Questions To Ask A Creationist
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) have both been given a great deal of media attention lately with the controversy centering in the United States. Creationism tends to be more conservative than ID and much more explicit about its religious basis, namely, the Bible interpreted in a quite strict and literal way. ID claims to go beyond orthodox religion and to present a philosophical and “scientific” viewpoint. There are some overlaps between the two, but the differences are more important and more interesting. So, I will devote this essay to the strict view of Creationism and a second essay to ID.
However, let me begin by pointing out that both movements share a common group of critical strategies and these consist almost exclusively of aggressive attacks demanding from evolutionary theorists, simple explanations for extraordinarily complicated phenomena. A major problem with such demands is that in spite of our remarkable progress in science and technology, the overall body of human knowledge is still very limited and, in some respects, even primitive. These explanatory demands on the part of Creationists and ID “theorists” are as unreasonable as insisting that Aristotle should have explained the theory of relativity and its conflict with quantum physics in his Physics.
Note that scientists speak of a theory of relativity and of evolutionary theory. Sometimes they get a bit careless and talk about evolution as a fact, but evolution is indeed a theory based on facts. Creationism is a peculiar mixture of dogmatic beliefs, dubious historical claims, bad translations, marginalia of monks who were scribes, and the human-all-too-human councils which determined the content of the book purported to be the absolute, divine, revealed truths of the one and only God. This in itself is deeply problematic, since there is no way to verify such an assertion and no empirical evidence for it. Many cultures have had such revelations regarding gods and many have claimed the same sort of exclusivity which the Creationists now claim on behalf of Jehovah, but this has nothing at all to do with science. If a person needs a set of religious beliefs to give meaning to life, then that is certainly something that they are free to pursue, but it is nonsense to claim that such beliefs are based on facts or constitute the basis for a “scientific theory”. As Bertrand Russell put it succinctly: “The Christian god may exist, so may the gods of Olympus, or ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie out side the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them.”
Some of the orthodox Creationists have certainly thrown their share of verbal stones at evolutionists referring to them as pagans, moral degenerates, corrupters of youth, and even–horror of horrors, secular humanists and liberals. One might imagine a critic with a somewhat cynical bent getting tired of typing that long name, Creationist, over and over, and simply refer to them as Creats. I shall not, however, descend to such a polemical level; however, I shall stop capitalizing “Creationism” and “Creationists”, since I don’t capitalize “Evolution” nor “Evolutionists.” Strict creationists, such as Peter Hovind with his creationist museum, believe that indeed the world is about 6,000 years old and follow the Ussher-Lightfoot Calendar. Although Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland gets most of the credit for calculations asserting that Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. was the date of creation. About a decade earlier, Dr. John Lightfoot, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, had declared the date with even more specificity stating that the creation took place on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. at 9 o’clock in the morning. Also Adam and Eve only got to spend a little over 2 weeks in Eden, for the calculations “show” that they were driven from Paradise on Monday, November 10, 4004 B.C. They certainly didn’t waste any time breaking Jehovah’s laws. Oh yes, calculations based on Genesis also concluded that Adam was 930 years old when he died.
Now, I wonder if Mr. Hovind and other creationists eat shrimp or pork. I have read that some creationists indulge in such abominations and do not follow the dietary laws laid out in Leviticus . Certainly if the Bible is the absolute and revealed word of God, then one cannot pick and choose the parts one wants to follow or believe and reject other parts. But that’s their problem. I’m more interested in Noah and the ark.
For starters, Noah is going to need one enormous boat! Now, the Bible does tell us that God gave Noah the dimensions in cubits and I guess we assume that Noah wasn’t deformed or had abnormally short forearms. The creationists’ calculations claim that the ark was a large rectangular vessel 3 stories high, about 450 feet long, and 75 feet wide.
Recent estimates are that there were about 300 genera of dinosaurs and over 1,000 species. This distinction is important to the creationists, since they suggest that it is not the number of variant types that are important, but the “kinds”. So, for them, this means that you only have to have the “kinds” and not representatives of all the species. They also tell us that some of the dinosaurs were quite small, no bigger than a rabbit, and then, of course, there were dinosaur eggs and, further, that the really big ones–Tyrannosaurus Rex, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, etc. could have been young ones which were smaller, but still old enough to breed. Then there were African elephants, Asian elephants, Siberian tigers, Bengal tigers, lions, giraffes, hyenas, lizards of all kinds, lots of snakes–some poisonous–rhinos and hippos, tarantulas, crocodiles, whales, and giant squid. Now some creationists claim that the fish and other ocean stuff didn’t need to be aboard the ark because the Bible says that only air breathing creatures had to come onboard. But remember that whales, dolphins and the like are mammals and are air breathers. This was a worldwide flood and it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. There was apparently, according to the creationists, a lot of underwater upsurges from the bowels of the earth as well. However, even so, rain is freshwater and this wasn’t any mere sprinkle or drizzle, because it covered everything—even the highest mountains, including the Himalayas. That sort of coverage would require an enormous volume of water which would seriously dilute the oceans making them uninhabitable for the whales and giant squid, but likely still leaving things briny enough to kill off the freshwater amoebae and Paramecia. So, the ark’s going to need a lot of culture dishes and some very, very big aquaria.
A period of 40 days and 40 nights is a long time and then they floated around for about a year, so there would have to be a lot of pens and cages or otherwise the hyenas would be snacking on the gazelles and the bats would be eating the insects and Noah and his wife couldn’t just go out and slaughter a dinosaur to have filet of broiled baby Brontosaurus. What all of this means is that Noah had to have a humongous supply of food of incredible variety to keep all of these critters alive for a year. So, this raises, among other things, some serious questions about the size of the ark and if you ask the creationists–well, they have written essays, done calculations and made the distinction between species and kinds and come to the conclusion that there was more than enough room. This is what they call working with facts and establishing a “scientific” theory. If you want to read some of this sophistry, you’ll have no trouble finding it on the Internet.
There is also the not insignificant issue of waste disposal. Imagine cleaning up after a baby Tyrannosaur while it’s trying to bite chunks out of you. Some of you have no doubt seen coprolites (fossil dinosaur dung). Even with babies, the quantity and stench must have been phenomenal, so Mr. and Mrs. Noah and their three sons must not have gotten much sleep during this grand adventure. Of maybe Yahweh, (Jehovah, The Big Guy) provided them with a bulldozer (or one of those unscientific miracles). And then there were all of those bamboo shoots that were needed to feed the pandas and the eucalyptus leaves for the koala bears. I guess Noah made a quick trip to Australia to collect pairs of all those fascinating marsupials and what would we have done without duck-billed platypuses? But the creationists say–no problem. There was still a land bridge between Australia and the Mideast and besides the Bible says that God just tells Noah that the animals will come to him. So, what’s another miracle or two?
There are also problems at the other end of the scale. How did Noah ensure that he had on board specimens of each “kind” of bacterium, fungus, protist, and virus? The Creationists assert that the biblical text says that only air-breathing creatures need to come onto the ark to survive. Well, there are, of course, some anaerobes, but most micro-organisms depend upon oxygen for their survival. I’m told that when one gets a pneumonia shot, it protects only against the 32 most common strains. Apparently there are a lot of strains of pneumonia. So, if organisms don’t evolve, adapt, mutate, etc., there must have been one of each strain aboard the ark along with specimens of bacteria for tuberculosis (lots of types), cholera, gonorrhea, syphilis, staphylococcus, streptococcus, viruses for the common cold, AIDS, and multiple types of influenza. Do creationists get flu shots? Scientists, specifically immunologists and virologists, keep telling us that each year new mutant strains have evolved. Noah’s family and his animals must have had amazing immune systems! So, you might ask a creationist: If all of these things weren’t on the ark, where did they come from?
This ark myth fascinates me, because it is so patently absurd in its literal version. It utterly defies common sense and has no empirical or scientific basis. Consider yet another issue in relation to the ark–parasites. Noah must have been a nitwit to ensure that he had species of mosquitoes that harbor the malarial parasite on board–but, I suppose, he was just following orders. However, there are some parasites that present special problems in relationship to Noah’s enterprise. Take for example a very nasty parasite of the green crab called Saccculina which is an extraordinarily odd barnacle. A tiny larva enters the body of the crab and takes up residence under the genital flap and begins to put out a fine network of tiny tubes through which it feeds on the crab. These tubes eventually extend even to the tips of the crab’s appendages including the eye-stalks. An orange sac-like structure begins to swell and grow under the genital flap and this structure is an egg-producing “machine” which sterilizes the crab. So, Noah would have to have included some ordinary pairs and some infected with Sacculina .
Also, Noah would have needed a lot of seeds in addition to the ones he was feeding the parakeets. He probably didn’t need whole trees, just some coconuts and pine cones from giant redwoods–but he would have had to go to California to get them or maybe he had some carrier pigeons deliver them. It sounds like at this point, we need another miracle or two.
Creationists apparently don’t believe in carbon dating, the process which scientists use to date fossils. So, they must be utterly bewildered when a scientist says that a lovely specimen of a fossil invertebrate is 600,000,000 years old. I guess they just figure that the paleontologist misplaced the decimal point, since nothing can be older than 6,000 years plus a few. Apparently creationists think that all of the physics involving the radioactive decay of certain isotopes is wrong, which would mean that some very big chunks of other parts of physics would be wrong as well, such as claims about the correlation of the speed of light and distance and the age of the cosmos. This means that the creationists will just have to toss out astronomy and astrophysics along with biological evolution.
It’s time now to shift to the problem of literal biblical interpretations and the integrity of the texts. Regarding the Torah or the Pentateuch, those first five books of the Old Testament ostensibly written by Moses, were likely written by several different people. Many biblical scholars who accept textual analysis and the tradition of Higher Criticism, have long asserted that there are at least four distinct and distinctive styles, suggesting four different authors. So were there four authors or did Moses have a multiple personality syndrome?
Furthermore, there is the not so small problem of translations and hand-copied versions. Imagine centuries ago, sitting in a cold, stone cell in a monastery with no central heating, in fact, not even a space heater, during winters with brutal sub-zero temperatures try to copy pages of the Bible. Remember there were no printing presses before the 16th Century, no Xerox machines, no Kinkos. In such circumstances, it would be easy to omit a word or two or even a couple of lines and the copyist might have trouble reading the handwriting of text he was copying from and substitute a different word for an illegible word, and so on. Perhaps even omit a negative: “Thou shalt commit adultery”–those naughty monks!–read Boccaccio.
However, even more important is the issue of translations. Do we rely on the New Revised Standard Version, The Word Made Fresh, Wuest Expanded Translation, Young’s Literal Translation (Revised Edition), Confraternity of Christian Doctrine Translation, The Dartmouth Bible, Knox Translation, or the King James Version (Authorized Version). And these are just a few of the over 100 versions in English! If you don’t believe me, you can check it out at this site: http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/Scriptures/
As you might expect, most creationists, being good Anglophiles, opt for the King James Authorized Version.
If you go on the Internet, you can find massive amounts of stuff purporting to explain all of these little problems. For example, we are informed that it wasn’t necessary for Noah to take the sea creatures, since we don’t know what the salinity of the ocean was back then and furthermore, sea creatures can adapt (gasp!) to significant differences in salinity, so the dilution by those vast amounts of freshwater really didn’t matter. This is, of course, sheer sophistry based on ignorance and/or a dogmatic desire to justify an ancient, non-scientific text as Absolute Truth. These interpretative machinations are further compounded by the claim that God commanded Noah to take onto the ark only air breathing creatures. Even if we grant this rather dubious and conveniently interpreted assertion, we are still left with the problem of the whales, dolphins, and other cetaceans, not to mention African lungfish, and amphibians– a year is a long time to hold one’s breath.
Creationism is not a theory and it is certainly not a science; it is a dogma, a set of religious beliefs masquerading as something which it is not. It claims to “explain” by appeals to a “sacred” text, by appeals to an absolute, omnipotent authority, and whenever gaps appear in the “explanations,”we are told that “God works in mysterious ways.” Creationism is, in short, what Richard Dawkins calls “a virus of the mind.” People are free, more or less, to believe what they wish, but the strategy of demanding the disproof of unverifiable assertions is counterproductive and, in the end, a rejection of the very foundations of knowledge. I can assert that there are green unicorns on a planetary system in the galaxy of Andromeda and, if you then challenge my claim, I can insist that you prove that there aren’t–a meaningless and idle enterprise.
Even many strict creationists will admit that there are a lot of people who still believe extremely silly things, such as, that the earth is flat, that little green men in UFOs are maintaining surveillance of Earth, or that plants can talk to us. Yet, at the same time, these people can believe that a very strict and vengeful Big Daddy Jehovah wanted to destroy all the “sinful” people on earth, except Noah and his family and then start all over. If you think about it, it seems like a tacit admission that old Jehovah didn’t do such a good job of creating things the first time around.
Finally, the other major strategy that creationists use is to claim that evolutionary theory is full of gaps–well, of course it is!!! Science doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers like religions do. An enormous body of facts exist that fit into sets of interconnected models. Zoologists, botanists, physicists, paleontologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, astronomers, and even philosophers, discuss, debate, modify, and challenge the interpretations of the facts, their relevance to the explanatory models and, at times, even parts of the structure of the models themselves. As more and more data is gathered and interpreted on the basis of empirical observation and critical rational investigation, our understanding is enriched and deepened. There are those who might, in a misguided way, reject the fundamental principles of physics, including the notion of gravitation, but an individual would have to be demented to walk off a 30 story building in order to “disprove” the “law” of gravity. Science rarely calls for such irrational “leaps of Faith”, but religions frequently do as can be quickly grasped by anyone taking the time to read carefully Kierkegaard’s account of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Kierkegaard tells us that no one can understand the mechanisms of Abraham’s faith, because faith is nonrational. Or perhaps we might appeal to Kafka’s Abraham parable in which the whole episode is seen as a cruel joke.
If we truly want to understand the extraordinary world that surrounds us, we must learn to observe carefully and impartially, and then apply our very best critical powers of reasoning to interpreting and understanding phenomena and their interrelationships in the most balanced and sensible way possible. Appeals to myths, dubious historical accounts, sacred texts, miracles, gods and goddesses do not aid our understanding of the complex universe in which we live. Dogmatic monotheistic religious individuals tend to find themselves in radical conflict with science. This is, of course nothing new. Giordano Bruno, in February of 1600, was burned at the stake as a heretic for supporting the Copernican heliocentric view of the solar system. Anyway, why pick only one God and why Jehovah? Why not Zeus or Osiris or Athena or Quetzlcoatl or Vishnu? (And there are literally thousands more to choose from–read H.L. Mencken’s essay, Memorial Service which can be found here: http://www.ratbags.com/rsoles/comment/menckengods.htm
From the creationists point of view, the answer is obvious and indubitable–Jehovah is the only true God and all these others are only pagan idols or myths. Such a view makes their position all the more difficult to take seriously.
Religions provide great comfort to many individuals. Historically, they have also produced enormous suffering and bloodshed. The same might be said of the misuses of science and technology. The fact is that human beings have not yet demonstrated that they are wise enough to use their scientific, intellectual and creative abilities to establish stable societies which provide the basic necessities of life for humans to develop their potentialities and, among those basic necessities, must be included the leisure to contemplate the marvels of the world and of human existence.
The creationists pretend to want a kind of “objective” debate and more and more are vociferously insisting on the representation of their view in science classes in public schools. It is cast in terms of “equal time”, but they would dismiss the idea of a Hindu or Navaho or Asante “theory” of creation, because a science classroom is not an appropriate context for any of these ideas. A comparative anthropology class or a history of religions class-yes, by all means, but NOT a science class. Alchemy has some fascinating cultural, religious, medical, and historical aspects, but it would be utter nonsense to demand that alchemy be given “equal time” in a chemistry class.
The creationists need to learn the very basic distinctions between knowledge and belief, between empirical demonstration and appeal to authority, between explanation and “leaps of faith”.
They are, of course, free to believe as many absurd and impossible things as they please and take the position of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen:
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
In many respects, the entire controversy is tedious and futile in the face of monotheistic dogmatism. It is often tempting to ignore the whole issue because of its patent silliness, but when such religious dogmas become woven into the political, social, and educational fabric of a country, there is reason for deep concern. In terms of science education in “developed” countries, the United States is performing very poorly, especially in relation to the amount of money spent on education. There is in this country a strong anti-scientific bias which is grounded in a more widespread general anti-intellectualism which is infectious. Thus, the fundamental issue is not merely evolutionary theory, but the future of science and technology for generation after generation in this country.
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to shares aspects of his wide interests.
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