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.