon as a result of a global flood, reinterpreting the geological record, and more.  Over and over, it was repeated and reassured that Creationism was a viable theory based on the evidence alone.  Yes, the Bible made assertions regarding the origin of the world, but all of the text books and apologists emphasized that the theory could stand on its own merits and that even atheists should be able to see the evidence and agree to it.

And yet, when it came down to it, the evidence was truly secondary.  On some level, I think that the most devoted creation “experts” still realize that Young Earth might not stand up to honest scrutiny.  This is why almost the entire YEC battle is fought for children.  Creationists have already lost in the arena of mainstream science.  They can’t influence people there.  But children are easy to influence.  Children are much more trusting.  And if they start kids with these theories early, perhaps they can build walls around them that will keep them there.

And they did.  There were walls built around our minds to ensure that we never wandered too far from the correct doctrine.  Creation apologists were very clear: even if you find yourself doubting the evidence for 6-day creation… even if you realize that secular science has the more compelling arguments… you CAN’T change your beliefs.  You can’t, because the creation story in the Bible is the Word of God, while evolutionary science is the word of men.  To question a literal interpretation of Genesis is to question God himself.

For a young conservative Christian homeschooler, this is the ultimate threat.  While most YEC advocates do not claim that salvation is dependent on disregarding modern science, this is hardly much better.  Conservative Christian culture can be surprisingly cut-throat, and demonstrating a lack of faith in God can be paramount to social and spiritual suicide.  Such people were a by-word among my creationist peers… the “lesser” Christians that would probably lose their faith if they were allowed to go to college.

Indeed, this argument was ultimately more compelling to me than all the evidence that was offered for a global flood, the evidence for “design”, or the convoluted explanations of how the universe could have been created 6000 years ago despite the fact that distant galaxies are visible from earth.  Sure, I absorbed all that information and I believed it.  But I quickly realized that my evidence probably looked puny compared to the vast amounts of data and research in evolutionary biology and cosmology.  But I refused to back down, because I was a Good Christian.  I would not trust flawed humans over God.  I would not cave in to scientific “persecution.”  I would not believe, no matter how much evidence I was given, because to do so, would be to spit in the face of my savior.  The guilt and the fear kept me securely in the Creationist’s camp.

Now, being sheltered and homeschooled probably made me especially susceptible to this sort of fear and guilt.  But I am certain that I am not alone in my experiences.  The fact that YEC apologists place so much evidence on this argument leads me to believe that this fear and guilt is quite intentional.  It is the surest way to make sure that their school of thought survives the opposing evidence.  If you can’t make your case with facts, make it with fear.

To be fair, I’ve seen a little bit of these sorts of tactics used against Creationists in mainstream science communities.  For example, I can’t agree with the claim that “a Creationist cannot contribute to science” and the shame and guilt tactics that this statement employs makes me very uncomfortable.  It echoes a lot of the indoctrination I received from Creationists.  I do think that being a young earth believer limits the contributions that you can make to science, but there are many, many fields of research that do not require a background in evolutionary biology and as such, these sorts of blanket statements are deceptive at best.

All the same, I cannot fault scientists for being openly frustrated with science deniers.  No theory should have to be shored up with threats of spiritual damage and guilt over betraying a deity.  The thought is almost laughable.  However, until secular scientists begin to appreciate how influential these arguments can be, they cannot fully understand why young earth creation has such appeal to many… and why it can control even very intelligent and learned people.  Many people do not deny science because they are ignorant or stupid, but because they feel like they have no other choice.

But there’s an up-side to this.  We can change.  And those who accept science can help.  Unfortunately, the attitudes that many people display towards science deniers is not helpful.  In the next installment, I’ll try to delve a little into some of my interactions with some of my secular peers and explain which ones helped me on my journey and which ones set me back.

Creationist Mom Reaches Out to Evolution

Sometimes stereotypes have some truth to them.  Then there’s “D.”

D first got in touch with me a couple of months ago.  As she described herself, she is a Christian young-earth creationist homeschooling mom.  She had read about my blog on Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis page.  I’ll include our brief correspondence to let D speak for herself:

From: D
Sent: Monday, January 21, 2013 8:36 PM
To: alaats@binghamton.edu
Subject: thank you

Hi Dr. Laats,
I have to say that it is very refreshing that you don’t think creationists like myself are complete idiots.  Really, I appreciate that. 
As a young earth creationist that homeschools, I wouldn’t give any Richard Dawkins books the time of day.  If someone is THAT hostile towards me, then I have no interest in what they have to say.  But I look forward to reading your blog when I have a chance because you try to understand where I am coming from, and you don’t think we are completely unable to do any science. 
Thank you,
“D”

I suggested that D might give Dawkins a shot.

From: D
Sent: Monday, January 22, 2013 9:48 PM
To: alaats@binghamton.edu
Subject: Re: thank you

Dear Dr. Laats,
I also agree that we should be looking at the other side, and I do plan to do that.  As a Christian homeschool Mom I am not trying to protect my sons from learning evolution.  The public school is not a place we feel comfortable putting our children because their thoughts and beliefs are not welcome in the classroom.  They would have to follow the advice my father in law got from his father before he joined the Navy, “keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut”.  Learning can not take place, in my opinion, in that kind of environment.
I am going to teach my kids about evolution, somehow.  There is a lot of material out there.  I would read Dawkins if I had to, but the amount of information out there that he has published alone is way too much to look at, sort through, and figure out what to teach.  For the sake of time, I’m looking for something comprehensive and succinct, and what a child in high school should know about the subject.  I am familiar with the NCSE website and that is what I plan to use as of now, though it will be guess work to know what all to cover.  
Thanks for your time,
D

I was surprised and happy to hear that D was using materials from the National Center for Science Education to teach her kids.  I think the folks at NCSE would be happy to hear it, too.  The NCSE is a leading voice for evolution education and a staunch opponent of creationism in public schools.  And too often, people like me tend to suggest a stark division between two sides: either Answers in Genesis OR the National Center for Science Education.  D has reminded me that smart people make all kinds of decisions about what to read and what to do with that material.  People choose public schools, private schools, or homeschools for all sorts of different reasons.  D’s work reminded me how quickly and easily we can oversimplify the many approaches people make to these snarled questions of evolution, religion, and education.

Yesterday, I heard back from D:

From: D
Sent: Monday, March 18, 2013 5:09 PM
To: alaats@binghamton.edu
Subject: Hi

Hi Dr Laats,
Well, I wanted to let you know that I checked out the [Dawkins] book The Greatest Show on Earth.  I never would have considered it except for your response.  Dawkins says on page 155 ” it would be so nice if those that oppose Evolution would take a tiny bit of trouble to learn the merest rudiments of what it is that they are opposing.”  I couldn’t believe that I totally agreed with Dawkins about something!  I am happy to listen, minus the hostility.  I don’t sense hostility in this book, which makes it readable.  This has made me realize that I can not get my head wrapped around what evolution IS.  He says we did not descend from monkeys, but we have a common ancestor.  I do understand that we would find no missing links because of the extreme gradual process, that is what I understand from the book, hopefully that is correct.  So I looked on Internet, and I guess I don’t understand phylogenies.  So we did not descend from monkey, but have a common ancestor, and then branched off to chimpanzees and humans etc.  So, it seems to me that we descended from something “monkey like”.  I guess I don’t understand how he can say that we did not evolve from monkeys, whether it was monkeys or monkey like, it seems similar.  Can you shed any light on this please?  As you can see, I am making an honest attempt to understand this so I don’t teach it incorrectly.  Thanks for the help,
D

First of all, my hat’s off to D for engaging with Richard Dawkins’ writings.  It is far too easy for all of us to read only those materials that confirm our own beliefs.  I am optimistic that there may be far more “Ds” out there than we might think: people who have strong beliefs, yet hope to find out as much as they can about the other side.  How many of us can say–like D–that we have taken the time to puzzle through books and websites of people with whom we totally disagree?

As for D’s question about phylogenies, I suggested she check out Dennis Venema’s series about evolution theory on recent pages of the BioLogos Forum.

Any other suggestions for someone like D?