It’s Funny Until Someone Gets Hurt, then it’s Hilarious

I’ve been amazed at the popularity of Creationism/Intelligent Design among Christian pundits.

Old-earth Creationism accepts the consensus within the field of cosmology about the Big Bang and the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago but rejects evolution. Young-earth Creationism also rejects evolution and argues that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. This view is predominant among evangelical pastors.

Dr. Karl Giberson pointed out an interesting downside of this mindless rejection of science. He begins by citing a Barna survey that lists six reasons why most evangelical Christians disconnect from the church, at least temporarily, after age 15. The most interesting reason: “Churches come across as antagonistic to science.”

Of the young adults surveyed,

  • 23% say they had “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate”
  • 25% say “Christianity is anti-science”
  • 29% say “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in”
  • 35% say “Christians are too confident they know all the answers”

Ken Ham vs. science

As an example of this rejection of science, Giberson points to the technique recommended to schoolchildren by Creation Museum founder Ken Ham. Ham encourages students to ask, “Were you there?” when the biology teacher says that life on earth appeared roughly 4 billion years ago or the physics teacher says that the Big Bang gave us the universe in its present form 13.7 billion years ago.

Ham proudly blogged about nine-year-old Emma B., who wrote to tell Ham how she attacked a curator’s statement that a moon rock was 3.75 billion years old with “Were you there?”

Biologist PZ Myers nicely deflated Ham’s anti-science question with a gentle reply to Emma B. Myers recommends using instead “How do you know that?” which is a question from which you can actually learn something.

Contrast that with Ham’s “Were you there?” which is designed simply to shut down discussion and to which you already know the answer.

“Were you there?” is a subset of the more general question, “Did you experience this with your own senses?” To Science, this question lost significance hundreds of years ago. The days when Isaac Newton used taste as a tool to understand new chemicals are long gone. Modern science relies heavily on instruments to reliably provide information about nature—from simple ones like compasses, voltmeters, and pH meters to complex ones like the Mars rovers, Hubble space telescope, and Large Hadron Collider.

Personal observation is often necessary (finding new animal species, for example), but this is no longer a requirement for obtaining credible scientific evidence.

William Lane Craig as Hanes Inspector #12

From the standpoint of mainstream Christianity, Ham’s position as a young-earth Creationist and Bible literalist is a bit extreme, but higher profile figures like William Lane Craig also grant themselves the privilege of picking and choosing their science. Craig uses science a lot—at least, when it suits his purposes. The Big Bang suggests a beginning for the universe, so he takes that. Evolution suggests that life on earth didn’t need God, so he rejects that bit.

He imagines that he’s Hanes Inspector Number 12: “It’s not science until I say it’s science.” It may be fun to pretend that, but what could possibly make you think that’s justifiable?

That reminds me of a joke

Scientists figure out how to duplicate abiogenesis (the process by which molecules became something that could evolve). They are so excited that they email God to say they want to show him. So God clears some time on his calendar and has them in.

“Sounds like you’ve been busy,” God said. “Show me what you’ve got.”

“Okay—first you take some dirt,” said one of the scientists.

“Hold on,” God said. “Get your own dirt.”

And to William Lane Craig’s pontificating about science, I say, “Hold on—get your own science.”

As a layman, you either play by the rules of science and accept the scientific consensus whether it’s compatible with your preconceptions or not, or you sit at the children’s table. If you want to hang out with the adults, you can’t invent reasons to rationalize why this science is valid and that is not.

There are consequences

Evangelicals may want to rethink this picking and choosing of science. Giberson ends his article:

The dismissive and even hostile approach to science taken by evangelical leaders like Ken Ham accounts for the Barna finding above. In the name of protecting Christianity from a secularism perceived as corrosive to the faith, the creationists are unwittingly driving the best and brightest evangelicals out of the church. … What remains after their exodus is an even more intellectually impoverished parallel culture, with even fewer resources to think about complex issues.

Perhaps I should be more welcoming to Christian anti-science in the future.

No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says;
he is always convinced that it says what he means.
— George Bernard Shaw

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 2/22/12.)

Photo credit: williac

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  • RichardSRussell

    Perhaps I should be more welcoming to Christian anti-science in the future.

    Oh, I understand the feeling, believe me, I do! But I urge you to resist it, as it only contributes to the siloization of our culture, in which people only talk and listen to others with whom they already agree.

  • MNb

    While I generally agree with PZ’s answer I still think it’s possible to take “Where you there?” as a starting point for teaching. It’s a bit ironical that you yourself hint at the correct approach: “this question lost significance”
    Where PZ fell somewhat short is that he didn’t make clear why this question lost significance and especially how to make it clear to a nine-year-old kid. It’s not that hard. Ask the counterquestion: “No, but where you there when God created the Universe?” after a short pause followed by: “That’s not a fair question, is it? Then you should not ask it either.”
    Kids are usually brutally straightforward about these things.

    • Cafeeine

      Unfortunately, these things are part of prepared spiels. The answer to “Were you there when God made the world?” is “No, but God was, and I trust Him” You need to circumnavigate around the scripted responses to get anywhere.

      • Greg G.

        The answer to “Were you there?” is “Yes, I was.” If they try to disagree, ask “Were you there?”

        • Ron

          And technically speaking, you were there—only not in your present atomic form. 🙂

        • MNb

          While that’s funny it’s also a cheapo and if you want to make a 9 years old kid think for him/herself you better not try this. He/she will feel that you don’t take him/her seriously, which means you lose.

        • Greg G.

          If a 9 year old is asking the question in the US, there is a good chance that they are being taught to ask it to innoculate them from thinking. See the third paragraph here. They may start asking it of those who taught them the question. But you can demonstrate to them that it’s the wrong question to ask in science class.

        • Itarion

          Oh my gosh. He is a terrible person. And I don’t even think he realizes it.

        • Eric Sotnak

          My answer to “were you there?” would be “why do you ask?”

        • Greg G.

          My answer to “were you there?” would be “why do you ask?”

          Don’t you hate when your lawyer replies, “Because you need an alibi.”

        • UWIR

          Or “Do you think people need to personally witness something to have knowledge about it?”

        • Itarion

          Cheap, but effective, provided you then explain why the question is unfair, and then some of the tools that are used in lieu of being there.

      • MNb

        The answer to that is “Trust in god is OK, but doesn’t have any value in science. Science says nothing about god.”

        • Greg G.

          Science can say nothing about gods that are contrived to be indistinguishable from imaginary things.

      • UWIR

        Of course, there’s still the question “Were you there when the Bible was written?”

  • MNb

    “the privilege of picking and choosing their science”
    It can be even worse. I know two Dutch philosophers of religion – and don’t be mistaken, they are far more refined thinkers than Craig – who accept evolution at one hand and then jump to three conclusions:
    1. evolution implies that we need god to justify our knowledge because it gives imperfect results, including imperfect human understanding of our Universe;
    2. evolution is teleological and used by said god to produce a intelligent being like mankind;
    3. evolution can’t explain that Homo Sapiens has a soul, which is necessary to explain self-awareness, consciousness etc. and is a divine gift to mankind. That’s what the first chapters of Genesis is about.
    It’s a lot harder to find the anti-scientific elements here, but with enough pressure and patience to disclose them. The reactions of my two compatriots have made me suspect that PZ and JAC are right and religion and science are incompatible indeed. But I am not able (yet?) to provide conclusive arguments.

    • Are you referring to Plantinga? Sounds like his EAAN.

      • MNb

        No, Emmanuel Rutten and Jan Riemersma, but they indeed know their Plantinga. He is far more respected in The Netherlands than Craig, whose lunatic aspects even scares off Dutch orthodox protestants.
        What does EAAN mean?

        • GubbaBumpkin

          Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, in which Plantinga demonstrates his complete lack of knowledge about evolution.

        • MNb

          Ah, thanks. That explains a few things. Riemersma (also a Frisian name) got his doctor degree deriving an argument pro god involving Evolution Theory. In this he wrote that Evolution is a random process (no kidding). A year before his promotion I referred him to TalkOrigins, which makes very clear that it’s bogus. He still kept it. Afterwards he explained “that he needed a statement about Evolution Theory, wrote to a few biologists and got it”.

          Like I wrote, these guys are smart. So I strongly suspect it’s not lack of knowledge but intellectual dishonesty. They know a priori what conclusion they want to arrive at and don’t mind how they will get there.

          For those who can read Dutch:

          For those who can’t there is a summary in English at the end. I’d love to see this stuff debunked by Chris H, but he doesn’t seem to be interested.

        • That’s always the question, isn’t it? Do these smart guys simply not know (they’re in an ivory tower echo chamber and explore few objections to their arguments) or are they liars?

          For example, Antony Flew, the ex-atheist philosopher who was the darling of the ID/apologist crowd near the end of his life, seemed quite poorly informed about some of the basic apologetic arguments, which made him open to nutty Christian arguments.

        • MNb

          My default position is that they don’t know or understand. Quite often there are strong indications that they do know, for instance because someone has pointed out their error and they simply don’t accept it. Even then I’m hesitating to call them liars; there is something like self-deceit. For a scholar that’s equally damning though.
          To call someone a liar I must have reasonable evidence that he/she has the specific intention to twist the facts. I don’t believe that’s the case with Rutten and Riemersma. When Rutten (and he has two grades; the other one is in math) writes that christianity is the correct religion “because historians have consensus about the empty grave” (again: no kidding) I assume he is fooling himself by means of confirmation bias etc.
          These guys perfectly show how dangerous (intellectually) it is to argue for a pre-determined conclusion. I suspect that applies to Plantinga as well. See Chris H’s recent post about the Plantinga clique telling themselves how fine their work is. I have followed both Rutten’s and Riemersma’s blog for a while; the latter has the exactly same tendency.
          The troubling question is of course how we can make sure not making the same mistake, but that’s another topic.

        • When you have a nutjob like Ray “Crocoduck” Comfort, it’s easy to assume that he’s lying when he repeats the same stupid anti-evolution arguments over and over, though he’s been corrected by experts. But you’ve got to figure out something else when it comes to smarter people.

          Maybe the key is that smarter doesn’t necessarily mean less easily duped or worse at self-deception.

          (By “grades,” did you mean “degrees”?)

        • MNb

          I think that that’s the key indeed. I mean, Einstein said a few silly things as well.

        • Greg G.

          Most of us are wrong about things for dumb reasons. Very intelligent people can be wrong for either dumb reasons or extremely sophisticated reasons.

        • As Michael Shermer noted, smart people are simply cleverer at cobbling together rationalizations to justify their foolish beliefs–so clever, in fact, that they convince themselves. They don’t say, “Sure, I just believe because I was raised that way.” No, they have sophisticated reasons that they assure us underlie their beliefs.

        • UWIR

          There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer sees a red light, so he closes his eyes, so he can tell himself that the light could have turned green by the time he reached the intersection, so he’s not knowingly driving through a red light. At some point, a refusal to do due diligence to find out what one is saying is false, has to be taken as a form of dishonesty. If you claim that there is a consensus about the empty tomb, either you did the research, in which case you know you’re lying, or you didn’t do the research, in which case you’re still lying, because to make a claim is to assert not only that you believe it, but to implicitly assert that you have a valid basis for believing it.

          “The troubling question is of course how we can make sure not making the same mistake, but that’s another topic.”

          Well, for one thing, people like PZ Myers and Coyne, who encourage an intolerance of anyone who doesn’t follow the party line, need to be roundly denounced.

        • I address Plantinga’s EAAN here.

          I haven’t heard of the other two scholars. Is “Plantinga” indeed a Dutch name? It was just a guess on my part.

        • MNb

          Frisian – and Plantinga’s father was born in Garyp, Frisia indeed. Frisia is a province in The Netherlands, but the Frisians aren’t entirely Dutch. They had an independent kingdom some 14 Centuries ago, a long time before anyone knew about The Netherlands. These days the Frisians are largely protestant, so Plantinga’s popularity is not surprising.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      1) Yes, our senses and our cognition are demonstrably imperfect. This is compatible with evolution, but hard to square with an omnipotent God.
      2) Show me the evidence. That’s just an unsupported assertion.

      3) A soul is not needed to explain self-awareness, consciousness, etc., says current neuroscience. In addition, if a soul existed, you would be able to scientifically demonstrate how it interacts with the brain. Good luck with that.

      • MNb

        As I’m a hardcore atheist, 7 on the scale of Dawkins, you should go wish those Dutch apologists good luck, not me. Rutten and Riemersma have their own websites, so there is nothing to stop you.

        • GubbaBumpkin

          Ik weet het niet nederlands.

  • MNb

    “As a layman, you either …..”
    The real fun of course is to find out on which points there is no scientific consensus and why! That’s something apologists find difficult to grasp, I suspect because they in their hearts long for the Absolute Truth. The sad (or if you have a nasty character: fun) thing is that they even agree less than scientists, which implies that they are even farther from getting at it.

  • Greg G.

    Those who doubt science do not do it because of the science but because their religion contradicts science. If there was no Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, then there was no Original Sin. Jesus died for the Original Sin, not for a metaphor. If science shows that Genesis didn’t happen, they will doubt science and ignore the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

  • Jim Hoerst

    The scary part is Ken Ham and others have influence over teachers, even teachers up to the collegiate level.

  • wtfwjtd

    Organized religion’s hostility to science causing a brain drain among their youth is an interesting observation. As the congregations get smaller(and dumber), they get more shrill, and as the shrill level increases they get even smaller. It’s a self-perpetuating death spiral, and with rigid, inflexible, and ancient dogma firmly entrenched there’s no realistic way to break the cycle. I guess revising the holy book to be more in synch with the times isn’t an option–too bad.

    • natsera

      The congregations probably aren’t getting smaller, because being dumb certainly doesn’t mean they can’t breed like rabbits!

      • Armanatar

        But having lots of kids doesn’t mean having lots of future congregants, or else we wouldn’t be talking about this whole “leaving the church” thing to begin with.

        • smrnda

          Between an ignorant rejection of science and reason to extremely rigid rules for behavior, kids raised in the environment are bound to want out. With the internet, it’ll be hard to keep them isolated.

        • It is pleasant to imagine that the internet will enable people stuck within religion where questions are frowned upon will increasingly be able to explore the evidence.

          I met someone recently who was stuck in a strict religious community. She had loads of atheist books on her Kindle, and, just by looking at her, she could be reading her Bible for all anyone knew.

        • smrnda

          All said, it’s so much harder to know what someone is reading these days for reasons just like that 🙂 Yay technology!

  • Mick

    I’ve known quite a few people who rarely go to church but still believe that god created the universe (by scientific means). They still think that atheists are immoral and that goodness comes only from god. They still think that humans have dominion over the earth and no matter how bad things get, god will sort it out (in their lifetime).

    A few creationist kids decide to shop around for a more salubrious denomination. Pfft! They probably still expect to get more from praying than they do from studying.

    • MNb

      Creating by scientific means? I’d like to know how that works.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      but still believe that god created the universe (by scientific means).

      These people need to be metaphorically whacked with Occam’s razor.

      • Itarion

        Sounds dangerous. They might cut something.

  • Pofarmer

    I ran across something intersting tonight. Catholic school my kids go to removed the Hunger Games from the school library. This is just the latest in a growing list. I was talking to another mom tonight, mshe has read the books, my wife has read the books, our oldest kids have read the books. There’s no good reason to remove these books, but they just shrug, and, ” oh well”. They don’t even realize the power they unquestioningly give the church.

    • RichardSRussell

      Why do you send your kids to a school like that?

      • Pofarmer

        Married. Attempting to stay that way. Also the discipline in the public schools is a mess. We are having more students come in to this school, and other private Christian Schools, not because the schools are so great, but because the kids are at least under control.

        • smrnda

          This is something that makes me worry. It is true that many public schools aren’t doing well, and religious schools, particularly Catholic ones, are already there as an alternative. I sometimes suspect that it’s a public policy goal to *make* public schools fail so that kids can get siphoned into religious schools, which will then get government money which will be defended by rhetoric about ‘choice.’

          I really feel for your situation.

          An issue with behavior, of course, is that private school can kick out unruly students, will already screen out the poor kids, and don’t have to take on students who will be demanding. It’s a tough situation all around, and I feel bad you’re stuck in such a position.

        • Pofarmer

          “I sometimes suspect that it’s a public policy goal to *make* public schools fail so that kids can get siphoned into religious schools, which will then get government money which will be defended by rhetoric about ‘choice.’ ”

          Nah, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy or policy, it’s good old lack of discipline. “Well, you can’t make my kid do _________!” The teachers disciplinary options are pretty well curtailed, and they know that if they do discipline a kid, the parents will come down on the kids side. There is no cohesiveness in the classroom, it’s every student for themselves. Foul language, bad behavior, no help from parents. Seen it too many times. I like the Catholic school, well, mostly, if it wasn’t for the whole Catholic thing.

        • smrnda

          My experience might be a bit different, where it seems that discipline problems are kind of a result of having lots of kids who are at-risk for various sorts of problems having a high concentration in some schools owing to poverty, where parents with even a little bit more $ than average for the neighborhood clearing out and sending their kids elsewhere. Perhaps this is because I’m from Chicago, which did the ‘charter school’ thing in poor neighborhoods (which turned out to be a kind of speculative bubble almost and delivered almost no substantial improvement.)

          Something I found odd. I started going to a community college when I was about 12 or so since I got ahead in mathematics, and I quickly realized that there were no *rules* going on, but yet there was so much less chaos, and the students weren’t that much older, on average, than high school kids. I have yet to figure out what happens.

          Some of my friends who teach HS complain of the same problem, mostly parents making excuses for kids who just slack off and cause trouble who aren’t really *at risk* by any sensible measure, though I’ve only taught adults so I’ve never had to handle that.

        • Pofarmer

          I think the community College thing is that you have kids who want to be there, and there is a check coming out of somebodies pocket to pay for it, ao there is at least some pressure to perform.

        • smrnda

          Good point, totally different incentives there.

          An idea someone had (which I kind of think might work) is to PAY kids for doing the right thing in school. When I first heard the idea, I thought it was nuts, and I though it would be too costly. But.. perhaps as an incentive it would work well enough and by reducing problem behaviors and rewarding good work, it might pay for itself? I’d love for someone to try that. It also takes some punishment/reward out of the hands of parents. If Johnny disrupts class, Johnny’s parents don’t care and protest Johnny getting a detention, but if Johnny knows he’ll get some $ for NOT disrupting class?

          Perhaps this could be a bad idea too, but I’d like to see a test.

        • I like innovative ideas, but I suspect that money isn’t that much of a motivator here. But that’s just a guess.

        • 🙁

      • GubbaBumpkin

        Catholic schools are a well-known method for raising atheists.

        • Pofarmer

          Yep, I talk to my kids nearly everyday about their classes and religion class in particular. They arestarting to ask tougher questions, and I think the Priest is going to wish that he had left well enough alone,

        • smrnda

          The Catholic church is well-known for the same thing, or for creating ‘believers’ who are functionally atheists but who show up a few times a year.

    • Itarion

      Really? If I was a religious institution, I would use the Hunger Games as an example of the [only] direction that a scientific and rational world can go. And somehow dress Katniss up as a chosen savior of the world.

      Then the PREVIOUS teen series of note is also easily converted into a Christ allegory. The big evil has a shattered soul, Harry is a prophesied figure who must bring down evil, oh and spoiler warning, has to die and come back in order to defeat the evil side completely.

      All of this goes to show that they’re probably not actually reading these books.

      • Pofarmer

        Oh, they banned Harry Potter, already. Something about real magic being in there, and not depending on God.

        • Yahweh is jealous, remember? He doesn’t handle competition well. Very sensitive.

        • Itarion

          But freaking Jesus allegory! Sure, Narnia is fine, but HP? Is it because the magic is in the real world?

          Or are the Chronicles of Narnia okay?

        • smrnda

          I think HP gets knocked for not having an adequately “Christian” worldview.

        • Itarion

          If they think that that’s insufficiently Christian, I have some works that pull directly from Christian sources. Avenged Sevenfold. Hellsing manga. The list goes on, but I can’t think of anything else right now.

    • UWIR

      “They don’t even realize the power they unquestioningly give the church.”

      What power? The power decide what’s in their own library? I don’t see the big deal. It’s not like if it’s not in the school library, students can’t read it.

      • Pofarmer

        Nothing to see heee, move along.

  • rusty

    Gen 9:18 “The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, [Ken] Ham and Japheth.”
    So he was there! Suck on that atheists!

    • KeithCollyer

      he changed colour in the following few thousand years

  • Itarion

    @PZ Myers

    That’s actually a very good, well simplified explanation of radiometric dating. Well done.

  • Tayglas

    What a few young adults believe about Christians is not representative of what Christians believe about God.

    • Christianity is a pyramid scheme that needs new members. Without new members, it’ll fade away like worship of Zeus.

      When young people find the message irrelevant or repulsive, then Christianity begins to die.

  • meryem koca

    About Bob Seidensticker very nice