Creationists Come to College

Most of you might already have heard about the creationist edition of The Origin of Species that an evangelical Christian ministry will be passing out on college campuses in November. I first read about it here. U.S. News has a pair of dueling blog posts from the creationist introduction writer Ray Comfort and the director for the National Center for Science Education.

I’ll have to reserve judgment completely until I actually see a copy, but based on Comfort’s blog post and the Kirk Cameron video promoting this, the creationist introduction by Ray Comfort sounds like it’s going to be a whirlwind of fallacious reasoning.

Supposedly it claims that Charles Darwin was a racist and didn’t like women. That’s a standard ad hominem attack that’s a fallacy if it is used to try to discredit the person’s views on other things. Darwin’s personal views aren’t relevant to the theory of evolution.  If a Christian minister has sex with children or murders someone in cold blood, does that mean God doesn’t exist?

Or there’s the Hitler connection. Every muddled thinker likes to bring Hitler into an argument if they can. Far from clinching an argument, it usually just shows the irrationality of the person making it. From Comfort’s blog post: "It also has quotes from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf showing Hitler’s undeniable links to evolution. Of course, Hitler also used Christianity to further his political agenda, but my point is that…." There’s no need to go on. His point is that he’ll use the evidence to support his criticism but ignore that it also undermines his own position, a very convenient double standard. Confirmation bias or suppressed evidence might be the fallacy.

There’s further suppression of evidence. This one was spotted by the Salon article. "[Cameron] then narrows in for the killer point: ‘A recent study revealed that in the top 50 universities in our country, in the fields of psychology and biology, 61 percent of the professors described themselves as atheist or agnostic.”\’ True, though he fails to point out that the same study found only 23.4 percent of college professors overall declare themselves atheist or agnostic. College: still pretty damn godly!" I wish I’d written that.

One major fallacy is the false dichotomy of this creationist’s claims. "An entire generation is being brainwashed by atheistic evolution without even hearing the alternative," Cameron intones in the video, as if there were only these two options, and in exactly the form he proposes [my italics]. Since this is a church that apparently believes that Catholics aren’t Christians, astounding ignorance about the world’s possibilities shouldn’t surprise me. One very likely possibility is that the students have in fact heard "the" alternative and found it wanting.

Resting on this false dichotomy, the whole project is based on the belief that debunking The Origin of Species somehow proves that creationism is true. This fallacy is known as argumentum ad ignorantiam, the argument that because some proposition hasn’t been proven, then some other contradictory proposition is therefore true. But Darwin and the creationists could both be wrong. Some creationists act as if The Origin of Species is the "Bible" of evolutionists, but that’s projecting the way fundamentalists think onto the way scientists think.

I’m not at all surprised by this lack of reasoning ability. I took a look at the Living Waters Ministry site. They produce something called the Evidence Bible that seems to be devoid of any actual evidence. Fundamentalists of any religion are always guilty of the begging the question. They assume as true what needs to be proven for their argument to proceed. Begging the question is the essential fundamentalist fallacy.  A standard example of question begging offered in classes is this circular argument: "The Bible is true because God says it is. God exists because the Bible says He does."

Living Waters directly addresses this charge: "The ‘circular reasoning’ argument is absurd. That’s like saying you can’t prove that the President lives in the White House by looking into  the White House. It is looking into the White House that will provide the necessary proof." Actually, it’s not at all like saying that. There is plenty of observable evidence that the President lives in the White House, evidence open to public inspection and verification. Merely looking into the White House wouldn’t prove that the person in there was the President or was actually living there. Trying to rebut the charge of question begging with another fallacy–the false analogy–doesn’t get very far. (The answers regarding Bible versions are downright dissembling. If you get that far, pay attention to the weasel word versions

Cameron seems very concerned that students come to college as creationists and leave as "atheists." I doubt that most students who come to college as theists of some sort leave as atheists. Is there any proof of this? This is like those claims that the students carefully indoctrinated into right-wing doctrines by their parents are then indoctrinated into left-wing doctrines by their leftist professors. That one is merely assumed but not proven as well. The creationist one in particular is guilty of the fallacy of persuasive definition, that is, of defining something in a way that seems neutral but is in fact very loaded. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to this particular intellectually limited version of Christianity is somehow not a Christian. Belief in the Nicene Creed isn’t sufficient for the this particular cult.

Persuasive definitions are a fondness of Comfort’s, it seems. His U.S. News post says "The Introduction also defines an atheist as someone who believes that nothing created everything—which is a scientific impossibility." That’s a very peculiar definition of atheist, but then again people incapable of meeting rational arguments on their own ground must resort to this kind of move. Does anyone believe nothing created everything?

What a college education should do is knock the fallacious reasoning out of someone and instill a capacity for critical thinking. These creationists demonstrate that they are incapable of sound argument or scientific reasoning, which puts them at a disadvantage when coming onto college campuses. The enterprise is loaded against them from the start because they are trying to use  the tools of science and reason against their main practitioners without understanding how they work.

What I find either amusing or sad (depending on my mood) is that these creationists think there is actually a debate and they’re just not being heard, if indeed they do think this and are not merely being disingenuous. Obviously there isn’t any debate. To have a debate, one must share some premises, and there aren’t any shared premises. One must also demonstrate a willingness to be persuaded, rather than confining one’s mind inside an unfalsifiable ideology. At the very least one must have shared standards of evidence, and this is completely lacking.

They think there is a scientific debate between creationism and evolution, but the debate is whether the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and literally true Word of God. That’s a religious debate, though, not a scientific one, and it’s been tried and found want
ing by the vast majority of educated and intelligent people open to an examination of the evidence for a few centuries now. There’s no battle between science and religion. In this case, there’s just a battle between fundamentalists and modernity.

It’s ironic that creationists try to dispute evolution because it supposedly has no evidence to support it (which the evolutionary biologists deny, but then again they would, wouldn’t they!) when the creationist position not only has absolutely no evidence to support it outside of the Bible but has to ignore what scientific evidence there is. This is only a problem for creationists if they attempt to persuade people for whom science, reason, and evidence are important. Begging the question works on people who can’t think clearly.

I wonder what will happen if Cameron and the LIving Waters visit my campus. As far as I can tell, Princeton is a remarkably tolerant place for people of reasonable views. Perhaps they’ll encounter prominent Catholic, conservative professor Robert George and tell him he’ll burn in hell because he’s not a Christian. Given his ability and his willingness to engage adversaries calmly and critically, that might be an interesting discussion, indeed.

There’s no use arguing with fundamentalists. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way. In my home state of Louisiana, I used to be accosted by fundamentalist Christians asking if I was "born again" before they began selectively quoting the Bible at me. Back in the day when I had more time on my hands, I would engage them in discussion, to no end. Usually they couldn’t even defend the Bible well, much less their other claims. (Seven years of Southern Baptist private school–don’t try to trade Bible quotes with me, buddy.)

I’m not trying to argue with Comfort or against this edition of Darwin. He sensibly asks why angry atheists would want to suppress this book or rip out the introduction. I’m not an angry atheist, so I have no such desire. If one of the books somehow ends up in my hands, I will, in my capacity as religion bibliographer, definitely add it to the collection. it will make a nice curio someday for a religion scholar studying quirky manifestations of fundamentalism in America.

9 thoughts on “Creationists Come to College

  1. Scientists can be recognized by (among other things) gladly changing their minds in the face of evidence (cite Newton vs. Einstein). It’s clear what would be required for scientists to change their minds about evolution: the cambrian rabbit (Gould), for instance, or a repeated observation of creation incidents. What would creationists require to change their minds about creationism?

  2. Thanks for the links, Nathan. That second ones sums up the issue quite well. The lack of criteria for falsifiability is one thing that makes the arguments not only unscientific but irrelevant to science. I always wonder if the creationists who claim what they have to say is relevant to science actually believe that, or are just lying to try to win power. It’s like the “intelligent design” argument that we should “teach the conflict.” Perhaps we should teach the conflict, but in a sociology or religion class. There’s no scientific conflict to teach.

  3. Wayne,
    I used to be much more enthralled with the I.D. movement, and I still think that a lot of their critique vs. Darwinism is important to be aware of – but I can assure you that for me it was certainly not “just lying to try to win power”. It really was obvious to me that *everyone*, upon watching 3-D animations of what transpires in a human cell for instance, should be able to see that it is reasonable to infer that this had to be designed (likewise, consistent performances from the liks of Richard Dawkins at the end of the movie “Expelled” don’t help, I submit) – and to suggest otherwise, is really not reasonable. I now understand the nuances of those who argue that I.D. is not scientific better, and will concede this point. As they say, science, in order to progress and be useful, needs to be done in a way that is agnostic about God. I concede this: that if this is really the case, then it is likely because the idea of godless evolution is a “useful fiction” (but I would say that if taken too far, where it ceases to be a “useful fiction”, but rather grows into a fundamental devotion to a blatant materialism [which has no room for a personal /diety deities, which is implied by the idea of “mind”, which is implied by the idea of “purposeful arrangement”, which is implied by the idea of order], it begins to become a “useless fiction”) and nothing more. It certainly does make sense to “teach the controversy” outside of science classes though – and would argue that it needs to happen somewhere, if not in science class. I.D. is not a Christian, but a purely pagan argument (i.e. Cicero, etc.).
    And of course there is a real irony in this whole “God is not a part of science argument” – for science developed in contexts that were thoroughly theistic and at the very least deistic (i.e. “intelligent design”). Along those same lines, Angus Menuge of the Cranach Institute says that from all the science listserves that he’s on what is evident is that the breakthrough areas of biology really have nothing to do with evolution because they are understanding systems essentially as molecular machines… and all the principles that they are using come from mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering analogies… you have to understand how the system works… molecular computers… these are the principles that are doing all the work and are actually leading to all of the exciting discoveries of what is going on in the cell… funny thing is the principle you are using is “methodological design” – you’re treating the system as if it were designed because you’re treating it as if it were a machine that has a particular function.
    So again, if this is not covered in science class, it needs to be covered elsewhere.
    Now, all that said, please know that I also listen with some interest to what young earth creationists have to say, because they point out all kinds of things that those devoted to the standard evolutionary theory don’t like to spend too much time on (for example, some of the nuances of radioactive decay stuff [], difficulties with current conceptions of how the geological columns formed, evidence for catastrophic burial, fresh dinosaur bones [i.e., still containing blood], flood legends present in all cultures throughout the world, cultures throughout the world [until the last couple hundred years] uniformly believing the world was tops about 10,000 years old, present-day carnivores who don’t eat meat, polystrata fossils, [trees that extend through fossil beds that supposedly formed over millions of years], etc, etc).
    I wonder what Flew would say? That’s all I’ll be saying though: if you want to know more about how my crazy mind works, you can check out all the Britannica blog posts about I.D., Darwin, etc. I usually get involved there a bit, and have said much more in that context.
    Best Wayne,

  4. Nathan, I don’t really see the point of that article. I’d already seen the Boston Globe article (or as this Mohler person calles it, a “report,”), and I don’t recall anything in it that implies “Western elites” are surprised that fundamentalist Muslims are creationists. They’re just as guilty of question-begging as Christian creationists. I’m not familiar with this person, but the resentment against “elites” and “intellectuals” is palpable. He also seems to imply that most people in the world believing something is some kind of argument for it. That’s the vox populi or bandwagon fallacy. I haven’t explored this creationist movement much before, but it’s quite striking how unsound their reasoning tends to be if the samples I’ve come across are representative at all.

  5. “sounds like it’s going to be a whirlwind of fallacious reasoning.” And if you weren’t reserving judgement, you’d say what. . .?
    But thanks for the links. I’m a creationist and hadn’t heard of this.

  6. Hmm. I thought it was pretty clear that I was reserving judgement on the content of the introduction, but making it very clear that the Cameron promotional video, the Comfort promotional blog post in U.S. News, and in cases the Living Waters Ministry site itself demonstrated a lack of understanding of science and the principles of sound reasoning. Thus, I anticipated the same in Comfort’s introduction. Anyone basing an public argument on a literal reading of a religious text is begging the question. Not all creationists do so. I’m not that interested in the creationist debate itself, but if creationists have no criteria for a falsification of their theory, then the theory has no scientific validity at all.

  7. It is interesting that I read this today. I was going to a choir performance (Planet Earth Singers; a diverse group of individuals that are very fun) and a friend was picking me up. He is Christian, as am I, but we are both decidedly liberal. He asked me, “Do you want a copy of Darwin?” To which I emphatically said yes. It turns out that on the Ball State University campus (where I reside) this group was passing out the…off…copies of On the Origin of the Species. I am going to read it and argue with it as I go on my blog. I had planned to start up my political blog later, but necessity forces me to begin it now. Expect a post at over this soon. Even sooner, expect a post regarding the Townhall post . I formerly dated Kevin’s sister, and am friends with him. The fun begins!
    Thank you for this wonderful post, Mr. (or Dr.?) Bivens-Tatum!

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