Why liberal Christians should fight Creationism

Slacktivist Fred Clark bounces off that depressing, depressing poll result on American’s acceptance of the historical fact of evolution in a series of posts that beautifully encapsulate the liberal Christian frustration with YEC‘s and what he quite correctly characterizes as the relatively recent, highly non-conservative Biblical “literalist” movement. First, there’s exasperation at the sheer perversity of it:

It’s hard to know what that means, exactly, to “believe in” or “not believe in” evolution. It’s like not believing in Missouri, or not believing in thermal conduction. Those two examples are a bit different from one another, but they both get at aspects of what this odd sort of disbelief entails.

“Not believing in Missouri” doesn’t affect the Show-Me State one way or another. To say that you don’t “believe in” Missouri is really to say that you deny it exists — that its existence is a fact you refuse to accept. …

On the other hand, if someone tells you that they “don’t believe in” thermal conduction, it’s likely that they’re not so much saying they deny its existence as that they don’t understand what you mean when you say “thermal conduction.” For all their supposed disbelief, after all, they still avoid sitting on metal park benches in the winter. [Italics sic.]

Then, there’s vexation that people who subscribe to such nonsense claim to do it in defense of the value of Scripture:

[Literalism’s children, YECism and “Left Behind”-style apocalypticism] are new and radically innovative ideas introduced or adopted by people who had set out, initially, to uphold “the authority of the scriptures” (to use one of their favorite phrases). That this effort to defend the Bible’s “traditional” meaning has resulted in their introducing replacement meanings that override and disregard its traditional meaning is bitterly ironic, but this irony is lost on them.

And, finally, there’s anger over the very real consequences of literalism for faith:

House-of-cards fundamentalism allows for no distinctions between babies and bathwater, between the central tenets of the faith and the adiophora and error. So once one part of this belief system begins to collapse — as it inevitably will since young-earth creationism is disprovable — then it all has to go. …

The second reason that creationism or “creation science” is a pet-peeve of mine is that I spent many years working on behalf of the Evangelical Environmental Network to try to persuade evangelicals that “creation care” was not just permissible, but a responsibility. This is made much more difficult when the audience you are addressing — as was sometimes, but not always, the case — regards the first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis as a “literal” journalistic account and only as a literal journalistic account. [Italics sic.]

Biblical literalism is bad theology, and that’s bad for the Church. If the Church is the expression of Jesus’ example and teaching in the world (Christ’s body, you might say), then Biblical literalism is literally preventing the expression of Jesus in the world.

Edit, 19 Feb: fixed broken link to that depressing, depressing poll result.

Morality and empiricism

Jerry Coyne reviews two new books, Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory and Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin that vivisect the Intelligent Design movement, and seek to explain how Christianity (or indeed, any faith) is not only compatible with but complimentary to the scientific worldview. Coyne is effusive in praise of Miller and Giberson’s science, but he doesn’t buy their theology:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers.) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains.

Miller and Giberson make the same fundamental mistake that creationists do, says Coyne, when they look for God in the empirical world.

[To Miller], God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.

I haven’t read either of the books in question (I’m putting them in my queue after Dreams from My Father), but this does sound like a complaint I’ve previously had with prominent scientists who try to reconcile faith and science by direct, causal connections. It seems plain enough to me that a Christian who accepts science must also accept that God is the ultimate in untestable hypotheses, and no amount of speculation about the Anthropic Principle can change this. Furthermore, I think we need to reconcile ourselves to the idea that Homo sapiens might not be the only thing on God’s mind, as it were.

This line of thought draws mockery from fundamentalists on both sides of the religion-science schism. A six-day creationist I met with a few months ago condescended to tell me that, if I wouldn’t join him in rejecting the very laws of physics (which is what you have to do if you want to believe that Earth is six thousand years old), my faith was nothing but “warm fuzzies.” And in his own response to Coyne’s essay, the atheist PZ Myers jeers that Christianity without biblical literalism is “weak tea.” (Got the Christians coming and going on that one, don’t you, PZ?) But what all of these people are missing is that Christianity, and all religions, are not (or should not be) primarily interested in empirical claims about the physical universe. They’re about how humans can best live with each other.

The essence of Christianity, the absolute core of what it means to follow Christ, is a few revolutionary teachings, and one extraordinary act. “Love your enemies,” Jesus taught his disciples, calling them to a moral standard above and beyond the bonds of family, tribe, or nation. And when the Roman government and its local collaborators got nervous about his popularity and executed him as a common criminal, Jesus embodied that moral standard at the cost of his life. You can quibble with every factual claim in the Bible, you can cut out everything in the Gospels that smells of the supernatural as Thomas Jefferson famously did, and that’s what’s left: an innocent teacher accepting death at the hands of civil and religious authorities, and thereby revealing them for the fallible, human things that they are. Vicit agnus noster.

Science can (conceivably, at least) account for the entire history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the invention of digital watches by the ape-descended inhabitants of one small, blue-green planet. But in the end, this is just data. Data can’t tell me whether I should tip the barista at my local coffee shop, or stay late to answer a student’s questions on a lab, or give to NPR, or donate blood. But Christ crucified (Mohamed at prayer, Buddha under the Bo tree, Hume at his books) has something to say about it. The human struggle with the moral universe, the core of all religious thought, is the challenge of a lifetime – every lifetime – and the example of Christ is powerful no matter how many days it took to make the Earth.

Christ Church as it is: Creationist Credentials

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho’s friendly neighborhood theocracy-in-embryo, which weds garden-variety Christian Right hypocrisy with creepy, racist Neo-Confederate overtones. Today, I’m going to have a look at the Christ Church-affiliated New Saint Andrews College.

NSA cultivates a reputation as the ivory tower’s ivory tower – the curriculum includes lots of Classical studies, including Greek and Latin; the school’s vision statement puts much emphasis on the supremacy of Western Culture (or “Traditio occidentalis“). Zombie C.S. Lewis could totally be a member of the faculty, if he were into theocratic fundamentalism. Said faculty are all wearing Scholarly Robes in the group photo.

The original ivory tower is at the
University of Pittsburgh

Photo by Jeremy B. Yoder.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on classical studies. NSA’s air of musty erudition has attracted a mostly positive profile by the New York Times Magazine and a favorable rating from the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (Full disclosure: my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, was also recognized by ISI.)

But, basically by their own admission, Christ Church’s theology is strongly right-wing. Is NSA’s ivory tower secure against the ideology of the church that founded it? The evidence is, not so much. NSA’s Code of Conduct sounds all sorts of alarm bells:

“The College seeks to recover true academic freedom, that is, submission to God’s Word in all our actions and attitudes in and out of the classroom.

As does the NSA Students’ Pledge:

I pledge to maintain sound Christian doctrine, to regularly attend an orthodox church, and to maintain a teachable spirit. I pledge to abstain from actively promoting doctrines contrary to the mission and goals of the College.

Who decides what is “God’s Word” and “sound Christian doctrine?” Conveniently, Doug Wilson, the pastor of Christ Church, is both a Board of Trustees member and a “Senior Fellow” at NSA. In fact, of seventeen faculty members, three are Wilsons. That’s DW, his son (if I’m not mistaken) Nathan, and brother Gordon.

Gordon L. Wilson, the “Senior Fellow of Natural Philosophy,” is actually my closest contact to NSA. Last fall I attended a debate on the topic of intelligent design between GLW and Washington State University biologist Mike Webster. It wasn’t pretty. GLW, who is basically miles to the right of Michael Behe, didn’t make a very good impression on behalf of NSA’s high-minded curriculum in rhetoric and philosophy – he dodged questions, failed to support his assertions, and generally displayed an inability (or unwillingness) to comprehend the logical underpinnings of the Scientific Method. In a particularly telling moment, he asserted that the reason ID/Creationists haven’t developed any testable hypotheses is because biased funding agencies won’t give them money.

That, of course, is laughable to anyone who does science for a living (i.e., a sizable chunk of GLW’s audience), because no one gets grant funding to develop hypotheses. Funding requests are descriptions of how you will test a hypothesis through a specific program of experiments or data collection. In other words, scientists receive funding after they develop hypotheses and convince funding agencies that they have a good way to test them.

The Eastern Box Turtle,
Terrapene carolina

Photo by West Virgina Blue.

It’s entirely possible that Gordon Wilson doesn’t actually know how scientific funding works. Which is consistent with the hypothesis that he’s more interested in adhering to his concept of “sound Christian doctrine” than doing science. The only published peer-reviewed research NSA’s Senior Fellow of Natural Philosophy has produced is a 2005 paper on the breeding ecology of box turtles [$-a]. (GLW’s NSA profile also mentions published “research, field notes, and abstracts,” but this is the only paper that comes up in a Google Scholar search.) It’s basically a census, although there are some t-tests. And it was funded not by an outside grant, but by what seems to be a donation from the biology department where GLW was an instructor when he did the study. Here’s the only mention of funding in the Acknowledgments section:

We would like to thank Paul Sattler (Chair) for allocating Liberty University Biology funds for the purchase of much of the field equipment necessary for this study.

To put this in perspective: I’m now a fourth-year doctoral student, and I’m not nearly to the point of having enough published work on my CV to say I’ve earned my doctorate yet, much less apply for a faculty position at a good university. I’ve personally written (as near as I can recall) four major grant requests, and contributed to a fifth; I’m a coauthor on a review article, one published original research article [$-a], and a third in press; I’m a coauthor on two more articles that are submitted for review, and I’m waiting for my first first-authored paper to go out to reviewers. And (what the heck) I’ve been published in the letters column of Science. Let me repeat: my pubs list is piddly. But it’s bigger than Gordon Wilson’s, and he’s somehow on the faculty at NSA. With the word “senior” in his title.

NSA might have a bang-up program as far as Latin studies go, but its resident “biologist” is clearly more interested in ideology than biology. I can’t say that bodes well for the “intellectual rigor” of the rest of the curriculum.

Edit, 7 Sept. 2008:
Added a couple of links to the NSA faculty pages in references to Doug Wilson’s positions at NSA and the number of Wilsons on the faculty.

Correction, 9 Sept. 2008:
Corrected the relationships between the Wilsons on the NSA faculty.


W. Godsoe, J.B. Yoder, C.I. Smith, O. Pellmyr (2008). Coevolution and Divergence in the Joshua Tree/Yucca Moth Mutualism The American Naturalist, 171 (6), 816-23 DOI: 10.1086/587757

R. Gomulkiewicz, D.M. Drown, M.F. Dybdahl, W. Godsoe, S.L. Nuismer, K.M. Pepin, B.J. Ridenhour, C.I. Smith, J.B. Yoder (2007). Dos and don’ts of testing the geographic mosaic theory of coevolution Heredity, 98 (5), 249-58 DOI: 10.1038/sj.hdy.6800949

G.L. Wilson, C.H. Ernst (2005). Reproductive Ecology of the Terrapene carolina carolina (Eastern Box Turtle) in Central Virginia Southeastern Naturalist, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1656/1528-7092(2005)004[0689:REOTTC]2.0.CO;2

J.B. Yoder, B. Shneiderman (2008). Science 2.0: Not So New? Science, 320 (5881), 1290-1 DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5881.1290

Teaching evolution below the Bible Belt

Today’s New York Times has a fantastic piece that follows Florida high school science teacher David Campbell as, with the support of new state science education standards, he teaches a class of mostly conservative Christian students about evolution. I’m probably going to steal some of Campbells lines in my own future teaching:

“True or false?” [Campbell] barked the following week, wearing a tie emblazoned with the DNA double helix. “Humans evolved from chimpanzees.”

The students stared at him, unsure. “True,” some called out.

“False,” he said, correcting a common misconception. “But we do share a common ancestor.”

I attended a church-affiliated high school and university, and I know my teachers and professors put up with at least as much resistance as depicted here; possibly more, since a lot of parents sent their kids to my schools looking for safe havens from the “dangers” of biological fact. But in spite of all that, my biology teachers and professors taught evolution. And there’s something kind of heroic about that.

Creationist research: Not just wrong – redundant, too!

Virologist-blogger ERV takes down a Creationist study of bacterial antibiotic resistance, pointing out (1) the methods are flawed, (2) there’s no replication, (3) the interpretation is bogus, and – my personal favorite – (4) someone else has already done the same experiment:

Look, I know relatively little about bacteria. They arent the ‘micro’ in microbiology Im most interested in. But I can do a basic PubMed search to find a paper that analyzed the fitness cost of antibacterial resistance in Serratia marcescens the hard way (ie, the right way): A Fitness Cost Associated With the Antibiotic Resistance Enzyme SME-1 β-Lactamase. [hyperlink from original]

150 years of Descent with Modification

Today’s also the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace’s joint presentation of the concept of evolution by natural selection to the Linnean Society of London. Darwin had been carefully assembling on a massive book on natural selection for years, until Wallace came up with the same idea and gave Darwin sudden impetus to publish. On the Origin of Species, which was really only an “abstract” of the intended longer work, was published the next year, in 1859. Wired.com has a very nice retrospective on the event.

Unicorns existed, say Creationists

How do we know that Answers in Genesis, the creation “science” clearinghouse, deserves the credibility previously reserved for actual scientists? Because it serves to publish important discoveries like this one: unicorns are real. This is made possible by the sort of insightful, unbiased thinking that only Creationists are capable of:

Some people claim the Bible is a book of fairy tales because it mentions unicorns. However, the biblical unicorn was a real animal, not an imaginary creature. The Bible refers to the unicorn in the context of familiar animals, such as peacocks, lambs, lions, bullocks, goats, donkeys, horses, dogs, eagles, and calves (Job 39:9–12 KJV).

Actually, the article is trying to claim that a word which has sometimes been translated into English as “unicorn” may refer to an extinct (and very fearsome) ungulate of some sort. Or the word may actually mean “wild ox.” But what kind of fun would that be?

Via dechronization.

In which I’m still not excommunicated

So The Mennonite has published my letter about their painfully naive review of the anti-evolution movie Expelled. The version that made print has been pretty heavily edited (a whole paragraph on Darwin’s view of eugenics is gone), but the residue is more focused, and they retained my recommendation of Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, which I’d consider the most important point.

Not only has this not got me expelled (hah!) from Mennonite Church USA, it’s actually not the only Expelled-critical response they got. Arden Slotter wrote in to point out that Intelligent Design is an untestable hypothesis:

If a scientist states that his work in science leads him to conclude that there is no Intelligent Designer involved in the creation and operation of the universe, that conclusion is not scientifically based because no scientific test could show it to be false. If scientists who are Christian state that we are confident that God is the Intelligent Designer who created the universe as best we know in a way consistent with the explanations of biology, geology, astronomy and cosmology, then that is a statement of faith, not a scientific conclusion.

Well, put, Arden. It’s always good to know you’re not alone.