Friday, 19 June 2009

The Defeat of Creationism

The argument science has with creationism has been won. All that remains are mopping-up operations to persuade the remaining doubters as to the truth of the matter.

That might seem rather an over-optimistic statement in the light of the current situation, such as the large number of Americans who don’t believe in evolution, or the antics of Harun Yahya in Turkey, and the teaching of creationism in some British schools which have received funding from Sir Peter Vardy. As Adam Rutherford suggests, creationism seems to be on the march.

But consider this. Creationists have invented Intelligent Design, and ID claims to be a scientific theory with respectable evidence backing it. The primary reason for this tactic was to get round the constitutional prohibition in America on the establishment of religion, by passing off a religious idea as a respectable scientific theory so that it could be taught in public schools. That effort failed spectacularly with the Dover Trial at which several prominent ID proponents such as Michael Behe were thoroughly discredited when an attempt by the Dover Area School District to teach ID in public schools was successfully challenged in court.

Nevertheless, by inventing ID and claiming to be scientific, the creationists have committed a far more fundamental error. They have seen how much prestige science has with the public as a source of truth about the way the world works, and they want some of that prestige to rub off on them. It is very interesting to notice that creationists don’t seem to have a problem with most science, they target Darwin’s theory of evolution and that alone.

Darwin has a particular reason for raising their ire. It was Darwin’s theory which undermined the Teleological Argument (also known as the Argument from Design) as a convincing reason to believe in the existence of God. Briefly stated, as it applies to life, the Argument from Design goes as follows.

  1. Living things are so wonderfully complex and apparently designed for their environment that they could not have come into existence naturally.
  2. Therefore living things are products of intelligent design.
  3. Therefore, there is a powerful and vastly intelligent designer who created living things, and we call that designer God.

Darwin demonstrated that the original premise is not true and therefore the line of reasoning which follows from it is worthless, no matter how impeccable the logic involved. He showed that evolution by natural selection is a means by which creatures exhibiting the most amazing appearance of design could come into existence without the need for a designer. Creationists have never forgiven him for it, because although they claim to live by faith, they in fact have rather a high degree of respect for logic and evidence, and they were most put out when their favourite apparently knock-down argument for the existence of God was undermined.

It is that respect for evidence that has led the creationists into their present error. In seeing the prestige of science and wanting to acquire some of it for themselves, they have invented the “theory” of Intelligent Design, and in doing so they have implicitly accepted that science sets the terms of the debate, i.e. that this is not about faith, but rather about evidence.

They are not content to persuade people merely to have faith in the existence of God, they are attempting to prove God’s existence on the strength of their evidence. That evidence, as shown by the Dover trial, is pitifully weak. That is partly because, despite the fact that they are dressing up ID as science, they don’t really understand what science is really about. They are acting as if everybody cherry-picks the best data and hides the rest in order to come to the conclusions they want to reach. That is what the ID proponents do themselves, and they assume everyone else does likewise. It seems that they genuinely haven’t twigged that scientists cope with all the inconvenient data as well, and then come up with theories that can address both the convenient and inconvenient results.

We can’t stop people from believing irrational things - we all do that from time to time. But creationism as a systematic assembly of ideas has sown the seeds of its own destruction by trying to take on science on its own terms. All we need do is ensure that as many people as possible get a sound education in scientific principles, so that they can in due course make an informed decision for themselves as to the merits of evolution and of ID. That is not an entirely trivial task, and it is not made easier if some teachers aren’t able to cope properly with the subject, but at least it is perfectly clear what needs to be done.


  1. Hello Jonathan - it's 'savvymum' from CIF.
    Nice article - agree with almost all of it.

    So you play the French horn! I'm a cellist and enthusiastic but rather mediocre violinst too.
    Read your blog on the Eroica Symphony - fascinating. never thought about it from the horn's viewpoint - enough trouble from the cello part. Really enjoyable.
    Sorry you feel CIF is being unfriendly to you - you've lots of fans who like what you say and look forward to you r postings, even when you give us a pasting. Come back soon.

  2. hi jonathan. oh i think a fair few of them understand what science is about - they just cynically exploit other peoples lack of understanding of it.

    fuck em....they're toast.

  3. I think it's important to understand why Creationism and not, say, witch-killing or giving all your money to the poor -- both of which are clearly endorsed in the Bible -- has become the 'badge belief' of fundamental Christians. The answer as I see it is that it is a belief without consequences. To be a Creationist you don't have to DO anything that might get you in trouble with the law, lose you your job, send you broke or alientate your neighbours: you just have to assert a belief which commits you to nothing (except looking slightly stupid). The fact that this dead-end belief is becoming the only universal indicator of Christian sincerity indicates to me that the whole religion has already fallen apart. Creationism is a last desperate attempt to pretend that everyone is marching together when they're all off doing their own thing. Creationism is a phone-in belief.