Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How I Left Creationism

There is a discussion going on right now in the science community about whether or not we should debate creationists: it is a debate within a debate, if you will. There are good arguments on both sides, but I have to think that we should debate creationists, and we should do it as often as we can stand it.

Why do I think this? Last week, I saw that Michael Shermer posted a link to a story of a woman who argued this very point. As a former creationist, it was going to debates between Shermer and Kent Hovind that began to convince her of the legitimacy of evolution and of science.

I too was once a creationist. Without ever having read anything about it, without it ever having been mentioned in class (I never heard a word about evolution in high school), I was ready to pounce at the merest mention of the topic as false and godless, two of the favorite creationist talking-points. I look back at this self in amazement, at how ignorant and proud of that ignorance I was, how I failed to investigate the claims. But I had no reason to. I knew what I'd been taught, at home, in church and in Sunday School. God created the world in six literal days. End of story. Even at the point where, thinking to know my enemy better, I borrowed The Origin of Species and began to read, I made the mistake of taking it to Wednesday night church only to be severely condemned for reading a book that was not "believed" by the church.

How I wish that I had kept reading. I could have learned the truth about evolution perhaps five years earlier than I actually did. But I didn't know any better; I lacked basic knowledge of science and basic critical thinking skills, along with the self-confidence to keep searching in the face of opposition.

That changed when I came to college. The first year was normal, focusing on a number of classes, deciding whether my major was right for me. And then in the first session of summer classes I took a course on dinosaurs. I'd had a fascination with them as a child, as many do, and being intellectually curious I decided to take the class, even though it didn't "count" as a relevant credit towards my degree audit. As a precursor to learning anything about dinosaurs we had several background lectures, including one that covered the four main points of Darwinian evolution.

And I was stunned. It was so simple, it made so much sense. It made no claims, for or against, the existence of God as I always was told that it did. It was self-evidently true. Even though I didn't understand much about it at the time, I accepted the basic idea of evolution and in the nearly five years since have continued to educate myself about the topic I never got to learn about in high school biology. More importantly, now understanding a bit about evolution, I thought that everyone should. How surprised I was to meet opposition, though I should have expected it.

I was told that I couldn't "sit on the fence" and have Jesus and evolution. A lay minister at my church, speaking from the pulpit, said to accept evolution was to "call Christ a liar." An acquaintance asked whether my dinosaur class was "evolution-based", as though it could be based on anything else; he refused to even entertain the possibility that evolution was true or that God could have used evolution. I was still naive enough to be surprised at their dismissals. The fundamentalists told me that I had to choose, between science and religion, between evolution and Jesus. That didn't sit well with me.

What was more uncomfortable was the knowledge that, knowing the basic idea of evolution, I had been repeatedly lied to growing up. The very people who spoke for Jesus openly lied, perhaps out of ignorance, in saying that evolution wasn't true. They tried to force me to make a choice.

But I know where I stand. I stand with science. In the years since that dinosaur class, I've voraciously read books and articles about evolution, even reading creationist articles and that awful book by Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator, and viewing Ben Stein's Expelled. The more I learned about real science, the less weight the creationists carried. The more I knew about the facts, the sillier the semantics and hand-waving arguments of the creationists seemed.

So that's why I say that we should debate creationists. I think that the majority of creationists simply were like me, uneducated about what evolution really is, blinded by fundamentalist religion that sees evolution as evil and ill-served by a public school system where biology teachers are afraid to teach evolution or don't even accept it themselves.

As I debate creationists online and face-to-face, sometimes it gets frustrating. Sometimes I get tired and want to give up hope. I remember, though, that I used to be like them, and if I was able to change then maybe some of them can too.


  1. Very well done. Bravo.

  2. You are a rare brave person, to see evidence which contradicts what you were taught and yet be open to it rather than rejecting it reflexively. Good for you. :) -- Lauren Ipsum

  3. Thank you. This story echoes my own, I was brought up as a creationist in Northern Ireland; surrounded by other people who believed it too, how could I have known different? I wasn't stupid and I wasn't a lost cause- I eventually learned it was wrong and I changed my mind.

    A discussion with a creationist can be tiresome and it often is a selfless act, as you are unlikely to learn anything from them about the topic, but a discussion worth having anyway.

  4. "he refused to even entertain the possibility that evolution was true or that God could have used evolution."

    I assume that by now you realize "god could have used evolution" is bullshit. Natural processes, including natural selection, don't need magical intervention.

    I also assume you now realize magic god fairies are not necessary for anything, therefore they are just childish fantasies. There's no magic, also known as god, in the universe.

    Even without 21st century science the god hypothesis would still be an idiotic idea. A fairy who waves its magic wand hiding somewhere in the universe? What incredible bullshit.

    Should normal people (atheists) debate religious tards (science deniers)?

    Only if they enjoy wasting their time. Virtually always, insanity can't be fixed.

    You however are one of the rare exceptions. You had what it takes to recover from the Christian disease. Congratulations and good luck.

  5. Well said, Brady. Keep up the good work!

  6. Bravo, I came here from PZ and I hope more folks link to this.
    You used the phrase self-evident, an incredibly strong and powerful phrase with a specific meaning for us rational and scientific types. Sometimes it is hard to actually explain the axiomatic approach science takes to prove facts, mainly because every one of these words (axiom, theorem, proof) have very precise definitions all of which are anathema to fundamental beliefs.
    I think this debate will eventually succeed if the converted started participating and driving these debates since they, more than anyone else, understand the psyche of the faithful

  7. Nicely written.

    Can I suggest using the word "sciences" (plural) instead of "science" though?

    Keep up the good work! :)

  8. Hmmm, poor PZ, now he might have to debate more nutjobs. Rather him than me!

  9. Nice. Congratulations on escaping from the dark side. You'll never look back and everything you learn in science from now on, whether it be in be about paleontology or cosmology or whatever, will be a marvelous journey full of wonder and amazement.

  10. To be a bit critical, it seems that if we follow your experience, we shouldn't necessarily debate the creationists, or at least, not in the venues that are suggested by the creationists.

    You seem to have let go of your creationist beliefs after getting a good education, and also after realizing who were the true honest brokers in this cultural battle. We should therefore focus our efforts on getting evolution properly taught to the general population at earlier stages - primary education for example. The sooner that children (and adults) realize the explanatory power of evolution (and how fundamental it is to modern biology), see it for what it really is rather than the caricature that is put forward by creationists, the sooner they will follow the same experience you did. Creationists will make a big stink, perhaps at the school principal/superintendent or municipal school board level, and this is where we should engage them. Not in artificial "debates" that serve more as a spectacle and pep rally for the faithful.

    And congratulations on your own personal journey.

    (Anonymous #4)

  11. A glimmer of hope for a part of the population largely forsaken by their own choices.

    Perhaps there are more like this one, with a burning curiosity strong enough to ultimately transcend childhood programming. Perhaps the outreach is somehow worthwhile. But was it the result of such a debate? Do such debates do anything other than to irritate the knowledgeable and inflame the ignorant? There must be a more effective means of outreach. Oh, yes, it's called public school. Perhaps this is why the actively ignorant have continually sought to vandalize public school curricula or to 'protect' their children from them by home 'schooling' them?

    The result of all this is nothing short of a diminution of our society as a whole. The impact manifests on all of us, not just those who chose ignorance.

  12. Human Ape pointed me this direction, nice blog.

  13. It took a great deal of personal integrity to do what you have done. Please continue to expose the liars and stand up for science. Well done.

  14. Excellent post. I, too, came over here from PZ's place. I wanted to add that PZ and other potential debators should always remember that the goal of the debate is to help one or more people in the audience figure out they are being lied to. Its not to "win" an argument with a nutjob--you can't win an argument with a paranoid schizophrenic or anyone who keeps moving the goalposts and is basically not responsive to logic or who doesn't care about scientific goals and methods. But you can win the argument for the viewer. And that's a great and important goal.


  15. Yeah, I came to the conclusion that most creationists only know a strawman definition of evolution as told to them by people who didn't know. The reality is very easy to explain and very easy to teach. So I say go ahead and agree to debate, but just spend the entire time lecturing as to what evolution actually is rather than debate topic. You'll do better anyway as addressing the nonsense the other side spews just confuses things.

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  17. I had wondered about some of these things as well, Brady, seeing as how, graduating from the same high school as you, our public school education basically excluded all notions of evolution from the picture. It wasn't until going to a college -- a Christian college I might add -- that I learned anything about Darwin and his theories. It certainly does seem logical that things could have evolved -- certainly there is enough evidence that it has been happening for billions of years, is doing so now, and shows no sign of stopping as long as our earth is spinning. Nevertheless, I too did not want to give up on what I had learned and experienced in church and at home. So, I came up with a theory myself as to how everything could work out and my conscience would be satisfied. I later learned in one of my classes in college that the idea I came up with had already been thought up and was called the omphalos hypothesis. Basically, this got its name from strict creationists believing Adam and Eve had no bellybutton because they didn't need one, whereas omphalogists believe they had them although they didn't need them. In other words, creation and evolution are not mutually exclusive. A creator (whom I call God) is perfectly capable of creating any and all worlds in any amount of time however and whenever he pleases. Therefore, he could set in motion a world that appears to be billions of years old, with animals, fossils and sediment pointing toward a natural order of sequential advancement such as is defined by Darwin. In fact, it is helpful both spiritually and scientifically to embrace evolutionary theory and explore how living and non-living things appear to have changed over the ages. The one point where I differ from the mainstream omphalos group, is where they claim that God is a deceiver for creating something (say a mountain) in a time of less than a week and making it look as though (say because of layers of deposit) that it is millions of years old. And of course, he would be a deceiver unless, of course, he influenced an individual or collection of people into preserving an account of what really did happen before the beginning of recorded history. It just so happens that Moses was enlightened with such a task, which he wrote about in Genesis. A God who completes miraculous works that are more complex than any living being could ever comprehend, let alone duplicate, and then writes a simplified version of how He did it to ease our investigative minds. That is what I believe, feel free to comment if you wish!

  18. Your site came up when I googled former creationists; this in relation to a project I'm working on. What struck me, was that I couldn't just let it go, as 'something I'd read' along the way regarding my project. I had to sign up, so I could comment:

    Bravo! Here's what struck me: "And I was stunned. It was so simple, it made so much sense. It made no claims, for or against, the existence of God ..." What I love about your statement, (and I am an atheist, myself) is that you didn't 'dis' someone else's beliefs, rather you just claimed what evolutionism is - and I liked it because some people may think that evolutionism comes with an automatic 'dislike' of any other views, be they spiritual, a science and wonder combo, as I like to was so refreshing to read your piece and I thank you for that. I think your tagline at the top, isn't really needing to be 'fighting creationists.....every front, rather I just think you are 'for evolution' and I think that resonates (though it is very Mother Teresa) a clearer non-adversarial path....and that's how you seem, in your article. Thank you!!!

  19. Brady, I feel for you. It’s hard to hear stories like yours without getting choked-up. I can so relate. I was a scientific creationist for over 30 years (over 20 of them with a B.S., M.S., & Ph.D. in one of the life sciences & years of experience in the field of genetically engineered proteins) before finally FULLY engaging with the evidence for evolution just a few years ago. Now, I’m absolutely convinced. That paradigm shift was one of the loneliest & challenging times of my life, at least until gaining a whole new perspective.

    I’d only disagree where you say, “there are good arguments on both sides”. I no longer believe Scientific Creationists have any good arguments. OK, maybe when you first hear them, but not when you get to the bottom of it all. Oh, they may occasionally take down a particular fossil or piece of evidence here & there, but it is like casting a few stones off an otherwise overwhelmingly convincing & ever growing mountain of evidence supporting evolution, especially the ERV inheritance-trail & other recent molecular evidence – its not even close to being debatable anymore. J.I. Packer says they are, “barking up the wrong tree”.

    But, “science vs. faith” is a FALSE dichotomy – a bias-serving mantra maintained only by the extremes (scientific creationists & committed atheists & whipped into a frenzy by the media to sell books). Before you, like Human Ape, totally throw the baby Jesus out with the bathwater, you just might gain a totally different & fully satisfying perspective on faith that is also completely consistent with science at the Faraday Institute for Science & Faith (part of Cambridge University in England (find multimedia lectures on convergent evolution by Simon Conway Morris & on “fine-tuning”, for example)), as well as , e.g.,

    Maybe Human Ape is unfamiliar with the fine-tuning argument & its implications. It’s not proof of God (God isn’t supposed to be proved!) but it does beg the question & necessitates an essentially infinite number of universes (an untestable multiverse theory) to explain it. Thus, God may simply have gotten it so right at the start, whether at the Big Bang or in the conditions that enabled a multiverse, that creatures like were the inevitable result.

    Evidence from hundreds of examples of convergent evolution (find lectures, the books by Simon Conway Morris) makes a strong case that the features of life (intelligence, camera-like eyes, our five senses, the ability to fly, etc.) should predictably appear wherever evolution occurs under supporting conditions. Think how many times these features have arisen independently in vastly divergent organisms. How many different kings of animals can fly, for example? These features, and perhaps us, are arguably inevitable through evolution. Perhaps God knew that this inevitability would be inherent in the initial finely-tuned conditions of our universe & what better way to cover His tracks than with an evolutionary process that produces almost limitless variety & beauty & also enables species to continually adapt to ever-changing environments?

    Contrary to the steady-state theory (that the universe has always existed), that science held for hundreds of years prior, science now maintains: (1) time & space had a beginning (see the Jan. 2012 issue of New Scientist magazine which notes that all the top physicists now conclude this); & (2) the natural laws/constants/conditions it is based on were exquisitely finely-tuned at the big bang for life to exist.

    God’s existence from scientific evidence isn't certain, but certainly rational. And I am certain of two things: (1) “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution” (T. Dobzhansky); & (2) nothing in life makes sense except in light of the gospel. It was ONLY great concern over the credibility of the gospel, i.e., “What if we are wrong?”, as Francis Collins asks, that got me to finally FULLY engage with the evidence.

    1. Last post by @EvoCreatn . Follow me on Twitter if any of it resonated with you.

  20. Thank you all for your kind comments and thoughts. Now, quite a while after having written this, I certainly take back the statement that "there are good arguments on both sides." It was a rhetorical flourish rather than a representation of reality. All the creationists have are arguments, not facts or proof, and they are not good arguments once one examines them in light of known evidence.