Five principles for arguing against creationism

Guest author Jonathan Kane is the editor and primary author of God’s Word or Human Reason? An Inside Perspective on Creationism, co-authored with Emily Willoughby, T. Michael Keesey, Glenn Morton, and James R. Comer, and published December 2016 by Inkwater Press. Matt Young is this post’s moderator.

America’s changing beliefs

Since the 1980s, every few years Gallup has conducted a poll about American attitudes towards common descent. The portion of Americans who are creationists has generally stayed in the range of 40 to 47 percent, while the percentage who believe that humans evolved without God’s guidance has stayed in the single digits or teens but seen a steady increase, with a comparable slow decrease in the percentage who are theistic evolutionists. Using the poll data from 2014, the introduction to my book said that the arguments and methods used by science educators over the past decade had not been effective, since they had not made any meaningful dent in the portion of Americans who are creationists.

We apparently were doing something wrong as of 2014, but as of this year it seems that we’ve finally begun doing something right. The newest poll data, released May 22 of this year, indicates that American support for creationism has recently dropped to its lowest level on record. Perhaps as significantly, support for theistic evolution has seen its sharpest increase in the four decades of polling (although it hasn’t quite reached its historic high in 1999), and this is the first time in the history of the poll that creationism and theistic evolution have received equal amounts of support.

Americans' views on human origins, according to Gallup. Graph by Emily Willoughby.

I think my book is part of a general trend among science educators over the past year or so towards finally figuring out an effective way to communicate with creationists. I’ve learned this the hard way, both from debating with creationists at forums and over the nine-year process of writing and editing my book. In this article I’m going to summarize some of the conclusions I’ve come to about how to best argue against creationism, in the hope that other critics of creationism can argue against it in a way that is as effective as possible.

1: Criticize either creationism or religion in general, but not both.

Over the past few years there has been a movement among science educators known as anti-accommodationism, which argues that we should direct our criticism not just against specific religious doctrines such as creationism, but (in the wording of the linked article) should “vigorously publicly attack religious beliefs and institutions”. This is a reasonable approach if your objection really is to religion in general, and if you don’t particularly care about winning support for evolution or an old Earth. But if you are arguing against religion while also trying to argue against creationism, your anti-religion arguments are inevitably going to undermine your anti-creationism arguments. Emily Willoughby explains the reason for this in the introduction to our book, but here’s a summary:

Religiosity is heritable, and the influence of genes grows stronger from adolescence to adulthood. A trait being heritable does not necessarily make it unchangeable, but the stronger the genetic influence is on a trait, the more resistant it generally will be to change. It is far more difficult to persuade a person to give up their religion than it is to persuade them to abandon a single doctrine, especially if you can demonstrate that their religion does not actually require them to hold the doctrine in question. (Our book’s introduction provides some more detail about psychology research in this area.) To put it another way, arguments against religion in general will tend to have a lower rate of success than arguments against creationism specifically.

Attacking religion in general also has another effect. Many religious people (and this is especially true of creationists) consider their religion a very important part of their lives, and will generally be less willing to listen to a person who they suspect is trying to undermine their faith. This is an example of a principle of psychology described in this paper: people are more likely to be persuaded of new viewpoints by someone whom they perceive as having values and opinions similar to their own. The same paper also describes how when people are presented with an argument from someone with values unlike their own, they are more likely to become convinced of the opposite of what’s being argued. This paradoxical reaction to arguments from a person with whom one strongly disagrees is known as the boomerang effect.

Creation Ministries International is well aware of this principle, and in this article they accuse the National Center for Science Education of harboring a covert atheistic agenda, with the understanding that this accusation will discourage their readers from listening to NCSE. Likewise, an article by Jon Perry in the summer 2017 issue of NCSE reports mentions the importance of citing religion-friendly sources, if debating with a person who suspects that evolutionary biologists are trying to win converts to atheism. (I’m happy to note that my own book is one of the sources suggested there.)

An example of someone who’s tried to combine criticism of creationism and criticism of religion in general, with limited success, is Richard Dawkins. In The God Delusion, Dawkins explains why he thinks it makes no sense to believe that God works using the process of evolution:

I am continually astonished by those theists who, far from having their consciousness raised in the way that I propose, seem to rejoice in natural selection as "God's way of achieving his creation." They note that evolution by natural selection would be a very easy and neat way to achieve a world full of life. God wouldn't need to do anything at all! Peter Atkins, in the book just mentioned, takes this line of thought to a sensibly godless conclusion when he postulates a hypothetically lazy God who tries to get away with as little as possible in order to make a universe containing life. Atkins's God is even lazier than the deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: deus otiosus—literally God at leisure, unoccupied, unemployed, superfluous, useless. Step by step, Atlkins succeeds in reducing the amount of work the lazy God has to do until he finally ends up doing nothing at all: he might as well not bother to exist.

But three years later, in The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins evidently realized that if his goal was to persuade religious people to accept evolution, this argument was not going to work in his favor. So he appeared to backpedal slightly:

It is frequently, and rightly, said that senior clergy and theologians have no problem with evolution and, in many cases, actively support scientists in this respect. This is often true, as I know from the agreeable experience of collaborating with the then Bishop of Oxford, now Lord Harries, on two separate occasions. In 2004 we wrote a joint article in the Sunday Times whose concluding words were: "Nowadays there is nothing to debate. Evolution is a fact and, from a Christian perspective, one of the greatest of God's works." The last sentence was written by Richard Harries, but we agreed about all the rest of our article.

Anyone who thinks creationists won’t notice this sort of shift in position is underestimating how observant they are when it suits their purposes. This apparent inconsistency is pointed out by Jonathan Sarfati in his negative review of The Greatest Show on Earth here. Creationists are less likely to listen to a science educator who they think is trying to get them to abandon their faith, but they’re least likely of all to listen to one who they think isn’t being honest about his real motives or opinions.

Kenneth Miller is an example of someone who’s avoided making this mistake. In Finding Darwin’s God, Miller explained how he reconciles evolution with his own Roman Catholic faith, and as a result none of his subsequent arguments against creationism can be discounted on the grounds that he’s trying to turn people away from Christianity. One doesn’t have to personally be religious to use Miller’s approach: Eugenie Scott is an example of a non-theist who has used a similar strategy. Alternatively, if your priority is to attack religion in general, it’s best to take the approach that’s taken by Sam Harris, who is a vocal critic of religion but hasn’t been an active participant in the creationism vs. evolution debates. I have no doubt that Sam Harris is opposed to creationism, but he might be aware that as a well-known advocate of atheism, he isn’t in a position to effectively argue for Christians to accept evolution.

2: On a topic where mainstream scientists disagree, don’t present a single viewpoint as the only correct one.

I’ve tried to avoid this mistake in my own book, with respect to the question of whether primitive feathers are an ancestral trait for all dinosaurs. There is not currently enough evidence to judge whether theropods and ornithischians both inherited this skin covering from their common ancestor or whether it was an example of convergent evolution, so my book’s chapter about dinosaurs presents this as a question where we don’t yet know the answer. But on these sorts of issues that are controversial among supporters of evolution, it’s common for the authors of anti-creationism books to present their own viewpoint at the only valid one. In Undeniable, Bill Nye takes this approach with respect to the topic of race:

The takeaway message here, as Jablonsky points out, is that there is no such thing as different races of humans. Any differences we traditionally associate with race are a product of our need for vitamin D and our relationship to the Sun. Just a few clusters of genes control skin color; the changes in skin color are recent; they've gone back and forth with migrations; they are not the same even among two groups with similarly dark skin; and they are tiny compared to the total human genome. [...] Our reactions to other groups are real enough, but evolutionary biology shows that those reactions have nothing to do with race, because race is not real.

But within evolutionary biology, Nye’s viewpoint is not universally accepted. The opposite perspective is taken by Jerry Coyne in Why Evolution is True:

In response to these distasteful episodes of racism, some scientists have overreacted, arguing that human races have no biological reality and are merely sociopolitical "constructs" that don't merit scientific study. But to biologists, race—so long as it doesn't apply to humans!—has always been a perfectly respectable term. Races (also called "subspecies" or "ecotypes") are simply populations of a species that are both geographically separated and differ genetically in one or more traits. There are plenty of animal and plant races, including those mouse populations that differ only in coat color, sparrow populations that differ in size and song, and plant races that differ in the shape of their leaves. Following this definition, Homo sapiens clearly does have races. And the fact that we do is just another indication that we don't differ from other evolved species.

The point here isn’t to say that Coyne is right and Nye is wrong (although if you read the entire chapter in both books, I think Coyne does a better job supporting his position than Nye does). The point is that when you’re presenting anti-creationism arguments on a topic where evolutionary biologists hold more than one perspective, it’s a bad idea to tell creationists that in addition to accepting evolution, they also must accept your viewpoints that other evolutionary biologists disagree with. This approach typically makes it much more difficult to present a strong case for your position, which in turn leaves your arguments wide open to creationist rebuttals.

Nye played straight into Answers in Genesis’ hands with this argument. Shortly after he made a similar comment about race on The Nightly Show in 2015, AIG pounced on Nye’s comments, arguing that “this conclusion is not what was predicted in an evolutionary worldview,” but that Nye “confirmed the biblical prediction of one race.” There’s a sense in which AIG’s argument here is correct. Evolutionary theory predicts that when populations of any species are reproductively isolated from one another for long enough, they will genetically diverge. Our differences from Neanderthals are the result of a split between their lineage and ours that occurred about 500,000 years ago, while the present-day Khoisan people of southern Africa diverged from other human populations 100,000 to 200,000 years ago—between 20 and 40 percent as much separation. On the other hand, if all present-day humans are descended from Noah and his family, who were the only members of the human species to survive a global flood that occurred about 4,000 years ago, much less genetic divergence could have occurred during that amount of time.

Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tale, which discusses race in chapter 26, is an example of a book that provides a properly nuanced discussion of the topic. (Some of Dawkins’ discussion of race is online here.) Alternatively, in books whose purpose is to argue against creationism, it isn’t really necessary to discuss this topic at all. The existence or non-existence of human races has very little to do with refuting creationist arguments, unless it is to show that the amount of genetic divergence between human populations is more than could have happened within four thousand years. On topics that are controversial among evolutionary biologists and that aren’t actually necessary to discuss, the simplest solution is to avoid them entirely.

3: It is essential to understand and address the creationist viewpoints on a topic.

In order to argue effectively against the creationist position on a topic, one must first understand exactly what that position is, and what arguments are used to support it. Looking up the positions of the major young-Earth creationist organizations (Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, the Institute for Creation Research, and the Creation Research Society) is a good place to start. It’s also a good idea to look up what’s been published on a topic in the three major creationist academic journals: Answers Research Journal, Creation Research Society Quarterly, and the Journal of Creation.

Cameron Smith’s book The Fact of Evolution is an example of a book that suffers badly from not trying to engage with creationist arguments. The majority of this book is a presentation of the mechanism by which natural selection produces changes in organisms, up to and including speciation. Smith’s book works fine as a biology text explaining how these processes work, but virtually all of the concepts that it presents are accepted by the major creationist organizations. Smith also doesn’t address any of the creationist community’s arguments for why these processes are not enough to produce large-scale changes, such as the claim that it is impossible for mutations to increase the specificity of a protein. (When creationists argue that mutations can’t add new information, they are most often defining “information” as protein specificity.) While Smith’s book is intended as an argument against creationism, these flaws unfortunately mean that it does not present any real challenge to the modern young-Earth creationist position.

When a book doesn’t display an adequate knowledge of creationist models, creationists can be counted on to point that out, and to consequently dismiss everything the book has to say. An especially unfortunate example of this outcome is Michael Oard’s review, published at Creation Ministries International and in the Journal of Creation, of The Bible, Rocks and Time by Davis Young and Ralph Stearley. Young and Stearley’s book actually tries a lot harder than most other books of its genre to address creationists’ models and arguments, but according to Oard it still isn’t good enough:

The authors think that an ice age after the Flood is something we have not dealt with, and it would be a challenge to our model. But a post-Flood Ice Age has been the standard belief of YEC for well over 50 years! This is another example of such poor scholarship that no YEC or Christian should take this book seriously.

One doesn’t have to closely follow the creationist literature to encounter these sorts of criticisms: Oard’s review is the third result in a Google search for the book’s title.

A flaw that I’ve encountered especially often in anti-creationism books is not addressing the research from the RATE group. RATE is the backbone of modern creationist arguments about radiometric dating, but it is almost never mentioned in these books’ discussions of radiometrics, and as a result these portions of the books are unlikely to convince any creationists who are familiar with RATE’s arguments. Fortunately, in the five years after the second RATE book was published, several anti-YEC sites (including some that support old-Earth creationism) provided well-argued and thorough rebuttals. For example, RATE’s arguments based on helium retention in zircons have been well-addressed by Kevin R. Henke in his articles here and here, Gary Loechelt in his article here, and Timothy Christman in his article here. All of these articles are good models for how to adequately respond to creationist arguments, and authors of anti-creationism books should learn from their examples.

These detailed responses to RATE, and the fact that modern anti-creationism books usually don’t attempt anything like this, are an example of a more general principle that I think is my most important criticism of modern science educators. When I look at the sophisticated anti-evolution arguments that have been published in the creationist technical literature since 2010 or so, and compare them to the arguments presented in pro-evolution books over the same period, it’s often been the creationists who are making more of an effort to respond to their opponents’ arguments. This is somewhat understandable, since many professional creation scientists regard it as the goal of their careers to refute the theory of evolution, whereas most evolutionary biologists have more important research to do. However, that doesn’t make this trend less of a problem.

For example, while writing a portion of my book’s chapter about human origins, I spent several days searching for an adequate response to Jeffrey Tomkins’ 2014 paper The Human GULO Pseudogene—Evidence for Evolutionary Discontinuity and Genetic Entropy, only to eventually conclude that none existed. (In case it isn’t clear, this paper is intended as a rebuttal to the argument that humans must share a common ancestor with chimpanzees because the human and chimp GULO pseudogenes are rendered non-functional by the same set of mutations.) The paper was discussed here at Sandwalk (it’s the comment by “Sceptical Mind” on 8/25/15 at 4:49 pm), but other people responded only with snide remarks, not an actual counter-argument. There also are a few sentences about the paper at RationalWiki, but their only response is that Tomkins isn’t providing a complete YEC model to compete with the evolutionary one—they don’t make any attempt to defend the specific line of evidence for common descent that Tomkins is attacking.

For many years, the articles at Talk.Origins were the gold standard for how to properly address creationist arguments, but most parts of that website haven’t been updated since 2011. In the time since then, some opponents of creationism appear to have begun trying to win simply by ridiculing the other side or drowning it out, as in the above-linked Sandwalk thread. I find this recent lack of effort very troubling, because to someone who looks closely at the arguments and tactics that both sides are using, this approach makes it appear as though creationists are winning the debate. Fortunately, over the past year or so, a few science educators have begun to realize that this tactic is unlikely to work in the long run. Everyone who cares about opposing creationism should recognize the importance of this return to the methods that were used at Talk.Origins.

4: Broad-level overviews usually aren’t effective.

As is apparent from the articles by Henke, Loechelt, and Christman about RATE’s research on zircons, adequately addressing a complex creationist argument requires more than just a paragraph or two. My own book’s rebuttal to RATE takes up about 28 pages, and this is despite the fact that its discussion of zircons leans heavily on the earlier rebuttals by the three authors I mentioned. If this is the amount of detail that’s necessary to adequately address the creationist perspective on a single topic, then how can a discussion of every line of evidence for evolution to fit into a single book?

Over the course of writing and editing my book, I’ve come to the conclusion that adequately presenting every line of evidence in a single book is not possible, and it’s best to recognize that from the outset. (Perhaps it would be possible in an encyclopedia-style book that’s thousands of pages long, but as far as I know nobody has ever attempted anything like that.) When one tries to cover every major line of evidence for evolution in a single book, the inevitable result is that no single topic can be covered in great depth, and therefore most of the creationist arguments about all of these topics end up unaddressed.

I consider this a shortcoming of almost every well-known anti-creationism book published in the past decade, including Dawkins’, Coyne’s, and Nye’s. Some of these books still are quite good (especially Coyne’s), but even at the times when they were published, they presented very few pro-evolution arguments to which a creationist response didn’t already exist. All of these creationist responses were and are fairly easy to find, and if any reader who’s on the fence about this topic looks them up, the result will be that they don’t find these books convincing.

The best way for a book to avoid this problem is by focusing on only a single area or a few areas, and covering its chosen topic or topics as thoroughly as possible. One recent book that does this especially well is Evolution Slam Dunk by James Downard. This entire book (about 500 pages) is devoted to presenting the case for the evolution of mammals from reptiles, and this amount of detail makes it possible for every major creationist argument about the origin of mammals to be discussed and dismantled. I’ve sometimes seen Downard’s book compared to my own, and in this respect their approaches are indeed similar, with the difference that my own book covers a small handful of topics instead of just one.

5: In general, the most potent criticism of creationist models is from other creationists.

When one spends a while reading the creationist technical literature, it becomes clear very quickly that young-Earth creationism is not a single set of models. There is a vast amount of disagreement among YECs on topics such as which strata are or are not from the Flood, where the boundaries between baramins are located, or how it is possible for Earth to receive light from stars that are millions or billions of light-years away. In general, the best criticism of creationist models in any of these areas comes not from supporters of evolution, but from creationists who support a different set of models. Here are a few examples of this principle:

Can Flood Geology Explain the Fossil Record? and Dinosaurs in the Oardic Flood. These are a pair of papers by Steven J. Robinson, published in the Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, that are probably the most thorough refutation available anywhere of Michael Oard’s global flood model. (Oard’s model is basically the same as the model proposed by Whitcomb and Morris in The Genesis Flood, placing the boundary between Flood-deposited strata and post-Flood strata in the upper Cenozoic.)

Starlight and Time is the Big Bang. This is a paper by Samuel Conner and Don Page, also from the Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, that criticizes the distant starlight model presented in Russell Humphreys’ book Starlight and Time. It’s difficult to say whether this critique is better-argued than the similar critiques from non-creationists, but what can’t be denied is that it was more effective: in his response to these critics, Humphreys conceded that his book was wrong on several points. (See the section titled “Conner and Page attack the wrong horizon”.)

The Chimpanzee Genome and the Problem of Biological Similarity. This is a paper by Todd Wood, published in Occasional Papers of the BSG, that explains why the close similarity between the human and chimpanzee genomes is a challenge to creationist models. One problem Wood points out is that creationists generally regard all felids as related to one another, belonging to the same baramin, but there is a larger genetic difference between some felids than there is between humans and chimpanzees. Wood admits he doesn’t have a solution to this problem, although he expresses hope that creationists will eventually find one.

I think there are three reasons creationists are particularly good at debunking models from other creationists. First, while mainstream geologists, physicists, and biologists certainly are knowledgeable about the fields these models are intended to explain, it usually is creationists who have the most intimate familiarity with the mechanics of creationist models themselves. Second, creationists are more likely to take this criticism seriously when it comes from members of their own academic community, since in that case they can’t dismiss it as being motivated by evolutionary bias. Finally, as mentioned previously, professional evolutionary biologists usually have more important research to do than debunking creationism, and I think that’s why these authors often are not motivated to thoroughly research and address creationist models. On the other hand, to a professional creationist whose can see that his own belief system is being propped up by a flawed model, it will tend to be especially important to replace that model with a better one.

Very few anti-creationism authors have shown an understanding of this principle. It’s rare to begin with for books of this genre to discuss the creationist literature in depth, and it’s even rarer for them to cite it in order to refute models from other creationists, but one author who stands out for his knowledge in this area is Phil Senter. Senter’s paper The Defeat of Flood Geology by Flood Geology is an ideal example of how to effectively argue against a creationist model using the arguments and evidence presented in the creationist technical literature. Usually when an anti-creationism paper receives as much attention as that one has, the major creationist organizations respond to it with some sort of counter-argument, and I find it quite telling that their response to this paper (as far as I can tell) has been complete silence.

A corollary to point 5

Although my previous post here was intended mostly for readers of my book, I was surprised to discover that a few professional creation scientists reacted positively to it. Apparently several of them read this blog, and also agree that the time has come for creationists to accept the existence of feathered dinosaurs. Some of them will most likely be reading this post as well, so my last point here is intended for them in particular.

Todd Wood, a creation scientist who specializes in baraminology, discussed my previous post in his own post here. Reading between the lines of Wood’s post, it appears that he disagrees with the position on feathered dinosaurs that’s taken by Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International, but his post is quite circumspect about openly criticizing those organizations. In an e-mail discussion about my post, another professional creation scientist told me that he “agree(s) that the YEC majors have a serious problem here,” but I’m unsure whether he’d have been willing to be so candid about this view in public. (This is why I’m not giving his name, in case he’d prefer to remain anonymous.) When creationists engage in Robinson-style debunking of other creationist models, it’s nearly always directed against specific individuals or models, not against large organizations.

This trend is especially apparent if one looks at how the major creationist organizations have reacted to some of Todd Wood’s ideas. In this article from Creation Ministries International, Tomkins and Bergman attacked Wood for his acceptance of the mainstream conclusion that the human and chimpanzee genomes are more than 98 percent similar. They complain that “Wood’s review did little to support creationist claims that humans were uniquely created in the image of God rather than being a few DNA base pairs from a chimp.” (Their article was originally a paper in the Journal of Creation, but CMI subsequently chose to feature it as a web article, which suggests that they support its conclusions.) In this case Wood had evidence and logic on his side—the fifth chapter of my book explains the problem with the method of DNA comparison that Tomkins and Bergman were arguing should be used instead. In some of his more recent papers (such as this one), Wood has discussed the close similarity between the human and chimpanzee genomes, so he evidently still supports his own 98.2 percent* number rather than Tomkins’ 80-88 percent number. But as far as I can tell, he hasn’t tried to directly defend his conclusions in this area from any of Tomkins and Bergman’s attacks.

If one’s goal is to support creationism, in the long term it does creationists a disservice when the major creationist organizations rely on obviously flawed models or false statements to support their positions. Going with the example from my previous post, when people look closely at the inconsistent classification schemes AIG and CMI have invented to deny the existence of feathered dinosaurs, a lot of readers are going to come away with the impression that creationists are interested only in attacking the various lines of evidence for evolution, instead of coming up with their own internally consistent set of models. On the other hand, it’s beneficial if these organizations can come up with models that are less flawed than those that they held previously. For example, in Darwin’s time most creationists believed in the fixity of species, but I think very few modern creationists would deny that creationism is better off for having abandoned this idea and having accepted that speciation is possible.

I think that when creationist organizations improve their models, it’s a benefit to mainstream science educators as well. Every time the creationist community accepts an area of biology, geology or physics as valid, it means there is one fewer area of science for them to attack. Although large creationist organizations do not have any mainstream academic influence, they are skilled at influencing public opinion, and it is easier to educate the public about any area of research when these organizations don’t oppose it. The goal of science educators is to make the public better-informed about scientific topics, so these sorts of changes should matter to us.

So, here is my request to Todd Wood and others like him who are reading this post. You evidently disagree with the major YEC organizations’ positions about the existence of feathered dinosaurs, about the percentage similarity between human and chimpanzee DNA, and probably many other topics as well. As far as I know, in every area where you disagree with these organizations, you are the one who’s closer to being correct. Given both of those things, why not make more of an effort to demonstrate that the major creationist organizations are wrong in these areas, and to get them to abandon the arguments and models that don’t do anyone any good? As members of the creationist academic community, I think you have a lot of potential ability to change that community’s consensus about these topics, and you aren’t fully using it.

*^ For Wood’s analysis that produced this number, see Wood, T. C. (2011). “The chimpanzee genome is nearly identical to the human genome”. Pages 24–25 in CBS Annual Conference Abstracts 2011. Journal of Creation Theology and Science, Series B: Life Sciences, 1, 18–27.