The ignorance and dishonesty of Christian apologetics, part 1: anti-evolutionism

I don’t think I’m going to be able to get through writing this post if I try to feign politeness, so let me start by saying that it’s long been clear to me that, in spite of his moderate views on some issues (relative to his fellow evangelicals, anyway) Christian apologist Randal Rauser is not someone who it’s possible to have any sort of rational discussion about religion with.

I knew this before sending in my contribution to his “Why They Don’t Believe” on his blog, but sent it in anyway because he asked nicely. The ensuing conversation, though, almost made me regret doing so. In it, Randal absurdly likened my remark about “the ignorance and dishonesty of Christian apologetics” to racial prejudice, but at the same time felt no scruples about calling me ignorant for daring to call self-described creationist William Dembski a creationist.

His response to my pointing out that, well, let me quote myself:

The “Intelligent Design” label really gained popularity only after a series of court decisions that came down against the teaching of creationism in public schools. Seriously, did you miss the whole Dover trial, and the saga of the cdesign proponentsists? Being told I’m ignorant for thinking Intelligent Design is rebranded creationism is a little like being told I’m ignorant for thinking Ted Kaczynski was the Unabomber. Maybe you think the court got a particular case wrong, but outside of really extraordinary miscarriages of justice, surely you can believe a court’s verdict without being ignorant, right?

His response was:

As for Dover, politics, blah blah blah, that’s all distinct from the question of whether or not it is ever legitimate to infer to intelligence as an explanation for natural structures or processes.

This totally misses the point I was making. I was not citing the Dover to argue that it is not legitimate to infer intelligence as an explanation; I was citing it to show that the IDers “we’re just saying you can infer intelligence” line is bullshit and ID is rebranded creationism. Randal’s inability to acknowledge such a basic fact served as further confirmation that he was not worth trying to engage with.

(Not that it will help, but here is the relevant section of the Dover decision.)

In spite of all this, it’s occurred to me that while the ignorance and dishonesty of Christian apologetics is old news to me, it would be worth summarizing the case for people who are new to these debates. I’ll do at least a couple posts, this one on anti-evolutionism, the next one on New Testament scholarship, and after that maybe other installments.

The first thing I need to say here is that the reason I’ve put so much effort into documenting William Lane Craig’s dishonesty is because I actually do think showing that someone has been dishonest takes effort. You have to make some inferences about what’s going on inside their head, which can be tricky. In contrast, showing that someone is either ignorant or dishonest is comparatively easy: if they go around saying things that every informed person knows to be false, it has to be one or the other.

Second, let me respond to Randal’s absurd comparison of my comments about Christian apologetics to racial prejudice. In my previous reply to him, I cited Josh McDowell, William Lane Craig, and Alvin Plantinga as examples of the ignorance and dishonesty of Christian apologetics. His response:

To get a sense of how outrageous Chris is being at this point, imagine if Buzz replied to our concerns over his racial prejudice by pointing out three specific examples of Mexicans he believes to be ignorant and/or dishonest. Even if Juan, Julio and Mario are ignorant or dishonest, it doesn’t follow that generally Mexicans are ignorant or dishonest.

The crucial difference here is that Christian apologetics is an intellectual project, not an ethnic or racial group, and it is perfectly fair to judge an intellectual project by its leading proponents. And McDowell, Craig, and Plantinga are the farthest thing from random examples of Christian apologetics. McDowell has probably enjoyed more popular success than any other living Christian apologist, and has had an enormous impact on the style of Christian apologetics as it exists today. Plantinga is Christian apologetics’ leading academic star. And Craig has an almost unique combination of academic credentials and popular impact.

But let me expand on my remarks in my previous post, starting with Plantinga. Randal claims I merely noted Plantinga disagrees with me on evolution, which is true of my last reply to Randal, but there’s a reason that reply included a link to a summary of my previous writing on Plantinga and evolution. Allow me to quote myself:

Plantinga says he thinks the theory of evolution is probably false, and tries to argue that the evidence for it is weak. This section of the paper is by Plantinga’s own admission “hand waving,” and includes at least one howler: Plantinga complains of “the nearly complete absence, in the fossil record, of intermediates between such major divisions as, say, reptiles and birds, or fish and reptiles, or reptiles and mammals.”

This is an idea creationists seem to have gotten from a misunderstanding of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibria, and Gould has put a lot of energy into correcting this misunderstanding. One place he corrects it is his essay “Evolution as Fact and Theory,” which happens to be the one piece of Gould’s writing that appears in Plantinga’s bibliography. Gould explains that “Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.” Plantinga’s mistake is so big, and so avoidable, that it suggests he wasn’t really even trying to get his science right.

By the way, as I’ve noted recently, Gould was heavily criticized by some of his fellow evolutionary biologists, at least one of whom accused Gould of being a deeply confused thinker, but I’ve never seen Gould accused by anyone who knew what they were talking about of being the least bit unclear as to whether he thought there were intermediaries between reptiles and birds; he clearly thought there were. I suppose I should quote Gould’s essay at greater length here:

Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim. If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am—for I have become a major target of these practices.

I count myself among the evolutionists who argue for a jerky, or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, pace of change. In 1972 my colleague Niles Eldredge and I developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record—geologically “sudden” origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis)—reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record. In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years. This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond. It represents much less than 1 per cent of the average life-span for a fossil invertebrate species—more than ten million years. Large, widespread, and well established species, on the other hand, are not expected to change very much. We believe that the inertia of large populations explains the stasis of most fossil species over millions of years.

We proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium largely to provide a different explanation for pervasive trends in the fossil record. Trends, we argued, cannot be attributed to gradual transformation within lineages, but must arise from the different success of certain kinds of species. A trend, we argued, is more like climbing a flight of stairs (punctuated and stasis) than rolling up an inclined plane.

Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists—whether through design or stupidity, I do not know—as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups. Yet a pamphlet entitled “Harvard Scientists Agree Evolution Is a Hoax” states: “The facts of punctuated equilibrium which Gould and Eldredge… are forcing Darwinists to swallow fit the picture that Bryan insisted on, and which God has revealed to us in the Bible.”

The paper by Plantinga I criticize in the quote above is now fairly old, but his latest book (which I was reviewing in the post linked above) is almost as bad in places. In the chapter on Behe, the criticism Behe has gotten by his fellow scientists is almost entirely ignored; Plantinga gives the impression that that criticism contained nothing of substance and therefore are “the sort of thing to which one can give an argumentative reply.” To anyone who’s actually familiar with the scientific response to Behe, Plantinga’s implication is absurd.

Furthermore, Plantinga’s misrepresentation of Gould is just repeating a canard that’s widespread among creationists and Christian apologists. Variations on it have been repeated by William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas (something I mention in the chapter on the Shroud of Turin in my book), and by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek in their book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist.

The fact that even Plantinga and Craig would repeat this well-known distortion I find extremely telling. By the standards of Christian apologetics, their anti-evolutionism is a pretty watered-down variety. Both have taken a pose of official agnosticism towards evolution. But apparently, that’s not enough to stop them from repeating one of the most thoroughly debunked creationist canards out there.

For my next example, let me quote a comment I left on Randal’s blog:

Maybe I shouldn’t focus on semantics here. Maybe I should focus on things like Dembski promoting the claim that evolution contradicts the laws of theremodynamics. That’s not an argument an informed, honest person makes. And by “informed,” I don’t mean Ph.D. here, I mean anyone who paid attention in freshmen chem… or did a damn Google search on the subject, if they didn’t take that class.

This is a mistake that’s also been made by Josh McDowell. By the way, if memory serves, McDowell is a young-earth creationist, though I don’t have my McDowell books with me at the moment so I can’t check. If I did have my McDowell books, it would probably be trivial to find a few more equally egregious mistakes by McDowell about evolution.

And then there is Jonathan Wells, who made a career out of, among many other mistakes, assuming the whole sum of the evidence for evolution was contained in a few well-known textbook diagrams. It’s instructive to compare Wells’ portrait of the evidence for evolution to one written by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. I mention Wells in part because he was the first interviewee for one of bestselling apologist Lee Strobel’s Case for… books; I remember being unable to finish that particular book after reading that chapter.

If you are not well-versed in the creation-evolution controversy, the mistakes I’ve been listing may seem like small errors. Trust me they are not. It’s difficult to find a good analogy to convey the level of ignorance involved here. To say that the apologists are “Obama is a secret Muslim”-level wrong is tempting, but for people who know something about the history of early Christianity, here, perhaps, is a better analogy:

Imagine if all the leading defenders of atheism and agnosticism–Richard Carrier, Bart Ehrman, William Rowe, Paul Draper, Keith Parsons, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and PZ Myers–imagine if they all, without exception, advocated claims about the history of early Christianity that were literally straight out of The Da Vinci Code. Imagine them accusing the Catholic Church of conspiring to keep secret a copy of the Q document (which was written, they claim, by Jesus himself), claiming the New Testament was written by the Council of Nicaea, and so on.

If you can imagine that, and you know anything at all about actual early Christian history, you will have some idea of what it is like for me to read Christian apologists on the subject of evolution.

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