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The Trouble With Creationism

February 22, 2005
By Glenn M. Edwards

The anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin has come and gone for another year. This man who did so much to free us from ignorance was born, happily enough, on the same day as Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809). So now is a good time to point out just why Creationism is a bad idea, even under its new guise of Intelligent Design.

First, there is nothing very exotic or difficult about Darwin's Theory of Evolution. The simple fact is that no individual generated sexually is exactly like either parent. There are always differences. Some of these will hurt the individual's chances of survival; some will help the individual's chances of survival; most will have no effect one way or the other.

Darwin's book is The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, so he was not discussing the origin of life, as many believe. For him, life was a given, and his concern was to describe the way in which species develop. All Darwin's theory comes down to is that those differences that help the individual survive will tend to spread throughout the population, if for no other reason than those with a particular characteristic that helps them survive are likely to live longer and have more offspring. If you add up many of these differences over time, what will emerge eventually is a species different from the one that existed when all these variations started to accumulate.

By now you've probably heard about the stickers on biology textbooks in Cobb County, Georgia, that read: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."

Of course, everything should be approached with an open mind, studied, and considered, and it is true that evolution is "just a theory."But we need to be clear about just what a theory is. It is not a hypothesis, which is a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences. (Thank you, Mr. Webster.) A theory is a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena. (Thanks again.)

You can think of is as an explanation that has been rigorously tested for a long time and has overcome a great many attempts to prove it wrong.

There are problems with Darwin's theory, and biologists argue about these, trying to resolve them even as you are reading this. The theory of evolution by means of natural selection nonetheless remains the best explanation we have for all the biological evidence we have so far accumulated.

Creationism may or may not be true, though the evidence is greatly against it, but in neither case is it scientific. Biology is a discipline. It has certain rules and procedures that biologists must follow, and Creationism, or Intelligent Design, or whatever it will be called in the future, does not follow them. Scientific research begins with a collection of data and tries to find out what these tell us about the physical world. Creationism starts with the conclusion that God specially created the world and tries to find data to support it. You can do this all you want, but you can't call it science, and we all have an obligation as thinking beings and as citizens of the United States to keep such beliefs out of science classes.

Another important aspect of science in which it differs from Creationism is that Creationism is not falsifiable. Simply put, this means that its claims cannot be disproven. One of the bedrock principles of any scientific activity is that ideas are accepted as proven true if they cannot be proven false. After all, anyone can prove anything if they put their minds to it for even a short while, but the trick is to come up with an explanation that cannot be demolished by a counter-argument. If an idea isn't open to the possibility of being disproven, it therefore can't be proven and lies outside the bounds of that collection of procedures and rules we call science.

Here's a quick example. Suppose I were to say that Jesus was not the Son of God, but rather the son of the Norse god of mischief, Loki, who sent him to earth to turn people away from the worship of the true god, Odin. Can you think of any evidence that could prove this statement wrong? I'm not asking that you produce the evidence, but just consider this: If the evidence fairy wafted down and gave you whatever evidence you wished for, what would it be? If you think about it you'll see that it is not possible to prove my statement wrong, therefore it is not possible to prove it right, and it is off limits in any discussion based on the principles of science.

Some people, like me, object to Intelligent Design on religious principles. Those who espouse Creationism or some such idea claim that the rest of us should respect their belief in the inerrancy of scripture. I'm perfectly willing to do this, but only if they in turn are willing to respect my belief that using the Bible as a science textbook is blasphemy. Obviously, neither they nor I could prove either contention, so there is nowhere for this discussion to go. Eventually, each side would end up shouting at the other and blasting away with fusillades of scriptural citations. Belief in a special creation lasting six days is a religious belief, and it should not be a specially privileged interpretation of the Bible that is protected by law and enforced by the state.

Furthermore, as a religious person I think it is a mistake to try to define God in terms of our ignorance. Proponents of Intelligent Design are effectively saying that since we can't explain the existence of something, like an eyeball, through evolutionary theory, it must be the work of God. People thought that lightning bolts were evidence of divine displeasure until Benjamin Franklin and his contemporaries knocked the props out from under that explanation. If you lean on human ignorance to support your ideas, you are leaning on a very weak reed, and your faith depends to some extent on what research scientists are doing. And I think that's a religious mistake. I suspect that proponents of Intelligent Design are trying to find some sort of support for their faith in what they consider science. And though I wish them well in their search, I strongly caution them against going down that path.

What should we do? First, we must maintain and even increase the defense of our increasingly beleaguered Constitution and its separation of church and state. (Check out Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, at www.au.org, which has been doing great work in this area for a long time. This is especially important now that the decision of the federal judge to remove the stickers on those biology textbooks is under appeal.)

Second, never concede the moral high ground to people who want the state to enforce their brand of religion. All of history and most of religion argues that combining the power of the pulpit and the power of the state will lead only to disaster. Despite the erroneous claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, the people who put this country together knew what they were doing when they decided not to permit the joining of these two powers.

Third, never concede the religious grounds for our opposition to Creationism in any of its forms. Many of us object to these ideas because they conflict with our own religious ideas, and since the issue can never be resolved through argument in the public square, those who claim the mantle of religion as a cloak for their designs, even intelligent ones, should stop trying to bully the rest of us into allowing the state to foster their particular beliefs.

Both reason and Revelation are with us on this, and we must never let this fact slip from its prominent place in our ongoing debate with people who want to mind other people's religious business.

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