There are few concepts that can make advocates of the scientific method, astronomy and biology more twitchy than “Creationism.” In its strictest sense, creationism is the belief that humanity, life, the Earth, and the universe were created in their entirety by a supernatural deity or deities (typically God), whose existence is presupposed.* This definition is extremely broad and leaves room for both Descartes’ watchmaker Deity – a God who sets the universe in motion and watches it tick – and a literalist view of the Bible that implies a young Earth – e.g. the view that the Bible tells the factual Judeo-Christian History of the actual creation of the Earth. In today’s rhetoric, it is generally the later form of Creationism that is meant when the word is used. For instance, the Discovery Institute and the Creation Museum both use the word Creationism to describe a cosmology in which dinosaurs and man co-roamed an Earth that was created several thousand years ago.
Let me start by saying I hate vague language (even if I sometimes fall prey to using it).
When you ask someone “Do you believe in Creationism?”, you can never know if the answer “Yes” means “I think God(s) setup the Universe’s initial conditions 13.7 billion years ago” or if it means “I think God(s) created the planet and life in the exact manner outlined by my religion’s holy documents.”
My hat is off to the moderator of a recent Republican debate who didn’t ask a vague question. He asked “Does anyone not believe in evolution?” Three hands went up: Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, and Mike Huckabee. In a related statement published in a New York Times op-ed piece, Sam Brownback wrote, “While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of manâ€šÃ„Ã´s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.”
This exchange annoys me at many levels. First off, Brownbeck’s statement implies evolutionary science starts with an agenda and ends in a theory.
The scientific method, using multiple lines of evidence, supports evolution – cosmic and biological. This isn’t “atheistic theology posing as science” as Brownbeck would seem to postulate. This is the scientific method – put into action in consistent and rigorous ways by people of many faiths and of many levels of agnostic and atheist lack of faiths – coming up with self-consistent answers. Science doesn’t ask, “What do you believe?” Science asks, “What does the evidence indicate?”
The end point of science – the point you stand at after reviewing the evidence for cosmic and biologic evolution – places science at odds with literal translations of most holy documents. The beginning point of science doesn’t have an opinion.
Within the diversity of our (the scientific communities) experiences, we see the reflections of evolution in astrophysics, geophysics, paleontology, and other fields. We can build a self-consistent model that steps from the Big Bang, through stellar and galactic evolution, to the formation of our own solar system. Stepping fields, we can describe the geological evolution of our planet, and step through the sedimentary levels to trace the formation of mountains and canyons side-by-side with the increase in complexity of fossilized life.
There are gaps in our understanding, but just as it is possible to unambiguously represent a real building with a three-dimensional CAD drawing, – it is possible to unambiguously represent evolution with theoretical models and academic, peer-reviewed frameworks. Both the CAD drawing and our theories lack certain details, but both provide understanding.
While the scientific method rules out the literal truth of most holy documents, it doesn’t eliminate their usefulness as parables.
This brings me to my second annoyance. Not believing in evolution requires one to instead believe that life sprung forth fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. One day, from nothing, there was human life. One day, from nothing, there was a tropical rain forest of life, a desert of life, a deep sea trench of life. One day (or across several days) everything sprung forth fully realized. This is at odds with evidence.
What isn’t at odds with the evidence is the idea that holy documents are parables that convey an understanding to people not ready for partial differential equation, fluid dynamics, or quantum mechanics. It is alright to believe in God and say there are lessons to be learned in holy documents and that the documents are believed to be a God’s way of communicating. Science can’t prove or disprove that. And, just as the explanations we give children for different phenomena aren’t more then representations of the full truth, why, in the context of a God, can’t we see communications with early societies as representations of the full truth. Within the context of Christianity, there is even precedent – Jesus often spoke in parables, where humanized stories spoke of truths beyond the literal story.
So, when I hear people (especially those whom I’d like to believe are educated), stating they don’t believe in evolution and using a literal interpretation of a holy document as their evidence, I get frustrated. Where did our education system fail? Where did logic fail? Where did anyone first get the idea that any committee written and edited across sometimes millennia holy document can only be read as literal truth? (Personally, the idea that we would limit God(s) to communicating and inspiring only literal and never figurative truth seems like a rather narrow-minded idea.)
When any of our nation’s leaders come out against evolution, they are coming out against science. Period. These are the people that vote on national teaching standards (or at least on funding the folks who create the standards). These are the folks who nominate the judges who may decide cases on teaching science in schools. These are the folks who set my paycheck by determining how much funding goes to NSF, NASA, and education. I don’t think it is right to ask, “What is your theological world view?” of any candidate. I do think it is valid to ask, “What science concepts to you feel evidence supports as valid? And what research will you support or outlaw?” The answers to these questions effect public policy and our ability to move forward as a nation of intellectual and technological leaders.
When our schools don’t teach evolution as a product of the scientific method, they are putting students at an educational disadvantage. If a school wants to teach the stories of creationism found in holy documents, there are places in history, social studies and English classes. There isn’t room in the science classroom. Science already has too much content to teach. Just teach the evidence, and teach how the scientific method indicates the evidence fits together. Teach the holes in our understanding, and present them as puzzles for the future. Teach science as a place where each of us asks first, “What does the evidence say?” and asks last (if ever, and sometimes while crying into our hands as our world views are shaken), “Does this theory match my beliefs?”
Senator Brownbeck, I ask you to review the evidence before you. Look through theological texts for evidence that your holy documents require a literal reading. Look through the astronomical, geophysical and paleontological records and explain – using the scientific method – the evidence as best you can after consulting experts from all the fields. When you are done, tell me please, where is the evidence that evolution is, as you call it, an atheistic theology?
Explain to me why so many scientists in history have wept in their hands as they faced the evidence of science. If we started from an atheistic theology that only found the concepts we looked for, why would we cry? Our tears don’t silence the truth. They simply punctuate the march of the scientific method as it moves our understanding ever forward.
This post was inspired by a Cosmic Variance post.
In responce to the many comments asking me about my beliefs, I have created a separate page that can be found here.
*Hayward, James L. (1998), The Creation/Evolution Controversy : an Annotated Bibliography, Scarecrow Press/Salem Press, p. 11