Tag Archives: creationism

Plains, Rocks & Cosmos

In anticipation of a summer touring the Great Plains, I took some time off from the blog to immerse myself in a surprisingly rich literature on the subject, which of course has nothing to do with religion. I will say, however, that anyone who has yet to discover this richness or is thinking about exploring the Plains should consider reading some of the books listed at the end of this post. Having just read each in succession, the immersive effect is pronounced and I’m ready to go but the weather is not yet cooperating. While waiting, and in anticipation of the anthropology of religion course I will be teaching in the middle of the summer, it’s time to round back toward religion.

The good news is that in doing so, I won’t run the risk of being brutally murdered. For the third time this year, a “secular” Bangladeshi blogger has been hacked to death by irate religionists. These three blasphemous bloggers were writing on subjects and topics similar to those that appear here, but were doing so knowing they would be targeted. Talk about courage.

Here in the United States, we fortunately do not have to confront this sort of thing, though we do have young earth Creationists who are relatively harmless. While I have never paid them much mind because arguing with them is futile, a geology professor thinks that the rocks disprove creationism. He apparently does not know that young earth Creationists have considered his argument and flatly rejected it. They are not interested in science and accept it only when it suits their psychological needs or religious purposes. But having said this, I was a bit shocked to encounter the following sentence in the professor’s piece:

“Embracing young Earth creationism means you have to abandon faith in the story told by the rocks themselves.”

This is an unfortunate choice of words. Why should we have faith in a story told by rocks? Rocks don’t tell stories. Geologists provide us with theory and data based narratives about rocks. These “stories” are subject to challenge, revision, and reversal. This method has nothing to do with faith.

From rocks to the cosmos, which is timely for anyone who has recently seen “Interstellar,” a movie with some brilliant science marred by metaphysical speculations about trans-dimensional love tunnels. It was marred even further by Matthew McConaughey’s overwrought acting, but that is another story. The main story here is the science based on Kip Thorne’s work and book, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. Though I am only about halfway through and not sure I understand everything, it is great for bending the mind. The cosmos is stranger than fiction and perhaps even myth.

Finally, the cosmos — and cosmological theories — are the subject of this dense piece by Ross Andersen over at Aeon. Cosmology, it appears, is in crisis and may stay that way for quite some time, perhaps forever. While this may unsettle some, I find it invigorating. When it comes to large and perhaps intractable subjects like this, I always find it helpful to read a good history of the field, so thanks to Andersen for recommending Helge Kragh’s Conceptions of Cosmos: From Myths to the Accelerating Universe: A History of Cosmology. It’s next on my list.

And speaking of lists, here is the one I promised at the beginning of this post, for all lovers of the Great Plains:

Great Plains by Ian Frazier
The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Webb
Love Song to the Plains by Mari Sandoz
Prehistoric Man on the Great Plains by Waldo Wedel
The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones
Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the Great Plains by William Ashworth
Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains by Jack Brink

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Barash, Biology & Balderdash

I feel sorry for David Barash’s undergraduate students at the University of Washington. Why? Because when Barash teaches his animal behavior class, which is grounded in evolutionary theory, he feels compelled to give them “The Talk.” Barash worries that the evolutionary aspects of the course will cause consternation among his religious students. With this in mind, Barash prefaces the course by giving them a talk which strikes me as both gratuitous and wrongheaded. In this recent New York Times piece (“God, Darwin and My College Biology Class”), Barash gives the particulars of this talk:

As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.

The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.

A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on. Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering…

While I don’t disagree with any of this, it goes way beyond the bounds of a biology class and amounts to theological argument. If Barash were teaching a philosophy or religion course, this kind of talk would be fair game. But in a biology class, without any further exploration or interrogation of what are major issues in the philosophy of biology and history of social science, it is out of place.

There is a much simpler, and intellectually honest, approach to all this. While I’m sure Barash is aware of this approach, the fact that his talk does not mention it is revealing. Evolution and religion are not mutually exclusive. There are in fact many evolutionists who are religious. So why doesn’t Barash mention evolutionary theism or other “spiritual” variants of this idea?

At first blush, it may appear that Barash is concerned about the psychological sensitivities of his creationist students. But I suspect not. Creationists tend to avoid courses that either teach or entail evolution. Those who take such courses may or may not be persuaded, but in either case the theory and facts should speak for themselves without being given atheist or anti-religious glosses by the professor.

At second blush, it may appear that Barash is concerned about the psychological sensitivities of his students who believe in Intelligent Design. But again I suspect not. ID is just another form of creationism, and like creationist students, most ID-believing students are either going to avoid the course or not believe what is being taught. So what? When teaching a biology course, it’s not Barash’s job to persuade his students that evolution and religion are hostile or incompatible.

In fact, they are “compatible” (in the sense of constituting a coherent philosophical or cosmological position) and evolutionary theists prove the point. When I teach my anthropology of religion course, I always tell the students that we will be using evolutionary approaches. I am quick to add that there is nothing inherently atheistic, or anti-religious, about such approaches and that several scholars working in this area are religious. Many of these scholars, whose work we read and then critically discuss, believe that “God works or manifests through evolution.”

Why doesn’t Barash mention this in his talk? I suspect it’s because Barash is stuck inside the artificial confines of theism/atheism and narrow binaries of belief/unbelief. This is a common problem among New Atheists, some of whom should just stick to teaching biology, which is what they know and do best.


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Musing on Modernity

There were several items in the news last week that got me thinking about the mythic typology that dominates so much of our thinking:

Ancient Epoch                                Modern Epoch

Savage-Wild                                     Civilized-Domestic

Primitive                                            Advanced

Simple                                               Complex

Traditional                                         Rational

Faith                                                   Reason

Superstitious                                     Scientific

If you are reading this, it’s probably safe to assume you identify with modernity or classifications of the second column. I know that my Buddhist friends do, even as they were telling me last week they were going to see some special historical relics:

Among the cremation ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters, including the Buddha, monks found and preserved sacred relics — small pearl-like crystals called ringsels — that devotees believe embody the knowledge and compassion of the enlightened. “The great meditators spent their lives cultivating a loving heart and great wisdom. These relics embody that spiritual enlightenment,” said North American tour manager Amanda Russell. “Some people look at them in wonder. I experience miracles every weekend. People feel a shift, a transformation, a release of pain or fear — sometimes physical healing. Each relic is from the cremation ashes of a specific master. Each is a crystallized part of the enlightened mind,” Russell said.

These are the same friends who told me last year that their “mindful” Buddhism was not “spiritual” and had nothing to do with “religion.”

Our anti-surveillance friends over at The Guardian matter of factly reported, with no apparent sense for the modern, on Pope Benedict’s resignation:

The former pope Benedict has claimed that his resignation in February was prompted by God, who told him to do it during a “mystical experience”. Breaking his silence for the first time since he became the first pope to step down in 600 years, the 86-year-old reportedly said: “God told me to” when asked what had pushed him to retire to a secluded residence in the Vatican gardens. Benedict denied he had been visited by an apparition or had heard God’s voice, but said he had undergone a “mystical experience” during which God had inspired in him an “absolute desire” to dedicate his life to prayer rather than push on as pope.

Omniscience is not just an NSA attribute. Down south, Slate reports on a measles outbreak:

In Texas, an anti-vaccine megachurch is the epicenter of a measles outbreak that so far has infected 20 people. The Eagle Mountain International Church is led by pastor Terri Copeland Pearsons, daughter of televangelist Kenneth Copeland. (The church is part of his ministries.) Pearsons claims she’s not anti-vax, but the church does promote faith healing, and in August Pearsons voiced concern over vaccinations and autism, a link which has been thoroughly debunked. Kenneth Copeland has promoted anti-vax and anti-science nonsense on his television show in the past.

As a child, I was exposed to quite a bit of Kenneth Copeland; fortunately, it did not make me sick. Over in modern India, Narendra Dabholkar was murdered for muckraking:

For nearly three decades, an earnest man named Narendra Dabholkar traveled from village to village in India, waging a personal war against the spirit world. If a holy man had electrified the public with his miracles, Dr. Dabholkar, a former physician, would duplicate the miracles and explain, step by step, how they were performed. If a sorcerer had amassed a fortune treating infertility, he would arrange a sting operation to unmask the man as a fraud. His goal was to drive a scientist’s skepticism into the heart of India, a country still teeming with gurus, babas, astrologers, godmen and other mystical entrepreneurs.

Dr. Dabholkar’s killing is the latest episode in a millenniums-old wrestling match between traditionalists and reformers in India. When detectives began putting together a list of Dr. Dabholkar’s enemies, they found that it was long. He had received threats from Hindu far-right groups, been beaten by followers of angry gurus and challenged by councils upholding archaic caste laws. His home state, Maharashtra, was considering legislation he had promoted for 14 years, banning a list of practices like animal sacrifice, the magical treatment of snake bites and the sale of magic stones.

Dabholkar’s murder was also covered by The Economist. Though not motivated by these particular reports, astrophysicist Adam Frank laments our “age of denial” in a gloomy NYT op-ed piece:

In 1982, polls showed that 44 percent of Americans believed God had created human beings in their present form. Thirty years later, the fraction of the population who are creationists is 46 percent.

The timeline of these polls defines my career in science. In 1982 I was an undergraduate physics major. In 1989 I was a graduate student. The triumph of Western science led most of my professors to believe that progress was inevitable. While the bargain between science and political culture was at times challenged — the nuclear power debate of the 1970s, for example — the battles were fought using scientific evidence. Manufacturing doubt remained firmly off-limits.

Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

My professors’ generation could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement. My students cannot afford that luxury. Instead they must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.

As Frank also observes, creationism and climate-change denialism are conceptual handmaidens. Welcome to American modernity.



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Evolution of Creationism

In GSA Today, geologist David Montgomery has published a splendid article (open pdf) on “The Evolution of Creationism.” It’s a useful primer for those who don’t have the time or inclination to read Ronald Number’s classic The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, which treats the same topic in greater scope and detail. These should be required reading for both casual and strident creationists. The former might just change their minds, whereas the latter may get some sense for how ridiculous they are.

These two kinds of creationists are quite different. I will engage with casual creationists because they are willing to listen and learn. I simply ignore strident creationists. Their minds will never be changed and there is nothing to be gained by engaging them. Their stridency, obstinacy, and desperation strikes me as a peculiar (and pathetic) kind of weakness.

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Genetic Hardwiring for God

Over the past week I was hiking the Four Corners area and visiting ancestral Puebloan sites spanning the entire range of culture history for the region — from early Basketmaker (1200 BCE) through Pueblo III (1300 CE). While Mesa Verde National Park gets all the attention, the recently created Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is not to be missed. There is nothing like being alone in the gorgeous backcountry visiting cliff dwellings and other ruins that tourists will never see. While I was back in time and wilderness, an old and odd theme in religious studies resurfaced not once but twice.

In the first, David Barash revisits Dean Hamer’s ill-fated The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes (2004). My take on the book was that even if the VMAT2 gene governs a person’s ability to experience transcendence, the notoriously difficult to define and widely divergent experience of “transcendence” does not explain god beliefs. While transcendence is an important aspect of some supernatural-religious traditions (especially post-Axial traditions), it is unimportant in others.

In his review of The God Gene, Carl Zimmer famously suggested that a better title for Hamer’s book would have been: A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study. Eight years later, the study on which Hamer based his entire book has yet to be published. Barash is rightly skeptical and correctly observes:

“[T]here can certainly be genes that make people more or less likely to believe things without empirical evidence, more or less likely to accept the authority of others, more or less likely to enjoy ritualized behaviors such as singing in a chorus, and so forth. Instead of thinking about genes “for” religion, it is more useful to consider genes that result in an openness or susceptibility or inclination for certain kinds of experiences that manifest themselves via religion. (Incidentally, this is very much what evolutionary biologists have in mind when we discuss the biological underpinnings for other behavioral traits, such as altruism, aggressiveness, parental love, honesty or dishonesty in communication, and so forth.)”

In the second (and similar vein), Megan Erickson asks whether the brain is hardwired for God and interviews Dr. Andrew Newberg, who has published several books and many articles on neural activity and religious experience. Newberg’s work is considerably more sophisticated than Hamer’s. While I am not so impressed by Newberg’s brain imaging studies (which are splendidly critiqued by Matthew Crawford in “The Limits of Neuro-Talk“), his argument that the brain-mind habitually generates causal stories that are mythical or religious is on target. His other main argument, which focuses on transcendence (a major concern of Axial traditions but not earlier religions), is less compelling. For those not familiar with Newberg’s work, this (open access) article provides a nice introduction.

Newberg’s work helps explain this incredible finding from the June 1, 2012 Gallup Poll:

“Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years. The prevalence of this creationist view of the origin of humans is essentially unchanged from 30 years ago, when Gallup first asked the question. Despite the many changes that have taken place in American society and culture over the past 30 years, including new discoveries in biological and social science, there has been virtually no sustained change in Americans’ views of the origin of the human species since 1982. The 46% of Americans who today believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years is little changed from the 44% who believed this 30 years ago, when Gallup first asked the question.”

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Commencement Creationist at Emory University

For its commencement speaker this year, Emory University has chosen John Hopkins neurosurgeon and humanitarian Ben Carson. Carson’s personal story and scientific accomplishments are extraordinary (as his CV attests), which presumably led Emory seniors to put him on their list and administrators to choose him. Because Carson is famous and has already given 73 other commencement addresses, it was probably a no-brainer decision.

But it has stoked some controversy which centers on the fact that Carson is a young earth creationist who publicly dismisses evolution. Oops. The vetting committee apparently missed this, or if it was noticed, they figured it wasn’t a big deal. Except that it has become one.

Last week, nearly 500 Emory faculty members, post-docs, graduate students and others signed a public letter titled Ben Carson’s Outright Rejection of Evolution is Against Emory’s Ideals. When I first came across the story at Inside Higher Ed, it sounded like Carson was an evolutionary theist, which hardly seems objectionable:

Carson believes in natural selection, but not in the traditional evolutionary sense. “They say that natural selection is proof that things can change,” Carson said. “I say natural selection is proof that we have an intelligent creator who gave his creatures the ability to adapt to their environment.”

But after doing some digging it became clear that Carson is a young earth creationist and Seventh Day Adventist. The two go hand in hand. This artfully drafted profile of Carson by the Institute of Creation Research reveals the nature of Emory’s problem:

Benjamin S. Carson, M.D., one of the world’s foremost pediatric neurosurgeons, is professor and chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. Born on September 18, 1951, in Detroit to a single mother in a working class neighborhood, Ben showed promise from a young age. A graduate of Yale and the University of Michigan Medical School, he was rated by a Time issue titled “America’s Best” as a “super surgeon.” Dr. Carson was also selected by CNN and Time as one of the nation’s top 20 physicians and scientists, and by the Library of Congress as one of 89 “living-legends.”

Dr. Carson is a leading research scientist. A “voracious reader of the medical and scientific literature” from his graduate school days, he has long been very interested in scientific research and has been very active in this area for his entire career, with over 120 major scientific publications in peer reviewed journals, 38 books and book chapters, and grant awards of almost a million dollars. His achievements have so far earned him 51 honorary doctorates, including from Yale and Columbia Universities.

As if these credentials weren’t enough, the article next details Carson’s world-renowned surgical skill and medical accomplishments. The picture is undeniably impressive and designed to overwhelm the reader with an aura of authority. At this point, the creationist bomb is dropped:

After Dr. Carson reviewed in detail the evidence for design in nature, he concluded, “I just don’t have enough faith to believe” that the living world happened by evolutionary processes. He added that 150 years after Darwin, there is still no evidence for evolution:

It’s just not there. But when you bring that up to the proponents of Darwinism, the best explanation they can come up with is “Well…uh…it’s lost!”…I find it requires too much faith for me to believe that explanation given all the fossils we have found without any fossilized evidence of the direct, step-by-step evolutionary progression from simple to complex organisms or from one species to another species. Shrugging and saying, “Well, it was mysteriously lost, and we’ll probably never find it,” doesn’t seem like a particularly satisfying, objective, or scientific response.

Carson concluded that the “plausibility of evolution is further strained by Darwin’s assertion that within fifty to one hundred years of his time, scientists would become geologically sophisticated enough to find the fossil remains of the entire evolutionary tree in an unequivocal step-by-step progression of life from amoeba to man.”

As a neurosurgeon, he stresses the “factors that contribute to the failure to utilize fully the most amazing God-given resource, our brain, such as peer pressure and political correctness, which often limits our willingness, even as objective scientists, to have thoughtful, rational discussions about evolution versus creationism.” It is even harder for him to accept how so many people who can’t explain how evolution can account for all life claim that it is a fact, while at the same time “insisting anyone who wants to consider or discuss creationism as a possibility cannot be a real scientist.”

The article then recounts a testy exchange between Carson and paleoanthropologist Don Johanson at a conference. Johanson is of course depicted as an ideological bully. It appears that Johanson was simply pointing out the distinction between evidence and belief — a distinction that Carson either refuses to recognize or doesn’t understand.

I usually don’t have much to say about creationism because it tends to be futile. Those deeply committed to it, for some combination of psychological, social, and religious reasons, are relatively impervious to facts and persuasion. I will say, however, that Carson’s fame provides him an impressive pulpit. He’s like the Army of One for creationism. All it takes is one person like Carson to undo the work of many thousands of scientists and teachers. Those who might be open minded about evolution often need only one authority figure to assist them with their non-decision. Carson appears to be that figure.

Carson also stands as a one man refutation of Stephen Jay Gould’s naive idea (or idealistic hope) that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria (“NOMA”). Science writ large has a great deal to say about religion and it is obvious that religious belief like Carson’s can strongly influence scientific perception. It is vain to hope that the two can be kept apart.

Where does all this leave Emory University? Not in a good place. It would be one thing if Carson thought evolution were guided or designed and that it can’t or doesn’t address the issue of ultimate origins. It is quite another for him to believe there is no evidence for evolution while simultaneously asserting that all life on earth was specially created some 7,000 years ago. This kind of claim is anti-science and antithetical to what universities are all about.

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Creation Myths: Not Just Stories

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about creation myths. By calling them “myths” it allows us to overlook, dismiss, or ignore them. This is a mistake. We should think hard about what these myths do and how they work. They are not just quaint relics of a pre-scientific past. They are not just stories to be studied as folklore. The universality of such myths is telling us something important about what it means to be human. People apparently need creation myths. Why?

Artist: Tim Mietty

Though there are undoubtedly other reasons, one of the most important surely is orientation. People need to situate themselves in both time and space. Creation myths serve this need: they provide a temporal and spatial anchor. This anchoring effect serves as a powerful reminder that views are never from nowhere. All views are situated. Though philosophers may aspire to the view from nowhere (which is the equivalent of the view from everywhere) this is beyond the capacity and interest of most. This aside, the idealistic and detached view from nowhere surely is an impossibility. All views are from somewhere and in many cases that somewhere is found in creation myths.

Because having a view requires a viewer or agent, the next reason which comes to mind is identity. As individuals, our identities are constructed through memory. This is the autobiographical self. As groups, our identities are likewise constructed through memories. This is the autobiographical culture. Whether dealing with individual memories or group histories, the things that are recalled need not traffic in truth. Indeed, much of what we recall is false. The stories we tell are part fact and part fiction, with varying amounts of each. The important thing is to construct a relatively stable identity. Creation myths serve this need.

While reading about creation myths and origins stories I recently came across this passage written by Roger Lewin:

Every society for which there are records has its version of the “origin myth,” where myth is used to mean allegory, not just fantasy. The product of the unique curiosity of the human mind, origin myths nevertheless tell more than how a particular people might have got here. They encompass a view of the world that tells people how they should behave now they are here. Origin myths are prescriptive, not just descriptive. They present a microcosm of society, of the way men relate with women, of the way “real people” relate with “foreigners,” and of the place of humans in the world of nature. It is not surprising, therefore, that ever since there evolved in the human mind that unique quality of conscious, of reflective self-awareness, origin myths have been central to the intellectual lives of Homo sapiens everywhere.

This is surely correct. It partially explains the incredible staying power of the Edenic myth and why it is defended with such vehemence. For believers, it’s not simply a matter of literalism and the interpretive license which flows from metaphorical readings.

The Edenic myth provides an orientation and identity which evolution apparently doesn’t. This is not to say that human evolution can’t provide orientation or identity, only that some find it profoundly unsettling and distasteful. It is one thing to be made in the image of God, quite another to be an evolving primate. The ontology and metaphysics which attach to Eden are perhaps more comfortable than those which come out of evolutionary Africa.


Lewin, Roger (1988). Man’s Place in Nature The Missouri Review, 11 (3), 16-32


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