Understanding creationism, VIII:
An insider’s guide by a former young-Earth creationist

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By David MacMillan.

8. New perspective. I think there are several different varieties of creationism activists. Some are obsessed with the presumed negative effects of evolution and secular humanism. Some are driven by suspicion for science and the certainty that a conspiracy must be afoot. Some use creationist apologetics to make themselves feel smarter and better-informed than the general public. Some are genuinely interested in science and want to know the truth.

I’d be lying if I said my motivations for arguing creationism were firmly in the last camp. I wasn’t much of a conspiracy theorist, but I certainly believed that there were inevitable negative consequences from the acceptance of evolution. I was definitely stuck-up about my “special” expertise. But deep down, I really did want to know the truth about the world. I loved being right, but I loved learning new things more.

As prior posts have explained, fundamentalist evangelicalism buttresses itself against criticism at every conceivable level. Not only must the existence of God be treated as evident from nature; the existence of God must be treated as beyond any doubt. To the fundamentalist YEC, no overall view of natural history can be even remotely possible unless it can be used as evidence to prove the existence of God.

I maintained young-earth creationism without much difficulty through college. The major objection to creationism encountered in earning a physics degree is the starlight-and-time problem, and I believed that the gravitational-well time-dilation model proposed by Russell Humphreys solved this problem. It never really came up in my classes. My ongoing exposure to the evidence against creationism came mostly in the form of continued argumentation and debate in various online forums, just as I had done before college.

I still wanted to maintain intellectual honesty, but I felt constrained by my religious belief. When I encountered questions and evidence I didn’t know how to answer, I retreated to a position of false humility: “Well, I don’t know how that works, but I’m sure that if I was an expert in that area, I could figure out how the evolutionary argument is wrong.” I knew that there were physicists and biologists and geneticists working for creationist organizations who rejected evolution; surely they understood how it all worked.

There’s not much you can do to challenge that particular approach. It’s the same response I get now from creationists after I’ve answered all their objections. “Well, fine, but science is always changing, and scientists have been wrong before, and so you never can be sure about any of this.”

As frustrating as this response can be, it’s difficult to counter because it’s sincere. They really believe (and, at one time, I really believed) that the scientific process is constantly in flux, that evolution is “just a theory”, that scientists are just taking guesses in the dark. They really think that science can’t provide truly useful answers.

In the recent debate, Bill Nye strongly implied that creationism hinders the teaching and progress of science. While this may be the case in some situations, I believe the opposite is far more true: a lack of scientific literacy and misplaced skepticism of the scientific method enable pseudoscience like creationism to flourish. This is the problem I believe we need to address. Otherwise we are simply seen as making an appeal to authority right alongside the creationists.

Thankfully, my ability to maintain the “science could be wrong” excuse wore thin. I learned about research methods, about confidence intervals, about peer review. I learned to isolate variables, to vet sources, to establish controls. I learned that the scientific process is designed to weed out mistakes and that when mistakes are made, the process will tell where and why and how to correct them. The more actual science I learned, the more I could simply examine the evidence myself, and the more difficult it became to continue unchecked skepticism.

Though I still firmly maintained a belief in young earth and special creation, it became more and more apparent that evolution was not, after all, a theory in crisis. The evidence lined up and made sense; the model worked; the predictions were good. I kept looking for the smoking gun, the telltale traces and shortcuts I would expect to see if evolution were really the junk science I had always believed it to be – but I found nothing. Evolution was, to all appearances, rock-solid science.

I didn’t feel like this discovery was something I could admit. I still claimed confidence in the whole young Earth creationism worldview. But I had confidence in the scientific process, too, and they seemed to clash rather strongly. Moreover, while creationism had only demanded my confidence, science had earned my confidence. It was a distinction I wasn’t terribly comfortable with.

About this time, I came across this brief essay by noted biologist Todd Wood:

Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well. [Emphasis in original.]

Yet Todd Wood was, like me, a strident creationist. Hearing another creationist say all the exact same things I had been unwilling to admit was suddenly liberating. It was all right to acknowledge that the science worked. It was all right to acknowledge that the evidence fit together. It was all right to acknowledge that “evolutionists” were in fact sincere. My faith in God wasn’t going to instantly disintegrate just because I admitted that common descent was a feasible model.

The essay went on:

There is evidence for evolution, and evolution is an extremely successful scientific theory. That doesn’t make it ultimately true, and it doesn’t mean that there could not possibly be viable alternatives. It is my own faith choice to reject evolution, because I believe the Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution. I am motivated to understand God’s creation from what I believe to be a biblical, creationist perspective. Evolution itself is not flawed or without evidence. Please don’t be duped into thinking that somehow evolution itself is a failure.

This, too, resonated with me. I didn’t have to keep trying to convince myself that evolution was a patent absurdity, fraught with problems and utterly indefensible. Instead, I could embrace evolution’s strengths in pursuit of a better understanding of the world, looking toward a new theory that would better explain the evidence while also explaining how evolution had achieved such success.

To that end, I stopped listening to ill-informed people who continued to insist that evolution was absurd and hopelessly flawed. What could they teach me? I wanted to understand the evidence, not listen to people ridicule a theory they clearly didn’t understand.

The new perspective began yielding results almost immediately. Suddenly, the fallacies in creationist arguments and rhetoric seemed breathtakingly obvious. The more I learned, the more distance I felt from creationists, who only ever seemed interested in mocking.

I studied pseudogenes and phylogenetics and endogenous retrovirus insertions. I researched genetic clocks and homology and morphology. I looked at endemic species and fossils; I read studies on observed mutations and novel genes. The deeper I dug, the more creationist answers seemed not only unsatisfying, but patently ignorant of the subject matter. I tried formulating my own explanations that made testable predictions, but they inevitably fell flat.

All the while, I still maintained that even if evolution could work, it wasn’t fact, because the planet wasn’t old enough. Granted, I could see how the planet could be billions of years old – flood geology was wearing a little thin – but I was still constrained by religious belief to a 6,000-year-old universe. I think I really did know the truth at this point, deep down, but I didn’t feel like I could admit it.

Then I started learning about the history of creationism, and that’s where things started to crack. I learned that the age of the earth had never been a dividing issue in Christianity, not until Morris and Whitcomb plagiarized flood geology from the Seventh Day Adventists in the 1960s. I realized that not even the church fathers saw Genesis 1 as speaking of six actual days. Martin Luther was one of the only six-day creationists in church history, and he also believed geocentrism for the same reasons, so that wasn’t very encouraging. I began to see how there might be problems with the “historical-grammatical” approach to interpreting Genesis. If the creationist leaders were so far wrong about science, why should I expect their treatment of the Bible to be reliable?

And finally, one day, I was reading about transit times for cosmic rays and stumbled onto an article about stellar streams. When a small galaxy or a star cluster passes by the Milky Way, the tidal effects of the Milky Way’s gravity rips away a stream of stars, which are left floating in space to mark the path taken by the cluster. The stellar wakes crisscrossing our galaxy are all many tens of thousands of lightyears long.

I realized that no matter how creatively one might spin it, there’s no way any structure 20,000 or 30,000 lightyears long can form in 6,000 years [1]. It’s simply absurd. And while I had no problem with the notion of God creating a universe “in motion”, so to speak, it simply didn’t make sense that he would need to create dozens of completely phony wakes all over our sky. I immediately realized that the universe had to be very, very old.

As I continued reading, I toyed with the idea of a young solar system inside an otherwise very old universe. This stage lasted about six minutes, if I remember correctly: the floodgates had opened and everything I had ever read or learned about the age of the earth came rushing back. It was all so obvious. Orbital mechanics clearly matched observed climate shifts. Independent lines of radiometric dating worked just fine. Cosmic expansion fit observations. The cosmic microwave background really was the afterglow of the recombination epoch. Geology made sense. Plate tectonics made sense. Erosion rates and geomagnetic reversals and everything else fell together in a perfectly aligned puzzle stretching back to the beginning of time. I suddenly realized I had known it all for a long time but had never allowed the pieces to come together all the way.

I didn’t tell anyone at first. It’s scary to undergo a complete paradigm shift. Over time, though, things became easier.

One of the things I’ve explained before is how fundamentalism often defines its doctrines in terms of their position on science. This redefinition is intended to bolster faith in the doctrines, but when the pseudoscience is exposed, it often takes those doctrines down with it. It has been difficult to reevaluate my religious beliefs outside of the backdrop of creationism, but the process has been very rewarding overall.

I was recently asked what I would go back and tell my teenage self about creationism, given the opportunity. All I can think of is to encourage my former self to study and understand the scientific method. That’s what made all the difference for me.

How do you reach creationists? Well, it can be difficult. There are a few things to keep in mind, though.

Be patient. I do not think I would have ever made the switch if not for all the people who painstakingly pointed out my errors over and over, and forced me to look at the evidence for myself. It might seem futile, but you can make a difference.

Know your enemy. And your enemy is not the person you’re talking to. Your enemy is the fundamentalist worldview telling the person how they are allowed to think. Understand how it works; understand where the beliefs and rhetoric are coming from. Ask questions. The more questions you ask, the more your opponent will be forced to investigate things for themselves. And that’s where the real progress is made. Read creationist literature and try to see where the arguments are coming from.

Know your role. You’re the teacher. Understand the evidence and the arguments. Know your facts. Pseudoscience flourishes because real science does not. It’s a popular trope in fundamentalism that True Religion automatically displaces false religions, so the Christian doesn’t even need to study other worldviews as long as he’s secure in the Truth. That might not be a very good argument in a religious context, but it’s absolutely true of science. Real science displaces pseudoscience: tell a man about science and he might trust your authority, but teach a man how science works and he won’t need your authority at all. Do your best to instill confidence in the scientific process apart from the question of origins.

Stick to the facts. Activists like Dawkins make the mistake of accepting fundamentalism’s claims of validly representing the Bible in particular and religion in general. But fundamentalism’s claims are simply false. As I stated before, creationism botches literary and biblical criticism just as badly as it botches science. Don’t ever make the mistake of attacking a creationist’s faith; if you do so, you’re simply reinforcing their misconception that evolution is synonymous with atheism. Read the explanations given by theistic evolutionists. Ask questions like, “How do you know your interpretation of the Bible is correct? How do you know that Genesis should be treated as chronological narrative? How would the original audience have understood it? Why wasn’t your interpretation a majority view throughout Christian history?” Be prepared to explain the history of creationism.

Be generous. Creationists will often employ ad hominem attacks, confuse correlation with causation, and use numerous other gross fallacies. Recognize how these approaches come out of the worldview. Assume your opponent is sincere. Understand how difficult it is for a creationist to question deeply held views that he thinks have essential religious importance.

Keep learning. The evidence continues to accumulate every single day. The strength of science is not that we know everything, but that we know how much we have left to learn.

——————-

Acknowledgments.

I want to thank everyone who has followed this series, as well as everyone who has been involved in the ongoing discussions. I’ve seen a lot of great questions and good ideas. I also want to thank the handful of creationists who have consistently provided excellent examples of the very misconceptions this series was intended to outline.

My family also deserves credit. Even though they don’t share my conclusions, they were the ones who initially instilled my desire to find out the truth, and that’s what is most important.

I should acknowledge Dr. Lisa Blankinship, one of the biology professors at my alma mater, for helping me nail down some of the critical concepts concerning reproduction and the principles of evolutionary progress, as well as Dr. Joel Duff of the University of Akron for help with understanding genetics and DNA.

Finally, I need to thank Dr. Young, both for hosting this series and for his Eagle-Eyed EditingTM. His extensive editing tips, fact-checking, and proofreading really helped me make this series clear and concise; I couldn’t have asked for a more thorough and helpful editor.

Note

[1] It’s probably possible to come up with an explanation for stellar streams that sounds vaguely plausible. The prevailing creationist cosmological model features the entire universe being created out of water and God causing runaway inflation while simultaneously transmuting the water into stars and galaxies and everything else. A creative creationist could probably posit that the overall shapes of macrostructures like stellar streams (and galaxies themselves, for that matter) formed rapidly while everything was still extremely compact, and that the creative process “stretched out” these structures as their constituent material was supernaturally transmuted into stars. Of course, stellar streams aren’t the only macrostructures we see. My favorite example is ESO 137-001, a galaxy that has left a trail of stars and hot gas hundreds of thousands of lightyears long as it forces its way through the center of its galaxy cluster. And of course there are numerous supernova remnants with nebulae much larger than could form in only 6,000 years.

Appendix. Here are links to the preceding 7 articles:

1. Introduction and overview: Philosophy of pseudoscience.

2. Variation and adaptation.

3. You don’t evolve, your species does.

4. Transitional fossils.

5. Evolution of evolution.

6. Genetic evidence.

7. The religion of evolution.

500 Comments

Your eighth session up on the Areopagus. I’m impressed! Many thanks for all your thinking and writing effort in exploring these important issues.

Minor correction:

The stellar wakes crisscrossing our galaxy are all many tens of thousands of lightyears long.

Very good series.

All the while, I still maintained that even if evolution could work, it wasn’t fact,

IIRC I believe the RCC went through a similar transitory period with the heliocentric model. They did not go straight from rejection to acceptance, they did a midway stop at “it’s wrong, but we’ll use it to point our telescopes because it makes damn fine predictions about where objects will be.”

“it’s wrong, but we’ll use it to point our telescopes because it makes damn fine predictions about where objects will be.”

That’s kind of where Newton’s laws are today. :D

The stellar wakes crisscrossing our galaxy are all many tens of lightyears long.

Should that be “tens of thousands”?

Good catch TomS and Carl Drews – I’ll ask Matt to make the correction. Must have gotten mixed up in the editing process.

Yet Todd Wood was, like me, a strident creationist. Hearing another creationist say all the exact same things I had been unwilling to admit was suddenly liberating.

That’s the problem with dealing with so many creationists, though, that who makes the statement is so important.

It’s frequently useless to follow that list, because whatever one says is automatically discounted because one is an atheist, or a theistic suck-up to the atheists.

That is to say, I expect that the list works for some who are genuinely interested in being intellectually honest (too few), but it will never really do anything for FL, Ray, or Robert, who simply will not listen to the “deceivers.” But maybe I’m doing the same thing, writing them off as untrustworthy? Hardly, every time they post they simply show themselves not to be interested in learning, and certainly not in following the evidence unless it goes where they insist that it must.

I think that few of the true activists switch, and generally they do so when they are confronted with far too much evidence to simply ignore it, and/or to assume that it would all be fixed if ID were funded like science–and an honest statement like that by Wood may help as well.

Glen Davidson

Some of the so called creationists are really grifters using the nonsense to raise money. I suspect that Ken Ham may be in this category. The late and unlamented Duane Gish was almost certainly such a grifter.

Actually, until elliptical orbits were accepted, the Ptolemaic model made better predictions.

eric said:

Very good series.

All the while, I still maintained that even if evolution could work, it wasn’t fact,

IIRC I believe the RCC went through a similar transitory period with the heliocentric model. They did not go straight from rejection to acceptance, they did a midway stop at “it’s wrong, but we’ll use it to point our telescopes because it makes damn fine predictions about where objects will be.”

It would doubtless pain Todd Wood to know that he’s a stepping stone away from creationism. Perhaps you shouldn’t have told him.

I don’t like the idea that 6-day, 6000-year-old creation was a new idea with Morris (or even Price), and I doubt you could support it. Though there had been occasional dissenters, it was clearly the majority view among Christians, and even among theologians, for thousands of years. And it was so right up to the rise of science in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It was geology that did it in. Even in the 18th Century Buffon was forced to retract his claims about the antiquity of the earth. And his “antiquity” was only one order of magnitude greater than Genesis. Morris (or Price) wasn’t presenting a new idea; he was presenting an old one that had gone out of fashion.

John Harshman said:

It would doubtless pain Todd Wood to know that he’s a stepping stone away from creationism. Perhaps you shouldn’t have told him.

Todd and I haven’t spoken in some time.

I don’t like the idea that 6-day, 6000-year-old creation was a new idea with Morris (or even Price), and I doubt you could support it. Though there had been occasional dissenters, it was clearly the majority view among Christians, and even among theologians, for thousands of years.

I don’t claim 6/6000 was a new idea. It wasn’t. But it had not been a dividing issue in Christianity until Morris and Whitcomb made it into one. Prominent Christians expressed doubts about 6/6000 all the way back past Augustine and Irenaus without outraged cries of “compromise” from anybody.

It might be apropos to post a snippet from an essay by Richard Dawkins on creationist Kurt Wise, Harvard PhD and student of Stephen Jay Gould. Bluntly stated, Wise’s position is that his mind is made up, based on Hebrew Scriptures, the evidence is irrelevant.

Depending upon how many Kurt Wises are out there, it could mean that we are completely wasting our time arguing the case and presenting the evidence for evolution. We have it on the authority of a man who may well be creationism’s most highly qualified and most intelligent scientist that no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, no matter how all-embracing, no matter how devastatingly convincing, can ever make any difference.

https://scepsis.net/eng/articles/id_2.php

Thanks so much for this series David. It is indeed encouraging to know that there are people out there who value evidence and the truth. It is even more encouraging to know that there are people out there who are willing to challenge all of their misconceptions and preconceptions and to follow the evidence wherever it leads. We have so many examples here of people who are unwilling to do this, it can become disheartening at times. Perhaps those people will now realize that they have no excuse for remaining willfully ignorant. After all, a wise man once said that the truth will set you free. I guess I was right once again.

From time to time I get inquiries from some member of the general public; these come into my research institution and are passed along to whomever seems appropriate. Several weeks ago I received a letter proposing a scientific hypothesis. This person had used an unreliable data source as the basis for his ideas. Consequently, the hypothesis would not work.

I showed him a peer-reviewed paper with better and more accurate data. He was attached to his proposal (as we all are), and unconvinced by the contrary data. I searched around a bit and found a data source that he would be more comfortable with, based on his background. Several days passed. Then I received another letter saying that he understood my objection, accepted the second data source, and planned to re-think his hypothesis.

This person has a great career ahead. Unlike Kurt Wise and Todd Wood.

I hope this anecdote encourages the readers here that at least some people out there are convinced by counter-evidence, can reconsider their ideas, and will change their minds. Keep up the good fight! As DS quoted, the Truth will set you free.

There are a number of characteristics that distinguish folks like David who escape from fundamentalism from those who never do. But if I were to try to state a single characteristic difference between a YEC who finally discovers the truth about science and one who never does, I think it would be that the one who escapes fundamentalism somehow finally comes to really understand scientific concepts and how science works.

As I have observed many times over a period of something like 50 years, all ID/creationists – especially the YECs – are surprisingly ignorant of basic concepts at even the high school level; and that includes their PhDs. They don’t know the basic facts and they can’t work with basic concepts; the best they can ever do is parrot stuff.

ID/creationists have grown up in a culture that bends and breaks science to fit sectarian beliefs. It is not surprising that they would latch onto misconceptions and misrepresentations that fit their prior beliefs. Hence, entropy is about everything falling into decay, light didn’t always travel at the same speed, small corrections made to the half lives of radioactive elements are used as excuses for rejecting all of radiometric dating – YECs don’t look at the percentage corrections; any correction is an excuse to reject.

New discoveries that lead to a better understanding in any area of science are evidence, to an ID/creationist, that the science is wrong and will continue to be wrong. But their bible never changes.

When a child stops learning somewhere around the ages of 10 to 16 years of age, what are the chances that this child will grow up to see the shortcomings of his/her childhood knowledge? The more the child’s subculture rejects and demonizes learning and the secular, “liberal” world, the less likely that child will escape as an adult.

Something has to allow an individual trapped in those circumstances to see first hand where the misinformation is coming from. If that person finds out that scientific concepts are far different from what his subculture has been telling him, then perhaps that can be a first chink in the armor that keeps him from learning.

However, those YECs who have invested themselves in becoming revered leaders in their sectarian world are more likely to take a far different route. They will learn to parrot and posture like highly erudite scholars of all things. They will fake knowledge of etymology, they will fake knowledge of science, they will fake careful analytical studies of things, and they will fake scholarly references and citations. Their general demeanor will be to appear like an intimidating presence that will be feared, revered, and consulted.

These ID/creationists have no interest in learning; their mud wrestling with people in the secular world is for show. They want to be known in their subculture as warriors who can simultaneously defeat multiple “enemies” with their little pinky. Those watching these “performers” are more like the audiences watching WWF wrestling.

So it apparently comes down to a fortuitous convergence of circumstances involving curiosity and opportunity, and without the stifling interference of people who engage in scaring and shaming other people out of following through on getting answers to questions.

I suspect many of us know people who never escape from that fundamentalist subculture; and as we look at their attitudes and world views, we see that little has changed since their childhoods. They stopped learning before they left high school; even if they graduated from college.

Fortunately David kept learning.

david.starling.macmillan said:

John Harshman said:

It would doubtless pain Todd Wood to know that he’s a stepping stone away from creationism. Perhaps you shouldn’t have told him.

Todd and I haven’t spoken in some time.

But are you sure he doesn’t read Panda’s Thumb?

I don’t like the idea that 6-day, 6000-year-old creation was a new idea with Morris (or even Price), and I doubt you could support it. Though there had been occasional dissenters, it was clearly the majority view among Christians, and even among theologians, for thousands of years.

I don’t claim 6/6000 was a new idea. It wasn’t. But it had not been a dividing issue in Christianity until Morris and Whitcomb made it into one. Prominent Christians expressed doubts about 6/6000 all the way back past Augustine and Irenaus without outraged cries of “compromise” from anybody.

So when you said “I realized that not even the church fathers saw Genesis 1 as speaking of six actual days” you meant to say “not all the church fathers, just some of them, but it wasn’t a dividing issue? And when you said that Martin Luther “was one of the only six-day creationists in church history”, you actually meant “one of a great many, but it wasn’t a dividing issue”? And when the Sorbonne forced Buffon to retract, that wasn’t evidence of a dividing issue either? It would seem that history shows us neither extreme: it was neither absolutely forbidden to deny 6-day creation nor completely acceptable, and acceptability may have varied with time and place.

I just realized that Macmillan the author of this wonderful series is the same person I’ve been abusing over the definition of magic in the comments on the previous installment (I look at arguments, not names). How can you think so clearly in general but still be so muddled over this particular issue? There is as much you need to learn about the scholarship on magic as there was about evolution. Once again, it seems to be Christian presuppositions that are standing in your way.

Helena Constantine said:

I just realized that Macmillan the author of this wonderful series is the same person I’ve been abusing over the definition of magic in the comments on the previous installment (I look at arguments, not names). How can you think so clearly in general but still be so muddled over this particular issue? There is as much you need to learn about the scholarship on magic as there was about evolution. Once again, it seems to be Christian presuppositions that are standing in your way.

I suspect that there are residual emotional issues with coming out of a fundamentalist, YEC subculture that are still getting in the way.

David appears to have been convinced by biological and geological evidence – and even some physics evidence.

However, although much of the argumentation, misconceptions, and misrepresentations of science by ID/creationists involve biology – it’s much easier for them to argue on this turf – many of them never get to the intricate details of physics; much of the physics doesn’t get corrected.

I don’t mean to sound like a physics chauvinist if I point out that learning biology well – better than most physicist know it – will not protect someone from falling prey to misconceptions and misrepresentations of physics. Henry Morris and Duane Gish knew very well they could intimidate biology teachers with physics; particularly their “second law of thermodynamics” argument.

But when you get into the nitty-gritty of condensed matter physics, there is little room for miracles. The details are just to well known about strengths of interactions, conservation laws governing energy, charge, and other quantities for there to be room for tinkering by a deity.

Place those physics ideas in a larger context involving the quantum mechanics, relativity, and symmetry notions, and the room for miracles collapses to zero.

Quantum woo woo doesn’t get you there either. Quantum woo and miracles is the domain of lots of pretentious charlatanry.

david.starling.macmillan said:

John Harshman said:

It would doubtless pain Todd Wood to know that he’s a stepping stone away from creationism. Perhaps you shouldn’t have told him.

Todd and I haven’t spoken in some time.

I don’t like the idea that 6-day, 6000-year-old creation was a new idea with Morris (or even Price), and I doubt you could support it. Though there had been occasional dissenters, it was clearly the majority view among Christians, and even among theologians, for thousands of years.

I don’t claim 6/6000 was a new idea. It wasn’t. But it had not been a dividing issue in Christianity until Morris and Whitcomb made it into one. Prominent Christians expressed doubts about 6/6000 all the way back past Augustine and Irenaus without outraged cries of “compromise” from anybody.

There were variations on what the 6 days of creation meant. The very early Epistle of Barnabas said that the days were 1000 years, represented the 6000 years allotted to the world. That would be a young Earth, but not the “literal” 6 days of Young Earth Creationism.

Helena Constantine said:

I just realized that Macmillan the author of this wonderful series is the same person I’ve been abusing over the definition of magic in the comments on the previous installment (I look at arguments, not names).

I think it’s funny you didn’t notice, but that makes your comments more objective anyway.

David never said he had given up his Christian faith, just YEC specifically. His comments on creationism as a culture strike me as more cogent than those on magic vs. miracles (and certainly of much greater interest to me), but there’s no contradiction there.

I’m also not sure I understand Mike Elzinga’s point about QM. I think any religious claim can be constructed in such as way as to be unfalsifiable (particularly when it involves an omnipotent God). I have trouble believing that this would change for condensed matter physics.

I’ve heard it said that, as per Dawkins above, facts by themselves don’t really matter. No matter how devastatingly convincing. Instead, that first leak in the creationist dikes is generally a theological problem. Usually, some respected religious leader is found to be behaving poorly, or being clearly dishonest about scripture, or preaching one thing while living another. And so it’s theological doubt that gets its nose into the tent, opening a gap where scientific understanding can squeeze through. And once scientific understanding gets in (that is, is accepted and respected), it becomes definitive.

I don’t know, but maybe where all the science in the world might fail, Kent Hovind’s obvious cheating on his taxes (and then being caught trying to cover it up from jail) might succeed with some of his victims. If he can’t see fit to render unto Caesar, maybe he can’t be trusted in other ways as well. I don’t know.

callahanpb said:

I’m also not sure I understand Mike Elzinga’s point about QM. I think any religious claim can be constructed in such as way as to be unfalsifiable (particularly when it involves an omnipotent God). I have trouble believing that this would change for condensed matter physics.

I am pretty sure that the people who do this haven’t thought through the implications of their claims; they just don’t know the physics well enough.

One of the problems of coming out of an repressive sectarian culture is getting trapped by naiveté into another culture that seems “intellectual and deep” compared to the one from which one has escaped.

One sees lots of “hopping around” to other religions or “philosophical world views” such as What the Bleep Do We Know? and other types of quantum woo woo that “explain” how to manipulate the quantum level to get a better life.

It’s a kind of “rebound” phenomena that often appears among the “young and the restless” searching to find themselves after a “divorce” from a childhood “marriage” to a religion or a “philosophy.”

For some reason, California – especially around the Los Angeles area – seems to be a hot bed for this kind of “religious bed hopping.” I’ve met some of the strangest and - one would think - most unlikely examples of professional competence wedded to pure balderdash. These folks aren’t stupid; but they sure get taken in by some pretty weird crap.

Quantum “religion” – there are a number of types - attempts to justify (explain?) the intervention of a deity or deities into the natural world by putting the actions of these deities into the realm of quantum uncertainty; another god-of-the-gaps type of “justification” for the religion du jour people are following.

Many years ago I heard a colloquium by Nobel laureate, Brian Josephson on “The wave function of life.” It was unbearable, and a number of us walked out after suffering for more than 45 minutes; with one person commenting as we left, “When you get a Nobel Prize, you can get people to sit and listen attentively and respectfully to you spouting pure garbage.”

David, can you give us any insight into why people like Kurt Wise and Todd Wood don’t wonder if their interpretation of Genesis 1-11 might be wrong instead? Why would an alternate understanding of the biblical text be so horrible to them?

The YEC view requires Wise and Wood to deny clear scientific evidence, flout the Ninth Commandment (about not bearing false witness), spend at least 10 years trying unsuccessfully to come up with a definition of ‘baramin’ that’s contrary to macro-evolution, and waste a lot of energy that could be spent leading people to Jesus instead. The cost of Young-Earth Creationism for a Christian is very high, and to me the alternative is obviously much better. People like Glenn Morton kindly provide very respectful interpretations of Genesis 1-3 that are compatible with evolution and an old earth. Just pick one!

Mike Elzinga said: I am pretty sure that the people who do this haven’t thought through the implications of their claims; they just don’t know the physics well enough.

One of the problems of coming out of an repressive sectarian culture is getting trapped by naiveté into another culture that seems “intellectual and deep” compared to the one from which one has escaped.

Clearly, there are problems when people just latch onto the latest science and try to use it to justify their belief in the supernatural, though I can see how QM is an appealing candidate, because it is counterintuitive.

But this entire approach is out of keeping with the way I was taught religion, which is not to seek physical confirmation of faith (notwithstanding that Catholic church itself does this when investigating miracle claims for canonization).

Of course, the proof vs. faith issue was memorably parodied by Douglas Adams in his explanation of the babelfish (proof denies faith and God disappears in a puff of logic). http://www.whysanity.net/monos/hikers.html Not that unfalsifiability gives me any faith. The mere fact that a claim is unfalsifiable doesn’t put it in a privileged position among the infinitely of other unfalsifiable claims. But I still feel that arguments about evidence for religious claims are ill-construed.

If you really have someone claiming a particular miracle happened that left physical evidence, you can refute it on a case by case basic. But beyond that, it is less a question of understanding particular fields of science than an entire way of thinking about grounds for belief. I’m pessimistic about changing anyone’s way of thinking, though it can happen sometimes.

David MacMillan said: The deeper I dug, the more creationist answers seemed not only unsatisfying, but patently ignorant of the subject matter. … If the creationist leaders were so far wrong about science, why should I expect their treatment of the Bible to be reliable?

These thoughts also lept out at me when I was just starting to look into the evolution/Creationism issue. I wasn’t coming from a fundamentalist background, rather I had just taken my first few community college courses on philosophy and logic and this turned into a great way to exercise that fresh knowledge. It quickly became clear, especially by trawling the TalkOrigins archives and essays and comparing them to the Creationist websites, that all the accuracy was on the “evolutionist” side. They not only knew their own science, they also took great pains to understand what the Creationists were saying and to give their arguments a fair representation.

In contrast, all I ever saw from the Creationists (especially in their own materials) was a systematic, persistent, universal misunderstanding of just about everything they discussed. They just could not get the science right. They often didn’t get the scientists’ arguments right, as if they weren’t even paying attention to the things they supposedly responded to. It was a night and day difference; one side understood things accurately, the other never even tried for accuracy.

That’s just for their scientific literacy, but it lead me to the second line: if they were so sloppy and habitually wrong, how could I trust them to get even their own faith right? I remembered all the “crazy” things many Fundamentalists had said in the past about secular things, and how such-and-such style of music or board game or book was a nefarious plot by Satan himself. I remembered some of the strained apologetics they’d use even for entirely obscure issues, like claiming the original wine at the last supper was actually some kind of non-alcoholic grape juice, because around here many of the fundamentalist churches were of the anti-booze stripe and they had to modify the Bible to fit their doctrines. And here they were displaying incredible ignorance and fallacious thinking about things that scientists explained clearly, lucidly, and accurately.

It all gelled together without the necessity for epiphany; virtually nothing about their religious objections to anything was based on a solid understanding of the thing they rejected. Indeed, whether it was music or science or the drinking habits of the ancient Jews, the only way they could maintain these off-kilter beliefs was to persistently misunderstand the things they rejected. Having just finished some classes about logic, it was easy to spot the fallacies one after another. So basically, I came to understand their anti-evolution stance as just another weird consequence of the worldview that shunned rock music as inherently wicked, or foreswore real wine for Communion (despite it being in the Bible in black and white). Thanks to the (easy, introductory-level, and cheap!) training of a community college elective, I could even tell you exactly what they were doing wrong to get there.

I suddenly realized I had known it all for a long time but had never allowed the pieces to come together all the way.

I have seen this problem in several other anti-evolutionists, but never was around to watch the switch flip and the barriers fall down. Sometimes the problem manifests on a smaller scale as part of a single argument, e.g. that “adaptation happens but evolution doesn’t.” They have all the pieces, but stop short of putting the pieces together the way they obviously go.

One thing which struck me was how shallow was their understanding of the Bible and the sources of their belief. Their understanding turned out to me memorization of ”proof texts” without context (“quote mining”), and without realization that the “old time religion” was actually thought up by some fairly recent (19th or even 20th century) person.

callahanpb said:

Of course, the proof vs. faith issue was memorably parodied by Douglas Adams in his explanation of the babelfish (proof denies faith and God disappears in a puff of logic). http://www.whysanity.net/monos/hikers.html Not that unfalsifiability gives me any faith. The mere fact that a claim is unfalsifiable doesn’t put it in a privileged position among the infinitely of other unfalsifiable claims. But I still feel that arguments about evidence for religious claims are ill-construed.

Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a brilliant jab at just about all human pretentiousness; including philosophers’ conceits about their intellectual prowess.

As to the notion of unfalsifiable assertions; again my impression about the people who misuse this notion is that they don’t know what it means. It doesn’t mean “You can’t prove me wrong, therefore I am justified in believing it.”

Unfortunately, that seems to be the way that many anti-science sectarians argue; not knowing that many times they can be proven wrong. But if they don’t look and see that they are wrong, then they can continue to convince themselves that they have not been shown to be wrong.

It is a particularly weird argument when they claim that science supports their beliefs and yet they turn right around and demean scientists and science because – they claim - none of it can be “proven.” Consistency certainly seems to be the hobgoblin of their small minds.

This form of argumentation tells a lot about where along their educational path they stopped learning; and it pretty much points to elementary and middle school. And sure enough, when one gets a chance to check their understanding of basic scientific concepts, it is usually at that level they go off the rails. They have patched together a hodgepodge of misinformation and misrepresentations passed out by their elders and leaders.

Ken Ham’s organization is particularly abusive in this regard. Ham goes after the children by drumming bad logic and bad attitudes into their heads using tactics that appeal to kids. If any of these kids get out of that trap when they grow up, it is pretty much by way of a lucky combination of circumstances that brings them to understand just how badly they were duped. Then I suspect it is anger over the betrayal of trust that ultimately drives them away.

I don’t have any data on how many kids eventually get away from Ham or other sectarian demagogues like him; but I suspect getting far away from that community and moving elsewhere can be a big help.

There’s not much you can do to challenge that particular approach. It’s the same response I get now from creationists after I’ve answered all their objections. “Well, fine, but science is always changing, and scientists have been wrong before, and so you never can be sure about any of this.”

As frustrating as this response can be, it’s difficult to counter because it’s sincere. They really believe (and, at one time, I really believed) that the scientific process is constantly in flux, that evolution is “just a theory”, that scientists are just taking guesses in the dark. They really think that science can’t provide truly useful answers.

And you don’t call this “postmodern”?

Anyway, putting that quibble aside, this was the best of the series. I strongly agree with the six recommendations at the end. One for each literal day of creation (drumroll).

On a sobering note, I would like to point out how incredibly difficult it is for someone to rationally think their way out of brainwash.

DSM had to be gifted enough to be in a rigorous physics program, and curious enough to want to, to even begin to approach this outcome.

Remember, science is often tough subject matter even for those of us who just want to learn science. I had no anti-science preconceptions, but also limited science background, due to disrupted pre-university education, when I decided to become a biology major.

I studied long and hard to master the subject matter to a level that allowed me to get to medical school. It was hardly unheard of for highly gifted students who had been near the top in high school to cheat to get the grades, to fall to the middle or bottom half (surrounded now almost exclusively by other highly gifted students), or both.

Right off the bat, all the creationists who either are gifted but have defenses a shade stronger and choose pre-law at Liberty University instead of doing what David did, and all of the creationists who might have moments of near clarity, but lack the academic gifts to find and understand science at a sufficiently high level, are excluded from this route.

And then there are the Wise/Wood characters. There are some people who have the academic ability, and the exposure, but who simply erect even higher emotional defence walls.

Remember that the ideology surrounding creationism attracts authoritarians. Authoritarians seem “stupid” to us, but that isn’t their issue at all. There may well be a disproportionate number of duller people among authoritarians, but some of them are very smart. But they all have an authoritarian way of thinking. All things except the most concrete aspects of reality are modeled as a contest of will; whoever dominates others into “agreeing” is the winner. Science and authoritarianism may actually merely be two extremely one-sided examples of processes which are both normal for the human brain. A more average person sometimes trusts, uses reason, and cooperates, and sometimes tries to enforce their own will no matter what, depending on the circumstances.

The primary rationale for publicly reasoning with emotionally committed science deniers is to fight against their ability to mislead more neutral people.

Many of the committed would need extreme and inhumane “deprogramming” techniques to be convinced to abandon creationism, and since most of them would still be authoritarian, that would merely make them anti-creationist authoritarians, not rational defenders of consensus science.

And here’s a sincere “Thank You” from me as well, David M. No sarcasm, no insult.

Your series has helped me to better understand what are the arguments and claims and seeds (not just in terms of evolution, but also in terms of biblical skepticism) that, when planted and watered over time, can “evolve” a person from a clearly-gifted rising-star biblical creationist to an evolutionist who now works to help convert other creationists to evolution.

And that’s an important thing to understand.

Too many non-Darwinist parents and clergy (and granted, we’re all busy people), are just sitting around hoping that mere Sunday School, Choir Practice, CCIA, or ice cream socials will keep their youth and young adults from getting their faith eroded and corroded (and even wiped out!) by evolution, biblical skepticism, atheism/agnosticism, etc.

But things don’t work that way. It is a war; there is a battle. Even when a person receives the creationist opportunities and gifts of a David M, (or on a larger scale, the huge evangelical opportunities that Bart Ehrman received), it’s still a war. Nobody’s immune. One can still go down. It happens.

****

The war over origins isn’t always a big media mega-debate like the Ham-Nye affair. Sometimes equally important battles are being fought far more quietly, with far less publicity, in far less conspicuous venues.

Such battles are going on somewhere, with some teenager or adult or collegian, even now. Perhaps he or she is looking for a non-Darwinist who knows the terrain and how to navigate it, but he can’t find anybody who really cares about the origins issue. Nobody who can at least give some weak-spots or blank-spots to slow down the evo-claims. If the young person cannot find anybody to help out, the results are predictable.

So there is a real need for non-Darwinists of all flavors to understand what goes into those battles. To understand what kind of seeds are being planted by evolutionists, and what they are capable of sprouting.

(And then to put that understanding to good use, of course.) I believe David’s articles can help out in that direction.

****

Meanwhile, like Harold, I also commend David’s six recommendations there.

(Of course, I commend them in the opposite direction. They are helpful for dealing with evolutionists and their beliefs/behaviors.)

Again, thanks David for the series.

FL

FL still thinks of evolution as a religion. This allows him to reject it out of hand for not being the RIGHT religion. It also allows him to apply the God-sanctioned version of Appeal to Consequences in Matthew 7. Evolution, to people like FL, is a false teaching that must of necessity bear wicked fruit. FL believes people adhere to evolution out of religious belief, not out of provisional acceptance based on rational arguments and evidence. Because that’s not how FL operates, he does not ascribe that sort of thinking to others. FL adheres to his religion, Evolutionists to theirs. That’s how he sees the world. To him, evolution is just another religious dogma among many. He doesn’t understand what is and isn’t a religion, so he’s free to categorize mechanistic explanations of things as doctrinal beliefs.

It never occurs to him that evolution is no more a religion than is heliocentrism (despite the latter having an actual -ism on the end). He does not understand, in an intuitive way, that ideas used to explain observations can be accepted based on how well they fit the specific evidence they were generated to explain, without needing Scriptural approval first. He only accepts heliocentrism because in modern times it is NOT seen as a dangerous dogma, a false teaching that threatens to lead people away from his own religious beliefs. That’s reserved for evolution, because it diverges from FL’s understanding of the Bible and therefore it must be a false teaching that cannot bear good fruit.

It took David a college education in the sciences and years of soul-searching to escape that kind of mental trap, where logical fallacies are given the trappings of Biblical wisdom, endorsed by the Ultimate Authority as a reliable test for discerning True and False Beliefs. And that only happened because he was curious, and willing to look for knowledge that challenged his beliefs, and even to modify them if they don’t fit the evidence. FL displays no curiosity, no education to feed it with if he had it, and no flexibility to admit any possibility of error on his part.

phhht said:

david.starling.macmillan said:

phhht said:

david.starling.macmillan said:

Who’s to say that creation myths were formulated or treated as histories at all?

Indeed.

Perhaps the myths were formulated as entertainment, just as counterfactual stories are today.

We do not really mean, we do not really mean, that what we are about to say is true.

– traditional beginning, Ashanti folk tales

Perhaps, but there is more to life than entertainment, and more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

And perhaps there are fewer things in reality than you dream up.

Which was more or less the point of what I said – that a myth need not be entertainment fiction to be “real” without being part of reality.

david.starling.macmillan said:

phhht said:

david.starling.macmillan said:

phhht said:

david.starling.macmillan said:

Who’s to say that creation myths were formulated or treated as histories at all?

Indeed.

Perhaps the myths were formulated as entertainment, just as counterfactual stories are today.

We do not really mean, we do not really mean, that what we are about to say is true.

– traditional beginning, Ashanti folk tales

Perhaps, but there is more to life than entertainment, and more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

And perhaps there are fewer things in reality than you dream up.

Which was more or less the point of what I said – that a myth need not be entertainment fiction to be “real” without being part of reality.

I guess I missed your point. I thought your point was that fictional stories about gods and miracles are worth consideration as factual because there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I thought you meant to impugn the scope of my comprehension.

Thanks for the correction. I guess it was the quotes around “real” that did the trick.

CJColucci said:

I don’t get the point of this latest argument. In theological disputes there simply is no ascertainable truth of the matter. All there is, or can be, is more or less accurate accounts of what people who identify as adherents believe and the interpetive arguments they make to support those beliefs.

But there is valid historical criticism and learning about the social and cultural bases of what became a corpus of literature.

eric said:

That was the golden age of Greece.

Right, and Herodotus is not a representative sample of how most people in the ancient world thought about things. I would be more curious to get inside the head of someone who did not apply any systematic analysis, but just had a practical sense of certain things that contradicted whatever sacred text they still had to take seriously. I could imagine someone reading the account of Noah and thinking “Nope, that’s not how you build a boat.” or “Too many animals. They wouldn’t fit.” Since I wasn’t there, I can only imagine, but it seems like you really have to go well out of your way to think like a modern YEC.

Like I said, the resolution that seems most likely to me is compartmentalization: “It happened, but not the way mundane things happened. Different rules apply.” It’s also probably true that large parts of the Bible were traditionally viewed as fable. I’m not sure, for instance, if it really matters whether Job is consider historical or fable. The point is allegorical.

callahanpb said: I would be more curious to get inside the head of someone who did not apply any systematic analysis, but just had a practical sense of certain things that contradicted whatever sacred text they still had to take seriously. I could imagine someone reading the account of Noah and thinking “Nope, that’s not how you build a boat.” or “Too many animals. They wouldn’t fit.” Since I wasn’t there, I can only imagine, but it seems like you really have to go well out of your way to think like a modern YEC.

Herodotus is certainly in the tail of the simple/sophisticated reader distribution, but my point was that that distribution existed at that time just as it does today.

My own example of imagining the audience is to think about how the long lists of ancestors in the bible and long lists of boats in the Iliad would have been used by an oral storyteller to win the audience. Everyone knows you’re going to talk about Alice, then Bob, then Charlie because they’re part of the base story…but then hey look, the storyteller just mentioned my grandpop Dave! He’s part of the story! I’m part of the story, its about me! Better throw this guy a few extra shekels. In the Iliad, that big long list of boats is just begging for a storyteller to mention how the local headman’s hallowed ancestors supplied 50 ships manned by the very finest fighters in all of Greece. Those lists are oral storytelling “we love playing in Cleveland more than any other venue!” mechanisms. And anyone with even a minimum amount of sophistication understands that the band probably doesn’t really love to play Cleveland that much more than they do any other venue. That those 50 boats may not really have existed. And that the geneaology with Dave in it was not intended to be literal.

callahanpb said:

eric said:

That was the golden age of Greece.

Right, and Herodotus is not a representative sample of how most people in the ancient world thought about things. I would be more curious to get inside the head of someone who did not apply any systematic analysis, but just had a practical sense of certain things that contradicted whatever sacred text they still had to take seriously. I could imagine someone reading the account of Noah and thinking “Nope, that’s not how you build a boat.” or “Too many animals. They wouldn’t fit.” Since I wasn’t there, I can only imagine, but it seems like you really have to go well out of your way to think like a modern YEC.

Like I said, the resolution that seems most likely to me is compartmentalization: “It happened, but not the way mundane things happened. Different rules apply.” It’s also probably true that large parts of the Bible were traditionally viewed as fable. I’m not sure, for instance, if it really matters whether Job is consider historical or fable. The point is allegorical.

I have no real backing this idea up, but I wonder whether some of the details in the Noah story were there precisely because they were incredible. It adds to the tale of unreality. I’m no cattleman or farmer, but it seems to be that taking seven cows and seven bulls is a recipe for trouble - or seven hens and seven roosters, etc. - and that was one of the ways that the storyteller clued the audience to it not being about a real world. Sort of like opening a story with “Once upon a time” or “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away”. Only a modern city-dweller would think of taking it literally. Maybe that is why the editor didn’t clean up the continuity of the story.

david.starling.macmillan said:

CJColucci said:

I don’t get the point of this latest argument. In theological disputes there simply is no ascertainable truth of the matter. All there is, or can be, is more or less accurate accounts of what people who identify as adherents believe and the interpetive arguments they make to support those beliefs.

But there is valid historical criticism and learning about the social and cultural bases of what became a corpus of literature.

I don’t disagree with that; I just don’t think that kind of inquiry counts as “theology.” But I won’t quibble over the terminology as long as we understand each other.

eric said:

Anyone with even a minimum amount of sophistication understands that the band probably doesn’t really love to play Cleveland that much more than they do any other venue. That those 50 boats may not really have existed. And that the geneaology with Dave in it was not intended to be literal.

I think fundamentalists are a rare breed. Looking back, I realize that I had trouble distinguishing fictional stories from fact far beyond the point when I should have been able to tell the difference. I thought the various Christian novels (usually YA stuff) I read were dramatized retellings of real events about real people. I was reading a lot from a young age, to be sure, but it took me longer than it should have to be able to immediately understand whether something was real or just fiction.

I daresay people three or four millennia ago had less of a problem with this.

TomS said:

I wonder whether some of the details in the Noah story were there precisely because they were incredible. It adds to the tale of unreality. I’m no cattleman or farmer, but it seems to be that taking seven cows and seven bulls is a recipe for trouble - or seven hens and seven roosters, etc. - and that was one of the ways that the storyteller clued the audience to it not being about a real world. Sort of like opening a story with “Once upon a time” or “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away”. Only a modern city-dweller would think of taking it literally. Maybe that is why the editor didn’t clean up the continuity of the story.

And let’s not forget that there are major, major structures the typical modern reader just isn’t going to see. Genesis 1 has a poetic framework; the first three days correspond to the establishment of the three kingdoms (sky, sea, and earth) and the second three days correspond to filling them up; a double triad because 3 was numerologically associated with God, totaling 6, which was numerologically associated with humanity, rounding off with a day of rest at 7 which was numerologically associated with completion and perfection. It’s all quite clear. In the Noah story, there are parallel statements up to the climax and moving back down; it’s all very structured in ways that would have been immediately obvious to the ancients but are hard for us to see.

CJColucci said:

david.starling.macmillan said:

CJColucci said:

I don’t get the point of this latest argument. In theological disputes there simply is no ascertainable truth of the matter. All there is, or can be, is more or less accurate accounts of what people who identify as adherents believe and the interpetive arguments they make to support those beliefs.

But there is valid historical criticism and learning about the social and cultural bases of what became a corpus of literature.

I don’t disagree with that; I just don’t think that kind of inquiry counts as “theology.” But I won’t quibble over the terminology as long as we understand each other.

Discovering the overlap between theology and scholarship was part of what helped me out of fundamentalism.

TomS said:

I have no real backing this idea up, but I wonder whether some of the details in the Noah story were there precisely because they were incredible. It adds to the tale of unreality. I’m no cattleman or farmer, but it seems to be that taking seven cows and seven bulls is a recipe for trouble - or seven hens and seven roosters, etc. - and that was one of the ways that the storyteller clued the audience to it not being about a real world.

Now that you mention it, if I had to shoehorn the Flood into a genre, it might be “tall tale”. In terms of structure, it’s not like a Paul Bunyan story, but it fits the general outline of implausibility. I don’t mean this in an entirely flippant way. What strikes me as odd is that Noah is not a god-like figure in any way, but his actions (large-scale but non-miraculous) are claimed to be responsible for the way everything is today (i.e. not just for one particular event like the fall of the walls of Jericho).

I think the ancient reader might not really care that much about the plausibility if it seemed like a good story, and might very well find the obsession of someone like Ken Ham as ridiculous as people do today.

And it has rainbows.….

“Daddy, why are there rainbows after a storm?”

“Well, dear, we have a story about that – a story that your grandpa told me when I was a little boy. A long, long time ago, so very long ago.…”

I think children should be taught myth. Should believe in Santa Claus. It’s good to hear about dragons and mermaids and castles and far-away places. They need to know that not all good stories are true, and things don’t have to be true to make good stories.

The problem with fundamentalism is not myth, but a lack of myth. A lack of imagination, of fantasy, of the shades of grey that teach us to distinguish between the true, the false, and everything that is neither.

david.starling.macmillan said:

I think children should be taught myth. Should believe in Santa Claus. It’s good to hear about dragons and mermaids and castles and far-away places. They need to know that not all good stories are true, and things don’t have to be true to make good stories.

It’s also best that children learn, early on, that even their nearest and dearest beloved family members are willing to deceive them.

david.starling.macmillan said:

I think children should be taught myth. Should believe in Santa Claus. It’s good to hear about dragons and mermaids and castles and far-away places. They need to know that not all good stories are true, and things don’t have to be true to make good stories.

I was never taught to believe in Santa Claus. In fact, I didn’t realize any kids actually believed in Santa Claus until I got into some kind of argument around 7th grade about whether little kids should believe. I was pretty shocked at the vehemence of other 7th graders (at Catholic school FWIW) who thought it was absolutely essential that younger kids believe in Santa Claus in order to get most out of Christmas (something about their little eyes lighting up). I doubt it causes any lasting harm, but I don’t see the merit. Pre-kindergarten kids may have imaginary friends of their own creation, and I wouldn’t want to wreck that for them, but I’m not in the business of tricking anyone. (Actually I did have imaginary friends, or so I’m told, but my kids did not, so I never faced that situation).

On the other hand, I was expected to believe the content of the Nicene creed and recite it at mass weekly. The clear delineation between “fairy tale” and “non-negotiable article of faith” is probably the main thing that kept me a practicing Catholic for as long as I was. So from my perspective, the intrinsic cognitive dissonance of religion is so great already that adding to it seems like a recipe for instilling doubt. But maybe it works the other way. If you’re taught to believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast” then maybe you get good at it.

Finally, I think the willing suspension of disbelief is a hugely important part of enjoying fiction, and may be a part of enjoying actual life. The key is keeping your willing suspension of disbelief separate from actionable beliefs that you use in decisions with consequences for yourself and others.

callahanpb said:

david.starling.macmillan said:

I think children should be taught myth. Should believe in Santa Claus.

I was never taught to believe in Santa Claus.

I’ve told this story before but I’ll tell it again because I recognize the incident to be of critical importance to my skepticism.

When I was a boy, perhaps seven or eight, my parents and my uncle Al conspired to stage a Christmas Eve visit by Santa.

It must have gone something like this: the phone rings, and my mother gathers me and my sisters (ages 4 or 5 and infancy) to come sit on the couch by the tree. She must have told me yes, you can bring your book. So we sat there waiting, the parents fraught with nervous anticipation, until who rings the doorbell and walks through the front door but Santa!

Only it wasn’t Santa. It was uncle Al in a red suit and a fake beard.

My eyes didn’t light up. My eyes went narrow and suspicious. WTF, I thought, looking from side to side. My four-year-old goofy sister’s eyes lit up, but she was a baby. Clearly my parents expected me to play along in this charade, so I did. I didn’t dare not to.

The next day I hardly thought of anything else. Why were the parents attempting to deceive me by feigning the reality of Santa? I knew Santa wasn’t real; I’d seen the Coke ads. I knew it was the parents who bought the gifts, just like they bought everything else. I mean, WTF?

It wasn’t long before I realized how much the incident echoed my feelings about church. It was a great deal longer before I understood why.

OTOH, I can remember hearing about there being a real place on Earth, one which is in the atlas, where the Bible events took place. I had assumed that they were events in a kind of mystical land, and it kind of disappointed me to bring them down to a crass ordinary place.

callahanpb said: Pre-kindergarten kids may have imaginary friends of their own creation, and I wouldn’t want to wreck that for them, but I’m not in the business of tricking anyone. (Actually I did have imaginary friends, or so I’m told, but my kids did not, so I never faced that situation).

My Pre-K doesn’t have any imaginary friends, but he loves play-acting stories. He even waves his hand and makes a sound - sort of like a director yelling “cut” - in order to tell us that he (and we should) go from being the character back to being ourselves. He understands the difference between a story character and a real person, but he still enjoys ‘interacting with’ the characters a great deal. As far as I can tell, nothing is ‘wrecked’ by treating these characters as characters, he enjoys them just as much, no critical experience is lost. Some days I’m the ogre, some days I’m Corduroy…and some days I or some other adult is the Easter Bunny. We treat’em the same, and he loves it all the same.

Now every kid is different and I’m sure there may be some kids who won’t respond the way my kid does, so your YMMV as they say. Some may need a more literal bunny to enjoy it. But I think kids with active imaginations are capable of getting very high enjoyment out of the “holiday theater” even if they understand it as theater. They don’t need some adult insisting that the characters are real to enjoy it.

I think the willing suspension of disbelief is a hugely important part of enjoying fiction, and may be a part of enjoying actual life. The key is keeping your willing suspension of disbelief separate from actionable beliefs that you use in decisions with consequences for yourself and others.

This may be a good description of what’s going on inside my kids’ head. Hard to say, but it would fit with him clearly distinguishing when we are in character and when we are not.

eric said:

As far as I can tell, nothing is ‘wrecked’ by treating these characters as characters, he enjoys them just as much, no critical experience is lost. Some days I’m the ogre, some days I’m Corduroy…and some days I or some other adult is the Easter Bunny. We treat’em the same, and he loves it all the same.

Since he realizes its’s play-acting, it’s not quite the same. I just meant that if a kid talks about imaginary friends as if they are real, I would go along with it–passively, not really encouraging or discouraging the belief. (It might not be that different from how I deal with adults when I’m avoiding confrontation.) Where I draw the line is insisting on something that isn’t real that the kids didn’t come up with themselves. In practice, my kids didn’t even do the kind of play-acting you describe. I’m afraid I might not have been nearly a fun enough parent to participate as actively as you do.

My kids went to pre-school and probably had enough real friends of the same age not to make up new ones. At least that’s my hunch. I had older siblings, stayed at home, and had more time by myself. Or it could just be some other, random difference. I can’t say for certain what I actually thought about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the tooth fairy when very young, but nobody went to any effort to trick me about them. Actually, hmm, I have given my kids money for teeth under their pillow at night, but it’s more of a running joke than any actual trickery. Does anyone remember really thinking there was a tooth fairy?

callahanpb said: Since he realizes its’s play-acting, it’s not quite the same.

I suspect that’s more true for adults than it is kids with big imaginations. We don’t get the same emotional charge out of theater vs. real events. But at this point I’m pretty sure even ‘just the theater’ is maxing out his capability for joy.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on July 16, 2014 12:00 PM.

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