I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

July’s almost out the door, and apparently that means the return of book-burnin’ season. Check out that story and a few others you might have missed:

Is history destiny? Vouchers described this week as tools of segregation by foes, or the best ticket out of segregation by fans.

The latest speaker to be banned at Berkeley? Anti-creationist Richard Dawkins. The students didn’t like Dawkins’ statements about Islam.

Trump’s outreach to HBCUs can’t find any takers.

Evangelicals and politics: historian Chris Gehrz wonders about the relationship.

Yikes: Watch Elizabeth Johnston, aka “The Activist Mommy,” burn her Teen Vogue. Why? The magazine included information about anal sex.

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How Richard Dawkins Begat Ken Ham

Why is there creationism?  Marc Barnes at Bad Catholic makes the argument that today’s young-earth creationist movement is nothing more nor less than a theistic outgrowth of Richard Dawkins-style materialism.

Today’s sort of Ken-Ham-style creationism, Barnes correctly observes, is an entirely modern phenomenon.  Barnes doesn’t make the point, though he could have, that ignorant partisan anti-creationist hack jobs like that of Mark Stern in Slate miss the boat entirely when they accuse creationism of being “medieval.”  Nonsense.  Today’s creationism is a thoroughly modern affair.  Even the briefest familiarity with the history of the movement makes that point abundantly clear.

Today’s creationism, Barnes argues, is not a wholesale repudiation of the materialist viewpoint, though it falsely claims to be.  Materialism, after all, in this sense, means the assumption that life and everything has purely material origins.  Primordial soup somehow got a transformative spark, perhaps from undersea volcanic vents.  Life came from non-life due to purely material causes.  Similarly, life itself, though it may feel like it has transcendent spiritual meaning, is nothing more than biochemistry.  When the switch goes off, the magic ends.  Back to carbon.

Such a view of life separates God out entirely, Barnes points out.  And Ken-Ham-style creationists make the woeful mistake of simply plugging God back in, from the outside.  In other words, Barnes argues, young-earth creationists stupidly think that by insisting on a God who popped into time, created life and the universe, inspired a Bible, and sent his kid in to fix things, they have refuted materialist assumptions.  Not so, Barnes contends.  That sort of outsider God, a God who creates, judges, and saves, all from somewhere outside of, beyond the creation itself, actually endorses the materialist vision of life.  Instead of electricity as the prime mover, though, Ken Ham’s style of creationism plugs in a Bearded-Guy-in-a-Throne sort of God.

God, in this YEC vision, is a mere competitor with electricity for the role of life’s spark.  God, in this YEC vision, is simply the materialist understanding of life with a quick substitution of God for an unintelligent spark.

Instead of falling for this materialist presumption, instead of simply rebutting one part of materialist assumptions about life, real creationism needs to posit an entirely different relationship between the world and its Creator, Barnes argues.  As he puts it,

God is not simply the Creator of the material order, and the theistic tradition has never made such laughable claims. The concept of God as Creator has always been the source of existence as such. This means that God does not just answer the material question of “Where came this rock, that plant, or the entire conglomerate of material thingmabobs we call the universe?” He answers the ontological question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

 

 

Can Evolution Match This?

So clear and compelling a seven-year-old can understand it.  That’s the boast of young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham.  As proof, he published the lecture notes of one of his young audience members.

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

For those of us hoping to improve evolution education in the United States, Ham’s revelation raises a serious question: Can evolution hope to match the gut-level appeal of creationism?

Science pundits have long noticed this yawning gap between the popular acceptability of mainstream science and that of creation science.  The most clear-headed writers have admitted that creationism has better stories.

As Richard Dawkins put it in his 1996 book The Blind Watchmaker,

It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.

The creation stories of young-earth creationists, on the other hand, are appealing to all age levels.  There’s a garden, there’s love, there’s disobedience, there’s punishment.  All of these are powerful themes that resonate with young and old alike.

And, lest we evolution-embracers smugly conclude that this stark advantage of creationism will fade as audiences get more intelligent and more sophisticated, let’s remember that creationism’s advantage also pulls in the intellectually sophisticated.

ILYBYGTH readers may remember the postmodern plea of journalist Virginia Heffernan.  A few months back, Heffernan declared her affinity for creationism over evolution.  Why?  In her words,

I was amused and moved, but considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (“something exploded”) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham.

Obviously, something doesn’t need a compelling narrative in order to be true.  But in the stubborn culture wars over evolution and creationism, popular appeal matters.  Evolution’s biggest selling point is that it does a better job of explaining and predicting than does creationism.  Maybe the winning narratives won’t be the detailed natural-selection classic tales starring finches and moths, but rather the far more stirring story of enlightenment triumphing over dunderheaded fogeys.

That’s a good story.  At least it worked for Kevin Bacon in Footloose.

 

Is This Child Abuse?

Arch-creationist Ken Ham wants to train up a spiritual army of young Christian creationists.  Does that count as child abuse?

I’m no creationist, but I just don’t think so.

Ham trumpeted the training of a new generation of young “soldiers” at an Answers In Genesis conference at Atlantic Shores Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  By teaching young people the truths of young-earth creationism, Ham claimed he was “preparing them for the spiritual war going on around us.”

Image Source: Answers in Genesis

Image Source: Answers in Genesis

This language of child soldiers makes me nervous.  Plus, I don’t like the notion that young people are being turned away from real evolutionary science by this sort of religion posing as science.  To me, this seems like another painful example of the ways faith has been tangled unnecessarily with real evolutionary science, resulting in bad science and tortured theology.

But it is child abuse?

Leading skeptics have called it that, folks such as physicist Lawrence Krauss and biologist Richard Dawkins.  They assert that cramming this false science down young people’s throats counts as abuse.

Let’s look at both sides of this argument.

Why might someone call this child abuse?

1.)    These young people are being told things are true, when they really aren’t.  They are being taught, to cite just one example, that dinosaurs and humans coexisted a few thousand years ago.  Worst of all, relationships of close trust between parents, teachers, and children are being exploited to promote the veracity of this false science.  Loving mothers, loving fathers, caring teachers tell innocent young people that this is scientific truth.  Ingenuous young people take their word for it.  Such deception is abusive.

2.)    In this essay, Ken Ham explicitly calls them soldiers—spiritual soldiers, but soldiers nonetheless.  This seems a terrible violation.  Young people should not be exploited as culture-war cannon fodder.

Why might defenders disagree?

1.)    There is no threat or coercion here.  Though it may come as a surprise to outsiders like me, Answers In Genesis makes it very clear that believing in a young earth and recent special creation are not required for Christian salvation.  In other words, Ken Ham and his colleagues do not threaten young people with terrifying visions of hellfire if the children don’t embrace creationism.

2.)    The parents and teachers seen here are apparently sincere in their belief that creationism is true.  They are trying to pass that truth to their children and pupils.  There’s nothing abusive in passing along the best knowledge to the next generation.

3.)    Though science pundits such as Bill Nye have argued against it, believing the young-earth creationism of Answers In Genesis will not hurt the life chances of these young people.  According to Gallup polls, nearly half of American adults share a belief that humanity has only been around for a few thousand years.  And as I’ve argued elsewhere, careers in science-related fields do not seem thwarted by a belief in young-earth creationism.  Consider the case of US Representative Paul C. Broun Jr. of Georgia.  Broun is a fervent creationist, a medical doctor, and a member of Congress.  Not a bad career!

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Is it child abuse?  No.  And calling it that is irresponsible.  After all, there is real child abuse out there.  It is horrific and terrifyingly common.  Calling this sort of science/religion education ‘child abuse’ is only an ill-considered scare tactic.

Perhaps this argument could use some illustration from another religious tradition.  Consider the recent career of child abuse in the Catholic Church.  As we all know only too well, the despicable actions of some priests and prelates in that church have caused untold suffering.

But the abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church does not extend to its anti-scientific teachings.  After all, the Catholic Church teaches young people that certain wafers and wine can magically transform into flesh and blood.  And then young people are taught to eat that flesh and drink that blood.  For outsiders like me, teaching children to engage in this sort of ritual cannibalism is creepy and anti-scientific.  It is also demonstrably false: the wafers and wine are always really just wafers and wine.  Nevertheless, it is not child abuse for Catholics to teach their children this mystery of transubstantiation.  Calling such teaching ‘child abuse’ would disrespect the real suffering that real child abuse has caused within the Catholic Church.

A similar logic may apply in this case.  The young-earth creationism peddled by Answers In Genesis is not true.  But it is sincerely believed by its adherents.  Teaching those ideas to young people is not child abuse.

Unfortunately, we can picture what real abuse might look like in similar cases.  As Billy Graham’s grandson has pointed out recently, evangelical Protestant organizations have also engaged in real child abuse.  They have conspired, just as did the Catholic hierarchy, to cover up that terrible real abuse.  We could imagine a scenario in which a Protestant organization such as Answers In Genesis called together thousands of children and abused some of them.

But that is not the case here.  This was an educational gathering.  To call it ‘child abuse’ makes a mockery of the all-too-real threat of abuse.

 

Jon Stewart and Richard Dawkins

What happens to us when we die?

Does religion make society better?

Doesn’t science rely on faith?

Can’t intelligent people be both scientific and religious?

These are some of the questions leveled at leading science-atheist Richard Dawkins by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show recently.

For all of us interested in issues of science and religion, the short interview is well worth watching.

Stewart asks Dawkins some zingers, such as whether the world will be destroyed by human destruction or through more natural causes.  He challenges Dawkins to explain why faith is a negative force for society, even though it often seems so benign.

“It’s very easy to look at the dark side of fundamentalism,” Stewart said. “ … Sometimes I think we have to challenge ourselves and look at the dark side of achievement.”

Is science a threat?

Dawkins said he felt a little more optimistic about it.

As always, Dawkins expresses himself well.  Stewart gave him plenty of friendly opportunity to defend his argument that faith is inherently dangerous.

 

Does Science Hate God?

If God loves science and scientists love God, why do we keep hearing that they hate each other?

It’s the $64,000 question Daniel Silliman asked yesterday on his terrific blog.*  As Silliman points out, the “warfare thesis” between religion and science just doesn’t hold water.

Yet films such as The Unbelievers attract enormous attention and support.  In that upcoming documentary, leading science pundits Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss apparently insist that true science must crush false religion.

Silliman could have extended the point on the other side, as well.  Plenty of religious leaders have encouraged the legend of warfare between true religion and “science falsely so-called.”  Young-earth creation leader Ken Ham, for instance, insists on the importance of this “struggle over the question of authority.”

Silliman ends with a great question for fans of The Unbelievers:

The real question that this documentary raises, though, is why there’s such a market for the conflict thesis. Why does it persist in its obfuscations and false oppositions so long after it was demonstrated to be historically bankrupt as a theory and demonstrably empirically false?

Is it because a fight is just more interesting than a compromise?  Is it due to our reality-show culture in which viewers insist on drama?  Or are there substantial differences, necessary hostilities, that persist in the face of historians’ denial of the warfare thesis?

*You can tell it’s a great blog because he lists yours truly as one of his links.  Thanks!

Richard Dawkins Encourages Creationism

Does Richard Dawkins’ brand of in-your-face science atheism push religious people to embrace a “creationist” identity?

That’s a common argument—one I heartily agree with—made recently by Andrew Brown in his Guardian blog.

In this case, Brown argues that Dawkins’ attitudes push British Muslims, especially disaffected youth, to adopt more radical creationist positions.

Brown reports a talk by Salman Hameed, who insisted that Muslims often feel forced to make a false choice between science and faith. Not surprisingly, many choose faith.  Hameed related a telling anecdote.  One young woman reported attending a lecture in which

the lecturer started by asking if there were any creationists in the room. She put her hand up, because she believes that God created the universe, and was immediately singled out for humiliation.   

In the case of young British Muslims, Brown makes a compelling argument.  Already facing a crisis of cultural identity, many young British Muslims come to see their religious identity as a way to channel their feelings of alienation.  In such a Dawkins-influenced climate, young British folks may feel pressured to reject modern science as part of their assertion of an oppositional Muslim identity.  As Brown puts it,

Because there is a self-consciously oppositional culture among young poor Muslims, who feel themselves stigmatised and disadvantaged, they can tend to embrace creationism simply because they know it’s wrong by the lights of the majority. Dawkins’ dismissal of Muslim creationism as “alien rubbish” was not only found as a YouTube clip on the EDL website for a while, but also used in the propaganda of Harun Yahya, the Turkish creationist and self-publicist. The emotional logic is clear: if this rich, sneering white man is against it, it must be good for disaffected young Muslims who feel that they are themselves treated as “alien rubbish”.

Brown is right on.

Offering a false choice between religion and science fuels creationism.  As Brown points out here, so does suggesting a false equation of “Western” or “White” with “atheist.”  Better, as Brown says, to engage in the arduous and awkward task of building true dialogue.

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?

 

 

“Awash with the intolerance of enthusiasm:” Michael Ruse Takes on the New Atheists

I don’t think I’d like to be Richard Dawkins in a dunk tank.  The provocative and prolific New Atheist, though, seems to relish his role as cultural provocateur.  Dawkins is well known for his biting and vicious jabs against faith.  One of his most famous books derides “The God Delusion.”  In 1996, Dawkins told one audience, “faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”  Elsewhere, Dawkins opined, “I think there’s really something very evil about faith.”

A recent article by philosopher of science and anti-creationist Michael Ruse takes Dawkins to task for being so fanatically religious in his atheism.  Ruse argues that the virulent anti-religion of Dawkins and his followers awkwardly conceals “the enthusiasm of the true believer, and this encourages a set of unnerving attributes: intolerance, hero-worship, moral certainty and the self-righteous condemnation of unbelievers.”

Ruse himself claims to be more atheist than Dawkins, more Darwinian.  Ruse has fought tirelessly against creationism in schools and culture.  Yet he insists that Dawkins’ brand of in-your-face atheism misses the point.  Instead of condemning religion as fit only for the ignorant or insane, as Dawkins likes to do, Ruse insists, “I think my religious friends are mistaken, but I don’t think they are stupid or crazy or ill or evil simply because they are religious.”

Though Ruse claims this is not a personal issue, his feelings have clearly been hurt.  Dawkins and allies such as Jerry Coyne have made it personal.  As Ruse complains,

“I, and others of my ilk, am reviled in terms far harsher than those kept for the real opponents like the Creationists. We are labelled ‘accommodationists’ for our willingness to give religion a space not occupied by science.”    

Ruse makes a powerful argument that the “enthusiasm” of the New Atheists resembles nothing so much as religious sectarianism.  But he strangely conflates the New Atheism of Dawkins and his allies with a far broader Humanist movement.  There are certainly connections, but it does not make sense to use the two terms interchangeably.

And, as Ruse must certainly be aware, his diatribe will likely be most celebrated by the very creationists he and Dawkins both condemn.  The notion that humanism itself is a religion has long been a central strategic point of conservative religious activists.  For example, in the early 1980s, evangelical Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer condemned “humanism” as a set of ideas that placed humanity at the center of all things, and made humans the “measure of all things.” Fundamentalist school activists Mel and Norma Gabler similarly denounced humanism as “a religion with an anti-biblical, anti-God bent.”  And as blockbuster fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye insisted in his 1983 book The Battle for the Public Schools:

“Don’t be deceived into thinking that humanism is merely a philosophy.  That is a masquerade humanists have utilized for over three centuries to deceive millions in the Western world.  And don’t be duped into thinking that because religious people believe in God, those who do not believe in God are not religious.”(pg. 75).

My hunch is that Ruse would not relish the intellectual company.  All the more since such arguments about the essential religiosity of humanism have long been at the core of conservative strategies to transform public schooling.  Most famously in the 1980s case Mozert v. Hawkins County, religious conservatives had initial strategic success portraying humanism as a religion.

If humanism counts as religion, the argument went, then public schools have no Constitutional business promoting it.  Textbooks with an evolutionary perspective, books that promote a notion of material origins of humanity, schoolbooks that teach the primary importance of human reason, such things smack of government instruction in the religion of humanism.

Strange bedfellows.

As Professor Ruse notes in his essay, his anti-creationist credentials are impeccable.  Yet just as sectarian disputes among religious folks have provided some of the most profound and influential arguments against religion in general, so the clash between these atheistic Darwinists will likely provide the very best reasons to include more creationist-friendly ideas in public schools.

 

 

A Hideous Truth: Flannery O’Connor on Fascism and Fundamental Belief

What does it mean to believe in something beyond reason?  How can we know the truth if we cannot trust our emotional responses?

A few days back The American Reader posted a remarkable letter from Flannery O’Connor to Betty Hester.  It seems the novelist in 1955 began a long correspondence with Hester.  Hester, a clerk in an Atlanta office, had written to O’Connor out of the blue.

Flannery O’Connor in 1955. Image source: The American Reader

The letter from September 6, 1955 reveals that Hester was no sycophantic fan.  She had apparently accused O’Connor of fascism.  As O’Connor defends in her letter,

“A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.”

For those of us outsiders trying to understand Fundamentalist America, these brief sentences can help.  The cultural divide seems deepest when it comes to the origins of truth.  For citizens of what we’re calling Fundamentalist America, truth can come from something beyond and above ourselves.  As O’Connor explained to Hester, “the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me.”  In other words, for many religious conservatives–even those without O’Connor’s gift for expression–truth is not simply a result of our own feelings and cogitations.  Truth exists outside of us.  Our job is to submit to truth, not merely to quest for our own individual explanations.

This vision of truth sits hard with folks like me.  I was always taught to question, to doubt, to inquire skeptically into every notion.  Truth, the way I was raised, came from tearing down the accumulations of irrational tradition to get at the core of what is real.  You’ll know you’ve found the truth, the nostrum went, when you feel it deep down inside.

O’Connor offers a very different vision.  Her prescription for truth and truth-seeking help explain to us outsiders how someone can be intelligent and yet believe in things beyond reason.  How, for instance, can someone who knows the scientific evidence for evolution continue to believe in a young-earth creation?  For folks like me, such things seem outlandish.  And skeptics such as Richard Dawkins can only conclude that creationists must be “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”

O’Connor’s letter gives us a different explanation.  The truth, for O’Connor, does not derive first from our reason.  It does not need to satisfy our feelings or our desires.  Rather, the truth might be “hideous,” but truth nonetheless.