Last week, (formerly Uncle) Karl Giberson wrote a piece for PuffHo that, in essence, blamed the persistence of American creationism on the stridency of New Atheism,—a stridency that, he argues, forces religious people to choose between God and evolution. He also made two statements, both wrong. In the first, he argued that my book was like other New Atheist books in calling for such a choice:
But suppose that [Marco] Rubio decided to pursue these questions in more detail and, not knowing any actual geologists, went to a well-stocked bookstore and purchased a cross section of popular science books explaining evolution, the Big Bang, and the age of the earth. In all likelihood the authors of these books would be some of America’s most vocal and anti-religious atheists — Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett, Vic Stenger. And the books would argue with a suspicious passion that belief in God must be rejected if one is to take science seriously. Some of the books would have titles like “God: The Failed Hypothesis. “
Of course my book says nothing about having to reject God if you want to accept science. That was annoying. But Giberson then told a bigger whopper:
Even a diligent search would turn up but a few books explaining how contemporary scientific ideas can be understood within the framework of traditional Christianity.
I would almost classify this as a bald-faced lie, for there are elebenty gazillion books trying to reconcile science and traditional Christianity, and Giberson has to know this. (This is what Dan Dennett calls “faith-fibbing,” something to which Giberson has admitted before.) I’ve read many such books, and the University of Chicago library has huge shelves full of accommodationist tomes. Among them I find only a few books claiming that science and Christianity are incompatible. I called Karl out for his willful ignorance, for misleading people about my book and, above all, for blaming the persistence of creationism on strident atheists.
Perhaps stung by my criticisms here, Giberson has tried to clarify his ideas in yet another PuffHo piece, “Young earth creationism is a threat to American survival.” (He notes that he may not have been clear in his first post, but it is of course a writer’s duty to be clear.) Yet his “clarification” only makes things worse.
But first let me acknowledge that Giberson did retract what he said about my book—though he doesn’t retract his misstatement about the paucity of accommodationist books. In an addendum, he says this:
I also note, as a clarification of my previous piece, ‘Marco Rubio’s Fiscal Cliff,’ that I did not intend to imply that Jerry Coyne’s excellent book, ‘Why Evolution is True,’ is itself hostile to general belief in God. My point was that Coyne is a highly visible crusader for atheism.
Fine, but if that was his point, why didn’t he say it?
But that’s trivial. What’s more important is Giberson going off the cliff about creationism again. This time, though, he argues that (as implied by the title of his piece, it’s a threat to American survival. How is that? Will our country really go down the tubes if only 16% of Americans continue to accept naturalistic evolution? Karl explains:
I worry a lot about people who believe the earth is a few thousand years old, for example. I don’t see how they can possibly think clearly about the issue of energy. If the earth is 10,000 years old, then there is no such thing as fossil fuels. The oil in the ground could not have originated from fossils laid down 4,000 years ago in Noah’s great flood, which is what young earth creationists believe. Fossil fuels, in this view, are not the result of hundreds of millions of years of organic change. Their origin is a mystery.
Knowing how our planetary fuels originated should inform deliberations about the best price for gas, the optimal EPA targets for fuel economy, and the level of subsidy for alternative fuels. And geologists are a critically important part of this conversation.
This, of course, is completely wrong. Much as I decry creationism, I can’t bring myself to say that it prevents people from thinking clearly about the issue of energy. How much oil and fossil fuel we have is a fact regardless of how those “fossil” fuels were formed. They’re finite, even if God made them, and nobody is saying that God is going to give us more. And learning to deal with those limits doesn’t depend on your belief on how fuels were formed.
Now other religious perspectives may be problematic here, including the idea that humans have a right to plunder out planet because God made us his stewards. Similar irrationalist thinking may lead people to deny global warming. But those are problems not of creationism, but of its root cause: religion.
Much as I’d like to see Americans accept the truth of evolution, I’d like even more to see them reject religion. For creationism is only one symptom of religion, and there are many other symptoms far more pernicious. I needn’t list them here, since we all know them: many are instantiated in the doctrines of Islam or Catholicism. Compared to throwing acid in the faces of Afghan schoolgirls, teaching creationism to high-school students is trivial. Creationism kills nobody.
I want Americans to learn good science, but trying to eliminate creationism without eliminating religion is like trying to cure smallpox by applying wet rags to the forehead: it alleviates symptoms but the disease remains. If Karl were to write an honest piece, he’d admit that.
What he does instead is to continue blaming the persistence of creationism on those who attack creationists (read: strident atheists like Dawkins and me). In other words, Giberson echoes Nicholas Wade’s misguided piece in this week’s science section of the New York Times. Giberson:
I have spent decades deep inside American evangelicalism. When I first engaged the origins controversy I thought the solution to the problem of anti-evolution was simple: provide evidence and people will change their minds. False things should be easily trumped by true things. And today I find many of my younger colleagues wading into this controversy with the same naïve optimism.
But after decades of huffing and puffing and blowing on the straw house of creationism, it still stands. If anything, creationism has only become more popular, even while the evidence refuting it has grown steadily stronger.
Why might that be? (Actually, I don’t think creationism has become more popular; statistics show it remaining steady over the past few decades). According to Giberson, because we attack people like Marco Rubio who espouse creationism!
We will never resolve the issue of widespread scientific illiteracy if we simply attack public figures that reject evolution or an ancient earth. That does nothing but steel the reserve of those propagandists who make their living undermining science. The young earth creationist worldview is couched in a larger theological framework that takes “spiritual warfare” seriously. . .
Last year I published “The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age” (with Harvard University Press) examining the structures of authority within evangelicalism and how they empower what looks like a confident rejection of mainstream science. These and other books from people like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse (both atheists) are our attempts to raise the right sort of alarm about broad cultural currents in American society. Assaulting public figures who express these cultural currents turns them into heroes.
ORLY, Karl? Have attacks on creationism turned exponents like Ronald Reagan, Marco Rubio, or the many Republicans who deny evolution, into heroes? (I won’t say anything about Mooney and Ruse raising “the right sort of alarm”; these men are accommodationists who only enable creationism.) Remember this moment from the Republican presidential debates before the 2008 elections?
Tancredo, Huckabee, and Brownback heroes? I think not. They may be heroes to Republicans because of their moronic and antidemocratic views, or their fervent professions of belief in Jebus, but not because they deny evolution.
Giberson ends like this:
We should be worrying about the more than 100 million Americans who think the earth is 10,000 years old and trying to figure out how that happened. Rubio is simply an expression of that large problem and attacking him is nothing more than the proverbial assault on the messenger.
I worry more about the 92% of Americans who profess belief in God. If you’re looking for the answer of why so many Americans think that the Earth is 10,000 years old, the answer lies in that 92%. I’m not exactly sure why Americans are so religious, though I suspect it’s because the U.S. is more dysfunctional than the egalitarian and caring societies of Europe.
But it doesn’t matter. There is only one way to get rid of creationism, and that’s to get rid of religion—at least those brands of religion that are inimical to science. (And remember that even adherents to “mainstream” faiths are wary of evolution. Despite the Catholic Church’s official acceptance of evolution, for instance, 27% of Catholics believe that species were created by God and have remained unchanged ever since.) Sadly, nearly all brands of religion are inimical to science, even if their adherents won’t admit it.
I would be delighted if Giberson would admit that the root cause of creationism is religion, and not just fundamentalist or evangelical religion. And while he’s admitting that, perhaps he should examine his own beliefs. Since Giberson is so wedded to scientific evidence, why on earth does he remain an evangelical Christian? Why does he have “faith” about Jesus when there’s not a whit of evidence for Jesus’s divinity, or even the existence of a Christian God? This cognitive dissonance is unseemly for someone who thinks that America is doomed unless its citizens start becoming more rational about our world.