I need help from people who know more than I do about science — in particular about gravity and what we do or don't know about how it works.
What I'm trying to do is to find another angle for breaking through the protective shell that makes communication with "creationists" almost impossible. Some of my best friends, as the saying goes, are creationists, and it isn't good for them. It warps their faith and it puts them on the wrong side of a dangerous anti-science trend that affects a wide range of very important things, from climate change to vaccination* to the insane notion that the middle of a global recession is a smart time to start aggressively worrying about budget deficits.
When people stop finding science persuasive, when they distrust it precisely because it is science, then they become vulnerable to all sorts of Really Bad Ideas.
But anyway, I'm pretty well-equipped to engage my creationist friends and relatives on some of the other layers of their anti-science belief system. I can articulate a capable critique of their illiteralist hermeneutic and the way it vivisects the opening chapters of Genesis and transforms them into something unintended and antibiblical. And I'm pretty good at addressing their notion that Christian faith rests entirely on the basis of a modernistic "literal" interpretation of every verse of scripture, meaning that their world will crumble if Noah's Ark can't be found on Ararat because that would mean that Jesus doesn't really love us.
On the biblical and theological side, in other words, I can speak their language. I'm fluent in the idioms, allusions, connotations and quirks of evangelicalese.
But when I'm addressing the "science" aspects of "scientific creationism" I find I'm unable to communicate with them — not just because I'm less fluent in the language of science, but because when they start talking about science then words no longer seem to mean what they mean for the rest of us. They use familiar-sounding words, but you quickly realize that they're using these familiar words in unfamiliar ways, using them to communicate vastly, irreconcilably different things.
The most common and frustrating example of this is probably the way creationists talk about a "scientific theory." This seems to mean, for creationists, something like, "a wild, uneducated guess unsupported by evidence that can be dismissed and ignored without consequence," with additional overtones of "a conspiracy to deceive and corrupt the youth of America."
I heard these words used this way a few nights ago in a BBC radio story following a group of fundamentalist Christian middle school students as they toured a museum of natural history, itching for a fight with the evolutionist scientists running the place. "Why won't you admit that evolution is just a theory?" their teacher said to the scientist leading the tour.
And then, to hammer the point home, he added, "It's not like gravity."
Aha. So here we come to where I need some help from actual science types. Because it strikes me that the teacher is sort of right about that, but just not in the way he thinks. Gravity is also "just" a theory — but if I understand these things properly, it's a theory with some serious problems. Like that it doesn't work at the atomic level and that it gets a bit wibbly wobbly when trying to explain the behavior of astronomically large things as well.
The comparison with gravity, it seems to me, underscores the comparative strength of evolution. I think it might be helpful to point that out when our creationist friends, inevitably, start going on about the alleged shortcomings and flaws of the justatheory of evolution.
So what I'd like to be able to say to them would be something like this:
Well, OK then, but gravity is justatheory too, the way you're using that word. And gravity, as justatheory, has much bigger unresolved problems than the justatheory of evolution does. If we took your standards for evaluating the justatheory of evolution and applied those standards to gravity, then we'd have to conclude that the justatheory of gravity is even more wrong.
So, a little help from you science types, please. Does that work? Is it a fair/accurate line of argument? Does it need to be qualified? Amended? Embellished? Abandoned? Please let me know.
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Here I would remind us, again, of Wendell Berry's distinction between religion and superstition. Religion, Berry said, is belief in something which cannot be disproved. Superstition, on the other hand, is belief in something that has been disproved. The former can be reasonable, the latter cannot. For all of Bill Maher's railing against religion as "mere superstition," it seems he doesn't understand either of those ideas. His latest anti-vaccine, anti-medicine, anti-science crusade is superstitious nonsense. It's religulous.