Creationism: An Argument Against Reason

A personal essay on the pretense of religious faith as reasoned science.

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"The rise of Creationism is politics, pure and simple; it represents one issue (and by no means the major concern) of the religious right. Arguments that seemed kooky just a decade ago have reentered the mainstream.
--Steven Jay Gould, 1981




The Historical Background

The quote above from one of the preeminent biologists of our time shows clearly how reason is retreating in the face of dogmatic religious fervor.

The influential Christian theologian, Augustine, wrote in the fourth century that "Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since that authority is greater than all the powers of the human mind." And so it was. The vast majority of Christendom, including scientists of the day, believed that God created the world as described in the Bible in the book of Genesis.

Then, after the publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species" in 1859, within a hundred years there was little question in most anyone's mind that the powerful reason and logic of Darwin's theories of natural selection were the best description yet devised of how man and the biological world in which he finds himself came to be. Few believed in the literal interpretation of Genesis, except for the fundamentalist evangelicals, for whom the Bible was inerrant and undeniable.

And now, just a half century later, Augustine's belief in the ultimate authority of scripture is making a resurgence, and acceptance of the truth of natural selection is in decline for the first time in America since 1859.

How has this situation come to be?

Why has the triumph of reason, logic and evidence begun a retreat into the dark ages of mysticism and speculative faith?

If any one single factor must be cited, it must surely be the collapse of public education and the attendant loss of widespread critical thinking skills.

As I have written elsewhere, the decline of public education in the United States began in 1865 with the end of the American Civil War. Soldiers who, with but three or four years of formal education, wrote letters that amaze us with their quotations of Homer, Plato and Cicero in their insightful discussion of the moral dilemmas they faced in battle. Today, many college graduates could scarcely understand the language, much less the reasoning of those letters, written by soldiers who as civilians, were simple farmers and tradespeople.

As the general literacy and ability to think critically has declined, the defense against illogical and unreasoned religious dogma has declined as well. Hence, it should surprise no one that fundamentalist religion is seldom an ally of rigorous education in critical thinking skills, and has risen in this country as critical thinking skills have declined.

With the outcome of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" proving to be but a Pyhrric victory for the forces of religious dogmatism, it became obvious to the fundamentalist crowd that the only way they could stop the advance of science would be to stop the advance of education. So to do this, they joined forces with conservatives to push a conservative agenda on the educational system in the United States, and part of that conservative agenda was of course religious fundamentalist dogma.

Countless school boards across the United States were captured by a determined and well organized conspiracy of Christian fundamentalists to take control of the national education system. Beginning in early 1980's and continuing to this day, school board after school board became a tool of religious fundamentalist conservatives pushing an agenda of enforced ignorance of the facts of science and the methods of scientific investigation. It is therefore not surprising that few students today graduate with genuinely advanced critical thinking skills and an awareness of the basic processes of the scientific method.

What The Fundamentalists Want To Be Taught In The Schools

There are a relatively few doctrines with which the fundamentalists want to supplant science teaching, yet those doctrines tend to undermine the very basis of much of science: First, they wish to supplant the basic premises of geology, astronomy and paleontology with the notion that the God they imagine created the universe, the earth (and the geological and paleontological records within it), and the biosphere in which we live, and of course, ourselves. Second, they claim that a great flood occurred which basically wiped out everything except for two members of every species that was preserved within an "ark" built to divine specification. And third, that everyone living on earth today is a decendant of the people who were aboard the "ark." Third, they claim that all this took place within a remarkably short period of time - by most accounts, less than seven thousand years!

Such absurd notions would be heartily laughed at if they were promoted by a less popular religion. Yet they have credibility in our society solely as the result of repetition - by an established and respected religious creed.

It would seem logical and reasonable that such notions, if they were true, would be substantiated by abundant, subtantiated and verified evidence. Yet they are, of course, contradicted by the facts. But that does not bother the true believer - contrary evidence is discounted by discrediting the author, or by finding tiny flaws in the contrary evidence and overmagnifying its importance, or by simply dismissing it as contrary to "God's word."

But facts are the facts, and they speak for themselves. Here in a nutshell are the fundamentalist's arguments and why they don't add up:

The fundamentalists teach that man was created by a god in two steps: "Adam" by magically transforming a lump of clay, and "Eve" by magically transforming a rib taken from "Adam." This is contraindicated by the fossil record, which couldn't be more clear: mankind, as yet one more animal in the landscape, descended from an ancestor common to that of the great apes, who descended from an ancestor common with other primates, who descended from earlier mammals, etc. Indeed, we have a clearly defined, unbroken set of fossils (the "missing link" claim is quite simply false), taking our ancestry back to clearly ape-like primate ancestors. And of course, it's not just humans for which a clear, unbroken fossil sequence has been found. Clearly intermediate fossils have been found for many evolutionary sequences, among them horses, whales, rodents, snails, hippopotamuses, elephants, etc. The evolutionary sequences are so complete and so well preserved, in many cases, that there is no rationality in denying their existence and what they say about evolution. So the fossils are very clear: evolution is real, the plants and animals we see around us, as well as ourselves, are the result of evolution

Fundamentalists try to get around this difficulty by proposing what they call "microevolution," meaning within a species but not evolving between "kinds." Just what a "kind" is, they don't say, but presumably it is a species-like definition that has no real scientific merit. And because they can't clearly defind a "kind," the argument as a whole doesn't work to delineate just where the "microevolution" they approve of leaves off and where the "macroevolution" of one "kind" evolving into another "kind" begins.

The second notion, that of a worldwide flood, are of course contraindicated by the geological record. Yes, there is evidence of flooding throughout the fossil record, but there is no record anywhere in the geological record of any worldwide flood. Had there been one, geological evidence for it would be abundant, just as it is for the meteorite event that brought an end to the dinosaurs. That meteorite was a relatively small event in terms of geology; it was a collision with a body approximately ten miles across, yet it's evidence is clearly visible in any rock layer anywhere in the world that was being deposited (rather than eroded) at the time, which has not been obliterated by subsequent erosion. The addition to the world's oceans of enough fresh water in the form of rain would have diluted the salt in the oceans of the world to the extent that few marine species could have survived. The chemistry of the oceans would have been dramatically altered. And of course all the plants and animals that are found only in small, isolated areas of the world would have been extinguished. Yet there is no evidence of any of this in the geological record. It would have left a very obvious record in sedimentary geology both in the ocean bottoms and the sedimentary layers on land. The evidence for a worldwide flood should be everywhere had it happened. But it didn't, so there isn't.

As "evidence" for a worldwide flood, fundamentalists point to the Grand Canyon, saying it was the result of flood waters draining away. If this were the case, why are there not many more Grand Canyons, in such areas of the world as where they would have occurred if such an event had happened? A classic case is just a few hundred miles to the north at Red Rock Pass in southern Idaho. It is the lowest point around the rim of the Great Basin where flood waters would have carved an enormous canyon should a vast flood have drained through there on its way to the ocean. Indeed, there isn't a great canyon there. What's there is evidence of the draining of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville. The draining of Lake Bonneville through Red Rock Pass left a good deal of evidence behind - for just how much water drained away, when it happened, how long it took, etc. Yet the canyon left behind would have been much more vast had the quantity of water alluded to in the Bible had to drain through it. And the evidence for when it happened and how big an event it was would have clearly been left behind. But no such canyon was left. Why not? Because it didn't happen. And there are many, many more examples that could be cited.

The third problem, that of the descent of all living men from the occupants of the "ark" is one that is also clearly disproven by modern science. We have seen, for example, how modern genetics has proven to be true the claim that many of the "cohenim," the priestly class of Jews are in fact for the most part decended from a single male ancestor as Judaism claims. Such evidence has even recently validated the claims that an African tribe has made to being of Jewish descent. Yet no such evidence exists for descent from the small number of people who were supposed to have escaped the flood in the "ark."

Arguments against evolution have been disproven as well. Indeed, a new species of salmon has actually evolved in our own time. We've seen it happen. Creationists who claim that evolution must not be true because we don't see it happening are simply uninformed.

The problem faced by the fundamentalist is that steadily, one by one, the claims he makes for biology, paleontology and geology are being disproven by the hard, incontrovertible evidence turned up by science. The claims of religion are retreating before reason and truth, steadily and surely. This leaves the fundamentalist with a dilemma - how to promote his faith and the agenda based on it in the face of steadily advancing knowledge.

He has attempted to advance his agenda by taking over the school system, and in the United States, to a large degree he has succeeded as a result of voter apathy and ignorance of his advancing agenda.

The fundamentalist has attempted to make his religious doctrine acceptable as science by simply calling it science. But the term "creation science" is simply oxymoronic. It is not science for the simple reason that it denies one of the basic, unalterable premises of science - that is, that natural law applies the same way in all places in the universe at all times and there are no exceptions to it. If you can claim that natural law is suspended while a miracle occurs, what you have is by definition not science. That's because you can't predict the outcome of a series of events if a supernatural intervention can suspend natural law unpredictably. If you allow for miracles, you simply can't do science, because there is no way to know when natural law applies or when a miracle applies. Science predicts outcomes on the basis of natural law and you can't predict an outcome by the application of natural law if miracles are randomly possible. Hence, "Creation Science" is simply not science.

The Present Dilemma

So here we arrive at our present dilemma. We have a highly technological society, utterly dependent on science and reason and the technology it has created, and yet we are faced with an increasing scarcity of those who understand the world in which we live and fewer yet who can deal with the problems we face.

We are increasingly isolated from the wisdom of past generations of scientists and natural philosophers, and yet we face increasing problems created by our increasingly complex society. If we are to adequately address our problems, we must recognize religious faith for what it is, and for the limitations with which it presents us. Our hereditary prediliction to religious belief must be accepted as a handicap and an evolutionary relic, and not as evidence for a god that does not in any likelihood even exist, much less communicate and command.

Solving the Increasingly Urgent Dilemma

For us to train the highly educated people that we need to advance our society and solve our problems, we cannot rely on the unfounded and poorly evidenced beliefs of the past. We need to educate our children, all of them, thoroughly and completely in the reality as best we are able to discern it through modern, unbiased research, devoid of the bias of preconceived religious doctrine.

More important than even that, is that we need to teach critical thinking skills to our children so that they are not vulnerable to the prepackaged, predigested nostrums of illogic that prevail in many, if not most, religious institutions today.

There are many good reasons for doing so. It is not just that we need to train scientists and engineers for the benefit of continued scientific and technical progress. It is because many of the laws and regulations of our society are based on religious doctrine, and that's a problem. If the underlying doctrine is defective, the societal norms and the laws they are based on are repressive.

Ultimately a society that obeys the law does so not because it fears the law but because it respects it. If a law is based on a religious doctrine that is not universally shared, the law itself is seen as repressive and ultimately becomes self-defeating by undermining respect for the law in general. This is a fact not often appreciated by the fundamentalists working to establish a theocracy in the United States. If they ever succeed, they'll only end up making themselves and their religion being hated rather than ignored. And of course, that doesn't serve their interests ultimately, either. This is why the founding fathers of the American democracy, many of whom were Christian, saw the wisdom in secularizing the government they were establishing.

We all, religionist and humanist alike, gain more than we lose by learning critical thinking skills, educating our children and accepting secularism as a basis for our government. In the end, we all gain by it.

Books:

Books I recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy from Amazon.com by pursuing the links here. Your transaction will be safe and secure):

Science On Trial: The Case for Evolution by Douglas Futuyama is clearly the best book around on answering the Creationist's objections to evolutionary theory and evidence. If you get only one book on evolution, this one should be it. It takes the Creationist's arguments one by one, and gives a thorough, well reasoned and well documented response. Any high-school teacher facing a fundamentalist school board really needs this book!

Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism by Phillip Kitchner is one of those books the creationists just love to hate. It presents with rigorous scholasticism the case against creationism, and can be a bit of a dry read as a result, but it's another tremendous resource for high-school biology teachers.

Evolution and the Myths of Creationism: A Basic Guide to the Facts of the Evolution Debate by T.M. Berra is a college text that looks closely at the myths of the creationist, shows how they arose and why they don't make sense; it's a great read for the more technically minded.

The Age of the Earth by G.B. Dalrymple, is probably the definitive text on the age of the earth and how scientists have arrived at it. The only edition currently in print is the rather pricey hardbound, but if you want bulletproof evidence for the age of the earth, this is it.

But Is It Science: The Philosophical Question in the Evolution/Creation Controversy by Michael Ruse is the work of a legal expert who testified in the McLean vs. Arkansas trial that overthrew the 'educational equal time' law in that state. As well as portions of the trial transcript itself, he presents here a careful and reasoned analysis of what that transcript is talking about - and why Creationism can't make a claim to being science. Another must for high-school biology teachers.

The Blind Watchmaker: Why The Evidence of Evolution Reveals A Universe Without Design by Richard Dawkins is a well-reasoned argument for why creation couldn't have been designed intelligently.

In The Beginning: A Scientist Shows Why the Creationists Are Wrong by Chris McGowan presents a well-reasoned argument for evolution, and shows in example after example, why the Creationist model is unworkable and has to eventually resort to supernatural explanations.

The Creationists by Ronald Numbers is a good sociological analysis of the Creationist movement, who is part of it and why it is attractive.


In addition to the above, I also heartily recommend the National Center for Science Education. This organization is devoted to teaching reason and science in the public schools, and defending them from attacks by religionists. It is a good source of news and advice on Creationist activities, new scientific findings relevant to Creationism and evolution science, and related political and social developments. It offers a bimonthly journal and sells books, pamphlets and videos. A complete index to it's journal and the newsletter that preceded it can be found at the Center's website. The Center can be reached at P.O. Box 9477, Berkeley, CA 94709 USA.
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Revised 2/29/2000