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.

  • eric

    Plantinga blames atheists like Dawkins and Dennett for saying that evolution supports atheism.

    Just playing Devil’s advocate here, but the linking of evolution to atheism goes right back to when OOS was published. I believe folks like Asa Gray, Adam Sedgwick and TH Huxley were pointing out the potentially thorny theological implications with it. Could Plantinga be saying that the reason evolution is often rejected is because people like Dawkins and Dennett have, throughout the last 150 years, kept banging on this drum?
    I’d probably agree with that. If you point out how theory X is inconsistent with someone’s deeply held belief Y, then I’d bet they are more likely to get defensive or reject it out of hand than if you just tell them about X and let them slowly work through the consequences on their own.
    Now, this is not a logical or rational reason to reject evolution. If this is Plantinga’s argument, he’s basically saying that folks like Dawkins are activating a psychological defense mechanism or irrational bias that they didn’t have to activate. But if Plantinga is simply making the observation that this happens, I would probably agree that it does.
    OTOH, if he’s saying that these late 20th century characters are specifically to blame for pointing out how evolution contradicts creationism, well, I would kindly suggest that he is probably not giving enough credit to Mr. Huxley. :)

    • Chris Hallquist

      It’s puzzling – it would make sense if he also had Huxley et al. in mind, but he doesn’t mention them. And he seems to have this model where the details of people’s religious beliefs don’t play any role–it’s just “Dawkins tells people evolution contradicts religion and they believe him so they reject evolution.”

  • Nox

    A person can be both a religious thinker and a scientific thinker. Arguments for the compatibility of science and religion focus almost entirely on this and ignore that they are conflicting methods.

    One says truth is defined by revelation. One says truth is defined by evidence. Hence, science and religion are inherently in conflict. QEfuckinD. The only reason we’re still talking about it like it’s some big mystery is because people who like religious thinking don’t want to think of themselves as unscientific thinkers.

    • eric

      I agree, but I’m not sure the fact that they methodologically conflict means that its insane or irrational to use one method for one sort of question and the other for another sort.
      The scientific method also conflicts with the legal method. Determining the answer by getting 12 people to vote on it? Deciding via personal testimony? Having different people responsible for the pro- and con- side of a position, and telling them they are ethically bound not to bring up arguments in favor the other side, even if you know of them? These are severe methodological differences. A scientist would be thrown out of their profession for behaving the way lawyers are ethically expected to behave…and vice versa.
      So, the issue with religious methodologies is not that they are different. It makes perfect sense to use different methodologies depending on the sort of question you have to answer, how certain you need to be of the answer, how fast you need an answer, how much resources you’re willing to spend to answer it, etc. The issue with revelation as a method is that it doesn’t live up to even its own claims, in terms of accuracy, utility, scope of question, etc… It claims everything and yields nothing. Or it claims nothing of measurable substance and delivers. Either way, not a good methodology. That it is different is not really the problem.

  • Dorfl

    I don’t know where to put this comment but: Your link to “Love, Joy, Feminism” on the right is misspelled.

  • nakedanthropologist

    Nicely put, Chris. I’m in agreement with Nox – it’s not impossible to be a good scientist and a religious person, but it does require compartmentalization. On one hand, sciene demands physical and re-testabke evidence to support any assertions or claims. As a scientist, one must also be able to handle criticism, conflicting inferences, and the often brutal peer-review. Those are all good checks against fallacious claims. It’s not that evolution is some hot, new topic that is entirely dependable on Darwin’s works – there is more peer-reviewed literature and experiment of evolution than there is for gravity.

    Religiously-motivated thinking is in direct conflict with science and the scientific method. It requires faith in things unseen and unknown. Obeisance to authority is considered to be extremely important – whether that authority is embodied in a person (such a bishop, priest, or pastor), church doctrine, or divine authority (of which there are multiple interpretations). These two methodologies will always be in conflict because science and skepticism are an automatic challenge to religious authority. The skeptic (whether he or she is attached to a religion or not) will always raise that metaphorical eyebrow when claims are made without evidence – and that is where the challenge lies, because religion cannot produce sufficient evidence for its claims, especially in fundamentalist circles. I realize that there are religions out there that do not mind this conflict, such as the United Church of Christ or Unitarian Universalism, but those “liberal” churches are in the minority.

    In essence, one can lay the religiously-motivated multitudes distrust of evolution directly at the feet of their church authorities, because they are the ones that drew the line in the sand in the first place; and those lines were drawn to defend the churches’ authorities and dogmas against outside provenance and skeptical thought.

    • eric

      See my respones to nox above, though. I’d argue that compartmentalization is not really a big issue. In most cases its healthy. Its sane. Its sensible. Miscompartmentalization – using a specific belief-forming or decision-making methodology when there is no good justification for using it – is the problem.

  • MNb

    “Americans don’t ordinarily reject other basic scientific theses, such as the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics”
    Don’t they? That’s a serious question. The Big Bang follows directly from the General Theory of Relativity and isn’t that popular either or so is my impression. As for Quantum Mechanics I wonder how many Americans realize it’s a non-causal theory.

    If you allow me a Godwin:

    “The most marvellous proof of the superiority of Man, which puts man ahead of the animals, is the fact that he understands that there must be a Creator.”
    “An uneducated man, on the other hand, runs the risk of going over to atheism (which is a return to the state of the animal)”.

    Adolf Hitler.

    http://coelsblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/nazi-racial-ideology-was-religious-creationist-and-opposed-to-darwinism/#sec5

    Seems like the Führer as a creationist also realized that evolution could be a problem for belief systems. Thus it’s not our problem, but Plantinga and the likes should better be careful what kind of arguments they want to use.

    • hf

      As for Quantum Mechanics I wonder how many Americans realize it’s a non-causal theory.

      You mean, a theory that requires multiple timelines. ^_^

      Either way, I agree that more people would object if they understood those theories (assuming they could maintain their current positions).

  • http://rgrydns2.blogspot.ca Richard Greydanus

    I wonder if you have ever come across this book: http://www.amazon.ca/Summer-Gods-Americas-Continuing-Religion/dp/046507510X. It won the Pulitzer for best history book of the year, a few years ago. It describes the very different circumstances in which Evangelical opposition to teaching evolution, particularly in high schools, grew up. And, in addition to being chalk full information, it’s a wonderful read.

  • Pingback: Evolution, original sin, and the problem of evil

  • http://FromNoahtoHercules.com/ Brian Forbes

    Creationism is clearly religiously motivated. Cooking is often motivated by hunger. Science is sometimes motivated by religion. Science is supposed to remove the bias of motivation. But we all know that it does it inadequately. We should no more fault a Creationist for looking to the Bible for evidence than we would blame Dawkins for finding evidence of evolution in zoology. Everyone is religiously motivated. Motivation comes out of religion. Otherwise we might just as easily be satisfied to study how the balls bounce against each other on my screen saver. Science can give just as much insight into that issue as whether God exists, perhaps more. Yet nobody is motivated to waste their time on uninteresting questions. Religious questions make life interesting!


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