The Cosmic Freakout Over Cosmos

The Cosmic Freakout Over Cosmos March 23, 2014

I shouldn’t be surprised anymore about how poorly fundamentalists understand the word “faith.” They don’t have the faintest idea what it really means, so they tend to twist the word’s various false meanings around and around as necessary to try to force their way into other people’s lives. I don’t seriously think they have the least tiniest bit of actual faith themselves despite their carrying on about having such great faith, and I perceive that this level of cognitive dissonance worries them enormously–as it worried me, long ago.

English: The exterior of the Answers in Genesi...
English: The exterior of the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum in Kentucky (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Not shown: the dinosaur’s saddle.

So when I hear that Answers in Genesis, a famous science-denial group that promotes a discredited, long-debunked conceptualization of creationism based on a flawed understanding of the Old Testament, wants equal time on the TV show Cosmos to promote their laughably-inane views, it didn’t surprise me at all, though it did make me laugh.

I suppose it wasn’t enough that we keep slapping down their attempts to sneak into public schools and that we keep showing them up as liars and conjobs with the faultiest misunderstanding and mischaracterization of science that ever could be. Now they want legitimization of their willfully-ignorant pseudo-science with “equal time” on one of the most successful science programs on the air. The appropriate answer is, of course, that we’ll be happy to give them “equal time”–as soon as they allow scientists up on their pulpits to give science lectures to Christian zealots on Sundays, assuming we can find non-hung-over scientists who are up and about that early on a weekend morning.

I can see why they’re feeling threatened. Getting the public to mistakenly think they’re even a smidgen trustworthy is just about their last best hope of being considered a viable alternative to the dominant theories of science.

But they’re not.

A science-literate friend of mine, Han, over on Facebook wrote this quick little test that we can use to evaluate scientific claims. He gave me permission to quote him:

HOW TO EVALUATE A SCIENTIFIC PAPER:

1) Was it a reputable source? (If Yes = Good)

2) Was it a metastudy (study of studies)? (Yes = could be Bad)

3) Does it fly in the face of a lot of scientific papers to the contrary? (Yes = BAD)

4) Did the scientific community attack it, rapidly? (Yes = VERY BAD)

5) Does it have a lot of other scientific papers to support it, by reputable sources? (No = Bad)

6) Does the authors have a documented axe-to-grind / bias? (YES = Very bad)

I’m sure there’s more, but that is what comes to mind. if there are a lot of “Bads” after that analysis, assume that it’s crap until it is supported by significant other studies. Papers that are often given headlines for the above include but are not limited to, anti-Evolution findings, Noah’s flood findings, anti-climate change “studies”, anti-GMO studies, anti-fluoride studies, unpasteurized milk studies, and so on.

This is as good a start as any in looking at pseudo-science like creationism. Let’s start with that reputable source thing: Are creationist authors trustworthy sources?

Here’s a government-run database listing called PubMed of every single peer-reviewed journal article ever written by Michael Behe, one of the darlings of the creationism movement. Notice anything, uh, special about that list? Namely that it’s five entries long, and that several of them aren’t actually original research he’s done but comments about other research?

Here’s the same list run for William Dembski, another big name in creationism. His lack of output isn’t surprising, considering his PhDs are in mathematics and philosophy, not in anything even vaguely related to biology. Enjoy all two of Dembski’s published peer-reviewed papers, neither of which are really very, well, biological. Now, that in itself might not doom him; Bill Nye himself holds a degree in mechanical engineering and doesn’t have articles published at all in that same database. But he’s not claiming to be a scientist, and he’s not claiming some kind of special knowledge about science or pushing weird, unsupported ideas. He represents science as it is currently understood and accepted, and he uses reputable sources. We cannot say that of William Dembski.

By the way: isn’t it a little strange that one of creationism’s biggest names doesn’t have a degree in the subject he talks about so much? In this, Mr. Dembski is not alone; Answers in Genesis has plenty of other scientists who regularly venture far outside of their purviews to speak authoritatively on subjects they can’t possibly be trained enough to speak about, like Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, who briefly practiced medicine but quit to homeschool her children and write creationist nonsense; her biography page is actually proud to note that she regularly strays into Egyptian history and embryology, both topics I’m sure her brief time in medicine 20-ish years ago ably prepared her to preach about now to the unwary. Let’s also not forget that the “father” of ID himself, Phillip Johnson, is a lawyer and not educated or trained in a single scientific discipline, but that’s hardly surprising given Christianity’s clear preference for and focus on arguing its case rather than demonstrating it.

And here for your comparison is the same PubMed list for Jerry Coyne, who is an outspoken opponent of creationism. Well, the first page of the list anyway, and just the journal articles. In fact, all of the big voices speaking out against creationism tend to be really well-educated people with good credentials, people who are completely qualified to talk about their field, people who are using modern science’s best techniques to advance true understanding rather than thought-stopping “Welp! We guess a god did it! Let’s just go home now.”

And there is a reason they want to stop our thoughts about how humans came to be:

They are afraid.

If the Theory of Evolution turns out to be true (for them; for us, it turned out to be true yonks ago), then they think that shift in thinking has some major, major implications for society. And they are afraid of what that shift might mean.

Somehow creationists have gotten turned around into knots around the idea of evolution because they think that people can’t be truly good or moral unless they were created out of thin air by a magical wizard. They are simply terrified of this monster they call moral relativism, and are convinced that if creationism were debunked (to them; it’s been debunked for the rest of us for damned near 50 years now), that society would go simply mad. They feel that a belief in Biblical literalism and inerrancy leads to a society that looks and feels much more comfortable for Christians. That fear is a big part of why they’re so eager to get their junk science into schools–because they are perfectly aware that children are far more likely to swallow lies than adults will, just because those lies come from someone they trust.

If they’re afraid of what evolution means for society, they’re even more afraid of what a natural universe means for their religious worldview, based as it is on an faulty and comically-bad misunderstanding of Genesis. Let’s face it: if there wasn’t a literal Creation, then there wasn’t a literal Fall. If there wasn’t a literal Fall, then there wasn’t really a literal Original Sin that infects all humanity. And if there was no literal Original Sin, then why would people need a literal Jesus? And if Jesus did exist, which is by no means a given, why would there need to be a literal Crucifixion if there wasn’t any Original Sin to wipe away? If humans aren’t infected with Original Sin, then is there really a Heaven and Hell to tempt and terrify people with to force them into line? The whole narrative completely hinges on a literal Creation that literally Fell. Sauntering vaguely downwards (as the Crowley in Good Omens did) doesn’t cut it. A metaphorical creation implies a metaphorical deity–and that’s not an easy thing for fundamentalists, with their terror of all things uncertain, to digest.

And oh, if they are afraid of the implications for their religious worldview, they are downright panicked by what evolution means for them personally. If you saw those bad-faith questions Christians had for “evolutionists,” one thing you probably noticed right off was how few of those questions actually related to science. Many dealt with things like “finding objective meaning in life” or asking how people who embrace science find purpose for themselves. Such questions are irrelevant to actual science, but vitally important to Christians.

If humanity wasn’t bamfed into existence, then that might mean we were not created for some special purpose. Now, I want to get one thing clear now: even as a fundamentalist myself, nobody could explain what humanity’s purpose actually was! We talked about it all the time. Were we created to keep our god company? To test out his Sim-universe? (We were all totally into SimCity and SimEarth back then–this was back in the Mac 512k days.) To praise and worship him? Nobody really knew. But damn it, there had to be some purpose. And “evil-lutionists” are right in their grill saying that maybe there isn’t some handed-down purpose from on high. That’s got to be challenging.

I’ve written before about divinely-granted purposes, so I’ll just say here that maybe having a false idea of one’s purpose is way worse than there just not being a divinely-granted purpose for our lives at all. And making our own purpose is much more satisfying in the end than having to hem and haw and worry about what it might be, and search endlessly to find it, and hope we got it right, and feel that dismay when we realize we got it wrong, which happens constantly to Christians. But to creationists, nothing is scarier than the idea of there not being some cosmic being out there who deeply cares about each and every human being and has some grand, over-arching plan for each one of us. It’s beyond narcissistic, but their religion has made them think this is perfectly normal and even laudable. And if people evolved just like everything else in this world, then it seems weird that a god would be handing them purposes. That, at least, I can totally agree with.

Last, I think creationists are terribly narcissistic. They want to feel special and unique. Their god loves them the bestest! They’re his favorite sons and daughters, favored by his special attention and his fostering love. I remember feeling exactly this way, and feeling sorry for those who didn’t feel that love (except I actually didn’t; years later, I’d read of my struggles in my journal and realize I was distinctly presenting a “fake it till you make it” face to the world). But if Creation didn’t happen, then a god didn’t decide to make humans specially (though one might argue that in the Genesis myths, he pretty much did make them exactly the same way he made animals–poofed into existence). Humans aren’t actually special. We evolved just like everything else did, which means that no special force pushed humanity to dominance. It was a combination of a lot of lucky factors and a lot of selective mutation and advantageous breeding over many millions of years. The idea of descent with modification is a very frightening one to creationists because it undermines their narcissistic outlook.

So let’s sum up, shall we?

First, the religion pushes “experts” at people who aren’t trustworthy experts at all. They encourage science illiteracy and discourage the critical thinking skills necessary to sift what is and isn’t true (all while extolling their ability to do precisely this). Now, it’s important to note that Christians as a whole do not usually buy into literal Biblical inerrancy at all. If anything, most of them accept an old Earth and may think their god just bumped things along, evolutionarily speaking, but that evolution definitely happened, which is by wild coincidence what I thought back in my Christian days, even at the height of my fundie phase. So when I say “the religion,” I’m talking about a narrow view of Christianity here and a narrow subset of Christians. Ken Ham’s faction of Christianity is a fairly small one, just a very vocal one.

Then, after they’ve ensured that they have no idea who to trust or how to think, these literalist Christians misunderstand what actually causes a society to fall into dysfunction and decay. They think that willful ignorance is how to keep a society running. They think that without their religious dogma holding sway over people, they’ll run amok. There’ll be abortions in the streets! Murders everywhere! Cats and dogs, living together! Mass hysteria!

We’ll just forget that believing in creationism doesn’t make someone a better person at all. In fact there’ve been some rather dramatic falls from grace lately on the part of men who pushed creationism and brayed about its moral superiority to the skies. We’ll also just forget that the states and groups in our country that push Biblical Christianity the hardest also tend to be the worst hellholes in our country. Creationism walks hand-in-hand with the idea that humans are arranged by their inherent ability to lead and dominate other humans (and animals, and the environment), with white men at the tippy-top of the pyramid–and when you give a specific group of people all the power in an organization and convince them that they were born to wield that power, I’m not sure what else you’re expecting besides inevitable betrayal, abuse, predation, and cruelty.

So if Ken Ham and his ilk are saying that without belief in creationism, society will crumble into chaos and disarray, then it’s hard not to notice the chaos and disarray in their own groups when their social theory is put into live practice. There is nothing whatsoever divine about religious groups; they are made up of people, and they are just as prone to nastiness, gossip, lies, mean-spirited control games, and everything else you find in secular groups–and even more prone to it, since they feature a lot more rigid, dogmatic, ignorant, gullible, and controlling people than secular groups usually do. That there are some really awesome church groups out there (and I know of a couple, yes) speaks more to the glory of the human spirit than to the reality of any god.

And then literalists complete the slam-dunk by persuading their poor adherents that this belief system makes them better people than non-believers are (even other Christians, if those other Christians don’t buy into literalism), and that being “created” makes them superior than if they had evolved. They put this fear into Christians of being just like everybody else. And that’s the worst part of all about this entire charade of pseudo-science they perpetrate: they instill narcissism and egotism into their believers by making them think that being “created” by a special daddy-god makes them superior and more special than if they’d just evolved. That our deeds and our great creativity and accomplishments are simply worthless, if we evolved. If our origins were not super-special and divinely created, then nothing else matters. If we have no cosmic purpose handed to us, why, then, there is no purpose at all. If we are not blessed and watched over and “wooed” and punished and wrestled with constantly by a deity who created quarks yet is weirdly obsessed with our genitalia and has no money sense at all, then we are worthless. In all of their assumptions, there underlies them all a terror of not being special snowflakes after all.

It’s heartbreaking to think of the pain that is caused to young people especially when they wake up to how egocentric and flatly false their indoctrination was. Part of that pain comes from realizing that no, there’s no intrinsic divine quality to humans; we evolved just like anything else, and yet despite our common ancestry with so many other species, we are still special–because of our accomplishments and our personal integrity and our love for each other. We don’t have to be created by a god or have a purpose we can’t even ascertain for certain handed to us by an invisible wizard nobody has ever seen to be special and have meaning in life. But creationists are too afraid to see that.

As a society, though, we’re starting to wake up to that fear and see it for what it is. We have a lot less patience for it. I can pinpoint the turnaround in public opinion to the Dover trial; there was this one moment during the trial when one of the defendants, Alan Bonsell, turned out to have lied in his testimony to the judge about various topics–in this case, where he got the money he used to buy some creationist textbooks, but that sure wasn’t the only discrepancy noticed in what the judge later called “striking ignorance” on the part of the school board and the board’s “ludicrous” assertion of having a secular purpose for their actions or its other constant lies and “breathtaking inanity.”

Alan Bonsell was lying. He was totally lying. He got caught lying. You can tell, in the transcript, that he had no idea that he’d get caught and held to standards of truth and decency; you can tell he had no idea how to react when someone didn’t play along with his charade. In the TV show about Dover that later aired, Mr. Bonsell was still kicking himself for losing his cool so dramatically that day, blaming his excoriation on misspeaking a couple of words–but notably not on his own dishonesty. But I think that trial–and that special, particularly–marked that turning point when we just totally stopped caring why someone was lying, and when we as a culture stopped buying into the fear that religion peddles as a way to control others, and when we stopped seeing Christians as inherently good people. We saw, with crystal clarity, what happens when dogma is allowed too free a rein over others. We saw the logical endpoint of lying for Jesus.

And we got tired of it.

We’re going to talk next time about some actual studies that have been done regarding the creationist mindset. We’re starting to understand a little about the ingredients that go into a fundamentalist, and there’s enough of it there that I want to break it out into a new post.

We’ll close with an interesting question from Jerry Coyne: if you could choose between a world where religion had emerged but science never had, or a world where science had emerged but religion never had, which world would you choose to live in?

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