Why I bother

6 08 2007

I’ve spent plenty of time over the past few days going over arguments about creationism in its weak and strong forms, and frankly I’m a bit too tired to write up another long response (nor do I think that anyone needs to read any more re-statements of my position; click the “creationism” tag if you’re really that curious as see for yourself). Nevertheless, a blogging friend with a different take on the evolution/creationism debate has posted a response to my (in)famous “Why Fight Creationism?” post entitled “Why Talk About Origins At All?.” [which has been temporarily removed for a re-write]

I’ve had some friends who have taken a similar approach, essentially employing the belief that the issue of evolution is so divisive amongst Christians that it is better-off locked up in the closest, the salvation message of the “Good News” being of primary importance. Indeed, one of my old pastors would never respond to any of my thoughts or questions about evolution/creationism when I’d e-mail him about it, and I have more than a few more conservative Christian friends/acquaintances that simply ignore the fact that evolution is what I want to study and my more favorite topic of discussion (even though they seem a bit irked when I show up wearing my “Future Transitional Fossil” t-shirt or am reading books like The Beak of the Finch while they’re around). In any case, avoiding discussions of evolution may work for churches/ministries that want to create a cohesive group more focused on belief/outreach/simply believing in Christ, but I think this cheats people a bit, making me think of the great “Wizard of Oz” who didn’t want anyone to look behind the curtain.

So why bother about origins? As a relative of mine once opined about scientists and creationists, “Why can’t people just not think about these things?” The most direct answer that I can give is that the question of origins demands an answer. I don’t expect everyone to be as interested in evolution as I am, nor to put the amount of time/money/effort into reading up on it as I or other more knowledgeable folks have, but it’s difficult for me to understand how anyone can be unconcerned with how we came to be the way we are. Everyone has an opinion, that much is for sure, and oddly enough many people seem to prefer one version of mankind’s origin or another based upon religion (or lack thereof) or what is most comfortable/intuitive. I am a bit baffled that, in this age of discovery when we have uncovered so much of our past (be it through fossils or genetics), there is so much disinterest in learning about from whence we came.

I suppose why I spend so much time thinking about and talking about a subject that many don’t seem to care very much about (or have already formed an opinion about, one way or another) is that I don’t think it’s a good thing to merely pick a version of the origins of humans (or other life) and simply close the book on the subject. This method is almost like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story, where it doesn’t really matter what we think so long as we ascribe to one belief or another. I also must admit that while religion does have its virtues, I do worry of the repercussions of allowing bad science and bad theology in the form of creationism to spread and become generally acceptable; I have the feeling that a return to the Bible as the plainly-written infallible, unchanging text breathed by God might have other unsavory repercussions. Are we to return to an era where mental illness was really possession by Satan himself? Where storms were caused by witches? Where lightning rods were shunning and plagues allowed to spread because doing anything to enhance human safety in the face of natural phenomena was robbing God of His armaments? Such things would be regarded as foolish now, but if we allow ourselves to think that belief is a higher virtue than thought, where we will end up? I really do hope that my above questions have no real basis in reality, that I have no reason to fear a return to the militant and dangerous religious funamentalism that has marked so much of Western history over the past few centuries, but I am still reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quote;

“During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after doing its duty in but a lazy and indolent way for 800 years, gathered up its halters, thumbscrews, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry.”

On the surface, this issue is about the evolution/creationism debate, and if that was all there was to it then there wouldn’t be much else to say. What concerns me, however, are some of the other attitudes that seem to come along with creationism. It seems that many creationists (and ID advocates) do not believe that Global Climate Change is a real problem, or even if it is God is coming back soon so why worry about it? Science, in general, is mistrusted unless it has some economic value to it (particularly the fields that produce new technologies and medicines), but I don’t especially think a return to the natural theology of the 18th and 19th century is going to help the natural sciences like geology, biology, ecology, etc. grow very much. This isn’t merely about whether I think a chimpanzee is an evolutionary relative of mine or not, but rather a larger way of looking at the world, choices made whether to have faith in the infallibility of a particular religious text or to let the natural world speak for itself.

As Ann Druyan noted in the introduction to the recently published Varities of Scientific Experience, “We batter this planet as if we had someplace else to go,” and I feel that much of it has stemmed, either directly or indirectly, from the Biblical command to subdue the earth. I am heartened to see some evangelicals realize that either as a gift or by luck we’ve been entrusted with the planet and abused it for far too long at our own peril, but it still seems this is a minority response to current problems. Again, this is not a blanket statement because there are notable exceptions to the problems I am mentioning here, but in general I just wonder why those who don’t care about origins (or would rather ascribe scientific questions to a religious text) are so often apathetic about ecology or other important issues, and at times I feel that many have not moved far beyond the belief that Jesus is essentially coming back any day now, so there is no real reason to care for, preserve, or understand life on earth. If people hadn’t been so easily fooled by such platitudes and false logic early on, who knows what we would have discovered or come to understand by now? Clutching to Genesis tightly, taking no time to look at “the creation” itself, has only brought humanity misery, and now that we’re finally released from those mental shackles (although still a bit sore), I would hate to see is catapulted backwards into a time of hate and superstition fueled by bad theology, there being a Bible verse to support every variety of misdeed and ignorance if only interpreted in this way or that.

In the end, though, I know feel that my time is not wasted. The questions of how we can to be how we are, and what happened to those who came before, demand answers from us, and for every one thing I learn there’s a dozen other questions that I have. The natural world is so wonderful that I can’t help but be awed by it and want to know more, even to the point of not being able to understand how anyone can be apathetic towards all the amazing things we’ve learned about it. I could function in society and make a living without knowing anything about evolution, perhaps that is true, but what sort of existence would I lead? Simply working for a paycheck, working to be comfortable, seems rather hollow; I would much rather struggle to understand even one great truth than to simply ignore nature, and at least for me, there is no greater topic that requires discussion and understanding than “origins.”


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8 responses

7 08 2007
Chris Harrison

So why bother about origins? … The most direct answer that I can give is that the question of origins demands an answer.

Coz it’s all damn interesting!

It’s odd to read about your religious friends and past churches who’ve apparently just turned a blind eye to these questions. Essentially I think that intelligent religionists who lack the background in science recognize that they’re unable to sit down and mull over the evidence to see where it leads. In this case, I think that is respectable. I’d much rather have someone say “I don’t know” instead of just mindlessly picking up and waving the creationism banner without having even a tenuous grasp of biology.
It’s quite annoying replying to the same damned charges/questions over and over and over, when obviously the people regurgitating these sound bites are not actually familiar with the relevant science. The sheer length of the “index to creationist claims” at TalkOrigins is a testament to how bullshit can be unending when you’ve enough ignorant people regurgitating it.

The Josiahconcept link doesn’t work, by the way. I poked around on his webpage, finding things like:

I’m still back and forth with the 6,000 year old earth versus the 4.6 billion year old earth. I don’t think that it truly matters how old our planet is–this issue is merely a distraction from the real problem. Did we evolve, or are we special creations of God?

Yowza. Ignoring for the moment the Francis Collinses who would find this to be a false dichotomy, I think this is an interesting quotation. Obviously, the relevant science that can inform this question has already given us a definitive answer, but the truly interesting thing here is that it’s a glimpse of the creationist mindset. It’s almost like a program:
>if (evolution), then
not God

I wonder how God feels about that.

7 08 2007
Matt

Those who do not know history are bound to repeat it.

The last thing we want is to live in the past, therefore we must know where we came from to know where we are going – and all available evidence points squarely at evolution (or something very much like it, always leave room for some tweaking) and abiogenesis is the answer.

7 08 2007
laelaps

Matt and Chris; I definitely agree with you both, I was just trying to think of an answer for those who aren’t necessarily interested in the subject. I find the topic so enthralling that I can’t ever learn enough about it, but I was trying to think of something that might resonate with someone who isn’t as interested. Understanding evolution is certainly important, but as I noted in the article, what bothers me is some of the other beliefs that come hand-in-hand with creationism, breeding an overall mistrust of any science that isn’t content merely to be economically profitable and be silent on the subject of origins.

While creationism definitely seems to be a problem in America, I still feel that science is winning out overall. Progress has been slow, but evolution is such a powerful idea that it has forced creationists to “mutate” and accept greater or lesser parts of science in order to keep their arguments from being too ludicrous (i.e. the “Last Tuesdayism” that Gosse endorsed and seemed to be popular prior to the “scientific creationism” of the 1960’s).

Once again I’m reminded from what Darwin wrote in his Descent of Man;

“For my own part, I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper; or from that old baboon who, descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs-as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives life slaves, knows no deceny, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.”

7 08 2007
RedMolly

That is an exquisitely wonderful quote from Ann Druyan.

My father-in-law is something of a puzzle to me. He watches the Science Channel obsessively, apparently for the sole purpose of bringing up how wrong science is when compared to the unchanging truth of the Bible. I honestly can’t tell if he’s just doing it to be a devil’s advocate or if the hours he spends each week learning about nominally sound science are really just flowing over him like water without leaving a mark.

7 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comment, Molly. I had a similar experience when I visited the AMNH back in February. Walking through the hall of fossil mammals, I stopped to look at a fossil assemblage, transported as it was found, with lots of bone of various individuals and species all jumbled up. The woman next to me (I can’t remember her exact words) turned to her friend and said “Isn’t this proof of the Flood?”

That’s why I’m somewhat ambivalent about science television and even some museums; often times they are long on the “wonders of nature” but short on making important connections to the “big ideas.” The AMNH tries through a cladistics-based floorplan, but I feel that this is way over the heads of most visitors. Still, it seems that for some (many?) people nature and science is something like art or entertainment; it’s interesting, but it doesn’t especially mean anything. Like others have noted before, there’s definitely a trivial image of science that seems to be most operative in America today, the superficial symbols of science being about as far as many people get. I don’t understand how anyone can look at nature and not start asking questions, wanting to know more, but at the same time it’s not surprising when daily existence all too-often consists of getting up, going to work, and coming home to veg out in front of the television or just do something that’s enjoyable (reading, or *gasp* learning something new, not being counted as enjoyable). Give a hoot, read a book.

7 08 2007
Geocreationist

Unfortunately, your concerns (though I would hope unlikely) have a rational basis (i.e., history) to support them. For myself, a Bible-believing Christian, I find it amazing how easily people (Christians and non-Christians alike) misunderstand the truth, and am often baffled by the irrational (and even tragic) results that come. However, I would like to point out that otherwise smart people who embrace science often do the same thing. I read Al Gores book, “An Inconvenient Truth”, and the data in his own book shows the visible impact of solar flares and radiation during the 70s, while his commentary is oddly silent on it (it gets a mention, though he does not appear to have seriously studied it). However, I believe we ignore such evidence at our own peril, as the historical CO2 patterns (also graphed in his book) show us heading toward an ice age. I do not point this out to negate the measurable impact we have had on our environment, or the good that can come from decreasing our own emissions. However, nature’s real boogy-man (an ice age) is right there in front of us, in the plain data, yet it is completely ignored, because the movement’s very leader can barely see past his own contributions to the public’s conciousness. People won’t immediately die from his oversights (not until the ice age hits us unprepared), but meanwhile people may one day be demonized (for continued CO2 emissions), similar to the mistaken witches of the church’s shameful past (no outright murders predicted however). One might of course make an argument that the church therefore takes its irrational conclusions to a more harmful extent than people of science. In my humble opinion however, it is not the difference between the churched and the scientific, but the difference between people of the past and the present, who happened to be religious and scientific respectively. After all, the witch-hunts **by** communists within the USSR and the complementary witch-hunts **against** communists (people who usually weren’t actual communists even) in America aren’t that far in mankind’s past either… and neither side of that coin was biblically based (to my knowledge). The real enemy? Fear. And Science has as much basis for it as religion.

8 08 2007
vondunkelheit

You are not wasting your time. Nobody who was related to the advancement of science ever wasted his or her time. It is the proponents of ignorance that end up wasting their time.

and remmember!
Socrates died for the ignorance of mankind.

8 08 2007
laelaps

Thank you for your comment vondunkelheit; I hardly think that I’m on the same level as Socrates, though.🙂 I don’t think I’m wasting my time at all, and even when I’m wrong I end up learning something.

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