Yes, creationism is religiously motivated

Previously: The evidence for evolution

Part of my reason for going into Plantinga’s dabbling in anti-evolutionism is to set up another exercise in stating the obvious: that the creation-evolution controversy, like the Galileo affair, is an example of conflict between science and religion.

In Where the Conflict Really LiesPlantinga also has a section titled, “Why Do People Doubt Evolution?” which considers only two explanations. The first is Ken Miller’s suggestion that creationism is popular in America due to the American tradition of disrespect for authority. Plantinga right points out that while that might be part of it, it can’t be the whole reason: “Americans don’t ordinarily reject other basic scientific theses, such as the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics” (p. 53).

But Plantinga’s alternative explanation is almost as bad for ignoring obvious facts. He recognizes that the rejection of evolution has something to do with religion, but there’s no mention that this might have something to do with people’s religious beliefs being at odds with evolution. Instead, Plantinga blames atheists like Dawkins and Dennett for saying that evolution supports atheism.

This explanation would be implausible no matter who was giving it, but it’s breathtaking to see it used by Plantinga, who once defended the reasonableness of being a young earth creationist if that’s your interpretation of the Bible. If Plantinga really believes what he’s saying here, he’s deeply in denial (or perhaps he knows better, but was too excited at finding another excuse to bash atheists to let the facts get in the way).

Though it shouldn’t be necessary, let’s review the relevant history. In an interview, Ron Numbers (an expert in the history of creationism), argues that Darwin’s theory was embraced by many Christians from the very beginning, but also says:

 We know very little about the reaction of the masses of Americans to evolution in the late 19th Century. But I feel confident in saying that the overwhelming number rejected evolution, and especially any implication that humans were related to monkey ancestors.

The famous Scopes trial, in which a school teacher was prosecuted for violating a law against the teaching of evolution, took place in 1925. Scopes lost, and the US Supreme Court didn’t strike down laws against the teaching of evolution until 1960s. The 60s were also when John C. Witcomb and Henry M. Morris published The Genesis Flood, a landmark work in the young earth creationist literature.

Two more famous cases happened in the 180’s: McLean vs. Arkansas (1982), in which a federal court struck down a law mandating the teaching of “creation science” in the public schools ; and Edwards vs. Aguilllard (1987), in which the US Supreme Court struck down a similar law. 

For comparison, The Blind Watchmaker (the first book where Dawkins has much to say about the religious implications of evolution) was published in 1986, before Edwards vs. Aguilllard was decided but after the law it struck down had been passed. Dennett’s book on evolution, Darwin’s Dangerous Ideawasn’t published until 1995. Unless their powers of offending religious believers stretch backwards in time, Dawkins and Dennett cannot be blamed for the popularity of creationism.

Yet Plantinga is not alone here. In fact, the belief that atheists are to be blamed for harming the cause of evolution has been advocated by quite a few of evolution’s defenders. Ken Miller’s own attempt to explain creationism without reference to religion, noted above, it especially exasperating, because Miller testified in the 2004 Dover trial, where the teaching of Intelligent Design in the public schools was struck down precisely because of its religious motivation.

But even if they’re not wholly to blame, could Dawkins and Dennett have made the situation worse? Maybe–but there’s a problem here, similar to the problem with Sagan’s comments about prayer. According to Plantinga, evolution guided by God might be okay, but for evolution to have happened purely by unguided natural processes would be unacceptable. And it isn’t just Dawkins and Dennett he ends up having a problem with–he also quotes comments from Stephen Jay Gould that he finds objectionable, even though Gould himself tried to argue for the compatibility of religion and science.

Now for comparison, imagine hearing a scientist say something like, “people used to believe that epilepsy was caused by demons, but now we understand that epilepsy is a neurological problem rather than the work of demons.” Would you object? Probably not. It sounds pretty banal. But a zealous believer in the demon hypothesis could claim that demons are working through neurological problems to cause epilepsy, and the demons work in subtle ways, too subtle for scientists to ever detect.

We can’t expect scientists and doctors to acknowledge such possibilities every time they talk about the causes of epilepsy. That’s true whether or not they can be disproven to the satisfaction of believers in demons. Similarly, science currently explains evolution solely in terms of unguided natural processes; they’re the only processes we have any evidence for. Whether or not subtle divine interference can be ruled out to Plantinga’s satisfaction, scientists will sometimes talk about how evolution happens by unguided natural processes, and it’s unreasonable to demand they do otherwise.

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