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.