Sunday 3 March 2013

Jehovah's Creationists

One Saturday in January, thinking the doorbell indicated the postman delivering an expected package, I opened the door to two gentlemen whom I instantly identified (don't ask me how) as either Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses. Their first question confirmed my initial assessment: they asked me what I thought God's name was. My reply — that I didn't think there was any such entity as God, and so his name was of no importance to me — brought a suggestion that they read me something from the Bible, but I interrupted with a counter-suggestion that quoting Bible verses to an atheist was a hiding to nothing.

The younger guy who had so far conducted this conversation seemed a bit deflated by this, but the older one stepped in at this point to ask me why I was an atheist. I said I hadn't come across convincing evidence for the existence of any gods. Cue the creationist argument: had I looked at the multitude of living things and how marvellous and complicated they were? Yes I had, and I understood that they are all related, with common ancestry, and had come about over very long periods of time through a process of random mutation and natural selection.

Then he began talking about "kinds" and separate creation, and that different kinds could not breed with each other. I said that if he meant species, this was a reasonable definition, but although different species can't in general inter-breed, it's useful to consider the analogy of language. Children understand the language of their parents, who understand the language of their parents, and so on, and if you go back far enough you'll find a couple speaking one language who are direct ancestors of people alive today who can't understand each other's languages. And so it is with evolution.

But then he changed tack and talked about the eye, saying it couldn't have come about by evolution, to which I responded that it probably could, starting with something as simple as a patch of skin that had randomly developed some basic sensitivity to light. I think at this point he realised that he was talking to someone who has actually thought about such things, and suggested I might like to read something, to which I responded that, yes, I would. (This whole conversation took place on my doorstep, and I had things to do.)

They gave me a brochure entitled Was Life Created? And in return I gave them an Atheist Tract — several copies of which I keep by the door specifically for occasions like this. I thanked the pair of them, wished them good morning and closed the door.

But what of the brochure?

Was Life Created? is published by Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, in 2010. Though the masthead says "Made in Britain", spellings reveal it was written for an American audience. I read it through, making a few notes, and a quick check of the Jehovah's Witnesses' website turned up a PDF (the PDF, however, says "Made in the United States of America").

From the first section, "What do you believe?":
It is not the purpose of this material to ridicule the views either of fundamentalists or of those who choose not to believe in God. Rather, it is our hope that this brochure will prompt you to examine again the basis for some of your beliefs. It will present an explanation of the Bible’s account of creation that you may not have previously considered. And it will emphasize why it really does matter what you believe about how life began.
First, note the implication that atheism is a choice. This, no doubt, is tied up with what Paul says in Romans 1:20, about being "without excuse", though that part is left out of the quote when it appears later in the brochure.

The next section, "The Living Planet" — which is essentially a crude rendering of the fine-tuning argument — contains a number of loaded phrases that might be missed by those unfamiliar with the low-grade apologetic techniques employed here.
Are earth’s features a product of blind chance or of purposeful design? Without its tailor-made moon, our planet would wobble like a spinning top... is protected by amazing armor—a powerful magnetic field and a custom-made atmosphere. Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field truly are marvels of design that are still not fully understood.
Note the language of design and manufacture taken for granted in these question-begging excerpts. The circularity, however, does not end there; next we have a section titled "Who designed it first?" which aims to catalogue instances of engineering and science taking their inspiration from nature.
As you consider the following examples, ask yourself, ‘Who really deserves the credit for these designs?’
Who deserves the credit? 
Who is nature’s patent holder?
They quote Michael Behe, who says (essentially, as all Intelligent Design proponents do, no matter what fancy language they use) it's designed if it looks designed.

Each section of the brochure ends with a couple of questions, and most of these are loaded or begged in some way. The section just covered ("Who designed it first?") asks:
  • Does it seem logical to you to believe that the brilliant engineering evident in nature came about by accident?
To which I would answer, no it doesn't, because that's not what happened. Natural selection is not an accidental process — indeed it could be considered the very opposite. Evolution by random mutation and natural selection occurs because of environmental pressure — it's a process that occurs because it's taking the line of least resistance. Statistically speaking, it couldn't happen any other way.

There's then a subsection headed "Was it designed? If the copy requires a designer, what about the original?" Unfortunately for the brochure's thesis, this subheading appears to undermine itself. The copy doesn't require a designer, it only requires a copier — which is what the "original" does, albeit imperfectly. Indeed it is this very imperfection that drives evolution.

The next section — "Evolution myths and facts" — attempts to discredit the theory of evolution and claims that the fossil record doesn't provide evidence of what creationists and ID proponents like to call "macro-evolution". They claim to be happy with the idea that species can change (or "adapt") due to environmental pressure, but only up to a point. And that point appears to be arbitrarily undefined. What it comes down to is analogous to believing that it is possible for someone to stand on a step, but quite impossible to ascend a flight of stairs. Much is made of "Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, a scientist from the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Germany," who claims that:
“Mutations cannot transform an original species [of plant or animal] into an entirely new one. This conclusion agrees with all the experiences and results of mutation research of the 20th century taken together as well as with the laws of probability.”
Some Googling reveals that Lönnig is an ID proponent who, like Michael Behe, appears to have been disowned by his own institution. The brochure includes a footnote:
Lönnig believes that life was created. His comments in this publication are his own and do not represent the opinion of the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research.
Fond though they are of footnotes, the JW's are not above making a bald assertion:
To date, scientists worldwide have unearthed and cataloged some 200 million large fossils and billions of small fossils. Many researchers agree that this vast and detailed record shows that all the major groups of animals appeared suddenly and remained virtually unchanged, with many species disappearing as suddenly as they arrived.
If this was Wikipedia, that phrase "Many researchers agree" would be immediately followed by "[citation needed]".

The final main section is titled "Science and the Genesis account". Jehovah's Witnesses, apparently, are not young-earth creationists, but old-earth creationists. How, then, do they reconcile the conflicting information in Genesis? Do they claim it's meant to be poetic? Metaphorical? Wrong? Untrue? No, they don't. This section, it turns out, is one huge exercise in semantic gymnastics. I won't go into it here — read the linked PDF if you're interested. Suffice to say, if the JW's really think that reading scripture in this way can reveal truth of any kind there's no hope for them — they are beyond logic. The Bible, for them, can mean anything they want it to mean.

The final section, "Does it matter what you believe?" seems to be an argument from consequences. After quoting William Provine saying, "I can see no cosmic or ultimate meaning in human life," they ask:
Consider the significance of those words. If ultimate meaning in life were nonexistent, then you would have no purpose in living other than to try to do some measure of good and perhaps pass on your genetic traits to the next generation. At death, you would cease to exist forever. Your brain, with its ability to think, reason, and meditate on the meaning of life, would simply be an accident of nature.
Well, yes.

That — apart from the "accident" bit (see above) — is how it is.

Get used to it.

This post is based on one of my segments in a recent episode of the Skepticule podcast.

Edited 2022-06-08 to update links to JW.ORG and Jason Curry's Atheist Tract.