With the Intelligent Design (ID) proponents sucking up all the anti-evolution oxygen these days, it is easy to forget that the young-Earthers are still around. No doubt motivated partly by a desire to remind everyone they're still here, they have organized the Creation Mega Conference this week at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. That being just down the road from my digs in Harrisonburg, I decided to check it out. Over the next few days I will be posting several blog entries describing my experiences there.
You should also check out Ronald Bailey's account for Reason magazine. Judging from this first entry in the series it seems he is mostly giving a straight description of some of the goings-on at the conference. I will be focussing more on the specific claims made during the talks.
Also, if you would like a description of the conference that is more charitable than the one I am going to provide, check out the conference blog.
Now, on to the conference!
Sunday, July 17. Afternoon.
I was in good spirits as I left Charlottesville, VA. I was coming off a tolerably successful weekend of chess at the Charlottesville Open (Three wins, Two losses), and managed to pick up a few rating points if not any money. Route 29 loomed up before me, presenting me with a fateful choice.
Go North, and before too much longer I'd be back in Harrisonburg. South would take me to Lynchburg, and several days of exasperating creationist propaganda.
South it was. Tooling down Route 29, I was struck by the beauty of the region. Lynchburg is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the scenery managed to take my mind off my nervousness about the conference itself. But as pretty as the scenery was, I was also struck by just how isolated Lynchburg is. It's sixty miles from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, and in that stretch of space you encounter almost nothing in the way of civilization. The sort of extreme Biblical fundmentalism represented by the conference speakers can only survive in such isolated little burgs. I would soon find that a recurring theme in the conference presentations was the protection of their children from “the wisdom of the world.” The word “wisdom” is definitely meant ironically here.
I arrived in Lynchburg without incident and located my host for the next few days; the Sleep Inn. Check-in went smoothly. The nice person at the desk pointed me towards the Liberty University campus. I decided to walk.
Sunday, July 17. Evening.
As I approached the main entrance of the campus I saw a large sign saying, “Changing Lives One Degree at a Time.” I found that amusing, since it seems to me that most Liberty students choose the school out of a desire to avoid having their faith challenged; which would inevitably happen were they to go to a real university. If you truly believe in a young-Earth and world-wide global flood, then almost anything you hear in a science class will challenge your faith. Nearly all of their students are fundamentalist Christians to begin with. In other words, a Liberty education is about not changing your life.
It was rather hot and humid and I was sweating quite a bit when I managed to locate the Vines Center, which was the main facility for the conference. The building is covered by a large silver dome, giving it the appearance of a spaceship stuck in the ground.
I go inside, let my eyes adjust to the dim lighting, and locate the conference registration table. I waited my turn, paid my $150 (!!)registration fee, and received my conference package. A complete schedule of the presentations. A notebook. Promotional material for various creationist groups. A copy of Ken Ham's subtly titled book The Lie: Evolution. Ham is the President of Answers in Genesis, co-sponsor of the conference.
I already had a copy of Ham's book, and had read it a few years ago. My brother, thinking he was being amusing, got it for me as a birthday present. The second paragraph of the book's introduction says, “My parents knew that evolution was wrong because it was obvious from Genesis that God had given us the details of the creation of the world.” One of the presenters at the conference expressed the same thought more directly: “God said it, that settles it.”
They're refreshingly clear and honest on this point. They have little use for the various politically correct subterfuges used by the ID folks in presenting their case. Unlike the ID people, YEC's are open about their religious motivations.
On the other hand, it tells you something about the way the conference presenters and attendees approach this subject. They hate the fact that they must wage this war on science's turf. They want to be able to cite the authority of scripture and have everyone else take them seriously. It is already a major defeat for them that they must argue in scientific terms.
That is why many of the scientific assertions they make are jaw-droppingly ignorant. That is why they are able to stand in front of audiences, and, without apparent shame, speak with great confidence on subjects they obviously know nothing about. That is why one of the rallying cries I heard several times during the conference was, “It doesn't take a PhD!” Getting it right is not something that is important to them. Vicotry over the enemy is what's important. If achieving that victory means playing fast and loose with the facts then so be it.
I trudged back to the hotel and took advantage of the free HBO.
Monday, July 18. Morning.
There are already quite a few people milling around as I return to the Vines Center. It's 7:30 in the morning, and Jerry Falwell is scheduled to kick off the festivities in forty-five minutes. I pass the time by browsing through the tables of books and DVD's for sale.
I've been reading creationist literature for years but it still makes my blood boil to see so much of it in one place. You could open virtually any of these books to a random page and find grotesque distortions and malicious caricatures of modern science. I picked up the book Refuting Evolution 2 by Jonathan Sarfati (one of the speakers at the conference). I opened it to a random page, which turned out to be the beginning of Chapter Five. Here's the first sentence of the chapter: “When they begin to talk about mutations, evolutionists tacitly acknowledge that natural selection, by itself, cannot explain the rise of new genetic information.” Natural selection by itself? What does that even mean? This is like saying, “When they begin to talk about mass, physicists tacitly acknowledge that gravity, by itself, can not explain the motions of the planets.”
Sometimes the rot extends to the titles of the books: I note one tome called Vestigial Organs are Fully Functional, as if vestigial and non-functional were the same thing.
Over at one table a DVD is playing. On the screen is a handsome young man lecturing to a roomful of obviously enthralled students about the nature of geology. With a bemused tone he says that modern geologists insist that various geologic processes unfold over millions of years. “But how do they know that? Was anyone there to see it happen? Has geological science been going on for millions of years?” The video is galling for many reasons: The utter lack of respect for the work geologists do, the patronizing tone of the speaker, and the fact that no one really believes that if you didn't see something happen then you can't speak with confidence about it, immediately come to mind.
People start taking their seats and Jerry Falwell approaches the platform. Golly! He's famous. I've seen him on television.
He describes the conference as an historic event, and claims around 2000 attendees. My own informal count says that's a plausible number. He then asserts that all the polls show that 2/3 to 3/4 of Americans agree with AiG on this issue, which is total nonsense. The polls have consistently shown that the percentage of people accepting the Young-Earth position is just under fifty percent.
He boasts that the debate is being won by the church. He says that despite having the media, Hollywood and academe against them, the church of Jesus Christ returned George W. Bush to the White House. And this is about science, right?
Then he launches into the standard pitch about creation being necessary to redemption. If Genesis is unreliable, then how can they be confident that the crucifixion account is true.
Evolution implies humans are worthless animals that have no value except to PETA. Laughter.
If God could create an adult Adam with apparent age, why couldn't he do the same with the universe? (I suppose He could have, but why would He?)
Then things got surreal. He boasted about the loyalty oths addressing both creation and eschatology that Liberty faculty are expected to sign. He was proud that Liberty had maintained its ideological purity despite their growth over the years.
Which is amusing, since he and people like him routinely lambast real universities for being ideologically rigid. Modern university science departments are as good an example of a true meritocracy as you're likely to find. Falwell and his ilk hate this fact, because they know their peculiar beliefs can not survive in such an evironment. So they rail about left-wing bias in universities and try to force these schools to hire their intellectual disciples.
In public, they talk about fairness and academic freedom and open-mindedness. In private, that goes out the window. And why not? By dissenting from their view of things you are risking an eternity in Hell. What's a little rhetorical inconsistancy compared to that?
Falwell closed on a suitably dramatic note, exhorting his adoring listeners that they had the truth, the inerrant word of God on their side. They should ignore the loud voices from the opposite side. Indeed. The moment they stop ignoring them is the moment they realize that they have been lied to about science.
Next up: Ken Ham.
To be continued.