Bread. June 2007
Creationism - a dangerous beast
The creationist crusade is coming to Singapore. Two Australian speakers,
Carl Wieland and Gary Bates, have scheduled an "intensive weekend of
ministry" this August, to be held in our city-state.
From the website promoting this event, Wieland is described as the founding editor of Creation magazine and who "has been at the forefront of the creation/evolution debate for almost 30 years -- ministering all over the world". No pretense there that creationism is religion, not science, from the way the word "ministering" is used.
Gary Bates "is passionate about communicating the truths of the Bible in a way that all can understand", the bio on the site says.
I will not be publicising the website's URL but you can email me for it if you have an academic interest in following this phenomenon.
This is the extreme end of
what is quickly emerging as one of the top issues of this decade: the
contest between religion and secularism. Richard Dawkins' book The God
Delusion has sold amazingly well, and now there is a new book by
Christopher Hitchens, God is not great: How religion poisons everything.
Some writers, like journalist Andy Ho of the Straits Times, try to frame the debate as one between religion and science, with the suggestion that these are really two mutually exclusive domains of human knowledge. They are not. Religion and religiosity is, like arctic ecology, plasma physics and endocrinology, apt subjects for scientific research, probably as an interdisciplinary field connected with psychology, sociology and neurology.
"Induction is based on data, and deduction on logic," he wrote. "Religion, on the other hand, has nothing to do with data or logic. Its approach to explaining the reality is based on speculation, dreams, mythologies, visions and subjective mysticism."
Creationism is a supreme example of this.
Of course, all of us want to believe certain things. If only those things were so, they would affirm certain perspectives that we've grown comfortable with in one way or another. Moreover, all of our beliefs are inter-related. When one particular belief is upset, it tends to have a domino effect on other beliefs, so it's no easy thing to let a new reality work its way through before it is fully integrated into our (slightly changed) consciousness.
Hence, it is quite understandable if people resist evidence to the contrary, trying their best to poke holes in the alternative explanation before they feel convinced enough to absorb it.
I saw an example of such
resistance in an incident that happened some years back. This was after a
talk in which I mentioned that it was important to bear in mind that
sexual orientation is a spectrum with a large spread of bisexuality (to
different degrees) in the middle. I spent a little time explaining what
bisexuality meant: that a bisexual person would find herself attracted sometimes to a male partner, sometimes to a female partner. I
also reiterated that since none of us can control whom we are attracted
to, we shouldn't assume that bisexual people can switch on their same-sex
attraction or switch it off. If they fall for someone, they fall for
I thought I was being as clear as day.
Lo and behold, as soon as I finished, a woman from the audience asked me a series of questions centred on this point. It's been some years, so I can't recall the phrasing of her questions, but I remember well their thrust. It went like this:
As you can see, she was desperately seeking validation of her beliefs. And she wanted a simple answer, not a layered one. Furthermore, in search of that simple answer, she rode roughshod over some very basic caveats which I thought I had made clear. For example, she conflated my description of bisexuality with homosexuality and she ignored my careful point that we cannot control whom we are attracted to (though I take her point that we can choose whether to develop that relationship further or not).
Most crucially, she couldn't see that even if we could pressure (some) people to "make the right (heterosexual) choice", the question remains: why should we? On what basis is heterosexuality considered "right"?
She had immense difficulty processing what I had said. Her instinct -- and it's a very common human reaction -- was to distort and misrepresent the empirical information presented to her, in the hope of preserving her beliefs.
People who are deeply attached to creationist ideas behave in the same way when confronted with scientific evidence. They pick and choose what they want to believe, they latch on to areas where science does not yet have answers to discredit the whole and they never ask themselves why they so dearly want to believe what they want to believe.
Coming back to religion, why do people believe? It stumps us all. As the Economist magazine said in a recent article (The Economist, 2 June 2007, To believe or not to believe), "Looking at the recent crop of books on God and religion, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that [it] depends on whether they have an intrinsic feeling for religion or not." Which isn't saying very much. And which must make it a ripe field for scientific research.
At the same time, religious belief is far from monolithic, so it's important to begin by defining what exactly we want to study. One simple area of confusion is that between believing in a god and subscribing to a religion or any subcreed of it.
For example, Francis Collins, a well-known scientist who leads the ground-breaking human genome project, declares himself a Christian. In his new book, reviewed by the Economist, he revealed that he had no time for intelligent design (another name for creationism) even as he believes in God. As for those parts of the Old Testament that bend the laws of physics, he sees them as merely symbolic. He conceives of God as a non-interfering sort, a kind of divine CCTV camera watching over the world.
Fine. That makes him a theist, but as the review of his book pointed out, it doesn't explain why he is Christian. Why this god and this story behind the god. Why not that god?
Most of the time, it's all quite innocuous, even if the curious scientific mind can't refrain from asking. Most religious people are perfectly well-adjusted people who mean well and act with goodwill.
It is those who hold beliefs with detrimental social effects that urgently cry out for study. Social pathology, as with any physical pathology, demands understanding lest its epidemiology wreaks havoc. Creationism is one such social pathology. Here we have people subscribing to a far-out fantasy, despite enormous contrary evidence, and who in pursuit of legitimacy for their fantasy, seek to influence others. If they succeed, the cost will be a serious brake on bioscience, astronomy and other fields.
Especially for a knowledge-economy wannabe such as Singapore, the detrimental effects on people's minds and hence public policy should not be underestimated. How can we be an economy at the cutting edge of knowledge when these religious types keep blunting the blade?
When creationists try to influence others and public policy, it tends to present itself as a science, laughable though it may seem to most people. At other times, however, it presents itself as a religion and claims the immunities of religious freedom to be respected and propagated.
Should we grant it the immunities of religion? No. In the first place, religious freedom is not absolute, certainly not when it undermines the public good. Secondly, the moment it tries to influence public policy, and aggressive propagation is equivalent to that, it should be treated like any other actor in domestic politics.
We'd be too lax if we treat foreign pseudo-experts "ministering" creationism as mere oddities to laugh over. They should be treated as subversives and a (economic) security threat to Singapore.
© Yawning Bread