Wednesday 12 January 2011

Kicking the creationist ladder

Earlier today James Thomas posted an article on his posterous about a recent visit he made to the Natural History Museum, accompanied by a friend who happened to be an ardent creationist. James's article raises some important points about how we deal with creationists and why they appear to us to be so closed-minded to the evidence for evolution. You should go and read it. (Don't worry, I'll wait...)

James and I had a brief Twitter exchange about the issue he raises, which is that it doesn't help to characterise creationists as ignorant fools, because a sincerely held belief in a six-day creation only 6,000 years ago is fundamental to their faith. To accept that even one part of the biblical creation story is not a literal record of historical fact would undermine their whole belief system. This is why, as James points out, they will not accept the evidence for evolution even if presented with overwhelming masses of it, such as that found at the Natural History Museum.

But if an assault on creation "science" isn't going to work, that leaves only the fundamental beliefs themselves. My own understanding of creationism is that where there's conflict between what the Bible says and what science teaches us, creationists insist that the science must by definition be wrong. It matters not a jot that the science is backed up by rigorous research and incontrovertible evidence — creationists have to find some way of making it wrong because the alternative, that the Bible is wrong, is too shocking to contemplate.

So rather than reiterating the evidence for evolution and an old earth, should we instead be attempting to undermine belief in the inerrancy of the Bible? Such a course, I fear, is unlikely to win many friends in either camp. I can imagine the responses — "You've no right to interfere with people's faith. Let them believe what they want." Or, "How dare you attack us for simply stating our beliefs! This is typical New Atheist militancy!"

During our brief exchange today James suggested that "Maybe our job is to cushion the fall as well as kicking the ladder?" That's a nice metaphor but it's also a difficult strategy to get right. The problem — as anyone who's had a ladder kicked from under them would probably testify — is that the fall is really frightening. It's only after they've landed on the cushion do they discover they were going to be perfectly safe all along.